It was a “Screw you” speech more than an “I’m sorry” speech. It had a lot of “I was right” and not a whiff of “I erred.” Joe Biden’s Tuesday address, acknowledging the end of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan, was more than just “defiant,” as The New York Times rightly said. It was a victory lap.
The president refused to concede that the United States had lost another war in Asia, as it had in Vietnam, at a cost of thousands of lives and billions in treasure. There was no acknowledgment that we could have done better with the withdrawal. Biden wouldn’t admit that our intelligence community somehow missed that the Taliban would be able to blitzkrieg its way to Kabul in days, not weeks. It also escaped the CIA’s notice that the Afghan government, which the U.S. had done so much to birth and midwife, was likely to quickly collapse. This much we surely could have known.
But Biden was having none of it. It wasn’t Trumpian braggadocio, but it was an end zone spike. He hailed the “extraordinary success” of the evacuation and not, to be fair, without good reason. The U.S. military airlifted more than 115,000 Americans and Afghans in a little more than two weeks. As the 78-year-old commander in chief noted, that was a historical achievement under insane circumstances. Our troops had to operate in a Taliban-controlled Kabul, with wild-eyed fighters playing TSA agents, deciding who could board each flight. It was the Berlin Airlift in reverse. Instead of American servicemembers landing and handing out Hershey’s bars to grateful kids, we were grabbing babies over razor wire in a desperate attempt at deliverance.
In his address, Biden made clear that he was not seeking forgiveness. He believes that he made the right decision—and that the country is on his side. Indeed, as my colleague Bill Scher has written on these pages, foreign policy debacles generally don’t hurt presidents. Plus, Biden had little reason to fear that voters would even see it as a debacle. Polls show they overwhelmingly share his McGovernite sentiment: “Come home, America.”
Biden didn’t say it out loud, but implicit in his speech was a middle finger raised at all of the “smart” people in Washington who wanted us to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely. It’s a pent-up frustration of his that goes back to his days as vice president when he was the lone voice in the Situation Room urging withdrawal. His decision to pull the troops—and his defense of that decision Tuesday—was an “Up yours!” to David Petraeus, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, Robert Gates, Condi Rice, and even Barack Obama. It was an obstinate rejection of the groupthink among the Council on Foreign Relations, the West Point top brass, the defense intellectuals, and the Democrats who hated the Iraq War so much that they came to think of Afghanistan as the “good” war. Biden believes he was right all along—and, in fact, it’s looking like he was.
The president deftly skewered the idea that we could have left a few thousand troops there and everything would have been okay: “There’s nothing low-grade or low-risk or low-cost about any war.”
He persuasively dismissed the notion that keeping American troops in Afghanistan would be like the continued U.S. military presence in Germany and Japan, where, when you leave one of our bases, everything is hunky-dory.
Biden reminded the midafternoon TV audience of the facts. The Taliban took the piss out of us when we had 100,000-plus troops in place. We’ve had fewer casualties with just 2,500 troops because the Trump “Art of the Deal” administration forged and signed a very lenient agreement with the Taliban in which we’d withdraw and, at a later date, the terrorist group could negotiate some kind of power-sharing arrangement with the Afghan government. No wonder the theocrats who had slogged it out in the mountains for two decades living on weeds and faith were willing to hold their fire. If the U.S. had left 2,500 troops, held on to the Bagram air base, and tried to rip up Trump’s Doha deal, it would have resulted in a dangerous escalation of violent conflict. As Biden explained:
By the time I came to office, the Taliban was in its strongest military position since 2001, controlling or contesting nearly half of the country. The previous administration’s agreement said that if we stuck to the May 1st deadline that they had signed on to leave by, the Taliban wouldn’t attack any American forces, but if we stayed, all bets were off. So we were left with a simple decision: Either follow through on the commitment made by the last administration to leave Afghanistan, or say we weren’t leaving and commit another tens of thousands more troops going back to war.
At one point in his speech, Biden addressed the criticism that his administration should have begun its evacuation efforts sooner. He was in no mood for an Aspen Ideas Festival talk. There still would have been a rush to the airport, a breakdown, and a government collapse, he insisted, and it still would have been a very difficult and dangerous mission. “The bottom line,” said the president, “is there is no evacuation from the end of a war that you can run without the kinds of complexities, challenges, and threats we faced.”
Biden made a familiar argument that also has the virtue of being persuasive. We already got Osama bin Laden. We decimated al-Qaeda. And that was the point of invasion in the first place. “We succeeded in what we set out to do in Afghanistan over a decade ago,” he said. “Then we stayed for another decade. It was time to end this war.”
Plus, the terrorist threat has “metastasized,” the president noted. Our continued involvement in Afghanistan weakens our capacity to go after ISIS in the Levant or al-Shabaab in Somalia. Simply put, the United States needs to focus on other foreign policy priorities. As Biden put it: “There’s nothing China or Russia would rather have . . . than the United States to be bogged down another decade in Afghanistan.”
There were reflective moments. Biden praised the bravery of American troops, the ingenuity and the determination of the evacuation. As he does so often, he invoked the memory of his late son, Beau, an Army officer who died in 2015 from an acute form of brain cancer.
Biden’s empathy has come under fire in recent days. Where’s the pity for the soon-to-be burka-clad girls? The doomed interpreters? The damned allies? Aside from boasting about how many Afghans the military has gotten out, Biden said the U.S. would keep fighting for women’s rights in Kabul just as we do in, say, Kinshasa. In this sense, Biden didn’t quite have the courage of his convictions. The man who has made combatting sexual assault one of his causes couldn’t harp on this point because of the Taliban’s women-as-chattel ideology. To be sure, the president was right to suggest that our withdrawal would end badly. At some point, the Taliban would have stormed in, firing Kalashnikovs and cheering from their battered Toyota trucks. But he could have used this last wartime rostrum to recognize that those left behind face a cruel autumn. Acknowledging their looming repression would have made his arguments stronger, not weaker.
Still, Biden will come out of this fortified, I think. He ended a war more decisively than any president since Harry Truman accepted the Japanese surrender 76 years ago this week. Dwight Eisenhower left Korea, but with troops behind and no peace agreement. Gerald Ford saw the Vietnam War brought to an ignominious end on his watch—and, by the way, he was spared all the “It’s your fault” crap befalling Biden.
This president ended this war on his own terms. The University of Delaware grad thought he had more common sense than “the best and the brightest” who deluded themselves into thinking that one more surge, one more drone assault, and we could stay forever. Joe Biden stood them down and didn’t blink. His defiance counts as a victory.