Who Would Have Retreated Better Than Biden?

The problem in Afghanistan is not Biden’s incompetent administration as much as it is a policy that was guaranteed to fail.

Republicans have a great deal to say about the incompetence of the Biden administration in evacuating Afghanistan, and they most assuredly have a big, fat point. Sadly, given the president's decades of experience in foreign policy, the ineptitude was entirely predictable. Biden’s trademark mix of naïveté and swagger has been very much on display throughout this misadventure.

Biden’s track record in the Senate includes being a leading proponent for cutting off all funding to South Vietnam, which resulted in the chaotic retreat of 1975 and subsequent slaughter that set the template for the current Afghan disaster. Biden’s clamorous opposition of the policies of the Reagan administration that helped win the Cold War was legendary, particularly his hatred for the missile defense technology that we later learned was crucial in ending the Soviet threat and now helps protect America and its allies around the world. Biden voted against the first war with Iraq in 1990, for the second one in 2003, and opposed the 2007 troop surge there. That’s 0 for 3 on just one country.

No politician escapes failures on foreign policy, an arena in which the effort is usually to find the least bad option. But Biden is a special case. Through his 36 years in the Senate, he was brashly outspoken about his positions, whether it was demanding U.S. ground forces be deployed in the Balkan religious wars of the 1990s or in blocking aid to fight Soviet-backed dictators in Central America in the 1980s. But a senator can pretty much honk like a goose about foreign policy all he or she wants and never be held accountable. Presidents get all the blame when things go sideways abroad. Even so, Biden definitely would have been on a pretty short list of the senators most likely to fail at a foreign policy task as challenging as Afghanistan because of his brand of arrogant gullibility.

But who would have gotten the United States out of Afghanistan better? Which politician who might plausibly be in the Oval Office today would have done a better job?

I have zero confidence that the person who was 36 electoral votes away from being president now would have more competently managed the retreat. Whatever else Donald Trump was as president, he was most assuredly an incompetent who never allowed his enthusiastic ignorance to interfere with his strong opinions. He and the general officers under his command held each other in obvious contempt, as was the case with the civilian side of the defense apparatus. Indeed, the foreign policy successes of his administration that Republicans now point to were substantially the work of Congress and members of his own administration thwarting Trump’s typically terrible impulses and chaotic management.

There are a few Republicans, like Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who have tried to make the case that his old boss would have gotten it right, blaming Biden for withdrawing the military in “willy-nilly” fashion. It takes a lot of chutzpah to be the guy who negotiated the deal that put 5,000 Taliban prisoners of war back in the game to be chiding others for willy-nillyism. Trump had a clear political motive for jamming through the deal with the Taliban, and Pompeo did the dirty work for him. He’s not exactly a credible witness.

But which prominent national political figure would have done better than Biden? You’ll find your list remains pretty short for one big reason: Many of the folks who come to mind as foreign policy experts and skilled managers wouldn’t have done it at all.

There’s something to the idea that perhaps Trump would have reneged on his campaign promise after winning a second term. Some, myself included, have argued that Trump’s ego might not have allowed him to preside over such a disaster and that yet again he would have been flattered and cajoled into changing course. But it’s also possible that things would have gotten out of hand and Trump would have erred in his response, so hypotheticals on which way he would have played it seem rather pointless.

The Democratic 2020 field other than Biden doesn’t exactly recommend itself. Of the candidates who won delegates—Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Tulsi Gabbard, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren—you don’t see any great hopes for withdrawal without a tragic, embarrassing catastrophe. While Biden’s failure was foretold by his record in the Senate, it’s hard to imagine the progressive tub thumpers who favored withdrawal would have done better. Bloomberg and Klobuchar, who might have been more competent at the task, wouldn’t have done it.

When we look at the Republicans who might win their party’s nomination in 2024, who do you see who would have followed Trump’s plan and done so substantially better than Biden? Rand Paul? Josh Hawley? Donald Trump Jr.? They make Biden look like Dwight Eisenhower. The rest of the potential contenders would have surely wriggled out of Trump’s deal and found a pretext for keeping U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Political pressure for withdrawal came from a relatively small slice of Republicans, and has never been a top priority in the party.

The truth is that the problem in Afghanistan is not Biden’s incompetent administration as much as it is a policy that was guaranteed to fail. But the majority of Democrats won’t see it that way. With strong support for withdrawal in the party, these voters are unlikely to blame the policy they support and will instead prefer to blame Biden’s execution. Biden, in turn, will continue to blame Trump’s bad deal. It’s an argument that Democrats are certainly receptive to, but it won’t be sufficient to protect Biden from deepening suspicions of his capabilities in his own camp.

Recall how Democrats focused on a crashed web site and administrative errors to explain the shambles that was the passage and enactment of then-President Obama’s Affordable Care Act in 2013. Rather than blame the policy of universal health insurance, which Democrats strongly supported, they blamed Obama’s own administration of the project, especiallythe laughably bad web site for the program’s unpopularity. That helped make Obama a lame duck and worsened midterm losses the next year. Afghanistan could do the same to Biden. The difference is, Biden’s only in his first term.