Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: Biden’s big truths and little lies

The president’s self-styled straight talking is less honest than it seems

It is rare for leaders to be humiliated and vindicated at the same time. But that strange pairing is exactly what Joe Biden has been handed by the disorder in Afghanistan.

When the president defended his handling of a chaotic withdrawal this week, he styled himself as a teller of hard truths. Acknowledging the “hard and messy” reality of the exit, he argued that “if anything … the developments of the past week reinforced that ending US military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.”

Biden has responded to much of the outrage and concern about America’s departure with a shrug. There’s only so much America can do, is the chastening and unusual message from the White House.

And yet, for all that Biden’s defence rests on the idea of honest Joe giving it straight to the American people, the president’s approach in recent weeks has been deeply dishonest.

For months, Joe Biden has been questioned about the health of the Afghan army and the Afghan state. He has been asked time and again about the possibility of a Taliban takeover and time and again he has downplayed its likelihood. Only last month he was bragging about 300,000 Afghan soldiers and America giving the Afghans “all the tools” they needed to defend themselves. “I want to make clear what I made clear to [President] Ghani,” said Biden in July, “that we are not going just walk away and not sustain their ability to maintain that force.”

Now that his own forecasts have proved so disastrously wrong, Biden is blaming his intelligence. “But I always promised the American people that I will be straight with you,” said Biden this week. “The truth is: This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.”

Biden is right: the intelligence did not predict that Kabul would fall as quickly as it did. But the intelligence has long been considerably gloomier than Biden was willing to acknowledge. The president who now says the takeover of the Taliban was inevitable, refused to countenance that possibility until last week. And when he was refusing to acknowledge that reality, intelligence reports delivered warnings that seemingly went ignored. For example, the Wall Street Journal reports that an internal state department cable last month suggested that Kabul would fall soon after the August 31 withdrawal deadline.

The exit has been so mismanaged that Biden’s best defence is the dishonest claim that there was no alternative to the messy ongoing situation in Kabul. “You don’t think this exit could have been handled better in any way? No mistakes?” Asked the ABC News journalist, George Stephanopoulos, in an interview on Thursday.

“No. I don’t think it could have been handled in a way that, we’re gonna go back in hindsight and look — but the idea that somehow, there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens. I don’t know how that happened,” replied Biden, with a mix of incoherence and stubbornness.

The president is now stuck dealing with what he described on Friday as, “one of the largest and most difficult airlifts in history”. And in several important ways, he will emerge from this crisis a changed president.

For the first time, he is at logger-heads with the Democratic establishment who so enthusiastically backed his presidential candidacy. Already, three Democrat-led Senate committees — the Intelligence, Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees — have pledged to investigate what went wrong in the Afghanistan withdrawal.  

The withdrawal, and the specifics of Biden’s handling of it, have also exposed the contradiction at the heart of the president’s foreign policy. By embracing his realist side without apology, Biden has drawn attention to the trade offs he has been reluctant to acknowledge. His commitment to withdraw from Afghanistan is in keeping with his track record on such matters All the contrasts he sought to draw with Trump on foreign policy — his assurance to allies that “America is back”, his vision for a human-rights led foreign policy and a “democracy agenda” — all of these are undermined by recent events and the harsh realism they have revealed in Biden.

Biden’s behaviour this week — his light schedule in the middle of a major crisis, his reluctance to engage with world leaders, his limited public appearances, the anger and irritability on the rare occasion that he is asked a question, the callousness with which he has reacted to ongoing crisis — prompted National Review’s Jim Geraghty to speculate that “Something is wrong with President Biden, and we are all being asked to pretend we don’t notice.”

Many more will be thinking the same thing. Paradoxically, the Afghanistan crisis has exposed as absurd not only the critics’ caricature of Biden as a cardboard cutout establishment stooge but also his boosters’ claim of a return to normalcy and competence. The end of the war has clarified for Americans uncomfortable truths about their country’s role in the world — and its leader.

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