A Morgenthau Moment for Afghanistan

The horrifying situation today in Afghanistan will leave a sordid scar on the Biden presidency and be remembered as one of the greatest foreign policy disasters in our nation’s history. The heartbreaking images and stories of desperate Afghan civilians falling from airplanes, babies being pulled over barbed wire, and toddlers being crushed to death in frantic crowds have outraged Americans and the world. The troubling accounts of trapped and injured U.S. citizens, abandoned by their government behind enemy lines, are a national embarrassment and a frightening reflection on the Biden administration’s apparent inability to perform its most basic task of protecting the American people. The events have conjured up memories of 1975 Saigon and 1979 Tehran, and left all of us wondering why so many poor policy decisions were made—from the closure of Bagram Air Base in early July to the inefficient processing of Special Immigrant Visas for those who aided our efforts—in the weeks leading up to this debacle.   

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that a State Department dissent channel cable had warned higher-ups of the impending crisis in mid-July. President Biden was somewhat dismissive of the cable in his press conference on August 20, noting that he received a great deal of conflicting information on what would happen in Afghanistan. Historical research has in fact suggested that the dissent channel at the Department of State is typically quite ineffective in prompting policy change, even though it is often employed during humanitarian crises. What can move the needle, however, is direct pressure for change from within the inner circle of advisers to the president.  

One of the best examples of dissent from a president’s inner circle leading to profound policy change is the case of the creation of the War Refugee Board in 1944. For months, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. led a courageous group of underlings at Treasury and informants at the State Department to expose deliberate delays, interference, and willful negligence in processing visas for vulnerable Jewish refugees at the State Department. At great professional risk, the resolute gang at Treasury and their allies at State carefully documented the State Department’s malfeasance, which, among other obstructionist actions, included deliberately altering and hiding documents to cover their tracks. 

In January 1944, Morgenthau personally approached President Roosevelt, a longstanding and close friend, with the evidence he had collected, making the case for establishing a new government commission outside the sole auspices of the obstructionists at State. Within one week, Roosevelt issued an executive order creating the War Refugee Board, which is credited with saving approximately 200,000 potential Nazi victims during its relatively short tenure.   

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