Talking Points

What Biden shares with Bush

One of the more aggravating features of the U.S. debate over Afghanistan has been the sudden prominence of former officials of the George W. Bush administration. People like Condolezza Rice, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, among others, have used their platforms to condemn and criticize President Biden — as though they themselves didn't have a part in persuading the United States to invade Iraq, one of the worst debacles in American foreign policy history. Sometimes it's better just to keep quiet.

Inadvertently, though, they have highlighted an unfortunate truth about the Afghanistan situation. President Biden has made the same mistake getting out of war that Bush did in starting one: Their respective administrations didn't fully prepare themselves — or the public — for the possibility of everything going wrong.

The blunders of the Bush White House have long been documented. Among them: Then-Vice President Dick Cheney told the country that Americans would be greeted as liberators. It lowballed estimates of how many troops would be needed to stabilize postwar Iraq. Most egregiously, it oversold the case for going to war — ostensibly to prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. As it turned out, there were none. The American public, prepared for a quick and easy invasion, eventually revolted as the enterprise turned into a bloody and prolonged quagmire.

On Wednesday, President Biden told ABC News that getting out of Afghanistan was always going to be messy. "The idea that somehow, there's a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don't know how that happens," Biden said. But that's not quite what he said just last month, rejecting a reporter's comparison to the fall of Saigon. "There's going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy in the — of the United States from Afghanistan," he said then. "It is not at all comparable." He might've believed that — as late as last week, the Pentagon was projecting Kabul would fall within 90 days. The end, of course, came much more quickly.

American presidents are not good at preparing the public for worst-case scenarios. They're also often prone to believe their own happy talk. But things go wrong. Disasters happen. Plans don't work out. Our leaders would serve themselves, and the public, much better if they were forthright about those possibilities.