The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion An indelible stain on Biden

President Biden at the White House, on Aug. 25. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg)

The United States is rushing toward its greatest foreign policy crisis since 9/11 and perhaps one with more damaging impacts on the national character. On that terrible day 20 years ago, Americans ranging from New York’s finest to the passengers on United Flight 93 ran toward the danger, not away from it. Twenty years ago, the country rallied together to save, then to grieve and comfort, and then to avenge and deter.

Now, it appears we may abandon hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans and our allies to the same group of Islamist extremists that sheltered those who launched the attack in 2001. What a terrible blow to the national soul.

President Biden’s legacy will be this indelible act of cowardice — unless he changes course.

The president’s speech on Tuesday night began, incredibly, with a political pitch for a spending bill and ended with an ambiguous recommitment to an Aug. 31 withdrawal. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that 4,500 Americans had been evacuated from Afghanistan and, based on his best estimate, 1,500 more remained. His total of 6,000 Americans in the country at the beginning of the crisis is considerably lower than the previous estimates of 10,000 to 15,000.

After the speech, I listed on Twitter some of the national security disasters I have lived through as an adult: the fall of Saigon, the Iran hostage crisis, the Beirut bombing, the Iran-contra affair, 9/11, the escape of Osama bin Laden, the Iraq WMD fiasco, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine, covid-19 and the repression of Hong Kong. It is an abridged list of calamities. But what we face in Afghanistan is the most damaging crisis of all — not in loss of life (yet) but in loss to the standing of the United States and its national character.

In Britain’s Daily Telegraph Wednesday, U.S. editor Nick Allen published a column titled “Joe Biden’s betrayal: Allies can never trust this president again.” It tells a tale of perfidy. The allies wanted to stay, to rescue, to save their and our citizens. Biden simply told them no.

Now we know with certainty that every hostage taken in the aftermath of Biden’s cut-and-run, every single act of barbarism by the new regime will have been completely foreseeable. Every stoning. Every beheading. Every terrorist act that is born in Afghanistan over the next many decades can be traced to the events of August 2021. When the Taliban attacked Forward Operating Base Chapman in March — violating the Doha agreement signed the year before — Biden chose not to abrogate the pact. This passive response was the only signal the Taliban needed. Biden unleashed the dogs of war by not fighting back, just in time for the spring fighting season.

This catastrophe and any others that flow from this nest of vipers will be on the president’s head and that of his team. Unless he changes course and maintains the 5,000 troops at the Kabul airport, or surges troops into a different part of the country like the previous fortress that was Bagram air base, darkness will descend on Afghanistan and enshroud our citizens and allies still there. President Barack Obama was known for “leading from behind.” Biden will be known for “leaving them behind.”

The idea that the United States won’t defend even its own citizens sends an unmistakable message to the world.

A great if controversial political theorist, Leo Strauss, wrote years ago, in “The City and Man,” that “The West was once certain of its purpose, of a purpose in which all men could be united, and hence it had a clear vision of its future.” But, he added, “The crisis of the West is in the West’s having become uncertain of its purpose.”

On 9/12 we had a clear vision, a certain purpose. We have made many mistakes since then but we never gave up on that vision and purpose: of a safe and secure homeland and the ongoing, and incremental increase of liberty and literacy in the West and nations allied to the West. We have abandoned that vision and purpose just as Biden has abandoned Americans and allies to the Taliban.

What a catastrophe. What an indelible stain on Biden and those around him, indeed around everyone who does not raise their voice against this betrayal.