The "What If" Game on Afghanistan
When I was a kid growing up in the late 70s and early 80s, I was heavily into Marvel comic books. Once a week or so, I’d walk down with my brother to the local PDQ convenience store with my allowance in my pocket, and browse through a rotating stand of the latest issues. My favorite comics were “The Avengers”, “Iron Man”, “Power Man and Iron Fist” and “Marvel Two-in-One,” but another one I enjoyed from time to time was “What If.”
“What If” was an anthology series that explored what would have happened if famous Marvel story-lines had gone down much different paths than the ones known by readers. For example, the very first issue was called, “What If Spider-Man had Joined the Fantastic Four?" The story inside provided an alternative origin for Peter Parker, in which he ultimately ended up as the Fantastic Four’s fifth team member, effectively making the group “The Fantastic Five.”
The stories were fun and interesting, and I’m sure the writers and illustrators enjoyed the opportunity to branch out from the confines of Marvel continuity, and get a little crazy. They were operating in an alternative universe that would come to an end with the last page of each issue. Thus, all kinds of things — from a creativity standpoint — were fair game.
I’ve been thinking about “What If” lately, and not just because Disney+ recently premiered a television series based on the comic. It's also been coming to me in the form of the politics surrounding the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan. Lots of commentators (professional and otherwise) have been going through the strange practice of insisting how the situation might be going down differently if Donald Trump was still president.
I’m not really sure what the point of the exercise is. Trump lost the election, and it’s not as if he had a different plan for Afghanistan anyway. In fact, the failed policy we’ve been witnessing from Biden is essentially the continuation of Trump’s. Trump put the thing in motion and was preparing for an unconditional withdrawal in May, and Biden stupidly brought the plan all the way to fruition (just not quite as quickly as Trump wanted).
Biden didn’t have to do it. He chose to, and that’s why he owns this mess.
While I’m certainly open to the idea that there would have been some marginal differences here and there between these men's management of the horrific fallout from their shared approach on Afghanistan, some of the “What If Trump Were Still President?” stories I’ve been reading strike me as pretty ridiculous.
So, I figured I’d touch on a couple this week, and try and rein in what feels like some awfully generous fan fiction. Let’s start with a tweet from The Federalist’s Ben Domenech:
Anyone familiar with Domenech’s work knows him to be a reliable Trump defender (on pretty much everything); it’s how he ended up as a regular on Fox News. But this is a bit much, even for him.
The man understood optics? Please.
Trump wanted to invite members of the Taliban to Camp David mere days before the anniversary of 9/11 to try and charm them off of their jihad. He also declared that the Taliban was a counter-terrorism partner of the United States, and said they’d be killing terrorists in Afghanistan, on our behalf, after we left. The man betrayed the Kurds without batting an eye, and embarrassingly fawned over tyrants like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un, while needlessly insulting our allies. He publicly treated the pandemic like a joke, mocking mitigation efforts, throwing super-spreader events, and turning press conferences into circus side-shows (where he workshopped ideas like injecting disinfectant into people). Heck, the guy spent months trying to overturn an election he lost, which resulted in a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol (that he was reluctant to call off).
Does that sound like someone who’d never let America look weak on the world stage? Does that sound like a guy who understood optics?
If Trump understood optics, he’d likely still be president. Here’s another one:
Little doubt? I like Rich Lowry, but I think I have a pretty good memory of the Trump presidency.
It might be one thing if Trump had inherited the chaos in Afghanistan, in which I could see him perhaps getting a little tough. But what we're seeing right now are the results of Trump's own years-long policy. He'd view a change in direction as an admission of defeat, of which he has proven quite incapable.
No, if this were happening under Trump (and it assuredly would have), Trump would much more likely be calling the reporting out of Afghanistan “fake news,” and insisting that what was really happening was the “greatest” withdrawal in history – a “beautiful” withdrawal, as "many people are saying."
Sadly and surprisingly, that’s pretty much what Biden has been doing, and the criticism he has taken across the board for his “Baghdad Bob” impersonation has been well earned. To that point, we should all be able to recognize that Biden has done an exceptionally terrible job here without pretending that Trump was someone other than the guy we all saw in office for four years.
I know the inclination is for everyone to retreat to their partisan corners at times like these, but based on what we’ve learned of Trump and Biden, it’s difficult to find any significant difference (tangible or alleged) between them when it comes to Afghanistan. Both deemed our years of progress, and the relatively stable situation we’d achieved, unworthy of preserving. Both men wanted (and planned) to get out ASAP, conditions be damned. I suspect Trump’s secretly even a bit envious that Biden was the one who actually did it, while Biden’s probably envious that his gaslighting skills aren't nearly as effective as Trump's.
But we’re not trapped in the “What If” universe. This isn’t a comic book. Trump’s not our president.
Joe Biden is. He owns this crisis. He should be held accountable for what has happened... and what will happen next.
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