Analysis

Lessons From Biden’s Very Bad Week

The U.S. president’s refusal to acknowledge error has dismayed supporters and European allies.

By , a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan at the White House on Aug. 16. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Only a few months into his presidency, John F. Kennedy ordered the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and promptly took full responsibility for that reckless adventure—even though the plans had been drawn up by the U.S. Department of Defense and CIA under his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Moreover, Kennedy learned from his huge mistake, historians say, developing a wariness of military advice that would serve him well later on during the Cuban missile crisis.

U.S. President Joe Biden may have made the opposite mistake in Afghanistan, withdrawing too precipitously and shunning the advice of his generals and the CIA, as well as the counsel of U.S. allies. But unlike Kennedy, Biden has so far largely avoided taking responsibility for the Afghan debacle. That in turn has raised questions among supporters and U.S. allies about whether he’ll learn anything from it—or whether his approach to Afghanistan might set the tone for the remainder of his presidency.

Like Kennedy, Biden largely kept in place his predecessor’s policy early in his presidency—in this case, former President Donald Trump’s peace deal with the Taliban and plans for a complete U.S. withdrawal (though Biden delayed Trump’s scheduled May 1 departure by a few months). But rather than admitting error, Biden has appeared defensive while facing a torrent of criticism since Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in a stunning 10 days of advances beginning on Aug. 6. Though Biden ran on a platform of promising to be the anti-Trump—pledging honesty, transparency, and taking responsibility—he has ended up blaming many parties other than himself. In remarks over the last week, he has pointed a finger at the Afghan government and armed forces and, of course, at Trump. 

Only a few months into his presidency, John F. Kennedy ordered the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and promptly took full responsibility for that reckless adventure—even though the plans had been drawn up by the U.S. Department of Defense and CIA under his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Moreover, Kennedy learned from his huge mistake, historians say, developing a wariness of military advice that would serve him well later on during the Cuban missile crisis.

U.S. President Joe Biden may have made the opposite mistake in Afghanistan, withdrawing too precipitously and shunning the advice of his generals and the CIA, as well as the counsel of U.S. allies. But unlike Kennedy, Biden has so far largely avoided taking responsibility for the Afghan debacle. That in turn has raised questions among supporters and U.S. allies about whether he’ll learn anything from it—or whether his approach to Afghanistan might set the tone for the remainder of his presidency.

Like Kennedy, Biden largely kept in place his predecessor’s policy early in his presidency—in this case, former President Donald Trump’s peace deal with the Taliban and plans for a complete U.S. withdrawal (though Biden delayed Trump’s scheduled May 1 departure by a few months). But rather than admitting error, Biden has appeared defensive while facing a torrent of criticism since Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in a stunning 10 days of advances beginning on Aug. 6. Though Biden ran on a platform of promising to be the anti-Trump—pledging honesty, transparency, and taking responsibility—he has ended up blaming many parties other than himself. In remarks over the last week, he has pointed a finger at the Afghan government and armed forces and, of course, at Trump. 

His critics include Trump’s former National Security Advisor John Bolton. “It’s striking how Biden’s decision-making here so closely follows the Trump pattern,” Bolton told the New York Times. “Biden wanted out; he apparently didn’t want to be bothered with details that might have thwarted or slowed down executing his decision. So he left. Very Trumpian.”

In addition, some European diplomats say Biden plunged into a withdrawal plan that was not adequately thought out or vetted with major U.S. allies such as Britain, France, and Germany, nations that also sacrificed considerable funding and lives in Afghanistan. They complain that after Biden declared “America is back” in the global system and that he was going to erase the legacy of the unilateralist Trump by reconnecting with allies, he didn’t do so on Afghanistan. They were also dismayed that Biden claimed he had consulted with them about his withdrawal plans when in fact several key decisions such as the abrupt abandonment of Bagram Airfield in early July—which severely demoralized Afghan national troops—were made unilaterally. 

“There was no meaningful debate within his own team, much less with foreign partners. It was all very much rushed through,” said one European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. And the “America first” nature of Biden’s speech on Monday, he added, “really made a lot of people in Europe sit up and say, is this more of a continuation with the previous president than we realized?” Nor has the Biden team done much consulting with allies on the Afghan refugee crisis. 

Biden has made a persuasive case that he was right to get out of Afghanistan—and that the collapse of the Afghan national forces shortly after the U.S. withdrawal only proves that the war was unwinnable. “We spent over a trillion dollars,” he said Monday. “We trained and equipped an Afghan military force of some 300,000 strong. Incredibly well equipped. A force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies. We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries, provided for the maintenance of their air force, something the Taliban doesn’t have. … We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.”

Biden, to be fair, probably had no good options once Trump put things in motion by setting up talks with the Taliban and cutting out the elected Afghan government—which began the long process of undermining the elected government’s legitimacy. And on other major issues, such as the renegotiation of the Iran nuclear deal, the Biden administration has closely consulted with allies. 

Yet on this issue the president has been steadfast in denying he got anything wrong, even occasionally contradicting himself in his efforts to appear in control of the situation. In a speech to the nation on Monday, noting that “I always promised the American people that I will be straight with you,” Biden said: “The truth is: This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.”

But in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos two days later, Biden suggested he had anticipated what ensued in Kabul and denied he had made any mistakes in planning, saying “the idea that somehow there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, Biden’s senior advisors pressed him to keep about 2,500 U.S. troops in the country while continuing to pressure the Taliban to negotiate with Kabul. Several European allies pushed for the same policy, realizing that the U.S. government’s willingness to negotiate without the participation of the administration of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani would undercut his legitimacy. Ghani later fled the country for asylum in the United Arab Emirates.

Biden rebuffed such plans. He also denied to Stephanopoulos that he’d been given such advice—saying, “No one said that to me that I can recall”—or that U.S. intelligence had forewarned him about the chaos. Nonetheless, on Thursday another report in the Wall Street Journal, citing a classified July 13 cable, said the State Department had warned of swift advances by the Taliban and the collapse of Afghan security forces.

In remarks Friday afternoon, and during a question period with reporters afterward, Biden again declined to acknowledge error, and he effectively doubled down on his previous insistence that the current chaos was inevitable. “There’s no way in which you’d be able to leave Afghanistan without there being some of what you’re seeing now,” he said.

Biden also insisted he was working closely with NATO allies to get thousands of evacuees out and that U.S. credibility was not being questioned by U.S. allies. “Before I made this decision I was at the G-7 and NATO,” he said, “and every one of them knew and agreed with the decision I made.” Challenged about the State Department cable, Biden replied: “I got all kinds of cables, all kinds of advice,” but said he went with the “consensus opinion” that any Taliban takeover “would not occur until later in the year.”

So widespread has the negative European reaction been that some leaders have been suggesting that French President Emmanuel Macron’s call for “strategic autonomy” from the United States ought to be reconsidered. “Afghanistan is the biggest foreign policy disaster since Suez. We need to think again about how we handle friends, who matters and how we defend our interests,” tweeted Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative chair of the U.K. Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee and a combat veteran of Afghanistan. In a speech on Wednesday, he said Biden’s comments casting blame on the Afghan military were “shameful.”

U.S. rivals such as China have, predictably, been withering in their criticism. “The drastic change in Afghanistan’s situation is undoubtedly a heavy blow to the US. It declared the complete failure of US intent to reshape Afghanistan,” the Global Times, considered Beijing’s official voice, said in an editorial. “This defeat of the US is a clearer demonstration of US impotence than the Vietnam War—the US is indeed like a ‘paper tiger.’”

The question now, perhaps, is whether Biden will learn from alleged mistakes he seems unwilling to acknowledge, some observers say. The Harvard University historian Fredrik Logevall, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the Vietnam War, Embers of War, said, “Biden and his speechwriters should have studied JFK’s response to the Bay of Pigs disaster. He took full responsibility, and his poll numbers actually rose.” (“The worse I do, the more popular I get,” Kennedy later joked.)

The president “became leerier of taking military advice in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs,” said Logevall, who is working on the second volume of his history of the Kennedy years. “I think he determined after the Bay of Pigs that he would never allow something like that to afflict him again. Most important, he broadened his circle of advice, while also tightening his hold on the levers of foreign policy decision-making.” That came in handy during the Cuban missile crisis a year and a half later, when Kennedy rejected Pentagon advice to attack Cuba. Instead, he ordered a milder blockade that, along with a secret side deal to exchange U.S. missiles in Turkey for a Soviet missile withdrawal in Cuba, may well have prevented a nuclear war.

In Biden’s case, the lesson might be to be less skeptical of his generals’ advice. No one on his team, including in the Pentagon, was advocating a large reintroduction of U.S. troops. But critics say that Biden could have waited at least for the Taliban fighting season to end rather than rushing to complete the withdrawal by the 20th anniversary of 9/11 for the sake of good political optics. 

“Biden keeps framing the issue as an either/or proposition, but that’s a false choice, and he surely knows it,” Logevall said in an email. “I argued back in the spring that his instinct—to end U.S. involvement—was correct, but that he should opt for a middle path, delaying the withdrawal by 6-to-9 months in order to get the peace process back on track. No doubt 20 years is a long time, but what’s the harm in making it 20.5 years?”

Logevall added: “What’s odd, too, is that by nature he’s a pragmatist, a realist, and he’s been around a long time. He knows how these things work. Which makes the botched handling of the disengagement all the more puzzling to me.”

Former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta, a prominent Democrat, directly compared Biden’s Afghanistan decision to Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs debacle in a CNN interview earlier this week. “But President Kennedy took responsibility for what took place, and I strongly recommend to President Biden that he take responsibility [and] admit the mistakes that were made,” Panetta added.

Even some longtime Biden advocates and aides are baffled. “I agree that he could have handled the [speech] better. Being belligerent doesn’t become anyone, certainly not him,” Biden’s former Senate aide Michael Haltzel said. Another former Biden advisor on national security agreed, speaking on condition of anonymity, saying he would have recommended “a very different public messaging.”

Biden has also misrepresented his past positions on the nature of the U.S. intervention, saying Monday: “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building.” In fact, in numerous instances of congressional testimony as a senator and in interviews after the defeat of the Taliban in late 2001 and in 2002, Biden repeatedly talked about the necessity of nation building. In an interview with me on Dec. 20, 2001 he even mocked the George W. Bush administration for refusing to use the term “nation building” because Bush had campaigned against it.

The Republicans, Biden said then, had “beat the living bejesus out of Bill Clinton for I don’t know how many years about nation building [in places like Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo]. Now they’re trying to make a fine distinction: We’re not putting troops on the ground, we’re not going to keep them there. Well, good. But you’re coordinating meetings to put a government in place. You’re going to insist on elections, and on and on. What would you call that?”

Biden’s turnaround on that issue has also dismayed America’s European allies. “State building was not the purpose? Well, this is arguable,” European Union foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters. “We have been doing a lot in order to build a state in Afghanistan.” Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had a cordial summit with Biden at the White House only last month, has avoided public criticism of Biden but according to German media reports was also dismayed by the way the withdrawal was handled.

“For those who believed in democracy and freedom, especially for women, these are bitter events,” she reportedly told a meeting of officials from her party late Monday.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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