This article was updated after President Biden’s speech on August 16th.
JOE BIDEN may have more foreign-policy experience than any American president in 30 years, but he is haunted by the brutal assessment of his judgment by Robert Gates, who was secretary of defence under the president both men served, Barack Obama. Mr Gates called Mr Biden “a man of integrity” whom it was impossible not to like. Yet, writing in “Duty”, his memoir, he added: “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign-policy and national-security issue over the past four decades.”
It is too soon to know whether history will add Mr Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan to a list of calls that includes support for the war in Iraq and opposition to the raid to kill Osama bin Laden. But in the short term the abandonment of Afghanistan to Taliban rule after nearly 20 years of American commitment—the images of Afghans clinging to departing jets and then falling to their deaths, the stench of great-power humiliation that recalled the evacuation of Saigon in 1975—mocks Mr Biden’s claims that “America is back”; that conviction in democracy and compassion for the oppressed have a place beside self-interest at the centre of his foreign policy; and that at least, after four years of buffoonery, American leadership is once again competent.
Under withering bipartisan criticism for the first time in his presidency, Mr Biden staunchly defended his decision in an address to the nation on August 16th. Although he said “the buck stops with me”, he reserved plenty of blame for his predecessor, Donald Trump, saying that reneging on a peace deal agreed with the Taliban by Mr Trump would have trapped American soldiers once again in an escalating conflict.
President Biden also blamed Afghan leaders who “gave up and fled” and Afghan security forces who did not fight. The velocity of the collapse, he said, showed he had made the right decision. “American troops cannot, and should not, be fighting in a war, and dying in a war, that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves,” he said. In essence, he argued the Afghans failed their American allies, rather than the other way around. He was the fourth president to preside over this war, he said, and he refused to hand it on to a fifth: “How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghanistan’s civil war?”
Mr Biden claimed his team had planned for “every contingency” but acknowledged the collapse came faster than he expected. As recently as on July 8th Mr Biden had dismissed any chance that American diplomats might wind up scrambling for an exit as they did in Vietnam. “None whatsoever,” he said. “Zero.” He said the possibility of “the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely”.
Republicans, including Mr Trump, said Mr Biden had botched the exit. Mike Pompeo, Mr Trump’s secretary of state, rejected any suggestion that Mr Trump’s deal was the problem as “pathetic blame-shifting”. Yet, appearing on August 15th on “Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace”, Mr Pompeo also apportioned blame to the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, calling him more interested in accumulating American money than in talking to his own people, and he said the American armed forces had failed across two decades to train Afghan forces. Reporting by the Washington Post and others has shown the armed forces and civilian leaders misled the public throughout the war, insisting on progress that did not exist, including in training Afghan soldiers. In fact, by supplying so much combat experience, America appears to have been more effective in training Taliban fighters. Veterans are stepping forward to say they now feel their sacrifices were for nothing, a conclusion that should help force a reckoning within the armed forces, as after Vietnam.
Americans’ reaction to the disintegration of the 20-year mission in Afghanistan—to the gruesome images on their television screens—is not yet clear. Polling as recently as on August 9th has shown that, if asked to express a view, Americans said they supported Mr Biden’s withdrawal. The left within the Democratic Party wanted America out long ago, and his establishment Democratic critics have no other political home. Mr Trump’s own disdain for America’s involvement in Iraq—he previously criticised Mr Biden for not pulling troops out sooner—has blunted attacks by Republicans, leaving them to attack the manner of the withdrawal rather than the fact it happened. Further, the overnight evaporation of the Afghan security forces, after the commitment of more than $80bn from America, may lead many Americans to agree with Mr Biden that it was the Afghan leadership that failed. That said, images of Taliban brutality may shift the politics against the administration.
From the left and right, critics of Mr Biden’s withdrawal insist that America could have indefinitely sustained the recent, uneasy status quo in Afghanistan by maintaining a small support presence of perhaps 2,500 soldiers. These critics view Mr Biden as repeating the mistake Mr Obama made in Iraq in 2011—at the urging of Mr Biden. In withdrawing American troops then, Mr Obama opened the door to a takeover by Islamic State.
Mr Biden’s aides respond with their own counter-factual. Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, insisted it was only the American commitment to withdraw that had led the Taliban to suspend attacks on American troops. Had the Biden administration reneged, he said on the NBC program Meet the Press on August 15th, “I would be on your show right now explaining why we were sending tens of thousands of forces back into Afghanistan to restart a war that we need to end.”
Mr Blinken noted the Americans had expended a trillion dollars and more than 2,300 lives in Afghanistan. He said they had stayed longer than the British in the 19th century and twice as long as the Soviets in the 20th century. “There is nothing that our strategic competitors would like more than to see us bogged down and mired in Afghanistan for another five to ten to 20 years,” said Mr Blinken, appearing weary and pained. “That is not in the national interest.” Pressed on whether the administration was closing its embassy, Mr Blinken said it would maintain a core presence of diplomats and “in effect, an embassy, at a location at the airport”.
Mr Biden has said he will be judged in the end on whether a terrorist threat to America emerges again from Afghanistan. His aides insist that advances in military intelligence, tactics and capabilities since the 9/11 attacks mean that American forces will be able to pre-empt any danger. Along with the probable resistance of Pakistan to future counter-terrorism operations, the evident failure of American intelligence to anticipate the Taliban’s onslaught calls that assurance into question.
So does Mr Biden’s own inconsistent advocacy over the years for the use of force. He supported NATO air strikes in the Balkans, and opposed George H.W. Bush’s war against Iraq before supporting George W. Bush’s second one. In the years since he has been more frequently an advocate of restraint, opposing Mr Obama’s intervention in Libya as well as his decision, in response to a renewed Taliban threat in 2009, to dispatch 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan. Since Mr Biden was a child he has always been a risk-taker, trusting in the end in his own judgment. That pattern led to another appraisal that has long troubled him, from a largely admiring portrait in the great chronicle of American presidential politics, “What It Takes”, by Richard Ben Cramer. “Joe Biden had balls,” Mr Cramer wrote. “Lot of times, more balls than sense.”