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WASHINGTON – Even before the last military plane took off from Hamid Karzai International Airport in the dark of night, President Joe Biden’s detractors declared the messy withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan a legacy-defining disaster.
“Much worse than Saigon,” pronounced Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
“The most astonishing display of gross incompetence by a nation’s leader, perhaps at any time,” claimed former President Donald Trump, who negotiated the withdrawal agreement that Biden inherited in January.
“This is about American legacy and Biden’s lack of leadership,” proclaimed House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. “This will last for decades.”
Political commentator John Oliver decreed Afghanistan “a stain on Biden’s legacy.” And Karl Rove, who as a senior adviser to George W. Bush had a role in launching the invasion of Afghanistan, predicted in a Politico interview that it would be impossible for Biden “to wash this stain away.”
Time, however, has a tendency of blunting the memory of the American public.
While Afghanistan may have propelled Biden into the most perilous moment of his presidency, it’s unlikely to define how he is viewed through the long lens of history, historians and political analysts say.
“The chaos surrounding the last few weeks of the evacuation will always be with Biden,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of international affairs at Georgetown University.
But, “the withdrawal itself, the decision to end the U.S.-led coalition, will with the advantage of hindsight look good,” Kupchan said.
Foreign policy decisions seldom carry long-term consequences for a president unless they turn into a quagmire and drag on for weeks or months, like Jimmy Carter faced with the Iranian hostage crisis, said Todd Belt, director of the political management program at George Washington University.
Unless there is a prolonged cataclysmic event, such as the taking of hostages or terrorism emanating from Afghanistan, “I think that over time this will die out,” Belt said.
'Photo op for the ages'
For now, Biden is clearly feeling the fallout from his decision to bring U.S. troops home and end America’s longest war. A series of polls taken in the days and weeks following the U.S.’s frenzied departure from Afghanistan give him the lowest approval ratings of his presidency.
Condemnations of the U.S. withdrawal have been fueled by a suicide bombing attack at the Kabul airport that killed 13 American service members and 169 Afghan civilians; horrific images of Afghan citizens desperately clinging to a departing military plane and some of them falling to their deaths; and the revelation that 100 to 200 Americans were left behind in Afghanistan.
“Joe Biden wanted the fairytale ending to America’s longest war, to stand in front of the American people and declare he was the person who ended the conflict in Afghanistan as we commemorated the 9/11 anniversary – a photo op for the ages,” said Harry Kazianis, a senior director at the Center for the National Interest, a think tank founded by Richard Nixon.
“Instead, the photo Biden’s presidency will be known for is Afghans falling from airplanes to their death,” said Kazianis, who is among those who believe Biden’s reputation will be tarnished by Afghanistan. “He can’t spin his way out of that disaster.”
Other presidents have faced foreign policy crises that, at the time, elicited harsh denunciations and seemed certain to define their place in history. In many cases, those events have become a footnote on their presidential scorecard.
Barack Obama endured scorn from conservatives for drawing a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons by Syria and then failing to follow through with military action when President Bashar Assad mounted a sarin gas attack against Syrian civilians in 2013. Even some of Obama’s defenders called his handling of the crisis his administration’s worst blunder.
Critics predicted George H.W. Bush’s legacy would be permanently marred by his response to a deadly rebellion against Saddam Hussein after the first Persian Gulf War in 1991. Bush had urged the Iraqi people to rise up against the Iraqi president. The Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south revolted, but Bush did not give them any military help. Saddam retaliated by slaughtering them en masse.
Some 241 U.S. military personnel were killed on Ronald Reagan’s watch in 1983 when a suicide bomber drove a truck packed with explosives into the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. John F. Kennedy was just three months into his presidency when the U.S. suffered a humiliating failure in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba.
None of those events evolved into long-term, legacy-shaping moments for those presidents, Belt said. Part of the reason, he said, is the American public quickly turned its attention to other matters – in Kennedy’s case, the Cuban missile crisis, and in the case of Reagan, the U.S. invasion of Grenada.
“Foreign policy is usually pretty fleeting when it comes to how presidents are evaluated specifically by public opinion,” Belt said.
Kennedy was able to redeem himself after the Bay of Pigs fiasco because he successfully stood up to Russia during the Cuban missile crisis a year later, said Thomas Schwartz, a professor of history and political science at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
And while Bush offered no initial military support to the Kurds, he eventually agreed to enforce a no-fly zone over northern Iraq that ensured a degree of Kurdish autonomy and helped mitigate the long-term damage to his reputation, Schwartz said.
Likewise, future events could alter public perception of Biden’s handling of Afghanistan.
What now seems like an incompetent withdrawal could look far different if, for example, the Americans remaining in Afghanistan get out safely or if the Taliban doesn’t carry out mass executions as feared, Schwartz said.
“On the other hand, a terrorist attack launched from Afghanistan that hits the United States, that would be devastating to Biden’s reputation,” he said.
The challenge for Biden is that he has allowed Afghanistan to become the ultimate wild card, “a national security Pandora’s box he has now opened that he has little to no control over,” Kazianis said.
“Now, with the collapse of the country and surely an interest in terror groups using the country to train and plot new attacks, Biden owns whatever happens next,” he said. “If he had kept a small residual force in place, it gave him at least some political cover and intel capability.
“Now, politically and strategically he is vulnerable. And Republicans now smell blood in the water and have a talking point they can use over and over again: Biden lost Afghanistan to terrorists.”
Kupchan takes the counter view that withdrawing from Afghanistan will actually improve Biden’s and the U.S.’s reputation abroad in the long run.
Wars like the two-decade-old conflict in Afghanistan turn into “strategic distractions – they tend to be politically controversial, they absorb financial and military resources, and they absorb political capital,” said Kupchan, who served on the White House National Security Council under Obama.
Now that the war in Afghanistan has come to an end, the United States will be able to focus more attention on Russia and China, and Biden will be able to plow more resources into domestic programs, such as his plans to rebuild America’s infrastructure and expand the nation’s social safety net, Kupchan said.
Americans back withdrawal
After two decades of war, Americans are ready to move on, Kupchan said.
While Biden’s approval has tanked in recent polls, some of those same surveys show Americans back the decision to pull troops out of Afghanistan.
Fifty-four percent of adults questioned in a Pew Research Center poll the last week of August said the decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan was the right one. A Washington Post-ABC News Poll released the first week of September showed that 77% of Americans support the decision to withdraw all U.S. forces.
That suggests to Kupchan that the drop in Biden’s approval rating will be short-lived.
“I think several months from now, the vast majority of the American public will continue to regret the final week of the mission and be emotionally distraught but will look back at this withdrawal and see it as the right move at the right time,” he said.
Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Afghanistan: Will messy withdrawal permanently stain Biden's legacy?