Mr. Zero Responsibility
Top Stories of the Year: #2
I've been counting down the top stories of 2021 as covered in The Tracinski Letter. At #5 was the global Great Leap Backward toward aggressive dictatorship, at #4 the emergence of the anti-woke vote. At #3 the bifurcation of the pandemic, including along partisan lines.
At #2 is our return to political normality with the inauguration as president of a normal politician, Joe Biden, which might have seemed like an exciting prospect if you had forgotten what a "normal" politician looks like. The actual results have ranged from lackluster to disastrous—particularly in the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which led me to brand Biden as "Mr. Zero Responsibility."
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I got that part about "zero responsibility" by quoting Biden's own words.
The Washington Post has some good reporting on how we got here, including Joe Biden dismissing warnings from the military and from our intelligence agencies....
President Biden's response so far has been buck-passing and stonewalling, including the lamest possible excuse: Trump made me do it.
"In justifying the decision, Biden's aides argued that the president's hands were tied by Trump's February 2020 agreement with the Taliban, which committed the United States to withdrawing in 2021. If Washington reneged, they argued, the Taliban would resume attacks on American troops."
But the overall tone Biden has been presenting to the public is one of contemptuous indifference. This shouldn't surprise us, because he warned us about it last year.
"As a candidate in early 2020, Biden was asked whether the United States had a responsibility to Afghan women and girls in light of a possible Taliban takeover. 'No, I don't!' Biden said. 'Do I bear responsibility? Zero responsibility.'"
"Zero Responsibility" should be blazoned on Biden's tombstone as the way we remember his legacy.
War and Dishonor
That Biden was following through on a policy established by Trump is not an excuse—in what other area has he felt constrained to follow Trump?—but it does indicate that we saw this disaster coming for a long time. I've been warning about it since 2019 and directing you to the warnings of others.
I began ramping up my warnings again in the middle of this year as it became clear that Biden was actually following through on Trump's policy.
We are dealing with our third president who would rather that the rest of the world go away and is dogmatically committed to winding down any overseas engagement. Barack Obama did it because he was raised on blame-America-first leftism; Donald Trump did it because he admires foreign authoritarians and because he was educated in America-first mercantilism; Joe Biden is doing it because his party has thoroughly adopted blame-America-first, and as their leader, he must follow....
[Our] announced withdrawal from Afghanistan is already leading to the pre-emptive surrender of local forces to the Taliban. We are proving right Osama bin Laden's confident prediction that the US cannot maintain a long-term strategy....
The essential thing to understand here is that the continued cost of engagement in Afghanistan is not material, not significantly.... No, the real drain is psychological and epistemological—the excruciating and unbearable effort, for the pragmatic politician's mind, of thinking about something the public doesn't want to think about.
During the middle of the scramble out of Afghanistan, I assessed the damage.
The rapid collapse of Afghanistan, the panicked and disorderly American withdrawal, the abandonment of tens of thousands of local allies, the triumphant Islamic totalitarians parading through the streets of Kabul—all of it has exceeded our worst warnings about a "last helicopter out of Saigon" moment.
In fact, the "last helicopter out of Saigon" has now been superseded as a metaphor by the image of the bodies of desperate local allies falling from the sky because they were clinging to the landing gear of the last US Air Force planes taking off from Kabul.
But the problem is more than just symbolic.
We are about to hear a gut-wrenching series of stories about the horrors of the Taliban takeover and the many atrocities they will commit. But we should remember that this isn't just about the people of Afghanistan. We went there for our own purposes, to secure our own vital interests, and that is what we are losing.
We went into Afghanistan after 9/11 because the Taliban had provided a safe haven and base of operations for the terrorists who attacked us that day. We can be assured that they will do it again—even more freely now, since they will believe themselves immune from retaliation. What are we going to do, invade them again, after having given up the first time? And what local allies would believe our assurances and help us? With this withdrawal, we have given up any capacity to deter the Taliban.
Moreover, we have recent evidence of what happens when we allow radical Islamist groups to carve out a safe haven: the global wave of terrorist attacks during the reign of the Islamic State in Syria.
An Islamic fundamentalist terror state like Afghanistan does not merely provided a safe haven for the planning and training of terrorists. It also provides a successful model that serves as encouragement. No jihadist success story can compare with the triumph of the Taliban, which faced the full might of the US military only to have us slink away ignominiously. Remember that the Taliban now control more of Afghanistan than they did on September 10, 2001. How many fanatics worldwide will be inspired by this proof of the success of their cause?...
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, we had a choice between war and dishonor. We chose dishonor, and I fear we will get more war.
This defeat has a thousand fathers, and I provided an extensive overview of what went wrong (including the role of Mr. Zero Responsibility).
We Told You So
The big myth that I wanted to dispel, though, was the idea that this was solely or uniquely Joe Biden's fault, that "withdrawing from Afghanistan was the right decision to make, but President Biden botched its implementation."
Some serious and thoughtful people hold this position, but it strikes me as fitting a little too comfortably with certain powerful partisan impulses. If you're on the left, it allows you to establish that of course you're a good peacenik and you want America to end its interventions overseas—while disowning the actual consequences of doing so. If you're on the right, it allows you to indulge the fantasy that Trump would have executed this withdrawal so much better—it would have been the best, the strongest retreat, everybody says so—even though Biden was following the basic roadmap Trump drew.
I also pointed out the reason why a shift to an intelligence-based counter-terrorism strategy is unrealistic.
President Biden seems to think we can abandon Afghanistan to the Taliban and then rely on intelligence gathering to determine whether al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations are planning attacks on us. But with no footprint on the ground and no local allies, how are we going to be gathering this intelligence? Who is going to be gathering it, after we have either evacuated them all or left them to be murdered for helping us? The whole thing seems more like a wish or aspiration than a realistic plan.
We had to search for some silver linings on this black cloud, like the fact that this may turn out to be a catastrophic victoryfor the government of Pakistan, which lives in terror of the very Islamic fanatics it has long nurtured.
Primarily, our compensation was to witness the heroic efforts, often outside official channels, to smuggle Americans and our allies out of Afghanistan. An organizer of one of these efforts described it as "the most American thing that's ever happened": "A bunch of well-meaning Americans who have some connection to Afghanistan banded together to help save lives, and they had a real impact on getting people through the gate. That's amazing."
Overall, this was an opportunity for all of us old hawks from the War on Terror to say "we told you so," and in my case to make the case for nation-building.
[I]n our debates over foreign policy. Debates about the ends for which American power is to be used become swallowed up in debates over the means by which we pursue those ends. Should we use nation-building? Balance-of-power calculations? Democracy promotion? Economic aid? Diplomacy? Military force? Whole schools of foreign policy are defined by embracing some of these tools and rejecting others. But the correct answer is that we should use all of these tools, as needed. Instead, people arbitrarily declare the means that we should or should not use, and shape our goals around that.
From a proper perspective, "nation-building" is not a goal of our foreign policy. It is a tool for reaching our goals. We should use it when it helps us reach those goals. For example, in Afghanistan we were effective for a very long time at getting Afghan army and police to act as our local allies in fighting the Taliban so we didn't have to.
If your immediate objection is that Afghans did not really fight the Taliban for us, follow the link and read the whole thing. I cover that.
The biggest objection I get, and the reason why making the case for George W. Bush-era hawkishness tends to fall on deaf ears, is that the American people just will not support long interventions overseas any more. Yet one of the lessons of 2021 is that the American people aren't so hot about a policy of constant retreat and humiliation.
This is why we had two previous presidents who wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan, talked about withdrawing, and certainly never went through much effort to make sure we won the war there—but who balked when it came to actually withdrawing. The knew that defeat would not be popular.
Then take a look at President Biden's poll numbers, which collapsed in August as Americans watched the news from Afghanistan on their TVs, and haven't recovered since.
But this, at least, leads us to the positive side of Joe Biden's incompetence: the crack-up of his Big Government legislative agenda.
Trillion-Dollar Train Wreck
The broader reason for Biden's sinking popularity, despite an economy that on paper is not so bad, is the general return-to-the-seventies feel of his first year in office.
It's time to invest in some bell-bottom pants, or maybe a disco suit, because it's the 1970s again.
Self-imposed defeat in war? Check. Increasing urban crime? Check. Runaway inflation? Well, there's still some controversy there, but yeah, check.
I wrote that in September. There has been less controversy about inflation as the year has progressed. And the worst part is that Biden and his supporters can't bring themselves to recognize the problem or respond to it, engaging in frantic denial of inflation, not just today, but retroactively back in the 1970s.
This all serves an obvious purpose: to unleash the magical thinking of the left, which believes that the government can just keep spending more and more trillions of borrowed money and never experience any consequences. Like I said, they can only put this over on younger generations who have no firm memories of what inflation looked like the last time around.
But there's plenty of time for them to form new memories.
Or they just tell us to lower our expectations.
The latest update? Elizabeth Warren is blaming inflation on corporate "greed," as if the previous decades of relatively low inflation were evidence of corporate magnanimity. The Biden administration is now, preposterously, acting on this assumption and adopting antitrust as its weapon to control inflation.
All of this has helped contribute to the stalling out of Biden's legislative agenda. It didn't stall out soon enough, mind you. First, Congress passed a nearly two trillion dollar pandemic relief bill—with Republican support because this was just continuing the previous administration's policy. Then after much wrangling, they managed to pass a trillion-dollar "infrastructure" boondoggle. But you know how it goes: A trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money.
So eventually, a much larger left-wing fantasy packages of social spending was killed by the two most conservative Democrats in the Senate.
The $3.5 trillion bill is failing, and possibly taking the $1 trillion infrastructure bill with it, because the country is simply balking at unlimited spending. We have shoveled out many trillions already in "emergency" spending under the excuse that it was needed because of the pandemic, and we're already seeing the results show up in inflation. There doesn't seem to be much public enthusiasm to vote for trillions more.
The other part of this story, as I recently put it, is that we are seeing all the spectacular incompetence of Biden's withdrawal from Afghanistan—but in a good way. Here's an overview of his mistakes.
"Recall that in June, President Biden announced he had reached a $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal with a bipartisan group of senators—and then promptly declared that he would veto that deal unless Congress also approved a massive Democrat-only social spending bill. 'If this is the only thing that comes to me, I'm not signing it,' he declared.
"His gaffe blindsided Republicans and nearly blew up the deal. Biden was forced to backtrack two days later—issuing a lengthy written statement declaring he had not intended to issue a veto threat, and giving Republicans his word the two bills were not linked and that he would pursue the passage of the infrastructure plan 'with vigor.'
"Well, on Friday, Biden broke his word. Instead of calling off House progressives who had taken the infrastructure deal hostage, he effectively gave them his blessing to hold up the legislation until there was a deal on a separate multitrillion-dollar reconciliation bill. In so doing, he violated his promise not to link the two pieces of legislation—as well as his promise to work vigorously to pass it....
"Just when you thought Biden had plumbed the depths of presidential incompetence, he finds a way to reach a new low. At a time when he desperately needed a win, he instead tanked his own bill."
Now that is the Joe Biden I voted for.
None of this is a great surprise. Biden has been around so long in American politics that he is a thoroughly known quantity. I was aware from the beginning how foolish and gabbling he is, and also how lacking in firm ideas or core convictions—even by a politician's standards.
Does that mean we would have been better off if last year's election had gone the other way? Well, big spending and a deal that empowers the Taliban were existing policy under the Trump administration—and if you've followed my work at all, you're not going to be in any suspense about what the #1 story of 2021 is.
But sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, so that will have to wait for the next installment of this round-up.
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