2 September 2021
Decline and Stumble
By J.R. Thomas
If anything proves that politicians have become as yobbish as many of their electors, it is the reaction of those in the UK to Joe Biden’s disaster in Afghanistan. It is, one might assume, never a good idea to upset your next door neighbour, especially one much richer and more powerful than you are. That is not to say that there are not subtle ways of dissenting from what next door is up to; dissent can be polite and constructive. Not any more it seems. To call the President of the USA “gaga” and “past it” and “downright confused” is just plain rude. The poor man is upset, his fellow citizens are outraged (even those who might quietly agree), and the special relationship is given a further kicking down the road.
Follow instead, perhaps, the splendid example set by an American gentleman living in Florida, normally noisy, outspoken, and far from refined in his remarks. Mr Trump has not said much (you could not expect him to say nothing); he knows that there is no need to say much. Americans can watch for themselves Mr Biden stumbling through press conferences, reading out aloud instructions from his press team, half answering a question and forgetting what the question was. Conclusions may be drawn. The politest thing to say is that the final withdrawal from Afghanistan was not considered for long and the practical implications of foregoing the protection of American and other forces not debated enough (if at all). But let us not forget; this was a defeat for the West by the Afghanis and pretending otherwise is downright foolish. The West ought to have learnt this lesson by now: the outsider in Afghanistan always loses. In this case the only good news was that Kabul airport could be kept open long enough to evacuate at least some of those who otherwise would be at the mercy of the victorious Taliban forces. (We are not going to discuss cats and dogs here.)
But what will the President do next? His foreign policy has been to support freedom and democracy wherever such a policy coincides with the maintenance of American interests. That is why Vice President Kamala Harris has been on her whistle stop tour of south east Asia, visiting Singapore and Vietnam, trying to radiate positivity in two important arenas wondering if their future is not perhaps more with China than the USA. (Expect more such tours in the near future.) Ms Harris is back in Washington now, having dropped her intent to campaign in her native California for Democrat Governor Gavin Newsom who is facing a recall petition in a couple of weeks. He is unlikely to lose, but at times like this, who knows what angry Californian voters are thinking – and how many are angry enough to chuck the governor out.
The policy of the President and his Veep until now seems to have been to keep as far as possible apart from each other. But last week saw enormous wounds inflicted on the flailing Mr Biden and, for the first time, doubts expressed openly even in his own party as to whether he is up to the job. Ms Harris may not be popular but at this moment the administration needs to look competent and united. So in Washington the wagons must be drawn round and the not very buddy buddies take each other’s back.
The truth is the withdrawal from Afghanistan makes much sense in any rational view of how the USA’s foreign policy should evolve. She should not have been in Afghanistan in the first place – at least, not beyond a short campaign to try to rout out terrorists and support a vaguely friendly government. Then, after a quick read as to what happens to invaders of that sad and grim land, she should have left, sending advisors and cheques for health and education and infrastructure (the Chinese example could be followed). Trump was right, and Biden was right.
Then the state department could have concentrated on those theatres of the world that matter; where there is some hoping of assisting the birth of US friendly (or at least grateful) free democratic and vaguely capitalistic societies who will in the future form useful trading partners. And especially in places where Chinese influence is getting much too strong. The Chinese are playing much the same game and they have been playing it for much longer, so America has some catching up to do. As we said before the summer break, Biden has been trying to reposition policy and US fighting forces for such strategies, including digital warfare. It is entirely sensible and long overdue; an end to the War on Terror, and a more positive approach to America’s new role in the world; guns and roses, you might say.
But the execution of the exit was a disaster; delayed, then rushed, then allowed to turn into a military defeat by the Taliban, complete with abandonment of much weaponry and many persons whose futures look exceptionally grim. One can’t entirely blame the military for this; they were just told to get out on a very tight timetable, though the presentation by some senior soldiers of the thing as a strategic victory won’t do either. What has happened makes both America and its leadership look weak and foolish; her enemies will take comfort, her rivals draw advantage, and the more stupid will be tempted to violent tests of her future resolve.
From Joe Biden’s perspective it is even more of a disaster; he has been heavily associated with failure at an early stage in his term, cruelly, in the pursuance of a strategy which most folks would agree with. There is no way that he can avoid the personal blame for this one. He must be regretting that he did not go off to the Mexican border, hug a few babies, and produce some face-saving formula for TexMex immigration, instead of letting Ms Harris fail to do it. And instead send Kamala to disengage from Afghanistan. Joe’s judgment, and his ability to make judgments, has been called into question in the most public way.
There is a little time to try to recover a position here for the President and the Democrats. It is over a year to the midterms. Mr Biden’s whole strategy has been that of “Joe running” to try to get the most controversial elements of his programme, on tax, on the border, and in particular, on constitutional change to try to strengthen the Democrat position electorally, through the House and the Senate before his narrow majorities in both are put to the electors. He can be fairly certain his chances in November 2022 are weaker than they were; and the Republicans are newly emboldened to resist (they have been tending to cooperate so far in such measures as increases in the federal budget).
But such a strategy requires renewed powerful inspirational energetic leadership. Is Mr Biden up to that? Is he prepared to work with Vice President Harris to let her do some of the leading and inspiring? Indeed, is she up to that? At least one person is quietly chuckling and stepping up preparations for the 2022 campaign. He is now in Florida but he is going to be seen a lot across the US in the next year. Suddenly, a second term for The Donald looks quite possible.