Skip to content
Subscriber Only
Opinion
Jonathan Bernstein

Biden Can’t Escape Fallout From Afghanistan

No, voters won’t care that the government is collapsing. But the president’s reputation may not recover.

Not ideal.

Not ideal.

Photographer: AFP/Getty

Get Jonathan Bernstein’s newsletter every morning in your inbox. Click here to subscribe.

I can’t speak to the foreign-policy implications of the collapse of government forces in Afghanistan, or the consequences for the Afghan people. I can talk a little about what’s at stake for President Joe Biden.

To begin with: It’s very unlikely that there will be any direct public-opinion effect, and if there is it will almost certainly be short-lived. It’s even less likely that the Taliban’s resurgence will have any effect on the 2022 midterms, let alone the 2024 presidential election. Republicans may try to make “Who lost Afghanistan?” an election theme, but there’s virtually no evidence that voters care about such things. Normally, the only thing in foreign policy and national security that seems to have an effect is when troops die in combat. 

This doesn’t mean that Biden has nothing at stake. A president’s reputation affects how much influence he or she has. Biden brought some advantages with him to the White House in this regard; his experience, in the Senate and as vice president, almost certainly meant that most people were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt — something that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump would have to (and often did not) earn. 

The situation in Afghanistan puts Biden’s reputation for foreign-policy expertise at risk. Indeed, it’s not just the facts on the ground there that matter. Biden has consistently set expectations high, and has done very little to make a public case that the Afghan government’s collapse was a risk worth taking. Given the strong chances that things would work out as they have, that seems like a real mistake.

There’s more than that. One of the ways that presidents gain influence is by earning a reputation as a winner, and one of the ways they do that is, well, by having a string of wins. In some ways this is simple. The more people Biden deals with — in the executive branch, in Congress, in state and local governments, in the private sector, and more — think of Afghanistan as a fiasco, the less likely they are to assume that Biden will win future battles. And that will make them less likely to act accordingly. 

That said, there were plenty of downside risks to other policy options as well. That Biden may have sold his choices badly matters, but it doesn’t mean they weren’t the least-bad decisions available. Indeed, if Biden was committed to pulling all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, it may be better for him to get it over with early in his presidency — and, to be blunt, perhaps he’s better off having the government fall now, if it had to happen at some point. 

All of this may sound cynical. But the job that Biden signed up for, as the political scientist Richard Neustadt explained long ago, requires a certain amount of cold calculation — specifically, about how to help his own political situation and expand his influence. Otherwise, the president can only fall back on the formal powers of the office, which aren’t sufficient to get very much done. That’s bad for the president, and also for the nation. 

1. Dave Hopkins on the census.

2. Jan Stockbruegger at the Monkey Cage on climate and container shipping.

3. First Branch Forecast with some good news about congressional staff salaries.

4. Adam Serwer on the pandemic in Texas.

5. Fred Kaplan on Afghanistan

6. And Amy Walter on Trump and 2022

Get Early Returns every morning in your inbox. Click here to subscribe. Also subscribe to Bloomberg All Access and get much, much more. You’ll receive our unmatched global news coverage and two in-depth daily newsletters, the Bloomberg Open and the Bloomberg Close.