In the New York Times, Ezra Klein proposes that the United States’ disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan was not really Joe Biden’s fault — and, moreover, that the people who disagree (which is pretty much everyone in America, it seems) are “pretending”:
In 2005, my colleagues at The American Prospect, Sam Rosenfeld and Matt Yglesias, wrote an essay I think about often. It was called “The Incompetence Dodge,” and it argued that American policymakers and pundits routinely try to rescue the reputation of bad ideas by attributing their failure to poor execution. At the time, they were writing about the liberal hawks who were blaming the catastrophe of the Iraq war on the Bush administration’s maladministration rather than rethinking the enterprise in its totality. But the same dynamic suffuses the recriminations over the Afghanistan withdrawal.
To state the obvious: There was no good way to lose Afghanistan to the Taliban. A better withdrawal was possible — and our stingy, chaotic visa process was unforgivable — but so was a worse one. Either way, there was no hope of an end to the war that didn’t reveal our decades of folly, no matter how deeply America’s belief in its own enduring innocence demanded one. That is the reckoning that lies beneath events that are still unfolding, and much of the cable news conversation is a frenzied, bipartisan effort to avoid it.
To drive home the point, Klein adds:
Focusing on the execution of the withdrawal is giving virtually everyone who insisted we could remake Afghanistan the opportunity to obscure their failures by pretending to believe in the possibility of a graceful departure.
It is especially interesting to see Klein taking this tack, given that he is typically of the view that what the United States needs more than anything else is to put a competent technocrat into the White House. During the early months of COVID-19, for example, Klein fantasized publicly about how much better things would be if Elizabeth Warren were president. “Taking [sic] to @ewarren right now,” Klein tweeted in April of last year, “is a strange, slightly melancholy experience: like glimpsing an alternate reality where political leadership is proportionate to the crisis we’re facing.” In that tweet, Klein linked to a piece in which he praised Warren for being “the first presidential candidate to release a plan for combating coronavirus” and concluded that “Warren’s penchant for planning stands in particularly stark contrast to this administration, which still has not released a clear coronavirus plan.” A few days later, after Warren had dropped out of the race, Klein tweeted dolefully, “I miss Elizabeth Warren.”
As usual, Klein has got things backwards. While “winning” the war in Afghanistan was, indeed, a pipe dream, it would not, in fact, have been especially hard for the United States to get out in a more orderly fashion. The Biden administration could probably not have prevented the Taliban from taking over again (although, if this was always inevitable, Joe Biden shouldn’t have said exactly the opposite). But it could quite obviously have ensured that before our troops were drawn down we had got every American, permanent resident, and eligible Afghan out; we had removed both our weaponry and any sensitive information; and we had consulted properly with our allies. That part — which, to use Klein’s term, is not “the war” but “the execution of the withdrawal” — was within Joe Biden’s control. And he completely and utterly screwed it up. For a technocrat such as Klein to try to obfuscate this is nothing short of astonishing.
COVID-19, by contrast, was — and is — a far, far more difficult challenge. Frequent readers of mine will have noticed that, with the exception of Andrew Cuomo, who engaged in a disgraceful cover-up, I have not been especially critical of any of our leaders’ responses to this pandemic. Why not? Well, because, outside of a handful of areas (the development, production, and dissemination of vaccines, for example) this is simply not an area in which one can establish easy or obvious links between the inputs (“planning,” say) and the outputs (say, infection rates, or deaths). The state with the highest number of COVID-19 deaths, New York, is also the state that had the governor whom everyone praised to the hilt, while Florida, which has a governor whom critics have rechristened “DeathSantis,” is 26th. As I write, Texas and Hawaii are producing virtually identical per capita infection charts, despite having adopted dramatically different policies. Seven months into the presidency that was going to save us — and despite his having said on July 4 of this year that “we’re closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus” — President Joe Biden is still presiding over a crisis. Israel, which did everything “right” from the very start, is now seeing a brutal surge. And the rest of the world? Well, if you can find me a coherent cause–effect pattern there, I’ll buy you an ice cream. The idea that Elizabeth Warren could have fixed all this simply by running around and sounding officious is absurd.
The truth is that Klein is doing here what he always does, which is dressing up a partisan propaganda effort in pseudo-scientific garb. What Joe Biden needs more than anything right now is for the American people to conclude that the real issue here is not his own stunning incompetence, but the wisdom of the war in Afghanistan per se. And so, right on cue, Klein pops up with the goods. There’s a word for that sort of journalist; but it’s sure as hell not “wonk.”