The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In justifying one blunder, Biden may commit another

President Biden at the White House on Aug. 23. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

President George W. Bush let a foreign policy fiasco push him toward a sweeping pro-democracy doctrine that contradicted his prior aversion to nation-building and ended up doing more harm than good. Now, President Biden is in danger of making a similar mistake, in the opposite direction.

When Bush ordered an invasion of Iraq, the purpose was clear: to dislodge a dangerous dictator in possession of weapons of mass destruction.

But the intelligence was flawed — there were no such weapons. And the invasion was a disaster. The Bush administration went in with no plans for how to govern — or leave — a country the morning after conquering it.

Sinking deeper into quagmire as his reason for war evaporated, Bush developed an after-the-fact justification. He would bring democracy to Iraq, a project eventually expanded to the Middle East and the world.

History was rewritten to suggest that the United States had intended from the start to impose democracy at gunpoint. The new rationale did nothing to salvage U.S. leadership in the world. But it did a great deal to damage the cause of democracy promotion, which, in fact, should have a prime place in U.S. foreign policy — a considered, thoughtful place.

Now, Biden risks making a backward version of the same blunder. He has maintained that the central purpose of his presidency is to rebuild and defend democracy and democratic values, in the United States and around the world.

But facing criticism for the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, he at times has retreated to a realpolitik that might make Henry Kissinger proud.

“Look, let’s put this thing in perspective here,” he said last week. “What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point with al-Qaeda gone?”

Some answers: The 39 million people who may now be subjected to brutal, fundamentalist rule. The little girls barred from school and imprisoned in forced marriages. The people of the wrong faith prevented from worshiping, or killed for it. Are they not an American interest?

Biden may believe this coldbloodedness serves his political interests. Republicans are exploiting his troubles, unabashed by hypocrisy after so many of them stayed silent when President Donald Trump initiated the withdrawal. Polls show that Americans agree with Biden’s fundamental argument that withdrawal was long overdue.

But if preventing a terrorist attack on the United States is “our only vital national interest in Afghanistan,” as Biden said, then why should people in Taiwan or Cuba or Poland think Biden cares any more about their freedom?

A few months ago, addressing a joint session of Congress, Biden said that he had told Chinese President Xi Jinping “what I’ve said to many world leaders — that America won’t back away from our commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Indeed, he continued, “No responsible American president can remain silent when basic human rights are violated. . . . We cannot walk away from that principle.”

Biden might argue there is no contradiction. He will still speak up for the rights of Afghan women, he has said, but the United States can’t be defending them — or the rights of women abused in many other parts of the world — with U.S. troops.

But that’s not the message the world hears when Biden asks what interest we have in Afghanistan.

The United States did not invade Afghanistan to promote democracy any more than it did so in Iraq. But once it had dislodged the Taliban, it decided — with broad bipartisan support, including from Biden — that the smartest, safest and most just strategy was to help keep the Taliban away while Afghan girls went to school and Afghans of all ages gradually developed the habits of self-rule.

I believe Trump and Biden were wrong to give up on that project. In recent years, the United States had achieved the low-risk, small-footprint, counterterrorism-and-training posture that Biden had advocated as vice president. The American people would have accepted such a mission indefinitely if Biden had explained its importance, and even long-term stalemate would have been preferable to what we will see now.

But even assuming Biden is right to withdraw, there’s no question that thousands of Afghans who worked directly with the Americans, and millions more who relied on our professed commitment to democracy and women’s rights, will be left behind. Many will suffer terrible retribution.

It’s painful to acknowledge that, but it would be worse than painful to pretend it doesn’t matter. It will do long-term damage to America’s standing in the world, to America’s ability to wage the struggle Biden has called central to his presidency, and to America’s soul.

The president has summoned leaders and activists to a virtual democracy summit in December. If he insists now that preventing terrorism is our only national interest in Afghanistan, what can he possibly say then that will not sound hollow?