A Tale of Two Airlifts
by Michael Barone
"This is now on track," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday, "to be the largest airlift in U.S. history." On the process of bringing American citizens, Afghan partners and allies out, she continued, "I would not say that is anything but a success."
Psaki was careful not to use the word "all" in identifying the categories of people being evacuated from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. But, perhaps due to a Generation Xer's insufficient grounding in history, she was unwise in using the word "airlift."
The word brings to mind the Berlin airlift of 1948-49, which was quite a different enterprise from what we are witnessing today. The Kabul airlift is an operation removing Americans and allies from a country we are, by President Joe Biden's order, abandoning. As Psaki's non-use of "all" suggests, it is unlikely to be completely successful.
The Berlin airlift was the opposite. It was an American effort to avoid abandoning West Berlin at the behest of Josef Stalin's Soviet Union. And it was triumphantly successful.
One thing both airlifts have in common is that they were the products of the personal decisions of American presidents made against much expert advice. Biden says he was bound, in this one case, to carry out a decision of his predecessor, former President Donald Trump. Despite indications that the very limited troop deployment in Afghanistan was sustainable, he ordered it ended within a short deadline.
Former President Harry Truman's decision was made in almost the opposite circumstances. In June 1948, the Soviet Union cut off all motor, rail and barge traffic from the U.S. and British occupation zones to West Berlin, which was landlocked deep in the Soviet zone. The city's 2.5 million people had only 36 days' supply of food and 45 days' supply of coal. Allied troops were vastly outnumbered by Red Army units. The Berlin blockade looked impossible to break.
Truman's top military and diplomatic advisers, men of great ability, doubted that Berlin could be supplied solely by air. But Truman ended a key meeting in July 1948 by starkly declaring, "We're not leaving Berlin."
Air Force Gen. William Tunner, who had supervised the Burma-to-China "hump" airlift during World War II, organized logistics until airplanes landed at Berlin's Tempelhof airport every 30 seconds and were unloaded within 30 minutes. Berlin was supplied with food and coal over the winter, and in May 1949, the Soviets called off the blockade.
I've long argued that Truman's steadfast support of the Berlin airlift was one reason he, at age 64, won the 1948 election after trailing for months in the polls, and led his party to an unanticipated down-the-line victory. And it's beginning to look like Biden's role in this very different airlift may have something of the opposite effect in the 2022 midterm elections, and also in 2024 if Biden seeks a second term at age 82.
The Berlin airlift, together with Truman's steadfast resistance to Soviet advances in Europe, appeared to supply a sense of order in what had been a dangerously disorderly postwar world.
The Kabul evacuation, and its apparent failure to leave no one behind, is only one instance of how events seem to be spinning out of control. That's apparent also at the southern border, with the most illegal border crossings in 21 years in one major city after another; with homicides rising more than in any year since 1960; with supposedly "transitory" inflation wiping out wage increases.
Meanwhile, polls suggest minimal appeal for the Biden Democrats' proposals to vastly increase federal spending, including reinstituting the old welfare-without-work-requirements that were renounced back in the (Bill) Clinton years. Some Democrats took cheer from the Census Bureau's report that fewer Americans classified themselves as "white alone" than in 2010. But as my colleague Tim Carney pointed out, that's largely because of a reworded question that resulted in 14 million fewer Hispanics classifying themselves as "white alone."
A more significant development, sociologist Richard Alba argues in his book "The Great Demographic Illusion", is that Hispanics, like earlier ethnics, are tending over generations to intermarry and assimilate into the larger population. That's evident in their unanticipated 2020 increase in Trump support.
In any case, attitudes can change more rapidly than demographics. Biden's job approval has plunged into Trump territory -- under 50%. The generic congressional vote, which usually tilts Democratic, is now tied. And the left-wing pollster Civiqs shows negative Biden job approval in Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin -- states with key 2022 Senate races.
So just as Truman's airlift blocking totalitarian advance strengthened the president and his party in 1948, Biden's airlift accommodating totalitarian advance is, at least temporarily, weakening the president and his party in 2021.
Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.
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