In a speech from the White House on Monday afternoon, President Joe Biden expressed a sentiment that has rarely been a part of the official, stated U.S. foreign policy over the past two decades.
"If anything, the developments of the past week reinforce that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision," Biden said. "I will not repeat the mistakes we've made in the past. The mistake of staying and fighting indefinitely in a conflict that is not in the national security interest of the United States."
Faced with widespread—and, in many ways, justified—criticism for how his administration has conducted America's military withdrawal from the nearly 20-year occupation of Afghanistan, Biden admitted that the Taliban takeover of the country happened "more quickly than we anticipated." But Biden remained resolute about the big picture: There is no military solution to Afghanistan, and keeping American troops there for another year, decade, or longer would not change that.
It matters because the biggest failure in Afghanistan was not what happened over the past week or two. It was not even what happened over the past few years, with the Trump administration negotiating a withdrawal and Biden mostly sticking to that timetable after taking office in January. The biggest failure was the open-ended military occupation that sought not only to disrupt the terror cells that plotted the 9/11 attacks but to leave behind a stable democracy. Failure was baked into America's Afghanistan strategy from the start, and vocalizing as much matters.
To those who believe America should have remained in Afghanistan, Biden posed a simple question. "How many more generations of America's daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghanistan's civil war when Afghans will not?"
None of this should let the State Department and the Pentagon off the hook for botching the final act of this two-decade tragedy. The mistreatment of Afghan civilians who helped American military and diplomatic officials only to be left behind to fend for themselves against the Taliban is a stain that the Biden administration and the United States should have to wear for a long, long time. The unwillingness to throw open America's doors to refugees from a crisis that America helped create is shameful.
Officials at both the Pentagon and the State Department, for their parts, followed Biden's remarks by outlining plans to secure the Kabul airport and continue the evacuation of Americans and Afghans with visas. That's a process that should have been figured out long ago, and botching it has caused significant suffering.
But if the end of the disaster that has been America's involvement in Afghanistan injects a bit of the humility that Biden displayed on Monday afternoon into future foreign policy decision making, that can only be a good thing. If the Biden Doctrine of not repeating the mistakes of the Bush Doctrine becomes the guiding principle for American foreign policy, America and the world will be better off.
Biden spoke Monday of relying on America's diplomatic and economic tools rather than "endless military deployments" to reshape the world. That's exactly what we need to be doing, but it requires humility for a president to say so. Heck, it takes humility just to admit that "the mistakes we've made in the past" were mistakes at all.
"After 20 years, I've learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces," Biden said Monday. "What's happening now could just as easily happen five years ago or 15 years in the future. I'm now the fourth American president to preside over a war in Afghanistan…I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth president."
There was never a good time. But today is better than tomorrow.