Who Controls Events?

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Afghanistan is infamously known as “The Graveyard of Empires.” From the time of Alexander the Great, through various Indian and Middle Eastern empires and the Mongols in the 13th century, to the British in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 20th, Afghanistan’s strategic location in central Asia has lured foreigners who win some battles, only to lose the war. Afghanistan, a mountainous region of competing ethnic and tribal groups, is notoriously difficult to govern.

So, it is no wonder that after nearly 20 years, the United States has left Afghanistan ignominiously. The graveyard of empires is also the graveyard of presidents. Four presidents have been in the White House since the start of America’s Afghan foray, and all four failed to leave behind a stable, secure Afghanistan that could govern itself while not giving sanctuary to terrorists.

History will have the final judgment, but President Joe Biden probably was correct to end the Afghan mission. As Biden remarked last month, and reiterated Monday, the United States rid the region of the terrorists who plotted 9/11. As for nation-building and the creation of a strong Afghan military, Biden has argued repeatedly that if we could not fulfill those goals after 20 years, what would a few more years, or five more, or ten accomplish? In his Monday speech, the president said, “We gave them [the Afghans] every tool they could need… [But] what we could not provide was the will to fight.” The United States poured money into Afghanistan and 2,448 American soldiers and another 3,846 U.S. contractors died there with little to show in the end. The Americans can only say, as our presence in Afghanistan draws to a close, what Soviet General Boris Gromov told my former CNN colleague Steve Hurst in 1989 as the Soviets left Afghanistan after a decade fighting anti-Communist rebels, “We tried.”

As doomed as the American effort in Afghanistan may have been, still the images of helicopters circling the U.S. embassy in Kabul and of frantic Afghans crowding the airport while fleeing the wrath of the Taliban evoke Saigon in 1975. And, while Biden may be right to leave and others bear at least some responsibility for the failures in Afghanistan, the shamefulness of the American departure falls on him. It will be a long time before Biden lives down his comment of July 8: “The jury is still out. But the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” Those comments were made a mere six weeks ago. 

The president of the United States may be the most powerful person on the planet, but the modern president is at the mercy of fate, destiny, and/or the actions of others, just as President Abraham Lincoln was during the the Civil War, when he commented, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” Biden did not send the first American troops to Afghanistan, nor did he orchestrate a surge in the number of troops, nor did he arrange for America’s exit in a deal with the Taliban. The latter was the work of former President Donald Trump in 2020.

Despite all that, Biden owns the less-than-graceful exit of America from its longest war. How much the images from Kabul will damage the president remains to be seen. A poll taken in July showed that 70 percent of Americans backed Biden’s decision to withdraw. That number includes 56 percent of Republicans. A similar poll since the fall of Kabul may show more public discontent with Biden’s policies.

The Afghanistan debacle is just one piece of Biden’s current rough patch in the presidency. He started like gangbusters, presiding over the successful distribution of millions of shots of the coronavirus vaccine and ushering the American Rescue Plan through Congress, both of which contributed to the strong economic rebound of the last half year. But, fears over inflation and the surge in COVID-19 cases among the unvaccinated has dimmed Biden’s early successes.

Biden is not at fault for the uptick in COVID-19 cases. He has urged all Americans to get their shots. Blame for millions remaining unvaccinated falls on Republican politicians and rightwing media outlets that continue to spout disinformation, not on the man in the White House. Still, the Delta variant has surged on Biden’s watch, so it is no surprise that recent polls show Biden’s approval rating dipping, sometimes below 50 percent.  

Biden may not want to cite Lincoln in claiming he is controlled by events. Lincoln’s admission, after all, came in a private letter. But, Afghanistan and the increase in coronavirus cases show the limitations of presidential power. It is, of course, unfair that Biden’s popularity declines because Republican governors like Ron DeSantis in Florida and Greg Abbott in Texas have politicized practices that undermine public safety. Still, much of politics and political success depends on perception, and right now, the growing perception is that the current president is stumbling.

The divisions within the Democratic Party do not help. Biden succeeded in getting his bipartisan infrastructure plan through the Senate, but final passage of the bill is being held hostage to the discomfit of moderate Democrats in the House with the more ambitious $3.5 trillion program to revamp America’s social safety net. Progressives are displeased with the failure to make headway on protecting voting rights, with some blaming the Biden administration for not putting more emphasis on Republican attempts to undermine democracy in battleground states. Intra-party squabbling broke into the open a few weeks ago in a nasty fight between Congress and the administration over who was to blame for failure to renew the eviction moratorium. 

Despite this summer of Biden’s discontent, things may get better in the coming months. The burgeoning number of those infected by the Delta variant along with the numbers dying because of it appear to be goading more people go get vaccinated. The July jobs report was stunning, and inflation is not a problem, at least not yet. And, divisions within the Democratic Party may be overblown. Biden may have more successes in implementing his agenda this fall when Congress reconvenes and takes up voting rights and the budget reconciliation bill.

Just as Biden is not fully to blame for recent reverses, he will not be fully responsible for any future successes. But, that will not stop him from taking a victory lap. It is, after all, what politicians do even when they do not fully control events.

Posted August 17, 2021

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