I’m trying to remember the last time we had a president do something actually presidential … in a major way I mean. I’m not sure it has happened in my living memory, until recently.
Joe Biden is getting us out of Afghanistan, albeit with a large amount of pandemonium and confusion that comes with the decision. He’s proactively doing something no modern president has done. He’s fixing a mistake Bush, Obama and Trump dodged.
Most presidents want the veneer of being presidential, not to demonstrate the real thing. Even Barack Obama knew our presence in Afghanistan was doomed to fail; he just couldn’t pull off what he wanted to do, which was get us out of there entirely. In 2009, he surged troops there but also said he would get us out of in 2014, signifying to the Taliban that they just needed to wait. “Out of there” amounted to leaving a substantial number of troops in the country indefinitely while proclaiming that our war there was over. Like Bush before him, we were going to stand up an independent country that wouldn’t need us forever. And like in Vietnam, his generals and his State Department prettied up the reports to put lipstick on the pig. It was all a house of cards, something Obama probably knew but couldn’t find the strength to do.
Biden became presidential by doing what needed to be done and actually getting us out of there. It’s an effort obviously still underway. It doesn’t appear that he will change his mind and I hope he doesn’t. We’ve needed to be gone for a long time. This was always doomed to be an unwinnable war.
Granted, as Senator after September 11, Biden voted with virtually all of the rest of Congress to effectively wage war against Afghanistan. We were actually at war with those who caused September 11, and at the time al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were holed up on Afghanistan. In fact what led us to war in Afghanistan was achieved about eighteen months later when bin Laden left Afghanistan and went into hiding in Pakistan. That was the time to get out of the country.
It should be noted that President Bush turned down two opportunities to have the Taliban work as our agents. They were quite willing to turn over bin Laden to us; he just didn’t like their conditions, which would leave them in charge. Instead, he spurned them and we went on another righteous but pointless excursion of nation building. It was window dressing for what we really wanted: an imperialistic state there that we basically controlled. We controlled the government by making it impossible for them to exist without our funding and expertise.
This experiment in nation building was, like most of the others that preceded it, doomed from the start. More than ninety five percent of Afghanistan’s people are illiterate. It’s a third-world country that the U.S. expected could quickly evolve to act like a first-world country. Not surprisingly, it didn’t. We set up a lot of Potemkin cities to provide us with the illusion that Afghanistan could be a democracy, merely to make ourselves feel better.
For all practical purposes though, Afghanistan is not a country. It is too ethnically divided to be one. Multiple states are possible perhaps run by the ethnic minorities in that part of the “country”. Trying to make it one just proved how impossible a task it actually was.
As the saying goes, you got to know when to hold them and know when to fold them. Biden became presidential by folding our hand and acknowledging reality. It was sustained only by spending vast amounts of money and by wearing rose colored glasses.
With the possible exception of Japan, we’ve done a lousy job of nation building. We like the idea of spreading democracy but are inept at doing so. The latest twist is that right here in our country many of our own citizens are working hard to ensure the U.S. becomes an autocracy. Many of Biden’s biggest critics on Afghanistan would be quite happy if our government looked and lot like their new Taliban-run government, just with Americans praying to a different deity.
I had misgivings about our war on terror from the start. I was in a tiny fringe, but it drove me to seek compatriots online on sites like Daily Kos. Everyone else I knew was excited to rally behind President Bush. I was concerned about mission creep and my concerns were justified.
This blog started in December 2002, after September 11. But if you read this post from eighteen years ago, you will read that I was in Washington D.C. with thousands of others protesting what looked like and became our imminent invasion of Iraq. That turned out to be a huge folly too. The lessons of Vietnam remained stuck in my brain at least.
While Vice President, Biden was the dissenting voice urging President Obama to get us out of Afghanistan. All these years later, as president he took the opportunity to do what should have been done more than fifteen years ago. Yes, it’s miserable to many Afghanis and of course we should get out as many interpreters, allies and legitimate refugees there as possible. But out we should get and Biden should stick to his plan. It’s also risky for Joe Biden’s reelection strategy, but it’s what needed to be done. To be presidential, you must put the country’s needs above your own political needs.
The real problem is not in Afghanistan, but in our own country. We have to give up the illusion that the United States’ might can impose order and our will where it cannot. It’s folly to try. We keep making the same mistake over and over again.
But in the minds of too many Americans, this is a delusion they cannot give up. Our country is not all that special and epic mistakes like these simply enforce this impression on the rest of the world, which largely doesn’t buy into our bullshit anyhow.