Earlier this month, I compared Joe Biden to John F. Kennedy, who saved his image after the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion by admitting his mistake – and learning from it. I recognized that the parallel was imperfect, because “errors in foreign policy and domestic policy are obviously very different weighings”.
How quickly things change. Thanks to the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and the Taliban takeover, these two kettles suddenly look alike. As with Kennedy, it is likely that Biden’s presidency could avoid being defined by this fiasco. Provided, of course, that Biden and his followers learn the right lessons from history.
There are three big ones.
First, the main political similarity between the Bay of Pigs and the Afghan withdrawal is that every time a Democratic president has paid the price because Americans take our imperial ambitions for granted. In Kennedy’s case, the military hawks convinced him that the communist regime of Fidel Castro could not be tolerated because Cuba was too close to the American coast – and that it could be toppled without a risky invasion by American troops. .
For Biden, as Amanda Marcotte de Salon points out, it was the idea that the United States could somehow “save” Afghanistan by staying there a little longer, despite 20 years of futile conflict. In both cases, painful realities invaded these chauvinistic delusions. Castro still had deep public support among the Cuban people in 1961, and the Taliban had never been completely defeated in Afghanistan. On the contrary, the Taliban had greatly improved as a tactical and strategic force after 20 years of engagement with the US military. When Biden told the American people that he was “the fourth president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan – two Republicans, two Democrats,” he was making an obvious and valid political point. There was no end in sight except by withdrawal.
So this is the first lesson: before you view a foreign policy fiasco as a failure, ask yourself what it looks like in the larger context of the story.
Even so, it appears the Biden administration has failed both in terms of strategy and communication, repeating its main mistake on the issue of the deportation moratorium by being caught off guard. Until the last minute, there was no clear plan to get American and Western civilians and Afghan refugees out of the country. (Arguably there is no clear plan now.) This nonsense has undoubtedly cost innocent lives and, even putting moral questions aside, reinforces the same message sent when the United States abandoned their Kurdish allies in Syria: we are not a reliable friend. Biden foolishly sworn in July that there was “no circumstance where you see people being kidnapped” – referring to America’s sadly sad withdrawal from Vietnam – after a swift Taliban conquest. This is of course what happened. It is as if the president had tempted fate to humiliate him.
Indeed, Biden’s unfortunate historical analogy deserves more attention, as it illustrates the second major lesson the president and his supporters could learn from the dramatic events of the past week: Optics isn’t everything, but it matters.
Gerald Ford was president when the United States-backed government South Vietnam fell to the Communists in 1975, but politically the collapse of Saigon did not hurt him. US military forces had ended their involvement in the war two years earlier, much to the relief of most Americans. There is no doubt that the poignant images of helicopters taking off from the roof of the American Embassy and depicting the plight of Vietnamese refugees have been traumatic for many American observers, and some have blamed the Ford administration. (Ford had only been in power for eight months, barely more than Biden now.) As Biden just did, Ford reminded the American people that this war has to end somehow. He was also able to improve his reputation through significant achievements in foreign policy, including the rescue of American hostages held by the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.
Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican president with a strong military record, faced his own embarrassing foreign policy crisis in 1960, his last full year in office. It started when CIA spy plane was gunned down deep in Soviet territory in May, weeks before a major peace summit. Eisenhower initially denied that the US government was involved, but the Soviets gathered compelling evidence that was not true. Faced with fierce criticism for failing to control his own administration and for portraying America in a bad light, Ike finally acknowledged his role in authorizing and overseeing controversial spy missions, defending them as necessary for the national security. He was praised for his frankness – but blew up the peace talks. It was of course a radically different time, and Eisenhower was a figure universally respected, even by political opponents. When a congressional ally defended him in the House of Representatives, members on both sides responded with a standing ovation.
Joe Biden does not have such a reservoir of goodwill, nor does he have any good foreign policy news to make up for the disaster in Afghanistan. The good news, perhaps, is that it can change both of these things. Despite Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, Biden is not a polarizing figure and is not widely despised (as Trump was and is), even by his enemies. While last week’s outlook was appalling, Biden is ultimately not to blame for what transpired in Afghanistan, and most Americans across the political spectrum were eager for the United States to step down. withdraw.
There’s another possible lesson in history, which Biden may not want to delve too deeply into: Sometimes foreign policy goes so badly that it costs presidents their jobs – and even their own party’s support.
After the Tet offensive in early 1968 – a series of victories by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army which made it clear that the United States and South Vietnam are not winning the war – President Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election. (Johnson had narrowly won the New Hampshire primary against anti-war candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy, but was clearly facing a fierce battle for the Democratic nomination.) Despite Johnson’s withdrawal, nothing turned out well passed to Democrats after that. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who would probably have been the strongest candidate, was assassinated in June and Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the nomination – without even running for the primaries – at the disastrous Chicago convention, putting featuring pitched battles between police officers. and leftist protesters. Richard Nixon was elected in the fall, at least in part because Alabama segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace (a former and future Democrat) won multiple Southern states as a third candidate .
Twelve years later, President Jimmy Carter ran for re-election even after the disaster US hostage rescue attempt in Iran failed, but his perceived weakness likely doomed his campaign from the start. Carter withstood a main challenge from Sen. Ted Kennedy (the only time he ran for president), but was eliminated by Ronald Reagan in a landmark election. Intriguing but unanswered questions hang over these two elections: if Bobby Kennedy had survived, and if Teddy Kennedy had won against Carter (or if Carter had left the race), would the Democrats have retained the White House? Recent American history might look very different in this alternate universe.
In this universe, however, Joe Biden is president and Afghanistan has fallen into the hands of the Taliban. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where things would turn out differently in Afghanistan if Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders were instead president. So smart money says Biden won’t be affected much by this in the long run, any more than Ford was by the fall of Vietnam or Kennedy by the Bay of Pigs. Yes, that is to say, our current president is ready to learn the lessons of history.