Sunday, February 18, 2024

Learning the Right Wrong Lessons

The Biden administration's decision to withdraw from Afghanistan should be viewed as a milestone moment in political courage. Instead, as both Scott Lemieux and Kevin Drum observe, it's probably one of his biggest political millstones. How did this happen?

We need to be clear: Afghanistan had become a hopeless quagmire. As Lemieux puts it, we could stay "for six more months" in perpetuity and just slowly bleed more and more, or we could make a decision to leave. Eventually, someone would have to make the decision to leave, and the only question was who would rip off the band-aid. Three different presidents kicked that can down the road for someone else to deal with.

It was Biden who finally had the guts to step forward, and he did so knowing he'd take a hit. There was no way withdrawing from Afghanistan was going to be pretty. Losing rarely is. But in the scheme of things, the withdrawal went about as smoothly as reasonably possible. Again, "reasonably possible" -- losing isn't going to be pretty. But all the armchair generals in the world still haven't offered much alternatives aside from "stay for another six months, and another six months after that." See point one.

Biden should have earned praise for this call. Instead, he get hit with a brutal one-two punch -- one from the media, which positively excoriated him over the "chaotic" withdrawal; and then from the putatively anti-war left which gave him essentially no credit for the move and certainly showed zero interest in providing substantial political cover for it. Indeed, it is fair to say that the Afghanistan withdrawal was the negative turning point in Biden's poll numbers with the American people. Doing the right thing got him nothing with the left and got him scorn with the right.

It can be hard to predict political fallout -- my students are now young enough that I have to emphasize to them that the moral taken from Nader 2000 was absolutely not "Democrats learned that they can't take the left for granted!" -- but even the most dimwitted politician surely will understand what obvious lesson to draw from this story, and it's not a good one. Nice work, team.