Talking Points

The right's boilerplate indignation on Afghanistan

You've all seen it — a conservative publication lambasting the president about how his recent decisions have brought on "a national humiliation." "The American capitulation will … embolden others around the world" to test "the new administration's mettle." That's why it's so important for members of Congress to demand that the president take steps "to repair the damage already done" to our credibility. We need to recognize that "angry words and congressional resolutions of disapproval are now worse than useless … unless backed by deeds." Anything less than decisive action will only confirm "American weakness" in the eyes of the world.

Harsh words for Joe Biden? Not quite. The blistering criticism appeared in April of 2001, in the pages of the now-defunct Weekly Standard magazine. The new president drawing the ire was none other than Republican George W. Bush, who had run for office promising a more restrained foreign policy than the one promised by Bill Clinton's vice president Al Gore. The occasion of the editorial? A long-forgotten minor standoff with China in which an American spy plane was forced to land by a Chinese fighter jet. Five months later, terrorists from Al Qaeda would attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the skirmish with China would be forgotten. And because President Bush responded to the 9/11 attacks exactly as the Weekly Standard would have wished, conservative periodicals trained their harshest rhetoric elsewhere for the next seven years.

They were back focused on the Oval Office once Barack Obama settled into the job and began diverging from conservative nostrums about the need for full-spectrum toughness and willful resolution — in Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Cuba.

Donald Trump's presidency presented a complicated case. Normally a Republican would receive deference from conservatives, but Trump was no ordinary Republican on foreign policy. At the same time, the 45th president was outsmarted by members of his own administration, who ensured the U.S. broke less from standard Republican policy preferences than he would have liked. That's why Trump's efforts to withdraw from Afghanistan never came to fruition.

But Biden followed through, and for that he has become a target, just like pre-9/11 Bush and Obama before him. Withdrawal from Afghanistan is a national humiliation. An utter disgrace. Evidence to our friends and enemies alike of our lack of credibility. An invitation for bad actors everywhere to seek advantage of our fecklessness. A guarantee our opponents will be emboldened and reinvigorated. And so on. And so forth.

Be aggressive. Flex muscles. Act tough. Never reassess or pull back. That's the sum total of mainstream conservative thinking on foreign policy. It's hawkish boilerplate. And so are the criticisms of those who dare to diverge from it.