Biden shows an almost Trumpian defiance in refusing to show contrition over Afghanistan

President’s determined refusal to admit mistakes suggests he may have learned something from the man he defeated in November, writes Andrew Feinberg

Thursday 19 August 2021 00:53
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If anyone expected President Joe Biden to express any level of contrition for the rapid collapse of Afghanistan's US-backed government in the face of a resurgent Taliban and the resulting crush of refugees seeking an exit at Kabul's international airport when he sat down with ABC's George Stephanopolous on Wednesday, they will be disappointed.

Pressed on whether he and his advisers downplayed intelligence warnings of the dangers of a US withdrawal – or if there was a failure in intelligence gathering – Mr Biden replied that "there was no consensus" from US intelligence on how long the Afghan government could stand without US assistance.

"If you take a look back on the intelligence reports, they said it was more likely to be by some time at the end of the year," said the president, who last month told reporters it was "highly unlikely" that the Islamic fundamentalist group – considered by many to be a terrorist organisation – would once again become Afghanistan's de facto government.

Confronted by his previous statement, Mr Biden said that he did not think anyone anticipated the 300,000-strong Afghan force trained by US and NATO troops to collapse as fast as they did, and stressed that the US had moved to secure control of Kabul's airport after it had become clear that there were a massive number of Afghans seeking refuge from the new fundamentalist regime.

His statement to Stephanopolous reflected what his top military adviser, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, said during a Wednesday press conference when asked whether intelligence reports foretold the Afghan government's collapse.

"There was nothing that I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days," he said.

And when pressed further by Stephanopolous on whether his administration could have handled the withdrawal from Afghanistan any better than it has, Mr Biden was defiant, telling the journalist: "The idea that somehow there's a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don't know how that happens."

The President's assertion that events could not have transpired any other way reflects an almost Trumpian defiance that is rooted in his longstanding desire for the US to quit the so-called "graveyard of empires". It's a stark contrast from the rhetoric of his campaign for the presidency last year, during which he promised: "I'll do my job and take responsibility. I won't blame others".

Some may characterise this shift in tone as hypocrisy, but it may simply be a reflection of political reality and a sign that Mr Biden and his advisers may have learned something from the man he defeated last November.

The Biden administration is just over 200 days old. The midterm elections that will determine control of Congress from 2023 onward are 446 days in the future. And although the picture coming out of Kabul is by no measure a pretty one, Mr Biden's actions appear to be driven by a recognition that the judgment voters will render next November will be influenced far more by events at home than by events in a faraway land most Americans could not pick out on a map.

Four years ago, the news of the day was dominated by then-President Trump's tone-deaf response to white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia and the violence that accompanied that "Unite the Right" rally.

Mr Trump's claim that the racists and tiki torch-bearing neo-Nazis were "very fine people" drove his approval ratings to some of the lowest of his then-young presidency. It was a scandal. A bad one. But he refused to admit fault then, the news cycle moved on, and voters had far more opportunities to measure his performance before they elected a Democratic House as a check on him.

Mr Biden's refusal to go along with his critics looks to be drawn from the same playbook, but he and his advisers appear to be betting that future developments – such as a once-in-a-generation investment in infrastructure – will give him and congressional Democrats far more ammunition than his predecessor had two years into his term.

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