Talking Points

Biden's Afghanistan refugee dilemma

President Biden is taking flak for his timid position on admitting refugees to the United States from Afghanistan amid a messy withdrawal. The Atlantic's George Packer quotes Biden as telling a fellow Obama administration official back in 2010 that these refugees shouldn't be a priority as U.S. troops departed: "Fuck that, we don't have to worry about that. We did it in Vietnam, Nixon and Kissinger got away with it."

That's a dumb and ugly sentiment reminiscent of some quotes attributed to Biden's predecessor. It also appears to be consistent with what he said publicly as a senator about refugees from the Vietnam war: "The United States has no obligation to evacuate one, or 100,001, South Vietnamese."

The U.S. has a moral obligation to translators and others who helped the 20-year war effort in Afghanistan, many of whom are at risk of slaughter by the Taliban. Even former President Trump has said as much in a statement calling for the evacuation of American civilians and "others who have been good to our Country and who should be allowed to seek refuge" (though he did later send a follow-up complaining that an oft-photographed plane leaving Kabul appeared to be filled with Afghan nationals rather than Americans).

Nevertheless, Biden is right to be cautious. The reason the U.S. has spent the last two decades in Afghanistan is that there is a substantial terrorist risk there, so a vetting system is required. There are also different cultural and religious values in Afghanistan, even among many of the relatively liberal people who would be inclined to support Western militaries against the Taliban. 

There is also the significant challenge Biden has taken on in trying to defuse the populist trend that fueled Trump's rise to power. Hillary Clinton has raised migration as a major source of right-wing populism in Europe. So has John Kerry, though he considers climate change a major driver of these shifts.

None of this is an argument against taking refugees, and it certainly does not obviate our duty to people who were bona fide close allies in the Afghanistan war, one of several military interventions that destabilized the region. But it does require careful thought about numbers and location, both for the benefit of Americans and to ensure that this country, which has seen backlash due to refugees in the past, remains welcoming in the future.