Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Running for the Exit

I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.
 —Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, writing about Joe Biden in his 2014 book Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

[T]he likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.
 —President Biden, discussing Afghanistan in a press conference on July 8

This is a foreign policy catastrophe, the likes we haven’t seen in decades, I’m afraid, internationally
 —Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney, commenting on the Afghanistan situation in a radio interview on Monday
In the lead-up to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, there was much media speculation about how much it might, at the end, resemble the country’s chaotic retreat from Vietnam in 1975. As it happened, there were a lot of similarities. From panic at the U.S. embassy, among others, to desperate last-minute crowding at the capital’s airport, there was plenty of fodder for déjà vu for those of us who remember well the fall of Saigon.

For one thing, the endgame was set up by a peace treaty. In the earlier case, it was the Nixon Administration’s pact with North Vietnam, which resulted in a Nobel Peace Prize for Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in 1973. In the current situation, it was the Trump Administration’s agreement with the Taliban a year and a half ago. In both cases, those pieces of paper were tossed aside once a subsequent U.S. administration pulled troops out suddenly. In 1975 it was the Ford Administration, which had little choice after Congress cut off all Vietnam funding. Today it is the Biden Administration, which announced four months ago the drawdown of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

One difference between the two situations is the reaction of America’s hard political left.

“Ho Chi Minh puts a lot of hope in our hearts,” declared a woman attending a spontaneous celebration in April 1975. “As we practice the philosophies we believe in we forget that there are other people who believe in the same thing but practice it differently because of their environment. The greater struggle lies ahead.”

Added a war veteran-turned-anti-war-activist, “It’d be so far out to be there right now.” He was referring to the capital of soon-to-be-absorbed South Vietnam, which had just been renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

The above quotes are from a 46-year-old event in Isla Vista, the densely populated student ghetto abutting the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California. They were chronicled in the student newspaper The Nexus, and yes, I was the hack scribe who reported them. A similar event had been held weeks earlier to mark Cambodia’s surrender to the Khmer Rouge.

Some of the people at the April event were there simply to express relief at the final end of the war and the U.S.’s involvement in the region. Others were wholeheartedly celebrating a U.S. defeat at the hands of Communists. For others, the celebratory mood may have been more about something more general: a former colony casting out a Western superpower.

I can’t imagine that very many on the political left today are celebrating the Taliban’s victory. I no longer have the contacts I did during my Seattle days, so I’m not really sure. If any are celebrating, though, it cannot be without mixed feelings. While the new rulers of Afghanistan have done their best to project a more presentable image as their return to power loomed, their track record and unabashed world view suggest their rule will be a disaster for anyone who cares about western liberal democratic values in general or the rights of women and minorities in particular. In my experience, though, the hard left tends to see such rights and social issues not as ends in themselves but mainly as issues to exploit tactically in their ultimate aim: to see the that right people end up in charge.

To be clear, when I talk about the “hard left,” I’m not talking about people who vote for Democrats. My experience with hard-core leftists is that they mainly vote for fringe candidates in protest or, more often, don’t vote at all. If they do vote for a Democrat, it’s usually grudgingly and/or tactically. They do, however, show up en masse at demonstrations and protests, which sometimes results in generating enthusiasm and motivation for Democratic-leaning voters.

While the hard left is definite minority in America, it’s hard not to notice that views once considered on the political fringe have infiltrated the mainstream. A sign of this is the ardent media coverage—both left and right—of the so-called “squad,” a half-dozen Representatives who, according to opinion polls anyway, are well to the left of most Democrats—let alone most Americans.

As for Afghanistan, those of us who have seen this movie before know pretty much what to expect. In North America and Europe there will be reflections and recriminations about how the occupation of the country began and why it turned out the way it did. In Southwest Asia there will be strife and misery and perhaps yet another refugee crisis. (For years after the fall of South Vietnam, waves of so-called “boat people” flooded out of the country.) There will be heartbreaking tales of people, mainly women, whose lives and opportunities will be set back to a previous century. One also has to ask if Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will go back to being a haven and base for international terrorists.

In the last presidential election, we were told a vote for Joe Biden was a vote for returning to normalcy, sanity and competency. Things are definitely back to what’s considered normal in Washington, and I suppose the capital is as sane as it’s ever been—for whatever that’s worth. Competency? Even if you think ending U.S. involvement in Afghanistan was a good idea, you still have to wonder if the terms of withdrawal couldn’t have been negotiated better and whether the actual exit could have been handled more competently.

Watching Biden on countless Sunday morning news programs in the 1990s and 2000s, it was always clear to me he considered himself a foreign policy maven. Yet, to anyone paying attention, it was also clear that his ideas—which were just that, since as a senator or even vice-president he had little discernible influence on actual policy—were always a little off from establishment foreign policy thinking. Whether it was his idea of splitting Iraq into three countries or advising President Obama not to pull the trigger on Osama bin Laden, he always seemed oddly contrarian.

Reportedly, Biden overruled his top military advisers in following through on the Trump Administration’s deal with the Taliban. You have to wonder what that says about his judgment as he faces upcoming crises with places like Iran and North Korea.

Biden’s real strength was always in domestic politics, and that probably tells us more about his handling of Afghanistan than all his years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Apparently, polls said that getting out of Afghanistan ranked as very popular among U.S. voters. If it remains popular after this fiasco—even after heart-wrenching footage of people clinging to taxiing aircraft in Kabul—then maybe the president will have succeeded on his own terms.