December 9, 2021

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Joe Biden’s potential Jimmy Carter moment

Afghanistan updates

In Joe Biden’s remarks following the Kabul terrorist attack on Thursday, he concluded: “Ladies and gentlemen, after 20 years it is time to leave Afghanistan.” The moment was horribly circular. America went into Afghanistan in 2001 to drive out the terrorists. In 2021 US troops are exiting the country with the terrorists at their back.

The fact it was Isis-K, rather than al-Qaeda, that was responsible is not reassuring. Isis, and its Afghan branch, did not exist in 2001. The group is both a split off, and a rival, to al-Qaeda. The remnants of Osama bin Laden’s group and its longstanding host, the Taliban, are now relative moderates in the terrorist universe. After two-thirds of a generation and more than a trillion dollars, the tragic events around the Afghan withdrawal offer a measure of the American elephant’s inability to squash the Islamist mosquito.

Biden will undoubtedly attract far more of the blame than he deserves for the closing chapter of America’s longest war. The defeat to the Taliban was a whole-of-government, bipartisan, multiple-presidency operation. But Biden’s name will always be associated with the manner of America’s pullout.

On Thursday he dug a deeper hole for himself. As the US evacuation was accelerating, Biden vowed that “America will not be intimidated”. He promised that the US would strike back against the terrorists “at a time and place of our choosing”. The gulf between Biden’s boilerplate rhetoric and the reality of a retreating superpower will be hard for White House aides to spin away.

The Biden analogy with Jimmy Carter is now surfacing frequently. It is not necessarily predictive. Carter’s disastrous 1980 Iran hostage rescue operation is viewed in retrospect as the death knell of his administration. In reality, he probably lost re-election because of the poor state of the US economy. Moreover, Carter’s Iran debacle happened just a few months before his election face-off with Ronald Reagan. Biden is just seven months into his presidency. Reagan himself was able to rebound politically from a suicide blast that killed 241 US Marines in Beirut in 1983, just a year before he faced the voters again, winning thanks in part to an economic boom. 

But America lives in a different culture today than it did 41 years ago. Carter’s predecessor, Gerald Ford, voiced no criticism of the Iran mission — Operation Eagle Claw — that went so badly awry. Reagan’s criticisms were restrained by today’s standards. By contrast, Donald Trump, who negotiated the 2020 Doha peace deal with the Taliban that would better be described as a surrender, this week attacked Biden for evacuating tens of thousands of Afghans who had risked their lives working for Americans. “What a terrible failure,” said Trump in a statement. “How many terrorists will Joe Biden bring to America?” 

As Biden addressed the nation on Thursday, it was hard to escape the conclusion that he was not master of his brief. The president, whose life has been repeatedly marred by personal tragedy, teared up when he spoke of the sense of loss that the families of the dead US servicemen would feel. He mentioned his son, Beau Biden, a former US army officer who served in Iraq and died of brain cancer in 2015. “You get the feeling that you’re being sucked into a black hole — and there’s no way out,” Biden said of the grief that will hit the families of the dead. The poignancy was enhanced by the fact that Biden might have been speaking about what it is like to be in his job at this moment. The political black hole beckons.

For better or for worse, US forces are scheduled to depart Afghanistan by early next week, as Biden ordered. Hopefully, there will be no more suicide bombers before then. But whatever else happens, Biden’s domestic enemies will try to brand him as the Carter of our time. There can be no unseeing what the US and the world has seen.

Biden’s best way out of his political morass will be to show that he can deliver for Americans on other fronts, particularly the economy. Contrary to Biden’s claims, America’s global war on terror is not over — this week’s events have put paid to that notion. US vigilance will now likely be intensified. But Biden still has time and scope to perform on other fronts.

edward.luce@ft.com

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