What Future Presidents are Learning from Afghanistan
Media coverage of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the rapid Taliban takeover there has been profoundly negative, portraying President Biden’s actions as a series of blunders that undermined his claims to having an administration built on competence. Observing these events a bit more quietly have been people like Kamala Harris, Ron DeSantis, and others who hope to be the next President, as well as people who might serve as their staffers. They are taking notes on how Biden has handled these events and how the media are treating him compared to his recent predecessors. What lessons are they learning that they might apply to their own presidencies?
Likely few of them see this as the issue that will drive Biden from office. Afghanistan isn't going to generate a presidential removal, either via impeachment or the 25th amendment. And we know that elections rarely turn on questions of foreign policy. Yes, the bloody foreign engagements overseen in Korea and Vietnam by Presidents Truman and Johnson, respectively, likely ended their careers early, and the death toll in Iraq undoubtedly hurt President George W. Bush's standing. But outside of those unusually costly spectacles, foreign policy is rarely central to presidential campaigns.
Even if the Afghanistan withdrawal isn't likely to have much of a political effect, though, the media coverage it produced might. The negative press Biden has received over the past two weeks, even from news sources usually more sympathetic to his administration, is exactly what the previous three presidents were trying to avoid. And those who would succeed Biden in office surely don't want this kind of coverage.
For the sake of argument, let’s just posit that Biden did as good a job as could have been done in the situation he was handed. That is, let’s assume that the US military mission there had been lost years ago, that a democratically-elected Afghan government was never going to survive without being propped up by thousands of American soldiers, and that unless the US was willing to commit to an indefinite military occupation, it was always going to face a moment like this one once it withdrew. (Hell, that might even be right.) Would the media tone have been any less negative?
Media bias is often widely misunderstood. Mainstream news reporters may, indeed, lean somewhat left on a personal level, but that’s not typically how they cover the news. Rather, they often focus on blood and scandal. Nuance is often in short supply, particularly in dramatic moments where reporters' access is substantially limited, as Jonathan Bernstein noted. This is an understandable bias from publications that need to sell copy and attract readers and viewers, but it is still a bias.
Even with this bias, though, we could view such coverage as, in some respects, a good thing. Avoiding that sort of coverage is the incentive presidents have to get it right. Even if they’re not going to be punished in the next election, or if approval ratings are pretty rigid and robust to current events, politicians don’t like to look foolish and incompetent in the news.
On the other hand, we could see this as the reason neither Presidents Bush, Obama, nor Trump wanted to rip off the bandage in Afghanistan. Avoiding this coverage was the reason those presidents decided to give the occupation just one more year, nineteen times.
The dozens of presidential hopefuls and hundreds or thousands of their potential staffers are watching these events right now. They would not be crazy to conclude that, at least politically, indefinite occupation is preferable to withdrawal, even from an unpopular war that is two decades old.
My guess is that this point will likely turn out to be moot. Afghanistan will not be the lead story in the papers a month from now, nor perhaps even a week from now, and the elections of 2022 and 2024 will largely turn on the economy (and possibly, but hopefully not, Covid). Whether Democrats do well or poorly in those elections will have little to do with events in Afghanistan. But Biden and his successors have surely taken note.