Fiddling While Kabul Falls
A Commentary by Michael Barone
Historians aren't actually sure that Nero caused or neglected a fire that consumed much of ancient Rome. Historians, however much they'd like to, won't be able to deny that President Joe Biden bears full responsibility for America's humiliating retreat from Afghanistan, and our neglect of the tens of thousands who aided us and now face torture and death from the Taliban.
"The drawdown is proceeding in a secure and orderly way," Biden assured Americans on July 8. A Taliban takeover of Afghanistan "is not inevitable," he said, pledging to "continue to provide civilian and humanitarian assistance, including speaking out for the rights of women and girls."
Asked if there were parallels with the American abandonment of Saigon, he saw "zero." "The Taliban is not the South -- the North Vietnamese army," he said. "There's going to be no circumstance where you see people lifted off the roof of an embassy in the -- of the United States from Afghanistan."
Events last weekend forced Biden to go on national television Monday night and eat his words. He insisted that his administration was "clear-eyed about the risks" and "planned for every contingency," but conceded, in fine understatement, that "this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated."
Partisans of the president say he's only doing what the public wanted, citing polls showing large majorities favoring withdrawal. But poll results depend on how questions are framed, and opinions can change sharply as events change.
Thus, in July, the conservative polling firm Echelon Insights found 47% favoring the U.S. "maintain a small military presence" and only 36% favoring "end" military presence "entirely." Last weekend, as news accounts showed Taliban advances and U.S. forces in flight, the Republican firm Trafalgar found 69% disapproval of Biden on Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is only one example of how Biden's predictions about his policies' effects have been belied by facts on the ground. An "orderly" withdrawal has become a rout. The scene of desperate Vietnamese vainly seeking escape in Saigon in 1975 has been reprised by the pictures of desperate Afghans clinging to the wheels of American planes and then falling to their deaths in Kabul in 2021.
Similarly, though many news media are not showing much video, illegal border crossings in July hit nearly 213,000, a record number for this century, even though Biden predicted crossings would decline in the summer heat (which is real: I've been to Laredo in August, when it's over 100 with not a cloud in the sky). Biden's administration has been crowding illegal immigrants into the facilities it campaigned against, and has been dispersing COVID-infected individuals around the country.
Homicide rates in major cities continue to rise at rates unprecedented since 1960, and after three months of 5% inflation, price increases are looking less "transitory" and more like galloping inflation. We seem like we're headed back to the 1970s; the decade when Biden's national political career began.
Back then, he was part of large Democratic majorities in Congress that blocked attempts to stop North Vietnam's conquest of the South. As helicopters lifted off the Saigon embassy, freshman Sen. Biden was unrepentant. "The United States has no obligation to evacuate one, or 100,001 South Vietnamese," he said at one point. Like other Democrats, he complained that our allied government was corrupt and ineffective.
He struck the same note Monday, blaming our Afghan allies for the collapse he failed to anticipate. "We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries, provided for the maintenance of their air force," he said. "We gave them every chance to determine their own future."
He lamented that Afghan leaders refused his advice "to seek a political settlement with the Taliban" and "to clean up the corruption in government" -- advice much like American liberals' complaints about the South Vietnamese in the 1970s.
Those complaints were, in turn, echoes of the descriptions of Chiang Kai-shek's nationalist regime by liberals defending against charges that they "lost China" to Mao Zedong's communist army. The nationalists, they said, were corrupt, right-wing and unwilling to fight hard.
History has its ironies. The Vietnamese, nominally communist, foster capitalistic growth and pro-American feeling. Chiang's nationalists fled to Taiwan, which is now politically democratic, economically dynamic and threatened by Xi Jinping's increasingly aggressive China.
After Biden's withdrawal from Afghanistan, "the Taiwanese government probably is reevaluating whether it is futile to resist China's invasion," wrote China-born author Helen Raleigh, while New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote that "every enemy will draw the lesson that the United States is a feckless power," and "every ally -- Taiwan, the Baltic States, Israel, Japan -- will draw the lesson that it is on its own."
Meanwhile, after his 18-minute speech, Biden returned to vacationing behind the gates of Camp David.
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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