But the president’s interventions on Thursday were focused on America, not Afghanistan, as domestic events gave him an unexpected assist in his effort to turn the page on the ignominious retreat from Kabul.
Bruised Joe Biden tries to turn the page after US debacle in Afghanistan
Historic flooding in the north-east gave Biden a cue to remind Americans of his plan to spend $1tn on better infrastructure. Texas’s enforcement of the most extreme abortion restrictions in the country drew a stinging rebuke from the president. Battles over voting rights and a full accounting of the 6 January insurrection raged on.
All of them gave the White House an opportunity to talk about something other than Afghanistan. August has been dubbed Biden’s “month from hell” after his decision to withdraw US forces saw the Afghan government and army capitulate to the Taliban far faster than he had predicted. The US then frantically evacuated more than 120,000 people but 13 troops died in a terrorist attack.
The president’s reputation as a safe pair hands, and a safe harbour for western allies, was shaken to its core. While his Democratic allies now hope that the issue will fade from public consciousness, allowing to him renew focus on the pandemic and a sweeping economic agenda, Republicans are determined that Biden should not be simply allowed to move on.
“He desperately would like to change the subject, talk about domestic matters or Covid or areas where he feels like he has a little bit more control and ability to get engaged,” said Lanhee Chen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution thinktank at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. “I’m not of the view that it’s going to be easy for him to do that.
“People will continue to discuss what is happening in Afghanistan. I’m sure Republicans will ensure that his handling of the crisis in Afghanistan remains a campaign issue. Some of this is going to be well beyond his control; if circumstances in Afghanistan, for whatever reason, re-enter the public mind and re-enter public attention, he’s going to have to respond to that, and there’s not going to be a whole lot he can do to avoid that or to change the subject, even if he wants to.”
Biden had been riding high in July, when mass vaccinations blunted the coronavirus, and early August, when he claimed a bipartisan infrastructure deal as vindication of his faith in bipartisanship. But the chaotic scenes from Afghanistan, including desperate people clinging to a US military plane – and a 17-year-old footballer plunging from one to his death – rewrote the narrative.
Biden’s character and competence were scrutinized and his approval rating dipped below 50%. But he remained firm in his conviction and defiant of his many critics, including in the powerful Washington foreign policy establishment. After the final troops flew out, ending the conflict of 20 years, he attempted to draw a line in the sand on 31 August, insisting: “I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit.”
A day later, as calendars flicked to September, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, began her regular briefing by discussing the impact of Hurricane Ida on Louisiana and Mississippi. The first question from reporters concerned the pandemic; the second was about a new law in Texas that undermines women’s reproductive rights.
The grand pivot away from Afghanistan had begun. Psaki said: “The president knows that he has responsibilities, and the multiple crises he will continue to have to face as president are part of his job description. And if there is a meeting warranted in the situation room with his military leaders, national security team, about Afghanistan or any other issue, of course he’s going to be there for that.
”But he also knows that part of his commitment to the American people is getting the pandemic under control, is addressing the hurricane and making sure that people in Louisiana and Mississippi and other states on the Gulf coast know he’s doing absolutely everything in his power to make sure they have power.”
Then remnants of the hurricane unleashed record floods in New York and New Jersey, delivering images guaranteed to knock Afghanistan off cable news. Local Democrats leaders warned that such events will become more frequent and ferocious and urged Congress to pass Biden’s infrastructure bill. It was a subject that the president was more than happy to talk about.
He said: “The past few days of Hurricane Ida and the wildfires in the west and the unprecedented flash floods in New York and New Jersey is yet another reminder that these extreme storms and the climate crisis are here. We need to do be much better prepared. We need to act. When Congress returns this month, I’m going to press for their action on my Build Back Better plan.”
The infrastructure bill would modernize roads, bridges, water systems, sewer and draining systems, electric grids and transmission lines, making them more resilient to superstorms and wildfires, as well as making huge investments to combat the climate crisis. Signing it into law would give Biden a major political victory to get his presidency back on track.
But this scenario is far from certain. The House of Representatives and Senate are haggling over both this bill and a $3.5tn budget reconciliation package that invests in childcare and other social priorities. Democratic leaders want to pass them together but party moderates are reluctant. On Thursday Senator Joe Manchin said Democrats should “hit the pause button” on the $3.5tn package.
Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, said: “I’ll be very curious what the pivot’s going to be for Biden. He needs a win on something. He needs something a little more dramatic than an infrastructure bill. He needs an act of God. He needs a supreme court justice to drop dead.”
In the meantime, Republicans have no intention of allowing Afghanistan to drop off the radar. That Republican George W Bush started the war, or that Republican Donald Trump signed a deal with the Taliban to end it, has not prevented them portraying Biden as a man out of his depth who left behind more than a hundred US citizens, thousands of Afghan allies and abundant military hardware.
John Bolton, a former national security adviser under Trump and an opponent of withdrawal, believes the episode will be “damaging” to the president and could undermine his agenda. “If you look at this withdrawal as the debacle it’s very widely viewed as, that’s Biden’s mistake and that’s going to hurt him,” he said.
“Democrats in Congress are very worried that the perception of incompetence will spill over into domestic affairs and the fate of the $3.5tn package and any number of other things could be jeopardized. The swing-district Democrats in the House and some in the Senate are saying this is one more piece of evidence that we’re going to be in real trouble next year if we just blindly follow the White House leadership on this.
A blitz of attack ads suggest that Republicans believe they have finally found Biden’s Achilles’ heel. Michael Steel, who was a spokesperson for former House speaker John Boehner, said: “I’m sure the White House hopes that legislative successes this fall will allow them to ‘right the ship’, but nothing will erase the searing images from Kabul over the past weeks, or the damage done to America’s credibility.”
Some Democrats have also expressed frustration at the botched withdrawal, and three Democratic-led Senate committees have pledged to investigate “failures”, a rare rebuke for the president from his own party. Biden will also have to contend with the resettlement of thousands of Afghan refugees, a potentially incendiary issue.
But White House strategists may be betting that taking a hit in the short term is worth the long-term vindication of ending an unpopular war, given that the average citizen is currently more concerned with Covid-19 outbreaks in schools. And to adapt an oft-quoted Afghan saying, Republicans have the watches but Biden has the time: the midterm elections will not be held until November 2022.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said: “Afghanistan will matter for Republicans; they’re never going to give up. The dog has chomped out on the ankle. But for Democrats, no, they’re going to laugh at that and say, ‘Oh, you want to go back? 20 years wasn’t enough? $2tn wasn’t enough? 2,400 American lives wasn’t enough?’ Who wins that argument? It’s obvious the Democrats do.”
Howie Carr: Joe Biden craps out on Afghanistan, Hurricane Ida response
Presiding over the most humiliating military and foreign policy disaster in U.S. history, massive inflation, supply-chain breakdowns and COVID cluelessness — and those are the highlights of his feckless administration.
Can we quote you on that Mr. President?
Most of the attention has focused on his abject lie to the rabbis that he visited the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh after the 2018 massacre. He didn’t, of course — just flat out made up something that didn’t happen. It’s a Biden thing.
“There’s a psalm based there’s there’s a hymn my favorite hymn in the Catholic church based on a psalm and it’s uh it’s a psalm that talks about uh um life and uh and uh and so uh I I uh asked that that psalm that hymn in the Catholic church …”
It’s Norm Crosby time whenever he reads from the teleprompter. He spoke of “deploring” (not deploying) generators. At one point, he read identify as “identivize,” and at another time as “innenify.” He reads “transmit” as “transfer.” An “airlift” becomes “airmiff.”
He issued an “emergely” declaration for the state of California.
During Hurricane Ida, he botched the names and acronyms of almost every agency he mentioned –— “the Federal Aviation Commission, the FAA,” as he put it, not to mention “the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs, HUD.”
“Look,” he said about Bernie Sanders’ $3.5-trillion welfare bill, “this is about good-paying jobs for ordinary people, blue-collar workers, jobs at prevailing wage not $15 an hour or $20 or $30.”
Some more of Joe’s Greatest Hits, Labor Day-Russia Shona edition:
“On my 16th birthday each of my children I put ‘em on a plane.”
“These are long-term prosperity we’re talking about.”
“Today we learned the economy created 235 new thousand new jobs in August.”
“And they played and my mind’s going blank now what’s the song that is played where everybody is on the chair everybody uh you what what I can’t remember it anyway and that’s the song that was played.”
“We wanted to have a co-confessional uh um wedding.”
Joe Biden Wants You to Forget the Afghanistan Debacle
While Afghanistan disappears from American news coverage, the Taliban threatens the relatives of Afghans who immigrated to America, Senate Republicans demand answers to basic questions about who is still stranded in Afghanistan and what’s being done to get them out, and a Biden administration official reveals why no one will get fired for this debacle.
This morning, Mike Allen of Axios reports, “President Biden is eager for a fight over abortion — an issue he sees as politically advantageous after the conservative Supreme Court left in place the near-ban in Texas.”
Of course Biden wants a fight over abortion. It’s extremely familiar territory for him and for the rest of the country. And it would distract attention from the fact that the president broke his promise, made on national television, that if there were still Americans in Afghanistan after August 31, we would “stay to get them all out.” A hundred to 200 American citizens, “thousands” of green-card holders, and a majority of the 250,000 Afghans eligible for Special Immigrant Visas are still stranded in Afghanistan. Biden has betrayed them in a colossal dereliction of his duty, and in the process failed and humiliated our nation. So of course he desperately wants to change the subject.
As of 7 a.m. this morning, just two of the 62 news items featured on Memeorandum are about Afghanistan. The front page of the Washington Post website featured a good, detailed story on anti-Taliban resistance fighters in Panjshir, including “a significant number of former Afghan army soldiers, special forces troops and commandos,” who it says represent “the most serious challenge the Taliban has faced.” (Odd: I remember President Biden declaring, “the Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.”) Beyond that, Afghanistan is no longer a central part of the news cycle.
It’s not that news articles about Afghanistan have completely disappeared. They’re just not in the print editions of major newspapers, not at the top of major news websites, and not the lead stories on cable-news and news-radio shows. The typical news consumer must now look for coverage of what’s happening in Afghanistan, instead of finding it front and center.
Our government abandoned Americans behind enemy lines, and apparently, it’s just not that big a deal to a lot of people.
Today, President Biden is scheduled to speak publicly about the latest jobs report, tour a neighborhood in LaPlace, La., and then deliver remarks on his administration’s response to Hurricane Ida. He will spend this coming weekend in Wilmington, Del.
But whether the president wants to talk about it or not, those Americans are still in Afghanistan, still scared, still wondering if the Taliban are going to pound on their doors in the middle of the night. I’m still getting updates from my reader about Afghans who helped Americans, some of whom are moving from one city to another because they fear their current locations are no longer safe.
We haven’t always been so blasé about leaving our own behind in danger abroad. Four days after the Iranians took Americans hostage at the U.S. embassy in 1979, ABC News created the program America Held Hostage: The Iran Crisis. As anchor Ted Koppel recalled, “They took out an ad the next morning in the New York Times or the Washington Post saying, ‘ABC News will stay on the air with “America Held Hostage” until the hostages are released.’ Which, as it turned out, was 444 days after they were captured. By which time, that interim program that ABC News put on at 11:30 at night, it evolved into ‘ABC News Nightline.’ A permanent program.” There was an enormous national hunger for news on what was happening with the hostages. “It was not unusual for us to have 10 million people watching the program,” Koppel said in a 2009 interview.
Arkansas senator Tom Cotton and 25 other Republican senators have written to the president, demanding answers to a slew of questions, such as:
How many American citizens does the administration believe to remain in Afghanistan?
Of the American citizens still in Afghanistan, how many are currently in contact with the State Department?
Of the green-card holders still in Afghanistan, how many are currently in contact with the State Department?
Are the State Department and USCIS still processing pending SIV applications? What steps are being taken to ensure that pending applicants are safe from Taliban reprisals as their applications are adjudicated?
Of the more than 57,000 Afghans who are not American citizens, green-card holders, or SIV applicants or their families, how many had no pending immigration application or status with the United States prior to being airlifted?
The administration and much of the country are apparently ready to move on without knowing the answers to any of these questions.
Once you look for news coverage of Afghanistan, you realize how much the story isn’t over, and how many details of what went wrong are still unknown.
An American woman in Idaho described being beaten by the Taliban as she tried to get through the gates at Kabul airport.
Wahida Ivey is a U.S Citizen who was born in Afghanistan and left in 1981 when Russia invaded the country. With help from Senator Rischs’ office, she returned after visiting her family for a week. She knew that American’s would soon evacuate the country, so she wanted to see her cousins and sister before.
“I kind of knew what was about to happen, but I also knew that if I didn’t go see my sister, I probably would’ve never got to see her again,” she said.
Ivey said what she saw were chaos and disfunction. She added that there was no priority to get the U.S citizens evacuated first. She made five attempts to get on a plane back to America, what she saw throughout the process was disturbing.
“Pushing shoving, Taliban are there at the gate, they are hitting people with the wires, and I have bruises I took a couple of hits, they don’t see people they see them as this rush of animals standing at the doors, and these people are just desperate to make it through that gate,” she said.
… “We must hold on to the promise we made, to the people that worked for us, to the people that held our hands when we needed our hands to be held, they deserve much better than that and we should not turn our back to them, it’s not okay,” she said. “These are also human beings, they have family, they have children, it is their home but it’s not a home safe for them to live in.”