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Biden's Timeless Obsession
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Biden’s Timeless Obsession

He’s wanted to get out of Afghanistan since he was vice president. It didn’t matter whether the time was right or not.


Let me just get the ranting out of the way. I thought Biden’s address Tuesday was the latest installment in an ongoing national and political disgrace. At every turn the president has gotten the facts and the tone wrong. In July, he mocked the idea that the Afghan government would fall, and then mocked Americans and allied Afghans for not getting out sooner. He said it wouldn’t happen, and then when it did happen he said it proved he was right. He said they were ready for this, but they were caught unprepared. He pulled support for an Afghan military that relied on us to function and then described Afghan soldiers as cowards for not fighting. 

He closed Bagram Air Base—which simultaneously left us ill-prepared for an evacuation and caused the panic that made the evacuation necessary—and then congratulated himself for the evacuation. He took credit on behalf of the veterans and civilians who leapt into the breach to save Americans and Afghans, without acknowledging his incompetence is what made that heroism necessary in the first place. He said that we would evacuate everyone, only to define “everyone” down to Americans and Afghan allies who could make it to the airport, then down to Americans and Afghans who wanted to leave, then down to 90 percent of them. (This morning, Jake Sullivan suggested that leaving the remaining Americans behind was in their best interest.) When people attack the execution of his policy, he changes the subject to the policy in theory.

It’s always easy to give yourself an A on a test when you define excellence by whatever you end up doing.

I could go on. But I don’t want to. Moreover, I don’t have to. Because this will go on. The administration seems to have convinced itself that this is just a summer media frenzy that will go away soon enough when the media moves on to the next controversy. There’s reason to believe that’s not a crazy theory, and that saddens me. But there’s a major hole in that theory which saddens me even more: This story will get worse. The executions have already begun. The Taliban hasn’t even started making demands yet, no doubt because it wants to see how many human chips it has to gamble with. 

The White House keeps saying it has “enormous leverage” over the Taliban. The way to interpret that every time you hear it is: “We can always bribe the Taliban.” I don’t believe any of the administration’s numbers about how many Americans and allied Afghans are left. And I am at a loss as to why media outlets—right and left—take the administration’s numbers at face value. Indeed, just today, we learned that perhaps only about 8,500 Afghans were among the alleged 120,000 people evacuated from Afghanistan. If that’s even close to accurate, we didn’t get a fraction of the people Biden promised to help out. 

I’m at less of a loss as to why the Biden administration gets away with its wordplay about the people left behind. They’re dual citizens! They’re just green card holders! When the Trump administration tried to discriminate against green card holders it was widely denounced as bigoted and nativist. But now it’s fine to downgrade the status of these people facing far worse consequences than they would experience if Trump had his way on immigration. The Biden-friendly media wants to minimize the scope and scale of this perfidy, and many in the Biden hostile media are importing those immigration arguments into this. It’s appalling.

But let’s take a step back. In his address yesterday, Biden wasn’t just arguing with strawmen hovering around him like Banquo’s ghost. He deployed a now-familiar tactic. He would try to rebut criticisms of the execution of his policy by defending the policy in the abstract. If I use a makeshift aerosol flamethrower to kill an ant in my kitchen, I won’t get far with my wife if I respond to criticism about the fire damage by saying: “Oh, I suppose you want ants to take over our kitchen?”

We all have our obsessions, but sometimes our obsessions get overtaken by events.

For example, I used to write a lot about how I was okay with some forms of censorship. If some town or city wanted to ban pornography, that’d be fine with me. The problem is that the internet made my position fairly obsolete.

I bring this up because Biden has wanted to get us out of Afghanistan for a long time. As Dan Balz notes, he wanted to get out when he was vice president, and he lost that argument. But like a lot of old men, he couldn’t let go of his position. I understand the tendency. I have it. My dad definitely had it. He could talk for hours about his positions on a wide range of topics—the shah of Iran, the Bolsheviks, Nixon, Castro, the Lusitania etc.—for hours if you let him. You should have heard him talk about how we screwed up at Yalta. But if he’d been elected president in, say, 1985, none of these arguments would be particularly relevant to what the United States should do now (or, rather, then).

Biden’s angry and defensive address Tuesday—which came just shy of old man yelling at clouds crankiness—had the same tinge to it. He railed against people arguing for “nation building” and the folly of taking sides in a civil war, even though no one has been talking about nation building or fighting an Afghan civil war for years. It’s been a counterterrorism project since at least 2015.

Politically, it’s fair game for Biden to note that Trump left him a bad deal with the Taliban (because it’s true). But it was Biden’s choice to honor it. And there’s nothing in any of his arguments that suggests he wouldn’t have done so if Trump had left him a completely different Afghanistan policy. 

The facts moved on. Biden didn’t.

On the latest Remnant, Peter Suderman and I got into a strange, unplanned debate about the nature of time. Peter thinks the duration of our time in Afghanistan is a very relevant metric. Twenty years is long enough, he argued. I took the position that time is a meaningful metric if it’s a stand-in for other things, like money and other resources (and especially American lives lost). But as an independent variable, it’s not that meaningful.

Peter replied that time is extremely important for nations and people alike. I just don’t see it that way. Time is hugely important for humans because we are subject to the laws of entropy. We age. We have one life to live. But for inorganic institutions, time’s importance is only relevant as a stand-in for that other stuff.

The fact that, say, the Bill of Rights is very old doesn’t incline me to think it has outlived its importance or relevance. In fact, the fact that it’s very old lends it relevance and importance. Our social ecosystem evolves around institutions, and that often makes those institutions more important, not less, over time. A cinder block thrown into the ocean is a worthless cinder block. But 100 years later, that cinder block will be overgrown with coral that provides shelter to animals and plants. So it is with old rules and customs; life builds up around them. Sometimes, age is an insufficient defense—slavery is probably the most indisputable example of that. But the need to abolish slavery stemmed from the fact that it ran counter to other timeless principles and institutions.

Now, I know: The Afghanistan project is really nothing like the Bill of Rights. My only point is that time means one thing for living things and quite another for nonliving things. You can argue that NATO has outlived its usefulness, but that debate hinges on whether or not we still find NATO useful, not on how many years it has existed.

Here’s a more apt analogy. American troops have been in South Korea for more than seven decades. When they first arrived, there was a civil war. Then there was massive unrest, corruption, and a flawed, faltering democracy. Since then, the country has prospered.

I bring this up for a few reasons. First, whatever good arguments there are for America to withdraw our troops from South Korea (and I don’t think there are many), none of them have much to do with how long we’ve been there.

Second, if you think we shouldn’t be involved in “forever wars” or civil wars, it’s worth noting that North and South Korea are still technically at war because South Korea never signed the armistice agreement and there was never a peace treaty. The North Korean regime still says it will one day conquer the South and unify the peninsula. If you take Biden’s arguments seriously or literally, why not pull out?

Third, I am fully cognizant of the problems with “nation building.” It’s expensive—not just financially, but in all sorts of ways. But there’s a difference between saying nation building is too expensive or too difficult according to some cost-benefit analysis and saying nation building is wrong or impossible. We did a lot of nation building after World War II. We did it in Japan, Germany, and South Korea. And while that doesn’t mean we can or should do it everywhere (or even anywhere) else, including Afghanistan, we should be damn proud of what we did. 

Our work in those countries was grounded in our own national interest. But the by-product of that work was good and valuable. Likewise in Afghanistan, it may have been folly to try. It was certainly folly to try it in a half-assed (or quarter-assed) fashion. But I’m at a loss as to why we shouldn’t be proud of the good things that came as a result. We didn’t go into Afghanistan to protect or educate little girls, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to deny those were good things.

But back to the issue of time. “We’ve been a nation too long at war,” Biden said yesterday. “If you’re 20 years old today, you’ve never known an America at peace.”

Now, I think complaints about how average Americans are too disconnected from our military and its missions have a lot of merit. But this is a literary claim masquerading as a description of how Americans live. It may say something shameful about America that we don’t feel like we’ve been at war for 20 years, but I think it’s fair to say that most Americans don’t feel that way.

And one of the reasons they don’t feel that way isn’t shameful at all. By Biden’s own admission, the reason we went to war in Afghanistan 20 years ago was to go after al-Qaeda and the Taliban state that sponsored and nurtured it. Here’s how he put it in 2001:

We’ll need to deter any potential state sponsors of terrorism from providing support or haven to future bin Ladens. We’ll work with others and try to help rebuild a politically and socially stable Afghanistan that does NOT export terrorism, narcotics, or militancy to its neighbors and to the wider world–more like it was in the 1950s.

Well, our presence in Afghanistan over the last 20 years did that. No terrorist attacks against America, that we know of, were plotted from Afghanistan in that time. A whole generation of Americans—about 1 in 5 Americans alive today—have not experienced another 9/11. I wish the fighting in Afghanistan had gone better, and all of the lives lost were tragic. But the mission of the American military is to fight enemies to protect Americans. And that’s what it did.

Biden says we accomplished our mission in Afghanistan. And he’s right—so far. But the Taliban is now back in charge and al-Qaeda—essentially its foreign legion—once again has a safe haven. And al-Qaeda hasn’t had a “mission accomplished” moment. They don’t think their war with us is over. Quite the contrary. They think they’ve won a historic battle in their war. And they’re right, too.

Biden likes to say that “there was no good time to leave Afghanistan,” as if that justifies leaving in disastrous fashion. I think that if there’s no good time to leave, you either wait until there is one or do the work required to create that moment. If I’m in a runaway hot air balloon, there’s no good time to leave until it’s back on the ground. Throughout the Cold War, there was no good time to leave NATO. I think there’s no good time in sight to leave South Korea. And this wasn’t the time to leave Afghanistan. But we did—for now.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.