When was the only time America’s left-liberal media gave President Trump any real credit? The answer is 7 April 2017, after he threw a few fairly pointless missiles at Assad’s forces in Syria. ‘I think Donald Trump became the President of the United States last night,’ gushed Fareed Zakaria of CNN. The New York Times said Trump had shown ‘heart’. Brian Williams, an anchor on MSNBC, went so far as to quote Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’
In recent days, the same outlets have for the first time started airing heated criticisms of President Biden over his decision to pull America’s troops out of Afghanistan and his stubborn insistence that he’s right to do so even as the Taliban regain control. Zakaria called the move a ‘stain on Biden’s foreign policy’. The Atlantic’s George Packer said that America’s ‘betrayal’ of Afghanistan ‘will live in infamy. The burden of shame falls on Joe Biden.’
What is it about America’s military interventions that causes so many commentators to override their usual hyperpartisan pathologies and so chauvinistically endorse America’s role as policeman of the world? In CNN’s case, it might be partly because during the first Gulf war, its ground-breakingcoverage helped turn the channel into one of the ‘big three’ US networks. A spirit of liberal internationalism still runs through CNN’s cables directly to your TV screen.
But the world has changed since 1991, so it’s strange that, on foreign affairs, not just CNN but so much of the English-speaking media remain fixated on an antiquated American exceptionalist view of the world — especially since the country’s ancient political leaders have started to move on.
What 78-year-old Biden appears to have understood, albeit in his foggy-brained way — and what 75-year-old Trump briefly forgot in April 2017 — is that the US public is not interested in the imaginary ‘red lines’ of international relations pundits. Poll after poll shows a majority opposed to the continuation of the Afghan effort and exhausted by a global war on terror that somehow transmogrified into a futile attempt to install democratic values in the Middle East. According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the US spent $787 million on gender-equality drives in Afghanistan. How did that go?
Many Americans find these attempts to remake the world in progressive America’s image of itself at least as embarrassing as this week’s scenes of US military aircraft scrambling to get away from the Taliban.
That’s not to say that Americans are unbothered by the departure. It is a source of humiliation, sadness and regret. Biden’s spectacularly botched final exit is a painful reminder of what a bungling super-power America has become. The failure of US intelligence to see how rapidly Afghanistan’s Potemkin democracy would collapse is a scandal. The shambolic attempts to evacuate remaining US personnel are a disgrace. In 2001, the Americans smashed the Taliban in a matter of weeks. On Monday, they couldn’t even safeguard one runway.
Biden is receiving considerable flak for these failures. He’s also been criticised for not abandoning his vacation for three days as the crisis escalated. On Tuesday, his national security adviser Jake Sullivan admitted Biden hadn’t spoken to another world leader, which seems careless given that his administration has been so keen to stress that its commitments to allies are ‘sacrosanct’. And as Douglas Murray points out, his insistence that US involvement in Afghanistan was ‘never about nation-building’ would be more convincing if he hadn’t repeatedly suggested the opposite.
But will the denouement of the Afghan war ‘stain’ Biden’s presidency for ever, as many pundits confidently assert? It’s too soon to judge. The latest polls show his ‘job approval’ rating is suffering. But in the longer-term, it’s possible he will experience a popularity boost. In Monday’s speech, he successfully positioned himself as the Commander-in-Chief with the courage to carry out what his predecessors could not. ‘I know my decision will be criticised,’ he said. ‘But I would rather take all that criticism than pass this decision on to another president of the United States, yet another one, a fifth one. Because it’s the… right decision for our people.’
Maybe Biden has absorbed a key political lesson of the Trump years. It’s not that he’s succumbed to ‘America First’ isolationism, as so many are now saying. It’s that, by remaining uncowed in the face of media outrage, he’s been able to present himself as a man who stands for something, even if in reality he doesn’t. Trump understood that people increasingly hate elite pundits more than they despise elected leaders. He proved over and over that by triggering the noisy apoplexy of the ‘laptop class’, a politician can attract voters who are not as addicted to social media and rolling-news cycles. Biden may have just pulled off the same trick.
His decision to push ahead with withdrawal also wrongfoots his opponents on the right. Trumpist Republicans who spent years demanding the troops must come home now look silly as they revert to George W. Bush-era platitudes about defeating ‘Islamo-fascism’ and promoting freedom at any cost. Somehow, with the help of his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump succeeded in appealing to the anti-war sentiments of his voter base while satisfying the aggressive interventionists of his party. He tore up the Iran deal and assassinated the Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani. He dabbled in the Syria civil war and sabre-rattled at North Korea. But he never started a new war. At the same time, he reduced American commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq. But he never ended the seemingly endless wars. By going further than Trump and at last pulling out of Afghanistan, the Biden administration now reopens divisions between the internationalist Grand Old Party and its more nationalist brigades. That could mean opportunities for the Democrats to return to the Obama-era policy of accommodating Iran even if restoring the controversial nuclear deal is off the cards.
The problem is that President Biden has offended his own party’s foreign-policy establishment and the global media. Unlike Trump, he has until now enjoyed their almost unwavering support. Can they forgive him? And if not, will he survive without them?