“I’m getting sick and tired of hearing about morality, our moral obligation,” Joe Biden said in 1975. “There’s a point where you are incapable of meeting moral obligations that exist worldwide.” At the time, he was arguing against U.S. aid to Cambodia. But he could just as easily have said the same about his decision this year to end the American presence in Afghanistan, a catastrophic mistake that has led to a Taliban takeover, undermined our national interest, and morally stained Biden’s presidency.
It is the latest blunder in a foreign-policy record filled with them.
- In 1975, Biden opposed giving aid to the South Vietnamese government during its war against the North, ensuring the victory of a brutal regime and causing a mass exodus of refugees.
- In 1991, Biden opposed the Gulf War, one of the most successful military campaigns in American history. Not only did he later regret his congressional vote, but in 1998, he criticized George H. W. Bush for not deposing Saddam Hussein, calling that decision a “fundamental mistake.”
- In 2003, Biden supported the Iraq War—another congressional vote he later regretted.
- In 2007, he opposed President George W. Bush’s new counterinsurgency strategy and surge in troops in Iraq, calling it a “tragic mistake.” In fact, the surge led to stunning progress, including dramatic drops in civilian deaths and sectarian violence.
- In December 2011, President Barack Obama and Vice President Biden withdrew America’s much-scaled-down troop presence in Iraq; the former had declared Iraq to be “sovereign, stable, and self-reliant,” and the latter had predicted that Iraq “could be one of the great achievements of this administration.” Their decision sent Iraq spiraling into sectarian violence and civil war, allowing Iran to expand its influence and opening the way for the rise of the jihadist group ISIS.
- According to Obama’s memoir A Promised Land, Biden had advised the former president to take more time before launching the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
- Ten years ago, Biden said in an interview that “the Taliban per se is not our enemy.” He added, “If, in fact, the Taliban is able to collapse the existing government, which is cooperating with us in keeping the bad guys from being able to do damage to us, then that becomes a problem for us.” Indeed.
In his 2014 memoir, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, Robert Gates, who served as the secretary of defense under George W. Bush and Obama, said that Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
So is there a unifying theory of why Biden is so consistently wrong on major foreign-policy matters? Does he misunderstand something about the world, or possess some set of instincts that don’t serve him well?
Perhaps the place to begin is by recognizing that Biden has never been an impressive strategic thinker. When talking about his strengths, those close to Biden stress his people skills: his ability to read foreign leaders, to know when to push and when to yield, when to socialize and when to turn to business. But that’s very different from having a strategic vision and a sophisticated understanding of historical events and forces.
What the Biden foreign-policy record shows, I think, is a man who behaves as if he knows much more than he does, who has far too much confidence in his own judgment in the face of contrary advice from experts. (My hunch is he’s overcompensating for an intellectual inferiority complex, which has manifested itself in his history of plagiarism, lying about his academic achievements, and other embellishments.)
On national-security matters, President Biden lacks some of the most important qualities needed in those who govern—discernment, wisdom, and prudence; the ability to anticipate unfolding events; the capacity to make the right decision based on incomplete information; and the willingness to adjust one’s analysis in light of changing circumstances.
To put it in simple terms, Joe Biden has bad judgment.
William Inboden of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas, who worked on George W. Bush’s National Security Council, told me that the key thing to understand about Biden is he is first and foremost a politician, consistently aligned with the Democratic Party’s center of gravity on any foreign-policy issue, a follower more than a leader, and certainly not an independent or creative thinker.
But Biden’s foreign-policy record has one other through line: the betrayal of people who have sided with the United States against its enemies and who, in the aftermath of American withdrawal, face a future of oppression, brutality, and death. And these betrayals of people in foreign lands seem to leave Biden unmoved. There is a troubling callousness to it all, a callousness that is at odds with empathy that Biden has clearly shown in other areas of his life.
According to my colleague George Packer’s biography of Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Biden has argued that the United States does not have an obligation to Afghans who trusted the United States.
“We don’t have to worry about that. We did it in Vietnam. Nixon and Kissinger got away with it,” Biden told Holbrooke. Biden also “reportedly pushed back on the argument that America had a moral obligation to women in Afghanistan,” according to The Washington Post.
The withdrawals that Biden insisted on in Iraq and Afghanistan were at stages in those wars when very few American troops were at risk, when U.S. troop levels in those countries were quite low. As Paul D. Miller wrote in The Dispatch, “The U.S. presence in Afghanistan the last few years was tiny—just 2,500 troops before the start of the final withdrawal. It was indefinitely sustainable. There is no significant antiwar movement to speak of, there is no domestic political pressure to withdraw, and no election will hinge on U.S. policy toward Afghanistan.” Miller, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council for Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, went on to say this:
The US mission in Afghanistan accomplished some important successes. There have been no large-scale international terrorist attacks emanating from Afghanistan or Pakistan since 2001. The Afghan people broadly support the country’s new constitution. The Afghan economy showed consistent growth. By virtually every metric of human development, Afghans are better off today than they were 20 years ago. The intervention was not an unmitigated failure—except that many of these successes are likely to unravel with the Afghan army’s collapse.
But Biden decided to do in Afghanistan what he decided to do in Iraq: cut the cord because he was determined to cut the cord, because he thinks he knows better, not because circumstances on the ground dictated that it be done. The result is a human-rights catastrophe.
America’s second Catholic president speaks openly of his faith, carries a rosary in his pocket, and attends Mass every Sunday. “Joe is someone for whom the ways in which he sees issues around racial justice, around the treatment of refugees and immigrants—all of that is connected to a view of other people—who he sees as neighbor, who he sees as being made in the image of God,” Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, a close friend of Biden’s, told NPR.
Carol Keehan, the former head of the Catholic Health Association, who has worked closely with Biden for years, echoes those sentiments. “He’s very clear about justice,” she told NPR. “When Joe Biden talks about faith, he talks very much about things like the Gospel of Matthew—‘what you’ve done to the least of my brother, you’ve done to me.’”
Just don’t tell that to the girls, women, and other frightened souls in Afghanistan who, thanks to a decision made by Joseph R. Biden Jr., are about to enter the gates of hell.
Peter Wehner is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.
This article originally appeared in The Atlantic on August 18, 2021.