Speaking, in These Rare and Painful Circumstances
August 17, 2021
Our rhetoric analyst compares President Biden's speech in defense of his Afghanistan policy to President Kenndy's speech in the wake of the Bay of Pigs.
When a US mission goes awry and the enemy prevails it falls to the president to address the situation in a speech. In these rare and painful circumstances the international audience is as important as the domestic. Allies, antagonists, neutrals in governments and among citizenries take measure of American resolve and await word of any forthcoming changes in the nation’s standards of diplomatic, humanitarian, and military engagement.
The “now what?” question ranges beyond the accepting and parceling out of blame and the taking in of refugees. The current version asks what the appropriate US doctrine should be for an era in which terrorism coexists as a threat with environmental degradation and spreading authoritarianism.
Biden returned to the White House from Camp David just to deliver his speech. He had two recent predictions to live down:
There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States in Afghanistan.
The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.
But as he began—delayed by fifteen minutes from the advertised 3:45 eastern start time to wait for the stock markets to close—the president asserted that what was happening was no surprise:
My national security team and I have been closely monitoring the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and moving quickly to execute the plans we had put in place to respond to every contingency, including the rapid collapse we’re seeing now.
Ominously, he stumbled on the word “contingency.” He admitted later that “this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.”
Biden began with a lengthy review of the original mission. It was not supposed to be nation-building or counter-insurgency, just counter-terrorism. He had long argued this, he said. It is a tenable if jargony distinction which became clearer as Biden cited other places in the world where American forces needed to fight terrorism.
The president noted that his immediate predecessor had started the drawdown and set a May 1, 2021 deadline. Biden framed the options he faced as dichotomous: either “follow through on that agreement or be prepared to go back to fighting the Taliban in the middle of the spring fighting season.” He did not explain why these were the only choices, in as much as the deadline had been already extended to the end of August and the agreement had been already breached by the Taliban. He said he stood squarely behind his choice of option A, and contended that the collapse reinforced its rightness: the Afghanis were given every chance and resource, including his personal advice, yet plainly did not want to fight:
Here’s what I believe to my core: It is wrong to order American troops to step up when Afghanistan’s own armed forces would not.
Following this severe framing and blame-shifting Joe the empath surfaced. He felt for the Afghanis, including those in the armed forces and especially women and girls, but he reached out primarily to his own country:
For those who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan, and for Americans who have fought and served our country in Afghanistan, this is deeply, deeply personal. It is for me as well.
He did not bring up his dead son Beau here, as he often does in speeches. On this occasion that would have been mawkish.
The president reported that he had dispatched 6,000 American troops to return to Afghanistan to expand Operation Allies Refuge. Evacuations did not commence earlier because, Biden said, some didn’t want to leave and the Afghan government did not want to trigger a crisis of confidence. This argument sounded contrived and incomplete.
Biden closed on a defiant note tinged with self-pity:
I know my decision will be criticized. But I would rather take all that criticism than pass this decision on to another president of the United States, yet another one, a fifth one.
He spoke for about fifteen minutes and took no questions. Instead, a trio of military personnel followed up with a Pentagon briefing on evacuation logistics, a smart distancing maneuver.
In his April 20, 1961 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, President Kennedy took a different approach to the subject of defeat. JFK spoke in high oratorical mode about the Cold War conflict. He obscured US funding, training, and air support (curtailed after its public discovery) for what he termed “a struggle of Cuban patriots against a Cuban dictator.” This deceit enabled the following sentence to ring truer than it should have:
While we could not be expected to hide our sympathies, we made it repeatedly clear that the armed forces of this country would not intervene in any way.
Kennedy closed with these reflective and hortatory words:
We intend to profit from this lesson. We intend to re-examine and reorient our forces of all kinds—our tactics and our institutions here in this community. We intend to intensify our efforts for a struggle in many ways more difficult than war, where disappointment will often accompany us.
For I am convinced that we in this country and in the free world possess the necessary resource, and the skill, and the added strength that comes from a belief in the freedom of man.
President Kennedy and his administration arguably learned the wrong lessons, as the Cuban Missile Crisis and deeper involvement in Vietnam ensued. Still, his rhetorical stance is instructive today: a re-examination is appropriate and a brave face is, too.
President Biden’s removal of the last 2500 US troops in Afghanistan capped a long succession of mishaps: most glaringly W’s veer into Iraq, Obama’s surge, and Trump’s deal with the Taliban. The withdrawal looks like a terrible mistake in real time on global television and web screens—something Kennedy did not have to deal with. It was Biden’s decision, yet it stemmed from a failure of leadership across the national establishment, including both political parties, the US Army, and the intelligence services.
For all the swiftness of the Taliban takeover the disaster is not yet complete. Time remains for Biden to deliver a presidential speech that acknowledges defeat, admits missteps, and inaugurations a process of repairs to the national security policy process. That ought to feature a Pentagon Papers-type inquest into the decision-making behind the war—except it should be publicly known from the get-go. Should the evacuation go well, this footing will be easier to mount.
The president’s political authority and reputation depends on the attitude he projects toward military setbacks. So does the country’s sense of confidence and pride in its place in the world. In political terms, it would be prudent as well as appropriate for the president to frame and instigate a formal review of Afghanistan policy; if he leaves it to others, think Benghazi hearings.
There was never going to be a good time to withdraw U.S. forces, as Biden rued. Yet surely there was a better way to do it. The twentieth anniversary of 9/11 would be a fitting occasion for a remedial address.