Talking Points

Biden stumbles in his victory lap

President Biden faced an unenviable task when speaking to the American people about the end of the Afghanistan war: taking a victory lap over what looks more like a defeat even to many war-weary voters.

The airlift was a major undertaking and most Americans wanted to close the book on the nearly 20-year-old war, which had long since crept beyond the original retributive mission in the aftermath of 9/11. Biden deserves credit for doing what his predecessors did not do, either because they believed nation-building would succeed (in the case of George W. Bush) or because they feared the images that ultimately unfolded on Kabul (as could be said of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, or at least their pivotal advisers). 

Still, the mission, however unrealistic after Osama bin Laden's death, failed. Biden's remark that his administration evacuated 90 percent of Americans who wanted to get out implies some people were left behind. The images of the deadly attack on the Kabul airport are fresh in people's minds. A "more in sorrow than anger" tone would have been appropriate.

But Biden's tone, like his approach to counterterrorism, was defensive. He hit back at his critics who are second-guessing aspects of the withdrawal. He faulted former President Trump's deal with the Taliban, a criticism which sat uneasily alongside his insistence that the withdrawal was his decision alone and the buck stopped with him.

The president is justifiably angry that his loudest destractors are the ones who either presided over Afghanistan turning into a futile nation-building project or who promised to end the war but didn't. Yet his task is to be forward-looking as he attempts to move on from 20 years of war, channeling the empathy for which he is famous rather than engaging in a sustained tit for tat with his critics. 

"We don't have the luxury of being frustrated," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters in a briefing shortly afterward when asked about the difficulties in getting allies out of Afghanistan. That might be good advice for Biden, too.