As our failed experiment in Afghan democracy draws to a close, the obvious question is how the fallout will change the political landscape here at home. The answer might be that it won’t change things as much as you might think.
I was always a proponent of at least keeping a residual force in Afghanistan, but I was in the minority on that issue for a long time. As recently as April 2021, a Hill-Harris X poll found that majorities of Democrats, independents, and Republicans all favored a complete withdrawal.
But public opinion is fickle. Elected officials have to commit to a course of action, but voters don’t. It is a voter’s prerogative to change his or her mind and they often do in midstream. That is likely to happen with the Afghanistan withdrawal. Voters didn’t want to keep US troops in-country, but that doesn’t mean they will like to see the pictures of Afghan civilians mobbing Air Force transport planes as the Taliban closes in. Many opinions will change in the wake of the fall of Kabul.
The question is how much people will care. For one thing, it’s August 2021 and the next election is more than a year away. In a world of 24-hour news cycles, the fall of Afghanistan is likely to be ancient history by November 2022. This is especially true in a world of COVID-19 variants and economic uncertainty. The fall of Afghanistan is almost certain to take a backseat to other issues by next fall.
We also live in a partisan world. The voters who are angriest at the Biden Administration, Republicans, are also those who would have voted against Democrats anyway. Democrats are unlikely to bail on Biden because of the Afghanistan debacle unless the Administration fails in other areas as well. Moderates and independents will be more split on the issue, but they are also likely to focus on issues that hit closer to home. Remember that Democrats and independents were near unanimous in wanting the withdrawal.
A new Morning Consult/Politico poll shows exactly what we would expect. Forty-nine percent still support the withdrawal even though only 25 percent think it is going well. Much of the decline from April can probably be attributed to Republicans switching sides.
Further, Democrats can innoculate themselves against Republican attacks on their Afghanistan policy to a degree because so many Republicans were openly in favor of the withdrawal. As I pointed out yesterday, as recently as June, former President Trump was touting the end of the Afghan war as his victory. Republicans from Rand Paul to Lauren Boebert to Mike Pompeo to Josh Hawley were all backers of the withdrawal plan until last weekend.
It is a rare Republican who isn’t vulnerable on the issue (but Lindsey Graham is one). For most, the protestations that Biden’s withdrawal was a disaster but Donald Trump’s would have been a victory sound a lot like the leftist claims that true communism has never been tried. There is no way to definitively prove them wrong, but most of us know in our gut that it wouldn’t have made much difference.
An additional complicating factor is that there is a movement among right-wing pundits to shift the focus from criticism of Biden’s foreign policy to scaremongering about Afghan refugees. Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham are among the talking heads that are arguing against allowing refugees from Taliban rule, including those who fought alongside the US military, to resettle in the US. This position will allow Democrats to pivot back to the charge of Republican racism, even as new census datashows that America’s white majority is shrinking.
While voters may not care that much about Afghanistan, I have to wonder what the effect will be on military recruiting. On the one hand, some potential recruits may be relieved that they will have no chance of being sent to Afghanistan, but others may question putting their lives on the line in places that the US may quickly abandon.
I’ve mentioned before that my son is considering enlisting after high school. Even though I opposed the withdrawal, as a parent I am somewhat relieved that my son won’t be risking his life in a war that America has decided not to win. I doubt that any soldier wants to be the last casualty in a war for a lost cause and no parent wants to see their child die or be maimed as America exits stage right.
Whether the decision to abandon Afghanistan after the sacrifices of so many Americans will make it less likely for prospective soldiers to offer their lives and health for their country in the future remains to be seen. It will depend on why recruits decide to enlist in the first place. Those who want to be a force for good around the world may be less likely to enlist while those seeking job training and college money may be more likely to join up.
The bigger problem is a long-term one with respect to relations with US allies. The retreat from Afghanistan is only the latest in a long line of American betrayals of our allies. Vietnam is the best-known example, but we’ve done the same thing countless other times. The Kurds, Ukraine, Iraq, the democracy protesters in Iran, Hong Kong, and elsewhere.
The lesson to our enemies is that they only need to wait us out. The lesson to our friends is that no American commitment is guaranteed to outlast the president who made it.
The bottom line here is that both parties have decided that the US should no longer be a superpower. We don’t want the responsibility of being the world’s policeman or even of leading coalitions against rogue states. Either party will oppose military intervention by the other no matter how necessary or rational. Both parties chant the same “rebuild America before we go nation-building” slogan.
The legacy of Afghanistan is that the US has chosen to cede its leadership role in the world. I hope you’re ready for a world dominated by China and Russia because this is how you get a world dominated by China and Russia. Unfortunately, if you’ve followed the last half-century of US foreign policy, you know that’s nothing new.
A question that I get occasionally is whether I regret my vote for Joe Biden. I’m sure that many are wondering that in the wake of Afghanistan’s fall.
To begin with, I voted for Biden despite his Afghan policy rather than because of it. The problem was that Biden’s Afgan policy was also Trump’s Afghan policy. In fact, Trump’s deadline for withdrawing American soldiers from Afghanistan was May 1. The Biden Administration likely kept the Taliban out of power a few months longer than Trump would have.
But even more than that, the choice between Trump and Biden, flawed though it was, was a choice about the future of America. Last October, I laid out nine reasons why I chose to vote for Joe Biden over Donald Trump. While I’m a critic of the “Flight 93 election” mentality, I was very concerned about where a second Trump Administration would leave the country. If it was a choice between keeping the Taliban out of Kabul and Trump out of the White House, I would have had to choose the latter.
My fears were only confirmed in the lame-duck period after the election in which Donald Trump showed his willingness to undermine the Constitution and faith in American institutions to maintain power. Comparing Biden’s fairly traditional Democratic liberalism to Donald Trump’s radically authoritarian take on Republicanism, I have to stand by my tweet from last January.