As Joe Biden and his top advisers begin counting down to the deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan, now just one week away, they are relying on a reservoir of Taliban goodwill to somehow bail out the reeling president. To call this an embarrassing, tenuous, even dire fix for the world’s lone remaining superpower would be the understatement of the year. But just as important as safe passage for Americans and allies is what happens when the roiling chaos in this two-decades-long bane of America’s existence finally subsides, and the next international crisis hits, as it will soon enough.
In examining how to change course and avoid a future conflagration of the sort we have witnessed over these last days, this president can settle on one of two divergent pathways that have marked post-disaster response from successive Democratic presidents of the 20th century. The first option is to maintain his current defensive posture, double down on selling his documented misrepresentations, surround himself with sycophantic voices afraid to rock the boat with the famously risk-averse commander-in-chief — as vice president, he was the lone dissenting voice in the operation to take down Osama bin Laden — and bury his head in the sand, choosing to see, hear, and speak no evil. The second option is to take responsibility for his actions, acknowledge the profound error of his ways, and adapt new strategies to avoid a replay of this devastating turn of events.
The former was the strategy that destroyed the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, once he made the fateful — and in the end all but irreversible — decision to send the first wave of some 50,000 troops to Vietnam for a war that balkanized the nation and resulted in the first defeat in American history. The latter would represent the plan employed by President John F. Kennedy after the catastrophic Bay of Pigs invasion shortly after he took office.
LBJ brooked no dissent from his single-minded mission to avoid being the first U.S. president to lose a war. As The Wall Street Journal revealed, “Johnson maintained a narrow circle of advisers on Vietnam, dismissed internal dissenters, and berated those, like Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who became more skeptical about the war over time.” LBJ was living in a dream world, in denial about the mounting carnage, even as he privately acknowledged there was no way to win the war.
Just four years prior to LBJ’s escalation, few thought his predecessor JFK could recover from the disastrous employment of a ragtag band of Cuban exiles to topple the regime of Fidel Castro. The plan failed badly, the invaders were captured, and the communists scored a major political victory on the world stage by accentuating and condemning the attempted overthrow. JFK publicly acknowledged failure (despite the protests of his top advisers) and accepted full responsibility. But crucially, he recognized the lack of voices willing to dissent from the plan that went awry and hatched a specific course of action to circumvent the groupthink that led to the invasion. He formed a small independent group (the ExComm) within the National Security Council, not including his NSA personnel, that could debate national-security issues openly and without regard to politics. As The WSJ points out, “the Kennedy team successfully used the ExComm for deliberations during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which was resolved without nuclear confrontation.”
One would think President Biden would be mindful at least of the public response to these polar-opposite strategies. JFK was given great credit for coming clean, acknowledging failure, and resolving to correct the problem that allowed the Bay of Pigs to go forward with bad information and minimal dissent. His poll numbers recovered far more quickly than expected. On the other hand, LBJ all but gave away his presidency by refusing to acknowledge reality — or trusting the American people to accept it — and left office in disgrace.
Indeed, the historical precedents set by two very different presidents from his own party present a clear choice for Biden. It is still not too late to acknowledge the error of his ways, channel the judgment of JFK, and likely recover some of the ground lost in his tumbling poll numbers. But if he continues along the current path, the same one traveled by LBJ, he can well expect his presidency to end in similar fashion.
Read more from Tim Donner.