August 19, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Biden’s ‘mistake’ wasn’t about Afghans. It was about ‘allowing’ Americans to see the profound failure of America’s elites

They think he should have kept things quiet.

Screenshot 2021-08-19 1.37.53 PM

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Judd Legum is the editor of Popular Information, a publication focused on accountability in politics and business. He and two others posted a piece today in which they quote an unnamed “veteran communications professional who has been trying to place prominent voices supportive of the withdrawal on television and in print. The source said that it has been next to impossible.” 

I’ve been in political media for over two decades, and I have never experienced something like this. Not only can I not get people booked on shows, but I can’t get TV bookers who frequently book my guests to give me a call back … In so many ways this feels like Iraq and 2003 all over again. The media has coalesced around a narrative, and any threat to that narrative needs to be shut out.

It may feel like 2003 again but it’s not for obvious reasons. I do, however, think Legum’s source underscores a point I have tried making this week about the press corps. It’s not so much fact-gathering. We understand what happened during the fiasco at the Kabul airport during which desperate Afghans did desperate, deadly things. Instead, it’s acting collectively like the spokesman for America’s political elite. 

What was at stake was more than the US honoring its “fundamental interest, indeed a moral obligation, to succeed where others had failed.” What was at stake was the credibility and legitimacy of America’s political elite.

Legum and the others go on to suggest that the reason “anti-war voices” are being boxed out of press coverage is because those with the most interest in perpetuating the American occupation of Afghanistan are unhappy that the war in ending and are using the president’s “mistake” as proxy for criticizing his decision to end it.

That might be true, but I’m doubtful. I think it’s more fundamental. Political elites knew the end was coming. They knew it was coming before Joe Biden was president. I’m confident they could have found some excuse for criticizing his plan to finish what the disgraced former president started. So I don’t think ending the war is why “anti-war voices” are being boxed out of coverage of Afghanistan. I think this is more about the legitimacy and credibility of the political elites.

They failed. They failed badly. And they kept on failing badly for 20 years. Critics of the war said we should have gotten out after toppling the Taliban two decades ago. Others, like me, stopped paying attention to Afghanistan after the US assassinated the man responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Those who really knew Afghanistan, however, also knew it was ungovernable. I was struck this week by something Noah Feldman said his dad told him in 2001. Feldman said “that even Afghans had never really run their country from the center. When my parents had been there in 1969, the king was effectively little more than the mayor of Kabul. My father remembered him driving around the putative capital city at the wheel of a Volkswagen Beetle.

On the road to Herat, my parents had encountered tribesmen who, my father recalled, were so unaware of the affairs of the country as a whole that they expressed no interest in the word “Afghanistan” — or maybe they had never heard the word at all.

“They expressed no interest in the word ‘Afghanistan’ — or maybe they had never heard the word at all.” What does that tell you? Well, that a nation that doesn’t think of itself as a nation is never going to behave as another nation, America, which thinks of itself as a nation, wants it to behave. It’s just not going to happen. Perhaps the only way it would happen is if the US did to Afghanistan what it did to Japan, which is rebuilding it from the ground up after totally annihilating Japanese society. Then again, Imperial Japan had thought of itself as a nation. 

I’m not telling you anything new. This was all debated at the time the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001. It was pretty much forgotten about two years later. But while the rest of us were paying attention to the invasion of and growing quagmire in Iraq, elites who believed the US could do for Afghanistan what it did for Japan kept arguing, as Feldman articulated it, that we “had a fundamental interest, indeed a moral obligation, to succeed where others had failed.” He added: “Instead of conceding to the return of warlords and dictators and the oppression of women, as we had traditionally done throughout the Muslim world, the time had come to embrace and enable democratic rule.”

That’s noble, but it assumes you can teach people to think of themselves as a nation in order to form a nation that would over time “embrace and enable democratic rule.” You can’t. Those people have to come to that conclusion on their own in their own way. That was unthinkable to political elites who rarely in their own personal lives encountered anything that could not be moved by money, force or will. That the American project failed and kept failing wasn’t occasion to rethink it. It was occasion for pouring more on. After all, what was at stake was more than the US honoring its “fundamental interest, indeed a moral obligation, to succeed where others had failed.” What was at stake was the credibility and legitimacy of America’s political elite. 

I think America’s political elite — which, let’s not forget, includes the Washington press corps, especially its military affairs correspondents — could have tolerated Biden’s decision to end the war if the war’s end had come quietly. It didn’t, though, and there’s the real problem. 

Biden’s “mistake” wasn’t about when to evacuate, how many and where to? His “mistake” was “allowing” a situation to unfold that drew the attention of normal Americans to the fact that America’s political elites failed and that 20 years of profound failure discredits them almost totally. The process of discrediting political elites started around the same time the occupation of Afghanistan began, that is, with the United States Supreme Court ruling in the case of Bush v Gore. What happened over the weekend put the face of human suffering on it. 

I’ll end by underscoring the president’s other “mistake.” He took the side of the American people. When it comes to war, the elites are not used to presidents doing that. A huge majority believes the disaster in Kabul is evidence for why we should leave, not evidence for why we should stay. There’s no reversing that, however much influence the Washington press corps has on popular opinion. This isn’t 2003. War isn’t coming. It’s going (for now). I think Biden understands the reputational anxieties of the elites. After all, he’s one of them. But he’s also saying, without saying obviously: Look, it’s done. Get over it.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Gary Herstein on August 19, 2021 at 1:52 pm

    “They expressed no interest in the word ‘Afghanistan’ — or maybe they had never heard the word at all.” — That is a genuinely eye-opening insight.

  2. David Mikulec on August 19, 2021 at 2:04 pm

    Great piece John. This one concurs 100%.

  3. Marie on August 19, 2021 at 2:17 pm

    Not sure what you mean by “elites.” That word has been commandeered by the right to only mean “liberal elites,” and that narrative pisses me off in general. As you know, it’s a term invented to keep the uneducated in line while money-hungry conservatives squash their safety nets and laugh as they cut their own taxes without lessening the burden on the working-class schmucks.

    • Ivo on August 19, 2021 at 2:51 pm

      In this case, it refers to both Dick Cheney and the so called journalists who spread the neocon propaganda, including someone who thinks of themselves as “neutral” like Jake Tapper. I agree with John that a large majority of voters, including D-voters, understand this reference and agree with Biden.

  4. Bennett Graff on August 19, 2021 at 5:34 pm

    Let’s not water down what John means when he notes how the debacle in Afghanistan exposed the failure of “elites” in foreign policy circles. Honestly, it’s little different from intelligence failures that should have foreseen the collapse of the USSR or, as Naomi Klein and Joseph Stiglitz diagnosed, avoided the lousy advice Larry Summers and his ilk offered post-Soviet Russia.

    Interventionists do come in more than one flavor. They are not just neocons. Don’t believe me? Look up “Thomas Friedman.” Even more fun, look up “Friedman Units,” which is how we could just as well measure the results in Afghanistan.

    No, John’s right. Biden did the wise thing. 1) he changed his own mind on the American presence in Afghanistan; 2) he pulled off the band-aid–and quickly–which is good policy and politics; 3) even better, he did it during the August doldrums, a well-known news cycle phenomenon; 4) he availed himself of the grim reality today–illustrated by Trump–that the “influence” of political pundits on voter opinion is already highly limited; 5) he stood firm against firmly entrenched bureaucratic interests, both in the Pentagon and among defense contractors who’ve reaped the rewards of endless war (best kind of business there is, if you think about it, really. Conflicts quickly over don’t pay as well)–or as he put it, he refused to “get rolled.”

    Of course, the media and war advocates now have a black eye and although Mr. Legum may be right about bookers refusing to take on “anti-war voices,” such voices are not fully silenced as pundits galore with platforms have risen to defend the decision.

    Honestly, in terms of basic politics, this was an easy win for Biden with voters. With the Beltway class, not so much. But seriously, they no longer hold the sway they think they do. They’d fare better if they grasped the fact that too many are now onto their “habit” of ginning up “crises” for more eyeballs or of regurgitating for continued access the spin that they’ve so obviously ingested from those with vested interests.

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