President Joe Biden is taking heat from Democrats, not for his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan — that’s popular — but for his haphazard pullout that, self-serving Rumsfeldian “stuff happens,” “wars end messily” platitudes aside, could have been executed more efficiently. They blame George W. Bush for starting America’s longest war, arguing that what he began inexorably led to our most shocking military defeat and its humiliating aftermath.
I am sympathetic to any and all criticism of our intervention in Afghanistan. I was an early critic of the war and got beaten up for my stance by media allies of the Bush administration. But the very same liberals who now pretend they’re against the Afghan disaster stood by when it mattered and did nothing to defend war critics because Democrats — political leaders and voters alike — went far beyond tacit consent. They were actively complicit with the Republicans’ war at the time of the invasion and throughout the decades-long occupation of Afghanistan.
Now, the deadbeat dads of defeat are trying to stick the GOP with sole paternity. This is a ridiculous attempt to rewrite history — one that damages Democratic credibility among the party’s progressive base, which includes many anti-war voters, and risks the possibility that they will make the same mistake again in the future.
Twenty years later, it is difficult for some to believe that the United States responded to 9/11 by cultivating closer ties to the two countries with the greatest responsibility for the attacks, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and attacking a country that had nothing to do with it, Iraq, and another one that had tenuous links, Afghanistan. Yet that’s what happened. And Democrats participated enthusiastically in the insanity.
The sweeping congressional authorization to use military force against Afghanistan and any other target chosen by the president was introduced in the Senate three days after the attacks by Tom Daschle, the then-Democratic majority leader. Every Democratic senator supported destroying Afghanistan. So did every Democratic member of the House of Representatives, except for Barbara Lee, who was roundly ridiculed as weak and naive, received death threats and was denied leadership posts by her own party to punish her for refusing to play ball. The legal justification to attack the Taliban was a bipartisan affair.
Democratic support for Bush’s war reflected popular sentiment: Voters of both parties signed off on the Afghan war by wide margins. Even after weeks of bombing that featured numerous news stories about innocent Afghan civilians being killed willy-nilly, 88% of voters told Gallup that they still approved of the military action. Approval for the war peaked at 93% in 2002 and started to decline. Nevertheless, popular support still hovered around 70% throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, a number that included so many Democrats that then-Sen. Barack Obama ran much of his successful primary and general election campaign on his now obviously moronic message that “we took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan” when Bush invaded Iraq. “Our real focus,” Obama continued to say after winning the presidency, “has to be on Afghanistan.”
Nine months into his first term, Obama felt so confident that Democratic voters supported the war that he ordered his surge of tens of thousands of additional soldiers above the highest troop level in Afghanistan under the Bush administration. Fifty-five percent of Democrats approved of the surge. Domestic support for the war only went underwater after the 2010 assassination of Osama bin Laden by U.S. troops in Pakistan seemed to render the project moot.
There was a strong anti-war movement based on the left throughout the Bush and Obama years against the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of protesters marched against the Iraq war. Opposition was sustained over the years. Far fewer people turned out for far fewer protests against the Afghanistan war. It’s impossible to avoid the obvious conclusion: Even on the left, people were angry about Iraq but OK with Afghanistan.
There is nothing wrong with criticizing the Republican Party and Bush for the decision to invade Afghanistan. The war was their idea. But they never could have started their disaster, much less extended and expanded it under Obama, without full-throated support from their Democratic partners and successors.
This story has few heroes.