Joe Biden wants to do what no American president this century has been able to do. On Wednesday, he announced his intention to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the terror attack that sparked the longest war in this nation’s history.
“We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result,” he said.
This announcement demonstrates what have proven to be the two most promising aspects of Biden’s young presidency: the ability to learn from past mistakes, his own and others, and a willingness to trigger the right people.
And right now, all the right people are upset.
John Bolton, the United Nations ambassador under President George W. Bush and national security adviser under President Donald Trump, called the decision “reckless” and predicted “terrorists would enjoy a resurgence threatening America.” Bolton is a warmonger so fond of regime changes that he even somewhat supported Trump’s impeachment. But his sentiment represents the consensus of much of the foreign policy establishment, the “bipartisan” backlash machine known as “the blob.”
Failed logic gave us longest war
The blob, like Bolton, argues that Afghanistan being a “safe haven” for terrorists made the 9/11 attacks possible if not inevitable. Thus American troops cannot leave until a country that has been torn by civil war for decades is suddenly violence-free, or something. This failed logic gave us our longest war, even though the 9/11 Commission Report noted that much of the groundwork for the attack took place outside of Afghanistan.
And the last decade should have taught us that in the internet-age people, including Americans, can be radicalized from anywhere, even the Oval Office. “If anywhere is a safe haven for terrorism against the United States, it is America,” wrote Micah Zenko and Amelia Mae Wolf.
In 2001, our biggest threat came from a terror network with roots in Afghanistan. Today, in 2021, our biggest risk seems to be unchecked white supremacism right on our own soil.
A more humane and compelling argument for maintaining a military presence is the argument that we have an obligation to protect girls and women from the savagery of the Taliban. We do have a unique obligation to the people of Afghanistan that must be maintained through humanitarian support and support of international effort to rebuild the country. But if we must endlessly wage war against regimes that terrorize girls and women, we’d be at war all over the world, with many of our so-called allies. And this faux chivalry can’t erase the more than 40,000 civilian casualties that have resulted from our military involvement in the country.
If the decision to leave Afghanistan will be so self-evidently dangerous and awful, as “the blob” insists, we can go back in. But we will do so consciously, and hopefully with a debate in Congress that our politicians have been avoiding for more than a decade as the war ran on autopilot with a tiny sliver of the population bleeding out all the sacrifices.
Of course, what “the blob” is afraid of isn’t disaster or carnage. They’re afraid of peace working. That’s why they’re also furious about Biden’s other recent foreign policy move, a renewed effort — after months of delay — to rejoin the so-called “Iran deal.”
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Israel’s government all but did a touchdown dance over an attack last weekend that knocked out power at an Iranian uranium enrichment plant in Narantz. Risking a war to prevent a deal that would put Iran’s nuclear weapon program back under international surveillance and controls gives away how many hawks in the United States and Israel prefer conflict over the program to keeping nuclear arms out of the hands of the ayatollahs.
Biden’s domestic agenda has benefited from his exposure to the early mistakes of the Obama administration. He hasn’t waited around for Republican votes to confront the multiple crises he faces. It seems he’s figured out that while the public enjoys talk about bipartisanship almost as much as the press savors meetings of “problem solvers” in the White House, what voters really demand are results. And “moderate” Republicans who aren’t getting to play the role of spoilers are allegedly “seething.” Good.
Biden has learned from many mistakes
That’s not to say in any way that this presidency has been flawless.
Approving a huge arms deal with the repressive regime of the United Arab Emirates that’s helping wage a disastrous war in Yemen betrays Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s stated intention to put human rights at the “center” of American foreign policy.
But on the two most visible issues likely to enrage “the blob,” Biden has taken clear and decisive steps that show he’s still capable of learning from his own mistake in supporting the Iraq War, the Obama administration’s mistake of prolonging the Afghan war, and the Trump administration’s mistake in abandoning a nuclear deal that Iran was honoring. He is trying to renegotiate the Iran deal, and he is leaving Afghanistan.
Call it a win:We can’t succeed in Afghanistan. Biden’s best move is to leave by Trump’s May 1 deadline.
Biden has often been compared to Lyndon Johnson, another unlikely former vice president with lots of Senate experience who became commander in chief. Johnson’s experience on Capitol Hill helped him shape a historic domestic agenda that advanced civil rights and slashed poverty. But all the experience didn’t help him avoid a foreign policy nightmare in Vietnam.
That is a trap Biden now looks determined to avoid. The results of American’s exit from Afghanistan likely won’t be perfect, but our addiction to unwinnable wars needs to end. Better to end it by September 11, 2021 than September 11, 2041.
Jason Sattler, a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and host of “The GOTMFV Show” podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @LOLGOP