US critics are calling President Joe Biden’s blundering exit from Afghanistan his “Saigon moment,” because the evacuation of American and Afghan civilians from Kabul strongly resembled the disorderly, final abandonment of Vietnam 46 years ago.
Reminders of the Vietnam War climax included scenes of rescue helicopters taking off from the US embassy roof, desperate Afghan refugees storming the mission’s gates and toddlers being hoisted by their parents over compound walls.
Politically, the events have tarred Biden as incompetent. It also struck at the heart of one of Biden’s self-declared goals: showing that government can do things right – in contrast to the tumultuous administration of Donald Trump.
In Kabul, by almost any measure, he failed. Yet Biden’s reaction so far has been to downplay any significance.
That may be because Biden seems not to have Vietnam comparisons in mind. Rather a foreign policy crisis mismanaged by another predecessor, Jimmy Carter, is likely the template that haunts him. Carter’s 1976-80 term in office was mortally damaged by his handling of the Tehran hostage crisis. Biden is taking steps not to repeat Carter’s leadership style.
Let’s first take the misleading Vietnam comparison. In contrast to the Kabul evacuation, the Saigon exit was a precision operation. The US started pulling out American civilians and Vietnamese associates more than a month before the April 30, 1975, fall of Saigon. President Gerald Ford, who oversaw the operation, included alternatives in case things went wrong.
At first, he relied on fixed-wing aircraft to haul thousands of passengers a day from a US airbase near Saigon. When former allied Vietnamese pilots defected and used US-supplied jets to bomb the base, the Americans switched to a pre-selected option. Rescuers used flotillas of helicopters to rescue from different pre-planned points in Saigon and, eventually, at the embassy.
About 7,000 Americans and 130,000 Vietnamese were rescued in April. Even so, Ford was criticized for leaving many Vietnamese behind and for the humiliation of the chaotic embassy finale.
Biden seemed not to have such rolling contingencies at hand. He neither ordered evacuations to begin in late April, when he announced the definitive exit of American troops, nor in mid-July, as the August 31 deadline approached.
Biden said he didn’t expect Kabul to fall to the Taliban any time soon. “There’s going to be no circumstances you see people being lifted off the roof of a US embassy from Afghanistan,” he declared.
Memorably, he added: “The likelihood there is going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
And only last Tuesday, he doubled down on a style of aggressive lethargy, saying it was all to be expected. “The idea that somehow, there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens,” he told a TV interviewer.
Is there a method to Biden’s inert madness? Perhaps it lies in trying to avoid Carter’s fate – he lost the 1980 election to Republican Ronald Reagan after a tumultuous end to his term.
In 1975, students in Iran stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took diplomats hostage. At the advice of aides, Carter reacted to the outrage with steps designed to make him seem a strong leader in advance of his re-election effort.
Carter took charge of every aspect of the response – not only by sanctioning Iran, but also by organizing grassroots campaigns. He asked churches to ring bells every day at noon and encouraged people to flood the Iranian embassy with petitions.
He arranged media coverage across secular and religious platforms and organized a National Unity Day in which he asked everyone to fly American flags. When he announced his election campaign, he dramatically informed the public he would stay in the White House to manage the crisis.
That all worked for about four months. But the hostage crisis dragged on. A botched military rescue raid left eight US servicemen dead. The emphasis Carter placed on the media began to backfire. It dominated television news each night.
One popular broadcast ended its daily show with a count of how many days the hostages had been in captivity. Political opponents tarred him as weak, an epithet that stuck. The captivity of 52 US diplomats lasted 444 days. Carter lost the election to Ronald Reagan.
Biden is taking an opposite approach: he is acting as if a crisis barely exists at all.
As the chaos in Kabul unfolded, he declined to interrupt his vacation at the presidential retreat at Camp David. He made two brief speaking appearances in Washington. One was not about Afghanistan, but rather about offering coronavirus booster vaccinations to Americans in October.
He gave a single interview, to a former political operative of the Democratic Party who once worked for President Bill Clinton.
Biden rejected criticism out of hand. His spokesperson dismissed censure by a top Democratic party strategist that the evacuation was a “nightmare” as flat wrong. Biden was making “difficult choices”, she said.
On Tuesday, Biden told an interviewer that the 6,000 troops he sent to Afghanistan to oversee the evacuation would simply stay in Kabul beyond August 31 if there are still American citizens left in the country. There are about 20,000 American citizens there now.
But he waffled as to whether rescuers would remain to save Afghans who had cooperated and worked with the Americans during their 20-year stay in the country and their family members. That number may be as high as 80,000.
On Friday, he took another stab at clarifying who will be evacuated. During a press conference, he mentioned Afghan allies and “vulnerable Afghans.” No numbers were provided and, for instance, there are plenty of Afghan officials who might qualify as vulnerable. On internet video, a provincial police chief was executed in a hail of bullets.
The effort to downplay the crisis played out on the world stage. Biden limited his foreign phone calls to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and talked to them when the plight in Kabul was already two days old.
So far, Biden’s performance has drawn mostly negative reviews. His approval ratings have dropped. Public endorsement of his decision to pull all 2,500 US troops out of Afghanistan also fell: in one survey, about half of respondents in one survey still supported the withdrawal, down from 69% when first announced.
Only a quarter of those surveyed thought the evacuation went well.
Republicans are lodging the same arrows they aimed at Carter: he’s weak. European allies are unhappy with the lack of consultation that left them scrambling to evacuate their co-nationals and Afghan partners. China has tossed scorn at Biden and used the opportunity to warn Taiwan that the US can’t be trusted to defend it.
Biden advisers say it will all be okay once the Americans focus on Biden’s bigger goals. There will be no more money spent on a losing Afghan cause, no more danger to US soldiers and in the future proper attention paid to more important foreign policy issues: threats from China and Russia.
His team also insists that, in the constellation of possible Islamic terrorist locales, Afghanistan is no threat to the US.
But the aftermath of his blunders might last longer than he hopes. Afghans left behind are taking to the internet to appeal for rescue; they don’t have to rely on traditional media that may tire of the crisis.
The appearance of frightened Afghans making emotional online appeals are especially riveting. They are all in heavy distress. Women whose status was elevated under American occupation are especially vulnerable under the Taliban’s likely repressive rule.
Leaving them to fend for themselves undermines Biden’s self-declared role as champions of women’s rights worldwide. Possibly abandoning devoted Afghan allies who cooperated with the US also batters Biden’s image as an empathetic leader.
Direct electoral danger is still in the distance. Presidential elections are more than three years away. But congressional elections are only 14 months off and if the Democratic party loses seats in either, the already tight House or Senate, Biden’s effectiveness as president would end.
Perhaps he is betting that American memories are short. They often are.
Currently based in Rome, Daniel Williams in a long career as a foreign correspondent has been a staff member posted in various world capitals by the Miami Herald, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.