KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – AUGUST 10 : Displaced Afghans reach out for aid from a local Muslim organization at a makeshift IDP camp on August 10, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Taliban has taken control of six provincial capitals, among other towns and trade routes, since the United States accelerated withdrawal of its forces this year. Afghan families from Kunduz, Takhar and Baghlan provinces have arrived in Kabul in greater numbers, fleeing the Taliban advance. (Photo by Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)
People use metaphors to explain what is new or unfamiliar. Metaphors are especially important in helping citizens understand international events. They influence not only public opinion, but also U.S. foreign policy.
Decades ago, Munich was the prevailing metaphor for Cold Warriors wanting America to confront Soviet expansion around the globe.
Seeking to avoid war in Europe, Neville Chamberlain, Great Britain’s prime minister, signed a 1938 agreement with Adolf Hitler in Munich that accepted the Nazi annexation of western Czechoslovakia in return for Hitler’s promise not to go further.
The following year Hitler annexed all of Czechoslovakia and invaded Poland, launching World War II and making Munich a symbol for appeasing an enemy rather than standing up to it.
In reaction, presidential administrations during the Cold War used force or the threat of force to counter Communist aggression in Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam.
Vietnam in turn became a metaphor for American overreach and failure. After ten years of U.S. combat operations in support of the South Vietnamese government, for which 60,000 Americans died, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975.
Therefore, U.S. policy was framed by competing metaphors, one supporting American military intervention (Munich) and the other counseling against it (Vietnam).
The 9/11/01 attacks reinforced the Munich (and Pearl Harbor) messages of strength, readiness, and the need to forcefully defend American interests. This led to the “war on terror,” which included wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and cyberspace.
However, Iraq and Afghanistan became interminable U.S. occupations, like Vietnam. New metaphors appeared, such as Guantanamo and Abu Gharib, as well as euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation,” “preventive war,” and “extraordinary rendition.”
The similarities of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia are striking. Both involved thousands of American lives lost, training of allied forces to fight for themselves, support of corrupt governments, trillions of dollars spent, eventual U.S. military withdrawal, and chaotic scenes of desperate allies trying to escape their home country before a brutal regime took hold.
You would expect Republicans to be especially harsh on Biden, and they haven’t disappointed, even though President Trump completed an agreement with the Taliban to remove all U.S. troops by May 2021.
I’m no expert on the Middle East, Central Asia, or U.S. foreign and military policy. However, as a political analyst, I see the potential for Afghanistan becoming a metaphor for the breakdown of the Biden presidency.
No, I’m not saying Biden will be a one-term president, but I don’t believe this will be quickly forgotten, either. The Afghanistan fiasco coincides with other events that signal the return of polarized politics-as-usual.
First, public approval of Biden’s performance as president has fallen below 50%, a trend that began before the fall of Kabul. The main reason is renewed fear of COVID-19 and rising unhappiness with Biden’s handling of the pandemic.
Second, the Afghan crisis slowed momentum in Congress for passage of Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan and $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. Democratic leaders want to make support for the president’s domestic agenda a loyalty test, but Biden’s declining popularity makes it easier for dissenters to say no.
Third, Biden is responsible for the performance of U.S. intelligence and military services, which claimed the Afghan army could hold its own against the enemy and missed its sudden collapse completely. This contradicted Biden’s claim of superior competence in foreign policy and crisis management.
Fourth, the fall of Afghanistan will impact U.S. national security interests. It strengthens the influence of Russia and China, both of which will keep their embassies in Kabul, and it adds to Russian gains in the region after U.S. withdrawal from Syria under Trump. Despite the Taliban’s claims of moderation, the new government will likely be a bad actor once again.
Fifth, it’s probable the bad news from the region will continue. The situation in Kabul is extremely dangerous. Stories of abandoned allies will persist. Humanitarian concerns will arise from a refugee crisis, which has already become politicized. Almost certainly, there will be erosion of human rights for Afghan women, and punishment of those who helped the U.S.
Yes, Biden has time to recover. Successful evacuation of Americans and Afghan supporters would help. Also useful would be passage of the president’s economic program. Most beneficial of all would be gaining control of the coronavirus.
Most importantly, Biden needs to be a straight shooter. He must avoid the presidential tendency to avoid responsibility, blame others, downplay, or lie when things go badly. Since he has been in charge for only eight months of a 20-year war, there is no need to shade the truth.
The last thing this president needs is a revival of another legacy of the Vietnam era – the credibility gap.
Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected], and follow him on at Twitter @mcclelef.
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