A Morgenthau Moment for Afghanistan

Someone needs to find a way to give President Biden candid feedback that could avert disaster.

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.   

Telling the story of Morgenthau and his colleagues—and other dissenters during mass atrocities—was the subject of my academic research before I served in the last administration. In my reading of the primary source documents, including key actors’ diaries and meeting notes at Hyde Park and other archives, I found that the direct pressure from Morgenthau, a trusted ally of Roosevelt’s, in combination with perceived political cost for inaction and mounting congressional pressure at the time, combined to persuade Roosevelt to take dramatic and unprecedented action in January 1944. It was Morgenthau who was the decisive, proximate factor. 

The events in Afghanistan today are by no means comparable to the Holocaust, and we are not presently seeing large-scale genocidal killings on the ground. Nevertheless, the underlying decision-making mechanisms at play are likely generalizable. Although the Biden administration has been touting increased evacuations and claims to have ensured a degree of stability, the situation in Afghanistan seems to be getting worse, not better. We have seen reports of American citizens beaten on their way to the airport. We have heard fearful recordings of their cries for help. We have read accounts of chaotic, deadly scenes and horrific public health conditions. Most recently, we have learned that the Taliban has announced that it will no longer allow Afghan nationals to travel to the airport for evacuation. Yesterday, for its part, the White House implied that it was on pace to meet its preferred August 31 withdrawal deadline —but that requires immediately beginning to send troops home and conflicts with reports of the large number of potential evacuees on the ground, suggesting the United States will abandon countless Americans and Afghans still in country. In short, if the Biden administration continues on its current path, we may soon see the humanitarian crisis deteriorate even further, with significantly more suffering and death. A course correction is urgently in order. We already have growing pressure from Congress, and Biden can expect significant political costs for continued failure—but we still need someone trusted on the inside to provide candid feedback directly to the president. In short, now is the time for a Morgenthau moment. 

Several officials in the Biden administration have a close relationship with the president and a professed commitment to improving U.S. responses to humanitarian disasters. Samantha Power, currently serving as USAID administrator, largely made her name by castigating former government officials for not doing more during times of mass atrocity, but we have heard little from her urging a more robust response. Susan Rice, among those scolded by Power, has also remained, perhaps predictably, behind the scenes. Biden has still other foreign policy advisers with close ties to him, most conspicuously longtime friend Secretary of State Antony Blinken.  

Secretary Blinken, as head of the State Department and a loyal ally of President Biden, is in an ideal position to approach the president and rectify these problems. Sadly, as was the case during World War II, today bureaucratic delays and inflexibility at the State Department specifically are once again costing innocent lives abroad. This time, without a dramatic shift in policy, many of the lives lost may be American citizens. Standard operating procedures and rigid doctrines are not ideally suited to crises like the one we are seeing unfold in Afghanistan. Blinken should try to minimize bloated, ingrained processes and, if need be, centralize efforts among a small group of politically loyal, highly motivated, and dedicated officials directly answerable to him. 

When I was in government, I saw firsthand the challenges of bureaucratic obstinacy. A piece of advice given to me by former President Ronald Reagan’s chief speechwriter, Anthony Dolan, while I was serving as senior national security speechwriter for President Trump, is particularly relevant. In response to concerns about various departments and agencies’ undeniable determination to ruin all speeches—and deprive weary speechwriters of both sleep and their already questionable sanity—Dolan sensibly advised me to “never attribute to genius what can be explained by incompetence.”

These are wise words, applicable not only to navigating a rigid government bureaucracy in crisis, but also to understanding human nature in a wide variety of contexts.  

Around the time of my conversation with Tony, I began to have a strange feeling the spirit of Morgenthau and his band of dissenters at Treasury and State might still be lurking amid the dusty corridors of the Old Executive Office Building, where some of their most important meetings took place. When I needed to do some particularly deep thinking about an upcoming speech, I would retreat to the largely deserted fifth floor of the building. I tended to come up with my most fruitful ideas pacing its circular halls away from the bustle of the rest of the complex. One day, I stopped in the old War Department Library, climbed the narrow stairs, found a deserted corner, pulled a rather forlorn-looking book from the shelf, and in a desperate attempt at inspiration, opened it to a random page. It was a commendation for Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. 

In Morgenthau’s case, he was dealing with what seemed to be a large degree of deliberate policy interference and malintent on top of quite a bit of plain old incompetence. It may be decades before the American people know exactly what went wrong in the planning for the Afghanistan withdrawal. Incompetence is perhaps an easier problem to solve in the near term, assuming there is someone willing to work against the entrenched bureaucracy, particularly at State, and engage directly with the president to devise new procedures. Time is running short, and the human costs running increasingly high. Paging Secretary Blinken, and perhaps, too, Secretary Morgenthau. 

Dr. Amanda Rothschild is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and senior policy director of the Vandenberg Coalition. She served at the White House as a special assistant to the president and senior national security speechwriter and as a member of Secretary of State Pompeo’s policy planning staff during the Trump administration. She has published widely on presidential history and U.S. policy concerning responsiveness to genocide and mass atrocity.