Victory speeches are easy; conceding defeat is much harder. On Tuesday, Joe Biden tacitly blamed his predecessors for the failure of America’s longest war but implied that, against all odds, one winner had emerged: him.
In a 26-minute speech at the White House, the US president fiercely defended his decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan and hailed the mass evacuation from Kabul as a triumph. He scored highly in making the case against forever wars and expressing compassion for US military families.
He had less emotional capital to spare for Afghan civilians, however, and, in remarks that marked the close of a 20-year chapter, offered relatively few reflections about what was or was not achieved during that time. Anyone expecting a first draft of history would have left disappointed.
Yet, Biden strode up the red carpet of the White House entrance hall like Barack Obama when he announced the killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2011. Behind him were four flags, a bust of George Washington and, just out of sight, a portrait John F Kennedy looking down pensively – heavy is the head that wears the crown.
Inside the ornate state dining room, a portrait of Abraham Lincoln hung above a fireplace. A photographer stood atop a tall stepladder, surrounded by glaring studio lights as if at a fashion shoot. A wood-carved American eagle held up an antique table beside the presidential lectern.
Biden began speaking forcefully as soon he reached that lectern and defended not only the decision to withdraw but the dismal manner of its execution. He described the airlift of the past 17 days that brought out more than 120,000 people as an “extraordinary success”.
White House officials have resented the charge of bragging but that did not stop Biden proclaiming: “No nation — no nation — has ever done anything like it in all of history.”
He insisted that people left behind will still, somehow, be able to find a way out. “I was not going to extend this forever war. I was not extending a forever exit. The decision to end the military lift operation at Kabul airport was based on unanimous recommendation of my civilian and military advisers.”
Biden sliced the air with his hand and, yet again, appeared indignant and unwilling to concede that he might have gotten anything even slightly wrong. He again cast blame on the US-backed Afghan government for collapsing, its president fleeing amid “corruption” and “malfeasance”, and the Afghan army for failing to fight the Taliban.
The president’s much-vaunted empathy, it transpires, does not travel well; it has a domestic bias. He was more convincing in arguing that people do not understand “how much we have asked of the 1% [of Americans] who put on the military uniform” and describing how many of their families have “gone through hell”.
Eighteen veterans on average die by suicide every day in the US, he noted, his voice lowering to become gravelly and grave. In a nation where most military families live in counties that voted for Donald Trump, and where for the past 20 years they were often forgotten, it was an important grace note.
The subtext of the speech, however, was an attempt to distance himself from his three predecessors. Nearly 20 years have passed since George W Bush launched the war in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, warning in his own White House set piece that the Taliban “will pay a price” for harbouring al-Qaida terrorists but promising “the oppressed people of Afghanistan will know the generosity of America and our allies”.
Obama continued the war despite then-Vice-president Biden’s reservations; Trump cut a deal with the Taliban to leave by May that meant a new “onslaught was coming”. Biden offered a coded rebuke of all them by saying almost nothing in praise of the trillion dollar adventure – he might have cited human rights, education, the media – and instead suggesting that America had made a tragic wrong turn, taking its eye off an ascendent China.
If there is a Biden doctrine in foreign policy, this is part of it: an oft-stated belief in an existential struggle between democracies such as the US and autocracies such as China for dominance of the 21st century. The fact that China (and Russia) loved the idea of the US spending another decade mired in Afghanistan was reportedly influential in Biden’s decision to quit.
“The world is changing,” he insisted. “We are engaged in a serious competition with China. We’re dealing with the challenges on multiple fronts with Russia. We’re confronted with cyber attacks and nuclear proliferation.”
Grimacing, he added: “There’s nothing Russia or China would rather have, would want more in this competition than the United States to be bogged down for another decade in Afghanistan.”
America must learn from its mistakes, Biden said. “This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries. We saw a mission of counter-terrorism in Afghanistan morph into a counter-insurgency, nation-building, trying to create a democratic, cohesive and united Afghanistan, something that has never been in many centuries over Afghanistan’s history.”
There were moments when he rapped the lectern for emphasis. He ended the speech as he began, convinced that he was making “the right decision for America”, one that allows the US to protect “not against threats of 2001, but against the threats of 2021 and tomorrow”.
By implication, the three presidents who came before him were wrong. It was hard to doubt his sincerity. But Biden could not bring himself to tell the American people the full truth: that just as in Vietnam, they had lost, and were left wondering what it was all for. As the man said: “No nation — no nation — has ever done anything like it in all of history.”