Key Point: “Over the longer run, however, Biden is right that policies driven by the passions, calculations — and, yes, misjudgments — of two decades ago could not be sustained. The nation needed to set a new course.”
Washington Post: Opinion: It was time to end the long wars. Now, Biden must make a new era work.
By E.J. Dionne Jr.
September 1, 2021
It will go down in history as one of the most unabashedly antiwar speeches ever given by an American president.
We are accustomed to martial rhetoric from commanders in chief, soaring words and calls for sacrifice on behalf of causes larger than any of us.
President Biden broke with all that on Tuesday in explaining and justifying his decision to pull U.S. troops from Afghanistan. One simple sentence summarized his gut instinct and his historical judgment: “We’ve been a nation too long at war.”
Biden did something else that was unusual in presidential speeches: He took on the arguments of his critics, one by one, and asked the country to see why he was right and they were wrong.
He was especially forceful in rejecting the most alluring claim of respected voices in the foreign policy and military establishments — architects, it should be said, of many of the policies that led us to this point. Maintaining a small American force, they insisted, could have held off a Taliban victory and prevented a rout of the United States’ Afghan allies.
Biden described this option several times as the “low grade,” “low risk” approach, and asserted that this halfway house of a policy misdescribed the alternatives he faced.
It was not withdraw or go small. It was withdraw or go big. “That was the choice — the real choice — between leaving or escalating,” he said. “I was not going to extend this forever war.”
The history of the war suggests that Biden is right, even if we will never know for certain. Once it reversed the withdrawal set in motion by former president Donald Trump, the United States would most likely at some point have faced another choice, between a surge of U.S. troops or an ignominious battlefield defeat.
But there was more to Biden’s decision, and here is where his revulsion over two decades of war — bolstered by his many conversations with military veterans, and his role as the father of a son who fought in Iraq — came into play.
He spoke arrestingly of “18 veterans, on average, who die by suicide every single day in America,” and concluded: “There’s nothing low-grade or low-risk or low-cost about any war.” Rarely has a president described the burdens of warfare so starkly.
Washington being Washington, its talk has already moved to politics and the impact of the chaotic withdrawal on voters’ judgments about Biden.
Republicans — whether they supported or opposed Trump’s decisions that immensely strengthened the Taliban — suddenly spoke with one voice. They contended that whatever happened in the past, all the problems and failures now rested on Biden’s shoulders.
This claim overlooks the mistakes of two decades and is especially hypocritical coming from Trump’s die-hard defenders and those who were silent when Trump set this outcome in motion.
At bottom, Biden is arguing that responding to the attacks of 9/11 with large military deployments, occupations and “nation building” was a mistake. Such wars, he said both directly and indirectly, sap the country’s energies and the attention of policymakers while placing intolerable burdens on our armed forces.
In the short term, Biden’s detractors will have plenty of fodder, given an endgame badly suited for the unexpectedly swift collapse of the Afghan government and its forces.
Over the longer run, however, Biden is right that policies driven by the passions, calculations — and, yes, misjudgments — of two decades ago could not be sustained. The nation needed to set a new course.
His task now is to minimize the human and strategic damage of a disorderly end to a long era of war — and to make good on his promise of a new era in which American power will be used more prudently, more effectively and with fewer illusions.