Nobody Cares Who Lost Afghanistan

The fall of Kabul is a tragedy. It’s not a political liability for Joe Biden.

“We did train—and there was no attention paid to this—our army had a unit in there training,” the president said, “and made a very capable military.” But “some units of the army refused to take up arms against some of their same ethnic background, or religious background.” And so “it was agreed that there was no longer any point… and we withdrew.”

That isn’t President Joe Biden in his Monday address about the Afghanistan withdrawal. It’s President Ronald Reagan in his April 1984 press conference after the U.S. military withdrawal from Lebanon. Seven months later, Reagan was re-elected in a landslide.

The only difference between what Reagan said in April 1984 and what Biden said Monday is that Biden put it even more straightforwardly than the president remembered as the Great Communicator. “The Afghan military collapsed,” Biden said,

sometimes without trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision. American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.

It’s a cold political truth that voters don’t punish American presidents for policy failures beyond American borders so long as the failures don’t hurt Americans directly. Even in the 1952 election, when Dwight D. Eisenhower famously echoed Sen. Joe McCarthy’s accusation that the Democrats “lost” China, his knockout blow against Adlai Stevenson wasn’t that half a billion people in a far-off country were now subject to Communist rule. It was that nearly two million U.S. soldiers fought in Korea, and more than 36,000 of them died there. Ike pledged to bring the troops home.

The Lebanon intervention—a multinational effort intended to quell fighting between Israel, Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization—occasioned the deadliest day in U.S. Marine Corps history since World War II. That was the October 1983 suicide bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut. Two hundred and forty-one Americans were killed. “These deeds,” said Reagan, “make so evident the bestial nature of those who would assume power if they could have their way and drive us out of that area.” Yet six months later we were gone. At the April press conference, ABC News’ Sam Donaldson asked Reagan, “Mr. President, last October you said the presence of U.S. Marines in Lebanon was central to our credibility on a global scale. And now you’ve withdrawn them and terminated our presence… to what extent have we lost credibility?” All Reagan could say in response was, “We may have lost some with some people, but situations change.” Then he shifted blame to the Lebanese military.

Reagan’s job approval was unaffected. According to poll data from the American Presidency Project, Reagan rose four points, from 49 to 53 percent, in polls taken before and after the bombing, and he stayed at 54 percent in polls taken before and after the withdrawal. A booming economy was much more important to American voters than trials and tribulations on the Mediterranean coast.

Today, with images of helicopters choppering out of Afghanistan, many people compare Biden to President Gerald Ford and the April 30, 1975 fall of Saigon. Ford announced the end of America’s involvement in Vietnam one week earlier, in an address at Tulane University. He said, “America can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam, but it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned.” The audience broke out in applause. (Biden ended his remarks on a similarly patriotic note: “It’s the right decision for our people. The right one for our brave service members who risked their lives serving our nation. And it’s the right one for America.”) When Ford gave a press conference one week after Saigon’s fall, the big news was the president angrily pressuring Congress to fund Vietnamese refugee resettlement, which it did a couple of weeks later. Despite the triumph of the North Vietnamese, Ford was rewarded in the polls; by early June he’d risen from 44 percent approval to 51 percent.

Perhaps accusations that Biden bungled the withdrawal will hurt him. But one of the most of famous presidential press conferences occurred after President John F. Kennedy botched his April 1961 attempt to oust the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro by sending 1,400 CIA-trained Cuban exiles to the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy famously said, “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.” Asked for details of what went wrong, Kennedy demurred with “I have said as much as I feel can be usefully said.” Then he added that he wasn’t trying to “conceal responsibility because I am the responsible officer of the government.” His approval rating rose from 78 to 82 percent.

What’s past is not necessarily prologue. Biden still must respond to charges of intelligence failures and shoddy planning. A sudden, brutal loss of freedom for Afghan women and girls may erode support from Biden’s base. Destabilization of the region could foster a new wave of international terrorism. But history suggests Americans will look inward soon enough.

Osama bin Laden, according to Lawrence Wright’s book, The Looming Tower, believed Reagan’s withdrawal from Lebanon proved America would “flee in panic” after “two or three sharp blows.” He may have drawn the wrong lesson. After bin Laden dealt the U.S. one its sharpest blows in history, American troops flooded into his region and stayed 20 years, killing him in the process.

In general, though, American voters don’t relish foreign military adventure. The fate of Biden and his Democrats most likely rests on how America is doing. Not Afghanistan.

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is the host of the history podcast "When America Worked" and the co-host of bipartisan online show and podcast "The DMZ"