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The Morning Dispatch: Blinken in the Hot Seat
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The Morning Dispatch: Blinken in the Hot Seat

Two congressional committees grill the Secretary of State on the Biden admin's drawdown in Afghanistan.

Happy Wednesday! And happy National Double Cheeseburger Day! We have no idea why September 15 was chosen for such an important occasion, but please celebrate irresponsibly.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • California Gov. Gavin Newsom survived the state’s recall election, the Associated Press projected Tuesday night. As we send this newsletter, “No” on recalling Newsom is outpacing “Yes” 64 percent to 36 percent, with approximately 61 percent of the vote counted.

  • A new book from Bob Woodward and Robert Costa set to be released next week reports that Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley conducted rogue, backchannel diplomacy late last year and early this year because he believed President Donald Trump “had suffered a mental decline after the election.” Milley reportedly told senior military officers that he “had to be involved” in any decision to launch a nuclear weapon, and called his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng, twice to assure him that the United States would not attack—or that he would warn Li if it was. Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin disputed some of the reporting, saying Milley “did not try to insert himself in the chain of command regarding the launch of nuclear weapons” and that there were 15 people—including a State Department representative—on the video calls with Chinese officials. Sen. Marco Rubio called on President Joe Biden to fire Milley after the allegations, and Trump impeachment witness and former National Security Council staffer Alexander Vindman said Milley should resign if the reporting is accurate.

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Tuesday that the Consumer Price Index increased 0.3 percent in August on a month-over-month basis, and 5.3 percent year-over-year. While still higher than average, August’s 0.3 percent represented a significant slowdown in inflation from June’s 0.9 percent and July’s 0.5 percent.

  • The Department of Justice announced a new department-wide policy Tuesday “explicitly prohibiting” federal law enforcement officers from using chokeholds and carotid restraints “unless deadly force is authorized.”

  • A storm named Nicholas made landfall in Texas as a hurricane yesterday morning before weakening to a tropical storm and moving across Louisiana, where there are now reports of extensive flooding. Over 200,000 customers in Texas were without power as of Tuesday night.

  • Comedian and erstwhile Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update” anchor Norm Macdonald died on Tuesday at the age of 61 following a lengthy—but largely private—battle with cancer.

Blinken Goes Under the Congressional Microscope

(Photo by Bill O’Leary-Pool/Getty Images.)

In two congressional hearings on the Afghanistan withdrawal this week, one before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and one before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered near-identical opening statements before addressing questions. Throughout, he maintained an air of detached composure despite at least four calls by Republicans for his resignation. 

While some new information came to light, many questions remain unanswered. How, for example, does the administration plan to evacuate Afghanistan’s remaining U.S. citizens, green card holders, and visa-eligible Afghans out of the country amid reports of Taliban violence? What will American counterterrorism operations look like going forward, and to what extent do those efforts rely on Taliban cooperation? How does the international community plan to extend aid to the country without inadvertently empowering Taliban rule?

And perhaps most crucially to many Americans, who in the administration will answer for the fumbled American departure from Afghanistan—one that resulted in the deaths of 13 U.S. servicemembers and many, many more Afghan civilians?

“Who will be held accountable?” GOP Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri asked Blinken during her allotted time. “You tell us NATO made us do it, Trump made us do it, the Taliban made it clear. Do you take any responsibility, Secretary Blinken, for this disastrous withdrawal, or do you still want to call it a success?”

Throughout the hearing, Blinken echoed previous administration statements, taking credit for ending a 20-year war in one breath and blaming the Trump administration for any missteps in the next. “We made the right decision in ending America’s longest war. We made the right decision in not sending a third generation of Americans to fight and die in Afghanistan,” he told Wagner. “We did the right thing by our citizens in working feverishly to get every one of them out. We did the right thing by 125,000 Afghans to bring them to safety.” 

Many lawmakers were quick to point out that that evacuation had not reached some U.S. citizens—many of whom stayed behind in light of the U.S. government’s failure to process their families’ immigration paperwork in time—thousands of U.S. permanent residents, and tens of thousands of Afghan allies left behind.

Sen. Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, broke down the numbers during his line of questioning. “You said, earlier, the overwhelming number of people who are at risk got out. I don’t think that’s true,”  he said. “We think about 30,000 at-risk Afghans were evacuated out of an estimated 60,000. That’s the best numbers we can come up with because we can’t get good numbers from the administration. … We left people behind who had stood with us and helped us.”

“There was no mechanism to get inside,” the committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Jim Risch, said of the evacuation from Hamid Karzai International Airport. “It was an informal network of Americans that helped Americans and Afghans get out. The administration is patting itself on the back for this evacuation, like an arsonist taking credit for saving people from the burning building he just set on fire.”

Blinken and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, brought up efforts during the Trump administration to suspend or halt the processing of SIV applications. “Let’s stop with the hypocrisy about who’s to blame. There are a lot of people to blame, and we all share in it,” Shaheen said, directing her gaze at lawmakers around the room, before asking about the State Department’s plans for protecting women in Taliban-run Afghanistan.

Along with international pressure, which can include sanctions, Blinken explained that humanitarian aid will be wielded in an effort to empower women and girls. 

Several other Democratic lawmakers also raised questions about humanitarian aid in light of the United Nations’ recent warning that millions could face starvation as winter sets in. Given the Taliban’s classification as a specially designated global terrorist entity in 2002, legal challenges are expected to arise as international organizations seek to deliver assistance from the U.S. and allies. Drawing on similar efforts in Yemen, Blinken elaborated on collaboration with the Treasury Department to carve out a “legal pathway” to get aid to those in need. 

But Republicans, Sen. Rand Paul foremost among them, voiced concerns about aid making its way into Taliban hands. Blinken said the State Department’s plan to extend $64 million in new aid, in addition to cash already committed to the previous government, is contingent on the Taliban’s adherence to the international community’s expectations.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to send money to the Taliban even in a year, even if they’re behaving. They just took $80 billion worth of equipment that wasn’t theirs,” Paul told The Dispatch following the hearing. “Why would we be giving them any money even if they behave? It’d be another thing to ask whether you should trade with somebody or have relations, but I certainly wouldn’t be giving them any money.”

Lawmakers also explored the logistics of the Biden team’s “over-the-horizon” strategy in combating terror emanating from Afghanistan, particularly given the presence of Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the country. The latter’s operatives and leaders have already begun to reassemble, alongside those who never left the country. 

Given persistent terror threats, Sen. Mitt Romney asked the secretary if the administration would reconsider its decision to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). “If we do not have those authorities, we should get them, whether that means re-looking at those authorizations or writing new ones,” Blinken said.

“He answered many of the questions that we asked,” Romney told The Dispatch later. “I was pleased that he recognized that we need to revisit the 2001 AUMF proposal by the State Department … I think we should keep it in place.”

Lawmakers pressed Blinken on several other tactical missteps, including the surrender of Bagram Air Base, the abandonment of military equipment to the Taliban, and a U.S. drone strike that reportedly killed 10 civilians

Those matters fall under the purview of the Pentagon, but Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declined to voluntarily appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Bob Menendez, threatened to subpoena the general, adding that his failure to appear would impact his “personal judgment on Department of Defense nominees.”

Several of the administration’s strategic failures, Blinken said, were the result of the rapid disintegration of Afghan security forces amid Taliban advances. But Sen. Marco Rubio, who also serves as vice chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, alluded to continual warnings from intelligence agencies that such an outcome was likely—particularly as the U.S. withdrew vital air support.

“Anyone who didn’t know that that was going to melt down and that it could melt down very fast and very chaotically wasn’t paying attention to the intelligence and doesn’t seem to be in command of common sense,” Rubio told The Dispatch. “[Blinken] works for the president. The president’s in charge of foreign policy and he’s the one who directed it … and I think he’s ultimately responsible for what went wrong.”

The failures of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, several Republican lawmakers said, empowered the U.S.’s adversaries and undermined its global partnerships. After a recent meeting with some of the U.S.’ NATO allies, Sen. Bill Hagerty said that to call the evacuation a success is “beyond the pale” amid international backlash.

“I was not surprised that they were upset and enraged by the way things went down,” Hagerty told The Dispatch. “They were in sync with me in terms of acknowledging that the threat to all of us—whether it’s the United States, whether it’s our allies in Europe—has escalated dramatically now that Afghanistan has fallen into disarray.”

Worth Your Time

  • Deep down, we probably all realize that the amount of time we spend on social media can’t be good for our mental health. As it turns out, Facebook and Instagram have known for years that it isn’t. “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” a 2019 research report—uncovered by the Wall Street Journal’s Georgia Wells, Jeff Horwitz, and Deepa Seetharaman—found. “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” another slide read. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.” These studies have been reviewed by top executives at the company, but Facebook has kept them hidden—and neglected to share them when asked directly by Congress. ​​ “If you believe that R.J. Reynolds should have been more truthful about the link between smoking and lung cancer, then you should probably believe that Facebook should be more upfront about links to depression among teen girls,” one psychology researcher said.

  • Colleges and universities in the United States today enroll approximately three women for every two men. “This is the largest female-male gender gap in the history of higher education, and it’s getting wider,” Derek Thompson points out in The Atlantic, noting that men have accounted for more than 70 percent of the higher education enrollment decline of the past five years. What’s happening? “The sociologist Kathryn Edin has written that men without college degrees in deindustrialized America have been adrift for decades,” Thompson writes. “They face the simultaneous shocks of lost jobs, disintegrating nuclear families, and rising deaths of despair in their communities. As 20th-century institutions have crumbled around them, these men have withdrawn from organized religion. Their marriage rates have fallen in lockstep with their church attendance. Far from the ordered progression of the mid-century American archetype—marriage, career, house and yard—men without college degrees are more likely to live what Edin and other researchers call ‘haphazard’ lives, detached from family, faith, and work.”

  • The Washington Post published an adapted excerpt from George Will’s new book on happiness yesterday, and it is worth your time. “It has been well said that the United States is the only nation founded on a good idea, the proposition that people should be free to pursue happiness as they define it,” he writes. “In recent years, however, happiness has been elusive for this dyspeptic nation, in which too many people think and act as tribes and define their happiness as some other tribe’s unhappiness. As a quintessentially American voice, that of Robert Frost, said, ‘The best way out is always through.’ Perhaps the information, the reasoning, and, I hope, the occasional amusements in newspaper columns can help readers think through, and thereby diminish, our current discontents. They will diminish if, but only if Americans adhere to two categorical imperatives: They should behave as intelligently as they can, and should be as cheerful as is reasonable.” 

  • Given Norm Macdonald’s passing yesterday, take five minutes to watch—or rewatch—his famous moth joke. It’s everything that made him so hilarious and unique wrapped into one bit. Rest in peace.

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • David’s latest French Press (🔒) takes a look at the massive problem facing “virtually every industrialized, moderately wealthy country” in the world: declining birth rates. “The bottom line is that as our world gets more prosperous, and as even the least developed countries grow more economically advanced, families respond by having fewer babies,” he writes. “That’s not so much of an issue when they still have enough babies to sustain populations and thus sustain economies. It’s even potentially manageable if a nation is a desirable enough destination that it can attract enough immigrants to grow its population and its economy. But there is a point at which a declining birth rate means national decline in arguably the most tangible way possible.”

  • In The Sweep this week, Sarah touches on state house special elections, Chris Christie’s inevitable 2024 presidential campaign, school board squabbles, the Democratic Party’s ideological split, and more. Then, Chris Stirewalt stops by to share his thoughts on the California recall election.

  • Yesterday’s Uphill dove into how Democrats plan to pay for their massive new spending bill (hint: lots of tax hikes) and the annual National Defense Authorization Act’s markup process.

  • Accomplished attorney Shannen Coffin joins Jonah on today’s Remnant to discuss the constitutionality of Biden’s vaccine mandate, the dysfunctional state of the federal government, and the future of the conservative legal movement.

  • Poland is doing battle with EU leadership right now over the supremacy of EU law over Polish law. It could trigger a judicial chain reaction that touches at the heart of the European Union. Bill Wirtz explains in a piece for the site.

Let Us Know

If the Woodward and Costa report about Gen. Milley and his actions surrounding the 2020 election is true, do you believe he should resign?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@lawsonreports), Audrey Fahlberg (@AudreyFahlberg), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).