WORDS: 1,576 — In spite of the fact that we are very likely going to watch from the comfort of our living rooms the painful exit, and mass exodus from Kabul in real time 4k resolution as it happens… our memories on this one will likely be shorter than one might think given the 20 year investment of lives and money.
It’s not so much that Americans have grown weary of the Afghanistan experience in general but this ill-fated endeavor is just one of many crisis events making up what I am calling our national “grand funk” mood we’ve drifted into as a result of so many national events occurring at one time. In fact, to call this a collection of simply “events’ might be itself a bit of an understatement. From our political divide, to the pandemic, to the response to the pandemic, politicizing of the pandemic, the economy, the disparities of wealth distribution, the civil unrest due to gender and racial inequities.. the list goes on but nonetheless represents a deep rooted shift in our social and cultural, and political, identity as a nation. Even the statistical data recently made public regarding last year’s Census has confirmed what many have been feeling… white America is not as dominant a race as it once was. This will bother a lot of people.
Recent polls over the last few months have suggested Americans want out from Afghanistan to the tune of 60+%. Even as we watch the debacle forming at Kabul airport, and even as we gasp in shock & awe as to our ill-preparedness for this departure and subsequent human misery unfolding before our eyes… that percentage still holds true from what some polls are revealing. We may want out of all this but we are seeing there will be nothing “clean” about the way we leave.
President Biden has been taking a measure of heat for all the “bad” we are seeing unfolding in this evacuation. He should take the heat given all this was on his watch, but there were systemic issues in the failure of resources that contributed to this lack of adequate planning. The last loaded plane in this entire exodus hasn’t even departed Kabul Airport yet and in usual fashion the media is already exploring Biden’s political future as a result of this debacle. Let me help with that… it will matter very little. Of course the GOP/Trump base will use this in some shape or form, but by and large, this event will have little political significance down the line.
Strangely… as I was preparing this post, an article on CNN’s site showed up addressing many of the points I was making.
This Is Not Saigon 1975
Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.”
Although US involvement in the Vietnam War had officially ended two years earlier with the Paris Peace Accords, the final scenes in Saigon were one more reminder of how utterly disastrous the entire operation had been. The lives lost, the families ruined, the money spent, the shattered standing of America overseas had all been for nothing. As Americans were evacuated from the Saigon on helicopters, this moment was the final humiliation for a nation that had stood proud after defeating the global threat of fascism during World War II.
Saigon fell with President Gerald Ford in the White House. Ford tried to avoid blame by pointing his finger at congressional Democrats for having cut funding for any remaining operations. Voters also knew that the heart of the conflict had taken place under Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
Today, some commentators are wondering whether the fall of Afghanistan will be as damaging to President Joe Biden. The sense of defeat and the failure to anticipate the strength of the Taliban has left the administration defending its decision. Conditions in Afghanistan can easily deteriorate even further. Republicans are all over this issue, using it to question Biden’s capability as commander in chief. Former President Donald Trump, whose administration negotiated the deal to withdraw troops by May 1, called on Biden to “resign in disgrace.”
But the collapse of Afghanistan is unlikely to be a decisive political issue. Most importantly, the fall of Saigon was not the issue that led Ford to be defeated by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election. Ford, whose approval ratings increased after April 1975, was brought down by many other issues that weighed heavily on the public. The dire state of the economy in the mid-1970s and the aftermath of Nixon’s resignation following Watergate for the GOP were far more important.
Nor is Afghanistan the same kind of political issue as Vietnam in the 1970s. Vietnam was one of the most important issues the nation had confronted by the time Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. The conflict over the war had literally consumed American life. There had been a massive anti-war movement that made the war an unavoidable topic in college campuses, churches, schools, civic institutions, newspapers and television, political campaigns, and more. Given that there had been a draft in place until 1973, every American family had been forced to wrestle with the possibility that their child would end up being sent into this deadly conflict – and many were. Vietnam was woven into popular music, film, and fiction. In other words, the Vietnam War had been everywhere in American life for over a decade.
In this respect, Afghanistan is no Vietnam. Afghanistan is not an issue that most Americans have been following very closely.
Even during the presidency of George W. Bush when the Afghan war was launched, Iraq was a much more prominent topic. The debate in recent years over whether we should have troops in Afghanistan had been one primarily reserved for foreign policy experts and talking heads in the media.
The massive expansion of our counterterrorism infrastructure within the United States has made us safer from terrorist attacks than in 9/11 even if the Taliban should decide to help threatening forces once again.
In contrast to Vietnam, Afghanistan was not a debate that raged on the streets of America. As a result, the odds that this weekend’s events will make or break Biden’s administration seem small.
We also live in a short-attention-span culture. As Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, it felt like the other big political story of the week – Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s resignation – faded into media obscurity. This is the culture in which we live, where issues come and go within days.
Given that we are in the middle of August 2021, with the next presidential election taking place in November 2024, it is difficult to see how Afghanistan will hold as a primary political force so many months into the future.
The issue that does have legs, the one which is most important right now to most average Americans, is the pandemic. Afghanistan will not compete for attention with all the problems and challenges that are still posed by Covid-19. The pandemic impacts our health, our livelihood, our education, and our communities in a way that is far greater and more immediate than the position of the Taliban.
To be sure, Afghanistan will remain part of the Republican political lexicon. The fall of Kabul will be like the question of “Who Lost China?” when Republicans in the early 1950s continued to blame Democrats for the fall of China to communism in 1949. It served as a symbol to conservatives that Democrats could not be trusted to be strong on defense.
As challenging as this might be for Biden to contend with – and as disheartening it has been to see a twenty-year war end with this outcome – Afghanistan won’t likely determine Biden’s fate if he decides to run for reelection. Nor is it clear it will have any significant impact on the 2022 midterm elections.
What Biden can’t do is to allow the challenges with Afghanistan to take his energy and attention away from real wartime test that he continues to face – the need to rapidly expand the nation’s rate of vaccination, develop better treatments for Covid-19, and guide the nation back to the normal we all tasted earlier this summer.
I think from all this we can make a reasonable surmise that once this escape from Kabul is “completed” the general American public opinion will quickly fall into worrying about all those other things more important to home and family.. like the pandemic, politics, etc. I should also add… if the evacuation gets disrupted to a point where we have to yank all OUR American people and soldiers out of there post haste.. and leave the rest… it will be “Oh well… we tried.” Biden is not likely to suffer politically, certainly among those who want nothing to do with the Trump Party. The media that remains in Afghanistan is going to continue to report the abuses by the Taliban (if they can get away with it) and the sad stories of those we promised to help but ended up being abandoned. But even that will sooner or later be drowned out with the coming 2022 election campaigning and the competition for more Congressional domination. You can debate the right or wrong of it all but by and large, Americans in general won’t be feeling too guilty for those “foreigners” left behind. On the other hand, if the Biden Administration pulls this off and gets mostly everyone out.. you can bet this will help Biden popularity down the line.