When Joe Biden selected Jake Sullivan as his National Security Advisor, he gushed that Sullivan was a “once-in-a-generation intellect with the experience and temperament for one of the toughest jobs in the world”. No Senate confirmation is required for the NSA position, and the press took Biden at his word.
When Antony Blinken was selected as Secretary of State, Foreign Policy magazine hailed it as a “return to normalcy for weary diplomats”. Finally, when President Biden was elected, the New York Times raved that it represented an end to “four tumultuous years under Trump”; the Los Angeles Times’s editorial board welcomed his election as a victory “for the American people”.
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Biden, Blinken and Sullivan — three men who, less than a year ago, were cheered on as the sensible, cool-headed triumvirate capable of saving the West. Today that promise has been sullied. Instead, they will be remembered as three of the key figures responsible for the tragedy now unfolding in Afghanistan.
Until the sudden and complete collapse of the Nato-backed government in Kabul, the Biden administration had enjoyed its very own “special relationship” with the American media. They were frequently thrown soft-ball questions. They were always allowed to point to the villainous Donald Trump whenever they needed a scapegoat. The media corps is always on their side — and who can blame them? You can’t ask tough questions while munching on cookies from the Press Secretary’s mother-in-law. That would be rude.
To listen to Biden’s media cheerleaders over the past seven months has been about as exciting as reading Pravda. “America is back. Trump was an aberration. We are going to bring Americans together and heal. We’re giving people hope and change. Build back better. Let’s get high on DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion).” And so on. God knows it was tedious. But Biden’s team was more than happy to stick to this hymn sheet. Nobody leaked.
You would have thought that the new administration would have been able to exploit for just a bit longer the narrative of an experienced, selfless, prudent President Biden — the steady hand after the wrecking ball. Where Donald Trump was off-putting, rash and rude, Joe Biden could so easily be presented as cool — those Aviators, man! — thoughtful and cooperative. In short, Biden was poised to become to the United States what Queen Elizabeth is to the United Kingdom: a rock of reliability and continuity, an embodiment of national pride and humility all at once.
Instead, seven months into the administration’s tenure, the Biden administration hunkered down and made a decision that would erase years of progress. It’s all too easy to picture the various individuals, all at the height of their professional careers, huddled together in the Situation Room. Some old and wise. Some fresh-faced and gung-ho. All fooled by the conviction that they can do no wrong.
While Team Biden already resorted to its standard fallback of pointing the finger at Trump — who, admittedly, initiated negotiations with the Taliban and made the original deal to exit Afghanistan — it is the current President who accelerated the plan for full military withdrawal before even attempting to repatriate all American citizens, evacuate our Afghan allies or secure any guarantees on human rights (particularly for Afghan women and girls). It was Blinken who told Senator Lindsey Graham during his confirmation hearing that any US agreement with the Taliban should “absolutely” be “conditions-based”. Where are those conditions now?
Just weeks ago, Biden assured us there would be no images of Americans climbing on roofs to evacuate in helicopters like in Saigon. Now, with the August 31st deadline looming, it seems increasingly likely that some Americans might not make it out at all. Those who have applied for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) feel hopelessly abandoned. Our Nato allies look on with horror.
Speculation over what compelled Biden’s national security team to withdraw so suddenly without a proper contingency plan remains ongoing. Theories range from shrill claims about how “these men must be evil” to “experts” praising what they deem a calculated, realist approach to a never-ending war that was sapping attention and resources away from the bigger threats posed by China.
The more convincing argument, however, is more straightforward: The Biden administration screwed up because they had grown accustomed to uncritical support from the press. Instead of upholding their traditional role of checking and vetting individuals and decisions, for seven months the media has scarcely offered up a critical word of Biden. It was almost the exact opposite for Trump, who came in for relentless criticism — some of it fictitious.
Of course, nobody enjoys being hauled over the coals by the press corps. But it focuses the mind — unlike canine adulation. If enough people tell you that you’re going to be the most transformative president since Lyndon Johnson, it’s easy to forget how Johnson’s presidency ended.
That honeymoon period is over now. The situation in Kabul is now so dire that there is no option but to report on the failures of the administration. Even our new pedigree of activists journalists, for whom reporting is a form of proselytising, can no longer play defence for the President because the images coming out of Afghanistan are indefensible. When they learn that a toddler of one of our Afghan interpreters has been crushed to death in the vast and desperate scrum outside Kabul airport, Americans are rightly angry.
And so Biden now cuts an altogether different figure. After his briefings, he scurries away, fearing an inquisition. Meanwhile, his press secretary is starting to look like all press secretaries: her jaw set, her eyes tired, her implausible talking points delivered almost defiantly.
For Afghanistan, the return of a critical press corps comes too late. But for Americans there is a lesson to be learned. Perhaps if the liberal media had done a better job during confirmation hearings and appointments, the situation in Afghanistan could have unfolded differently, with more effective leaders at the helm. Perhaps if earlier policy blunders had been subjected to closer scrutiny, this one might not have been so casually made.
“Democracy dies in darkness” was one of the many facile slogans adopted by the anti-Trump press in 2017, as if only their fearless reporting stood between America and a 1930s-style fascist dystopia. But as we are now witnessing, competent government instead dies when the lights are dimmed to flatter a new administration. When journalists and editors suspend their critical faculties, tragedy is bound to follow.