Biden, Afghanistan, and Idealism-as-Pragmatism

by Neil H. Buchanan

Plenty has happened in the ten days since I wrote my Dorf on Law column about Afghanistan.  One happy development is that there is now a reasonably significant chorus of people who are not buying the hawkish hype that the cable shows -- and even supposedly neutral reporters -- have been hyping.  Ezra Klein's NYT piece earlier this week is a good example of this positive genre. 
I can thus happily admit that my headline-level assertion that "No One Knows Anything" is now demonstrably false.  It took some time, and there is still plenty of hawkish insanity out there.  Still, the conversation now includes at least a bit of clarity, honesty, and modesty.

Of course, plenty of bad things have happened as well, the most obvious being the terrorist attacks at Kabul's airport yesterday that killed dozens of people.  And because the victims of those attacks include thirteen Americans, this goes beyond a human tragedy and becomes yet another moment when President Biden could make a rash and ultimately tragic recalculation.

As I stipulated in my August 17 piece, I have no special knowledge or expertise about Afghanistan.  My purpose in that column was thus to point out that a reasonably sentient observer could see that the narratives emerging during the chaotic end to the U.S's 20-year military operation in that country were nonsense.  I might not know a lot, but I know BS when I smell it, and the air has been especially fetid this month, even by Washington's standards.
Here, rather than trying to step outside my lane and opine about the specifics in Afghanistan, I want to take a step back and ask what a kind of policy and political possibilities now confront Biden, Congress, and our military and national security leaders.  My conclusion, teased in the title of this piece, is that our domestic political situation now presents Biden with what amounts to a freebie, allowing him to take the idealistic position because, as a pragmatic matter, his political fate has already been sealed.  Why not do the right thing?

Those of us who lean toward the progressive side of things were endlessly told in 2019 and early 2020 that the Democrats needed to run a pragmatic centrist against Donald Trump, because otherwise, Trump would win and we would all be doomed.  I never agreed with that line of argument, but enough people apparently did so to make Biden the nominee.  Biden's ultimate general election victory -- not close in most senses, but actually closer in the sense that truly matters (wafer-thin margins in the closest swing states) than Trump's 2016 eye-of-the-needle shocker -- supposedly validated the self-styled pragmatists' argument.  Or at least, it did not invalidate their assertion.

Although Biden had (until Afghanistan began dominating the news) been surprising everyone with his refreshingly non-centrist economic agenda, he is still very much a pragmatist.  When he decided earlier this year to continue the withdrawal from Afghanistan that Trump's people had set in motion (loaded with all kinds of traps, but I digress), that decision itself was pure pragmatism, both militarily and politically.  Reversing Trump and trying to find a different way out would have inevitably meant extending the Forever War, and doing so would have surely been met with political criticism from both liberals (who would have rightly seen it as yet more capitulation to the military-industrial complex) and conservatives (who would have criticized anything that Biden did).

And as we have all been reminded recently, Biden was pretty hawkish throughout his career, joining nearly everyone in the rush to war in Afghanistan in 2001 and supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Biden was at least able to see nuances that others did not, and he gave more than lip service to the idea that authorizing the use of force in Iraq was not the same thing as giving up on a peaceful solution.  Whether or not one views that as smart, cynical, or hopelessly naive (given who served as President and Vice President at the time), Biden was very much like then-Senator Hillary Clinton and most other hawk-adjacent Democrats, making a very bad decision based on what were at best minimally defensible substantive arguments.

What we do know, in any case, is that the Biden crowd's hard-to-argue pragmatism on the substance was very easy to argue on the political side.  This was yet another moment in history when Democrats were frantically pushing back against charges of being unpatriotic, weak appeasers who did not "support the troops."  Although some Democrats were willing to speak up for peace, the much easier move for pragmatists like Biden was to go along with the rush to war, lest they look like anti-American wimps.

With that as my long setup to the argument, we can now ask what that style of pragmatism would look like under the circumstances that Biden now faces.  As soon as things began to fall apart in Afghanistan this month, he could have flip-flopped and figured out a minimally face-saving way to deny having done so.  He could, in short, have done more of the same thing that he and his cohorts have done for decades, following the inglorious tradition of avoiding political hits by going into a military morass with no exit plan.  That he has not (yet) done so might be because, as I suggested above, there was no face-saving way to do that, or it could in fact have been a principled decision not to continue something that was a mistake from the beginning.

Even so, the temptation must be strong to try to respond to the shrieks of the hawks and the notably hostile Washington press corps to show "strength," or something.  Adding in yesterday's terrorist bombing only makes it easier to imagine Biden rushing to take politically defensive steps -- such as extending his August 31 evacuation deadline (which is being criticized as "arbitrary," which is of course what deadlines are) -- that could well pull us back into the quagmire.

But here is where the current political situation actually makes Biden's job much easier.  If it were still possible to imagine that Democrats have a political future in this country, Biden might be tempted to finesse the Afghanistan situation (and many other difficult policy choices).  Since that is no longer possible to imagine, however, Biden is free to do what he wants.

Let me take pains to be especially clear.  Because I do not subscribe to the kind of pragmatism that the Biden/Clinton/Obama power center represents, I personally would not want a Democratic president to use the excuse of political consequences to commit unforced policy errors (especially those with deadly human consequences).  As I noted in my August 17 piece, it seems -- even now -- unlikely that Biden or the Democrats would pay any price at all at the ballot box in 2022 or 2024 for anything that he does this Summer or Fall regarding Afghanistan (or most other policy decisions).  Republicans figured out a long time ago that they can look bad from one news cycle to the next, but they can get their way by simply refusing to buckle.  (See, e.g., keeping Merrick Garland off the Supreme Court.)  The voters' memories are short, and they especially do not care about foreign policy except in the most salient situations.

Even though I do not think like those self-styled pragmatists who have long dominated the Democratic Party, however, I do have a fairly good idea of how they think.  And I concede that it is not at all nuts.  Every election cycle has high stakes and close races, and there is always a cautious, non-offensive approach that these Democrats can plausibly adopt on every issue.  Pete Buttigieg is the avatar of that brand of politics, so it is not something that will end when the Biden generation is gone.

This means that, if I were in conversation with Biden or someone who thinks along similar lines, I might find myself saying, "I would not do what you're planning to do, but I can't deny that your political calculus might be correct."  Pragmatism being pragmatism, the argument would be to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good; and if we have to swallow hard and make a bad decision about Afghanistan, that is better than losing the next election and allowing the truly bad guys to take over.

Under current circumstances, one might even think that the pro-pragmatic political argument would be especially strong.  In 2012, to take the most recent relevant example, an Obama loss to Romney would have been truly bad, but it would not have been apocalyptically, irreversibly bad.  In 2021, with all that we know about Trump and the extreme turn that Republicans have taken, the stakes are immeasurably higher.  The argument that justified nominating Biden in 2020 is thus now arguably stronger by an order of magnitude or more.

As frequent readers of Dorf on Law are all too aware, however, both Professor Dorf and I are on record as saying that the die is cast for the Republicans to seize power in 2022 and 2024 and then to complete the transition of the country to a one-party autocratic state.  The point to emphasize here is that this is already a done deal.  The state laws that have already been passed this year -- with no prospect of their being negated by the courts or a Joe Manchin-blocked Congress -- guarantee it.

I do not imagine for a moment that Joe Biden allows himself to think along those lines.  Or do I?  Upon a moment's reflection, I find it easy to imagine someone as savvy as Biden seeing the writing on the wall.  Even so, he would be crazy to admit it, simply because it is worth continuing to fight on all fronts until the very end.  In any case, I cannot with any confidence attribute to Biden the what-the-f*ck-we're-all-doomed-anyway attitude to which my argument leads.

I can say, however, that what used to be politically pragmatic is no longer operative.  "I can't do this good thing, because if I do, that bad thing will happen" is moot, when the bad thing will happen in any event.  This gives Biden the freedom to decide, for example, that he might as well take the heat for the continued Afghanistan withdrawal, because it is the right thing to do, and there is no net political cost of doing so.

I have argued, by the way, that even if Congress passes federal laws like the For the People Act to try to save constitutional democracy, that will almost surely still not be enough.  Under those circumstances, then, even Manchin ought to take a screw-it attitude, voting to gut the filibuster, give statehood to D.C. and Puerto Rico, expand the Supreme Court, and all the rest.
Some of those things would quickly be reversed after Republicans seize power, but not all of them.  D.C. statehood would be extraordinarily difficult to undo as a constitutional matter.  Afghanistan would be reversible, but why would the next Republican president not simply be grateful that Biden made the tough decision?  After all, any such president will surely have some other terrible ideas to pursue, so having Afghanistan off the docket would be a net plus.

The larger point is that Biden, whether he realizes it or not, has been given the gift of politically-consequence-free policy making.  The pragmatic thing to do now is simply whatever he thinks is right.  He has often spoken eloquently about ideals that we should pursue, even as he lived his life in the Democrats' habitual defensive crouch.  With the game lost, why not try to do the right thing, until you are dragged off the field?