Daniel Drezner in the Washington Post reminded me of some recent history that is now history.
Remember Afghanistan? It would be understandable if some readers did not, since mainstream media coverage of events there has nosedived over the past few weeks. If you recall, however, a month ago, a lot of U.S. analysts and commentators (myself included) were fretting about the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul and the rapid Taliban takeover of the country. The frenzied efforts to get Westerners and Afghan allies out of Kabul in the face of a Taliban deadline of Aug. 31 seemed daunting.
The take industry was churning out a lot of copy during this period, most of it heavy on the pessimism. I would wager, however, that Noah Rothman, online editor of Commentary and an MSNBC columnist, generated the most hyperbolic take of the past month. He tweeted, “This is the worst display of presidential maladministration in my lifetime.”
Now this was quite the empirical claim. Was the Biden administration’s handling of Afghanistan in August really the worst? Worse than 1983 terrorist attack in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. Marines? Worse than trading arms with Iran for U.S. hostages held in Lebanon? Worse than standing idly by while genocide tore apart Rwanda? Worse than failing to prevent the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks? Worse than deciding a year after 9/11 to prioritize the invasion of Iraq over finishing the mission in Afghanistan? Worse than the planning for postwar Iraq? Worse than the response to Hurricane Katrina? Worse than the confused intervention in Libya and the schizophrenic intervention in Syria? Worse than the abandonment of the Kurds in Syria? Worse than the initial federal response to the coronavirus pandemic? Worse than fomenting an armed insurrection at the U.S. Capitol? That is quite the maladministration!
Rothman was not just venting on Twitter, however. The next day, he published “The Worst Presidential Dereliction in Memory” in Commentary. And lest one think that headline was misleading, Rothman closed out his essay with the assertion, “This is, I would argue, the worst dereliction of presidential responsibility and the most sordid example of maladministration in my four decades of life.”
Needless to say, at the time I expressed some … let’s say skepticism about this claim on Twitter. In our subsequent exchange, Rothman not only stood by his assertion but pledged that the situation would worsen. And to be fair, it does not take too much squinting to see the basis for his concern. He explained, “From my vantage, leaving upward of 10k US citizens behind enemy lines to fend for themselves takes the cake.” He further elaborated, “There is no contingency to get American citizens out. And if they don’t get out under our protection, they’re bargaining chips. Lots of bargaining chips.”
I suggested that we revisit this question in a month — and hey, what do you know, it is a month later. Has Rothman’s dire prediction come to pass?
It would appear not. Contra Rothman’s supposition, In the latter half of August, the U.S. military and allied forces were able to ferry considerable numbers of people out of Afghanistan. In his Senate testimony, Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted that in August, the United States and its allies “completed one of the biggest airlifts in history, with 124,000 people evacuated to safety.” This includes most of the Americans whom Rothman referenced in his tweets (though, to be fair, it is possible that he was unknowingly relying on inflated numbers at the outset).
The withdrawal of Afghanistan was rough. Congress is right to hold hearings on the issue, and reasonable people can disagree about whether the withdrawal could have been handled better or whether the Biden administration should have engaged in better contingency planning. Reasonable people cannot call it the worst case of presidential management in four decades. That would be reckless hyperbole. As Rothman himself noted last year, hyperbole is a plague affecting far too much political commentary. So I sure hope Rothman acknowledges that maybe, just maybe, he exaggerated a wee bit last month.
And we’ve moved on to other shiny objects of distraction: a missing white woman, a recall election in California that cratered GOP hopes, yet another assault on reproductive rights, more deaths from Covid-19 along with rank stupidity from various state governors and their depraved indifference. In other words, life has gone on. In another month, the only reminder of the evacuation of Afghanistan will be the charge on your credit card that you made when you sent money to help the Red Cross, assuming you did even that.
Sometimes our collective national short-term memory loss is a good thing. It allows us to keep going, getting back to work, picking ourselves up and walking it off. Then again, the wounds leave scars and the memories haunt us, especially when there’s a tinge of guilt or regret associated with it — “we could have done more,” or the ruefulness that we never seemed to learn from the last debacle. As the Pete Seeger song asks, when will we ever learn?