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Biden ran about competence and empathy. Afghanistan is testing that.

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For most of last week, amid the fires of his fledgling administration’s worst foreign policy crisis, the president, who won the White House on a promise of competence and compassion, struggled to demonstrate much of both.

The chaos in Kabul and his own conflicting messages have left President Biden struggling to maintain control of world affairs and seemingly more concerned with washing hands in Afghanistan than his concerns about the humanitarian tragedy on the ground To express.

Mr Biden’s team argues that this will not matter in the long run as Americans agree to his decision to withdraw after 20 years of war and do not care what happens in Afghanistan as long as their fellow citizens are safely withdrawn. Afghanistan is America’s longest war spanning four presidencies, and none of those presidents has found a way to successfully withdraw.

But the tumultuous endgame of Mr Biden’s retreat has nonetheless undermined some of the most fundamental premises of Mr Biden’s presidency – that, unlike his unpredictable, selfish predecessor, he had foreign policy spice, judgments from adults in the room, and an abundance of empathy for the Oval Office.

“I just felt that he was so involved in the decision himself that he forgot the basics of implementation,” said Leon E. Panetta, the former defense secretary who served alongside Mr. Biden in President Barack Obama’s administration. “The American people may be with you in making the decision, but when they see chaos they will be very concerned that the president is not sticking together.”

David Axelrod, a former strategist for Mr Obama, said he had no doubt that most Americans would agree with Mr Biden that it was time to complete the Afghanistan operation. “The end is, at least so far, more problematic,” he said, “and contradicts some of his perceived core strengths: competence, mastery of foreign policy, maximum empathy. It is as if his zeal to end the war overwhelmed the planning and execution. “

After days of devastating criticism from allies and opponents, Mr Biden attempted to repair part of the damage with a half-hour appearance in the East Room of the White House on Friday, where he claimed the evacuation operation had “made significant progress”. “Acknowledging that images of desperate Afghans chasing planes and handing over a baby over barbed wire were” heartbreaking “and” heartbreaking. “

Criticizing earlier in the week that he had not consulted with allies, Biden stressed that he had now called the leaders of Britain, Germany and France. Mr Biden was ridiculed for spending time at Camp David, where he spent the summer vacation while Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, and postponed his plans to fly to his home in Wilmington, Del., On Friday afternoon, until Saturday.

Mr Panetta said Mr Biden apparently realized that he at least got the message wrong and needed to make adjustments. “I just felt like he was back on his feet today, as opposed to earlier in the week,” he said.

Aside from repeating that “the money stops with me,” Mr. Biden did not acknowledge any mistakes of his own and again distracted the harsh criticisms by focusing on his desire to end the war rather than deal directly with it what many view as the botched execution of this decision.

“When this operation is over, there will be plenty of time to criticize and question,” said Biden. “But now I’m focusing on getting this job done.”

Updated

Aug. 21, 2021, 1:50 p.m. ET

As he had done all week, Mr. Biden made allegations that appeared to contradict reality. His description of a smoother evacuation contrasted with the ongoing confusion at Kabul Airport, where flights were suspended for hours on Friday before resuming late in the day. His assertion that “there is no question of our credibility” among NATO allies refuted the deep frustration in European capitals. And while Mr. Biden applauded the “degree of precision” of the operation, he couldn’t tell how many Americans were still in danger.

These comments came after other suspicious statements earlier this week. A month after saying it was “very unlikely” that the Taliban would take over Afghanistan and that there was “no circumstance” that would lead to a chaotic, Saigon-like exit, Biden told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos this week that chaos “actually always inevitable. While several reports have suggested military leaders arguing to leave a small force in Afghanistan rather than withdrawing entirely, Mr. Biden insisted that” no one told me anything I can remember ” .

In some places the president showed little idea of ​​the human sacrifice when the Taliban came back to power. When asked about pictures of fleeing Afghans being packed into airplanes and some even falling to their deaths after attempting to sneak on board, Mr Biden interrupted him. “That was four days ago, five days ago,” he said, although it was actually two days ago and a few sunsets hardly made it any less appalling.

While broadly disapproving of all mistakes, Mr Biden has instead pointed a finger at his predecessor Donald J. Trump, the now deposed Afghan government, the disappearing Afghan security forces and even Afghan civilians who opposed his earlier evacuation. He avoided blaming the Taliban, presumably so as not to upset them during the evacuation.

Loss of public awareness of basic skills can be dangerous for a presidency. Jimmy Carter found out about this during the hostage crisis in Iran that began in 1979 and eventually cost him back for election a year later. George W. Bush learned this during the mishandled response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Mr. Trump’s critics never considered him particularly suitable, but his handling of the coronavirus pandemic continued to undermine him.

Mr Biden’s stumble was particularly noticeable as the longtime senator and former vice president brought more national and international affairs experience to the White House than any newly appointed president in more than three decades. But his aides claim that Americans will look at the bigger picture beyond the turbulence of the past few days.

Understanding the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan

Map 1 of 5

Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest following the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including flogging, amputation and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here is more about their genesis and track record as rulers.

Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who for years have been on the run, in hiding, in prison and dodged American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to rule, including whether they will be as tolerant as they say they are.

What is happening to the women of Afghanistan? When the Taliban was last in power, they banned women and girls from most jobs or from going to school. Afghan women have gained a lot since the Taliban was overthrown, but now they fear that they are losing ground. Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different, but there are indications that they have begun to reintroduce the old order in at least some areas.

“What Americans are seeing is a president who has the courage to believe that this is the right decision for our country, even if it is difficult to make,” said Kate Bedingfield, White House communications director. “You see a president who has promised to end America’s longest war and has kept his word and takes responsibility when things don’t go perfectly because the money stops with him.”

The cold political calculation of the Biden team is that the indignation of the Washington political class and the gruesome images of the national news media will have little lasting effect on the Americans, who will soon forget the chaotic exit, but remember that the president is the United States got out of a failed war.

You may be right. As of Friday, newspapers in places like Phoenix, Fresno, Jacksonville, Minneapolis and Providence had no stories about Afghanistan on their front pages. Americans have not voted much on foreign policy in the past unless it directly concerned Americans, which is why Mr Biden’s top priority has been to get his own citizens out without loss or hostage-taking.

“Biden thinks he can get away with it as long as no Americans are killed on the ground, which is a big deal because many things could go wrong,” said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a geopolitical risk firm. “But I happen to agree with him. I think that’s right. “At the same time, he added,” I’m amazed at how he gets it wrong with the allies. “

The political danger to Mr Biden could be that the chaotic exit provides fodder for a broader Republican argument that he is not up to the job and has left the United States humiliated on the world stage. The images of Chaos are like political manna to campaign ad makers who will no doubt try to portray Mr. Biden as another Mr. Carter.

However, some of those who have criticized Mr. Biden said the final verdict was still pending. It will depend on whether he can ensure the safety not only of the Americans trying to leave the country, but also of the Afghans who have worked with the United States for the past two decades, even if it takes longer than theirs Mr Biden on the 8th of 31st deadline.

“The president still has a lot of influence on how this is perceived and how our reputation for compassion and competence plays out,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, a Democrat from New Jersey. “It all depends on his willingness to do what is necessary and allow our military to do whatever it can to save anyone who can regardless of artificial deadlines.”

This chapter could be written in the next few days and weeks.

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