The Tuesday

White House

The Presidency as Foreign-Policy Theater

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on response in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida from the White House in Washington, D.C., September 2, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

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The High Price of Big Man Mojo

The American retreat from Afghanistan, with its whimpering and scurrying and its generally cringing tail-between-the-legs posture, would have been debacle enough without the Biden administration’s having added a massacre of children and innocents to it.

The fact that it was a massacre enabled by incompetence does not improve the situation.

General Frank McKenzie, who is in charge at U.S. Central Command, confirmed last week that a drone strike carried out in Kabul in order to ward off an imminent attack from ISIS-K actually killed a carload of civilians, mostly children.

“I offer my sincere apology,” General McKenzie said. Oh, at least it’s sincere. He affirmed that he is “fully responsible for this strike and this tragic outcome.” If General McKenzie is fully responsible, then perhaps he — or someone above him — should act like it and see to it that he is, at a minimum, fully relieved of his responsibilities.

But is General McKenzie really fully responsible?

“The strike on 29 August must be considered in the context of the situation on the ground,” General McKenzie said, “in Kabul at Hamid Karzai International Airport following the ISIS-K attack that resulted in the deaths of 13 soldiers, sailors, and Marines, and more than 100 civilians, at Abbey Gate on 26 August. And also with the substantial body of intelligence indicating the imminence of another attack.”

That is a useful context to consider, because it is not a relevant military context at all — it is a political context.

The horrifying attack on August 26 confirmed only the general sense that violent attacks against U.S. forces and those under their protection were likely, if not inevitable, during our headlong retreat from Afghanistan. It told us what we already knew. The events of August 26 did not tell us anything about whether that particular vehicle — packed with an aid worker and his family — was likely to be part of an ISIS-K operation. The events of August 26 are unlikely to have shed any light on whether the intelligence, if we can call it that, preceding that drone strike ought to have been judged credible.

The events of August 26 are relevant mainly for political — or, we might as well say, cosmetic — reasons.

And it seems to have been the politics that we were responding to.

The collapse of the Afghan government and the surrender of U.S. forces to the Taliban (and we might as well call it what it is) already was shaping up to be a fiasco. Subcomandante Malarky boasted that the Afghan military had been so well-trained and splendidly provisioned by the U.S. government that its ability to hold off the Taliban was a near certainty. “They have an air force,” Joe Biden said of the Kabul government. “The Taliban doesn’t.” Someone might have reminded him that the Taliban already conquered Afghanistan once without the benefit of an air force, and that the attack on the United States that precipitated our involvement in Afghanistan was carried out by means of box-cutters and building schematics.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken was even more emphatic: “We are not withdrawing. We are staying. The embassy is staying. Our programs are staying.”

(I know the Blinken type. When one of these bloodless, dead-eyed Ivy League lawyers says he isn’t going to screw you, you’re already screwed. Blaming them for it is like blaming a wasp for stinging you — it is what they do, their nature.)

The seemingly instantaneous collapse of the notionally U.S.-backed regime in Kabul — a regime that had been in reality neglected by U.S. officials wearied by its corruption and inefficacy and then actively undermined by the Trump administration’s decision to bypass it altogether and conduct direct negotiations with the Taliban — calls to mind Lee Smith’s “strong horse” principle, which he applied to the Arabic-speaking Middle East but which also shapes political calculation in much of the rest of the world. As Osama bin Laden once put it, “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse,” a sentiment Smith connects to the thinking of medieval Arab historian Ibn Khaldun.

We are the weak horse.

There are many factors that shape the political life of Afghanistan: religion, ideology, tribe, geography, history — but also the brute facts of brute force. That has always been the problem with setting an arbitrary deadline for wrapping up U.S. efforts in Afghanistan: Without the United States, the Taliban wins, and it is not in the interest of anybody in Afghanistan to see to it that it takes the Taliban a long time to win — if they ultimately end up on the losing side of that fight, they and their families are going to be tortured and murdered. President Biden did his best impersonation of Lyndon Johnson, who famously complained about sending “American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”

That’s familiar stuff, and it generally shakes out the same way. The same political decision that made Taliban rule inevitable also made it imminent. This isn’t the Army–Navy football game — there are real consequences for being on the losing side of a fight in Afghanistan. It was never going to be the case that as Uncle Sam went limping back home Afghans were going to stand there and make things worse for themselves.

The fact that the United States chooses to be the weak horse does not change the political algebra.

American presidencies do not run on policy — they run on magic.

They run on the superstitious (and, indeed, idolatrous) belief that there is something magical about the person of the president, that he enjoys the powers of at least a demigod, and that the nation’s prosperity and security are mystically connected with his person and his ritual performances in the democratic agon. That is how the 9/11 attacks came to be, in a very strange but true sense, about George W. Bush. They became something more than an event.

When the nation is insulted or attacked, then the president must respond in some symbolically satisfying way or risk losing the Mandate of Heaven. Hence President Bill Clinton’s decision to blow up an empty pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum in retaliation (or so he said) for terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. There were a couple of different stories told to justify that attack — some fiction about the facility being used to produce nerve gas and that it was connected to Osama bin Laden, who had lived in Khartoum a decade earlier — but the timing was perfectly Clintonian: two months after the film Wag the Dog opened in theaters and one week after the Monica Lewinsky matter became public.

Clinton, who had been a draft-dodging bum in the 1960s (one of the many things he has in common with Donald Trump), was intent on remaking the Democratic Party along more centrist and less McGovernite lines, and he was sensitive about looking like too much of a flower child. At the same time, anything that looked like a variation on the theme of Vietnam was, in those years, strictly off limits, especially for a Democrat. The question about U.S. military engagements in the Clinton years was never about U.S. interests — the question was: What does this say about Bill Clinton?

It was a difficult question to parse politically. The memory of Vietnam was alive for Clinton-era Democrats who had cut their political teeth in the anti-war movement, but in the most recent major U.S. military conflict before Clinton’s presidency, Operation Desert Storm, President George H. W. Bush had if anything made it look too easy. U.S. forces drove Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait in four days of fighting, a show of force that was underlined by the ruthless massacre of some unknown number of retreating Iraqi troops — estimates run from hundreds to as many as 10,000 — on the so-called Highway of Death. President Bush’s actions were a sharp departure from those of his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, who must have been the most dovish hawk there ever was, the greatest peacenik ever to be denounced as a warmonger.

The first Gulf War left Americans with the impression — and the expectation — that U.S. forces could impose any outcome they desired, anywhere in the world, with a minimal loss of life and a money cost that was easily lost in the financial vortex of Washington. We still operate, in no small part, under that misapprehension, failing to appreciate that our ability to impose military outcomes is insufficient to secure the political outcomes that are, in fact, our actual national-security goal.

Clinton’s only political goals were self-serving. But Clinton nonetheless was compelled to act — politically compelled, not militarily compelled. If anything, his obviously symbolic response probably emboldened Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, persuading them that the price of attacking the United States was, all things considered, quite tolerable, a burden they were willing to bear in the service of jihad. Bin Laden, being largely ignorant of American political realities and hostage to his own messianic mania, had expected much the same thing after 9/11 — a symbolic retaliation followed by retreat.

Because Barack Obama had at least the good sense to more or less ignore Joe Biden out of existence for eight years, Osama bin Laden did not live to see his expectations finally come to pass. But a symbolic retaliation followed by retreat is precisely what President Biden ultimately intended to offer, at the end, in Afghanistan. After the airport attack — the deadliest attack on U.S. forces in Afghanistan in a decade — President Biden was politically compelled to do something, lest his Big Man Mojo be seen to wane and the Mandate of Heaven slip from his quavering grasp. That compulsion surely was felt all the way down the chain of command. And it resulted in taking the first opportunity to make a theatrical show of force — in this case, against a car with seven children in it.

Because Congress is run by Democrats, there probably will be no serious oversight effort made to learn how that decision was made and how it went wrong. But the political dynamics animating the administration are plain enough.

George H. W. Bush was far from indifferent to political realities, but he was a politician of an increasingly rare kind: one who was not only a politician. In the Gulf War, he understood what U.S. interests were actually at stake, identified the most direct and convenient means for securing those interests, built a grand coalition that served U.S. military and diplomatic interests, and to a considerable extent trusted — wrongly — that the contrast between his old-school competence and the low-rent shtick of the grabasstical governor of Arkansas would secure his reelection. But by 1992, our presidential politics already had become surreal: George H. W. Bush was denounced as a “wimp” — the editorial cartoonists liked to depict him as an old woman — by the same people who had five minutes ago denounced him as a warmonger, not only for his leadership in the Gulf War but even before that, for his courageous actions as an airman in World War II. (The charge was strafing Japanese lifeboats.) There has always been an element of purely symbolic exchange in our presidential politics, from George Washington on, but by the 1990s that economy of symbols had become almost entirely unyoked from the business of being president. That is the only way to understand the madness of handing power over from the experienced and capable hands of George H. W. Bush to such a man as Bill Clinton.

The symbolic presidency and presidential administration remain disconnected. That makes it impossible for a president to shut up and do nothing — even when that is the best course of action.

The prevalence of symbolism over all else means that presidents are compelled to act — even when the action is pointless or destructive. Sometimes, that is an ill-considered tariff or a ridiculous promise about Mexico paying us to build a border wall. Sometimes, it is showing up at a disaster scene as though the presidential presence brought with it mystical healing powers rather than resource-consuming distraction. Sometimes, it is the mystical laying of presidential hands upon a Skutnik during the State of the Union address.

Sometimes, it’s a carload of kids being burnt on the altar of muscular executive action.

Words About Words

We use iconic to mean something like “famous and admired” or “celebrated,” but we really should restrict its use to people whose depictions are, in fact, icons, which is to say, people whose images are used in some emblematic capacity.

Queen Elizabeth II is an icon; Prince Charles is not. Che Guevara is an icon; Muammar Gaddafi is not, at least not outside of Libya. An icon can stand for a nation (Mohandas Gandhi), a movement (Susan B. Anthony), an ideology (Adolf Hitler), a sensibility (Le Corbusier), an era (Marilyn Monroe), an episode (Abraham Lincoln), a cultural current (Hugh Hefner), an ideal (Mother Teresa), and, of course, religions and religious tendencies.

Like an artistic style, the iconic quality of an image is most easily detected when it is being copied: Elizabeth Holmes dressed up like Steve Jobs, not like Bill Gates, for the same reason that there have been many parodies of William F. Buckley Jr.’s writing and speech but none of Ezra Klein’s. To borrow from Gertrude Stein, a woman who knew, there has to be some there there. It is a quality that you cannot buy, engineer, or even earn — celebrities who set out to make themselves into icons (Lil Nas X) almost always fail. They end up like the ironically named Madonna, who is a kind of vampire that has fed on a series of genuine icons, derivative to such an extent that her considerable originality is obscured by the enduring looks and personas which, in layers of pastiche, compose her image.

All logos aspire to the iconic condition, but only a few achieve it: Apple, McDonald’s, Nike, Starbucks — you know that these logos have reached that height because they can be parodied, while attempting to parody some very well-known but not iconic logos or brands (say, Armani or Tesla) is like telling a joke that nobody gets. In that respect, a person who is genuinely iconic has a face that works the way the McDonald’s arches do, supralinguistically — straight to the lizard brain, where the consumer instinct lives.

We use iconic lazily and promiscuously, but we should hold it in reserve: For one thing, it is rarely warranted, and, for another, when it is warranted, you don’t need to be told.

Rampant Prescriptivism

A reader, apparently not entirely familiar with your obedient correspondent, writes in with a sports-related question. Stuck in his craw is the broadcasters’ phrase “former first-round draft pick.” What would be more accurate, he says, is “previous first-round draft pick.”

Former seems to indicate that the player is no longer a first-round pick. But, it seems to me, the player in question will always have been a first round pick — it simply happened a while ago. In other words, previously.”

There is something to that. Surely it matters when a player was a first-round draft pick: I would imagine that the bidding starts higher for 2019 first-round picks than it does for 2011 first-round picks. So, why not say it that way: “Andrew Luck was a 2012 first-round pick.” The easiest cure for ambiguity is information and precision.

Seems easy enough.

Make it so.

From the Things That Shouldn’t Need Saying Desk . . .

Literally means literally — describing a thing that actually happened. As opposed to metaphorically. A reader shares an example from the late Norm Macdonald and the extant Lena Dunham, via Vulture:

NM: I guess a whole bunch of people hate her or something. I didn’t know she was a big person.

V: It’s even weirder if you didn’t know who she was. You just picked some random stranger to correct their use of the word “literal” on Twitter?

NM: Well, that does bother me. They told me what a writer she [Dunham] was. Whenever somebody tells me that someone’s a great writer and the first thing you see is “literal” used incorrectly . . .

V: Forget about your career, do you think Twitter has been good for you as a human being?

NM: It’s definitely bad for me as a human being.

If you happen to be in the market for a titanium hammer, here is an Amazon review: “I used this hammer for framing a basement a couple weeks ago and literally fell in love with this amazing hammer.”

That is going to be a love story for the ages.

If you ever are in doubt about how to use the word literally, just see how Joe Biden does it, and then don’t do that.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com

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In Other News . . .

Writing in the New York Times, Ezra Klein insists that the words “supply side” will “summon the ghost of Arthur Laffer.”

That’s pretty spooky — for one thing, it isn’t even October yet.

For another, Arthur Laffer isn’t dead.

Recommended

Referenced above: The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.

In Closing

Something from this week’s reading, from Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, stood out:

By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter . . . By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king.

There’s a reason there is so much Old Testament sensibility in the earliest days of our nation. Pharaoh was very much on the pilgrim mind.

Every now and then I come across a Bible verse that I must have read a dozen times but makes me wonder whether I’ve really read the book at all.

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