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Afghanistan chaos cuts into Biden's image of statesmanship

President Joe Biden answers questions from members of

President Joe Biden answers questions from members of the media in the East Room of the White House, Friday, in Washington.  Credit: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta

WASHINGTON — Three days before the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, President Joe Biden left the White House for an intended summer recess, relishing a pair of victories for his domestic agenda.

The U.S. Senate days earlier passed a $1 trillion infrastructure deal with bipartisan support and Senate Democrats cleared the path for a future vote on a separate $3.5 trillion social infrastructure package.

Biden’s victory lap was cut short as images emerged from Kabul last Sunday of Taliban insurgents taking control of the capital and crowds of desperate Afghans rushed to the city’s airport looking for refuge. Hours later, Biden returned to the White House to address the nation and defend the U.S. withdrawal from the nearly 20-year mission that was launched in response to the 9/11 attacks.

On Friday, Biden addressed the evacuation effort for the second time in a week, assuring Americans that "any American who wants to come home — we will get you home," while also saying he could not "promise what the final outcome will be or … that it'll be without risk of loss."

As Biden deals with the first major foreign policy crisis of his presidency, political analysts contend the chaos surrounding the U.S. exit from Afghanistan may cut into some of the public confidence surrounding his first year in office, but will do little to derail his domestic agenda. In the long term, political experts said in interviews with Newsday, the scenes playing out in Afghanistan will certainly leave an indelible mark on his presidency.

"There will be some people who will never forget," said John Aldrich, a political-science professor at Duke University. "Somebody who was there, who had an interpreter who doesn’t make it out, they’ll never forget."

Prior to the collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government, Biden had started to experience a slight dip in his approval ratings as COVID-19 cases have steadily increased this summer because of the delta variant. The rise in cases, despite a massive federal push to vaccinate Americans, coupled with the harrowing images emerging from Kabul, are posing a challenge for Biden, who campaigned on his record as a seasoned leader, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

"One of the things that has been a hallmark of public opinion about the Biden administration has been that they’re able to do the job, they’re getting the job done," Murray said. "Even before Afghanistan, we started to see some erosion of that [public confidence] as the delta variant kind of swept back through the country and people were wondering ‘Well, where is that sense of things are getting better? Maybe you don’t have everything under control?’ And I think the immediate impact of what's going on in Afghanistan is undermining that narrative about competence that was already starting to be dented a little bit."

A poll released Thursday by AP/National Opinion Research Center found that as the Taliban asserted their hold over Afghanistan, 47% of those polled said they supported Biden's handling of foreign relations, down from 50% in June.

The poll, conducted Aug. 12-16, found that the majority of the 1,729 adults polled believed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not worth fighting — only 35% supported U.S. military involvement in those countries. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

White House officials have repeatedly pointed to current polls, and those predating Biden’s time as commander in chief, that show the majority of Americans have long supported a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Biden has argued in the past week that any timeline for withdrawal would have included scenes of chaos — whether it be his Aug. 31 target date or the May 1 deadline negotiated by the Trump administration.

"There's no way in which you'd be able to leave Afghanistan without there being some of what you're seeing now," Biden said Friday.

Critics on both sides of the aisle have pushed back on Biden’s assessment, arguing that his exit strategy was flawed for not accurately anticipating the rapid rise of the Taliban and for not previously expediting the processing of Special Immigrant Visas for thousands of Afghan citizens who aided American troops, news agencies and organizations over the past two decades.

"There were clear policy execution and intelligence failures associated with our withdrawal and its aftermath," Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. "How the U.S. handles the evacuation over the next few days will have implications well beyond Afghanistan and will impact our ability to build coalitions and work with partners moving forward."

Michael Dawidziak, a Republican strategist from Bohemia who worked for former President George H.W. Bush’s campaign, said that although Biden is facing an immediate crush of criticism, "how this affects Biden politically can really only be judged in the long term."

"These things can only be judged in the lens of history … we really don't know what the final outcome will look like," Dawidziak told Newsday. "Right now it looks chaotic and badly handled … but on the on the other hand, historically, in a couple of years if things settle down and women's rights aren’t trampled on … maybe people will look back and say it was exactly the right thing to do … again, those things are judged in the lens of history, not in the moment."

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