2024 Republicans Quietly Back Biden on Afghanistan
A striking line divides presidential aspirants from the old guard.
Texas’s senatorial delegation is divided.
Not by party. Not over its opinion of President Biden. And not over how to address a boiling crisis at the Southern border. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz are of one mind on those matters. What separates the duo is who would like to run for president in 2024, and correspondingly, the realpolitik of the Biden-led exodus from America’s longest war.
Rarely do raw political considerations encourage bipartisanship, but the decision to leave Afghanistan appears one such case, with almost everyone backing the White House except avowedly anti-Trump Republicans with an eye toward 2024, even as the conditions on the ground in the country inevitably deteriorate.
The exception has been some old guard senators who have registered complaints.
“I’m concerned about it,” Cornyn told the Texas Star-Telegram when Biden announced his decision in April. “If there’s one thing that we’ve learned is that power vacuums get filled and usually by the bad guys. … I don’t know whether it’s going to be ISIS or Iran. But none of those sound like particularly good outcomes.” In recent days, the senior senator has shared articles critical of the maneuver on social media.
Cornyn is joined by notable GOP critics of the 45th president: Sen. Mitt Romney, Sen. Ben Sasse, Rep. Liz Cheney, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, with whom Trump maintains a frenemy relationship after he criticized the former president over the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. Romney, Cheney, and especially Sasse are sometimes floated for 2024 bids, but all would wage campaigns explicitly geared toward restoring the pre-Trump GOP.
Every other serious contender has made the opposite bet.
Trump himself assailed Biden on Thursday, but only for lacking the personal touch in executing what was originally Trump’s design. “I personally had discussions with top Taliban leaders whereby they understood what they are doing now would not have been acceptable,” Trump said. “It would have been a much different and much more successful withdrawal, and the Taliban understood that better than anyone.”
But most would-be Republican presidents—Cruz, Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio (reluctantly)—agree it’s time to leave, from the hawks to Rand Paul. Tucker Carlson has not weighed in loudly on the subject, but his recent realist track record has been clear. A monologue in support of the present course could further convulse the Republican ranks.
From the Seventh Floor at the State Department, Pompeo’s department led the negotiations with the Islamist Taliban group in Doha during the Trump years. Pompeo reportedly distrusted Trump’s handpicked choice to be the country’s ambassador, William P. Ruger, but evidently agrees with Mr. Ruger’s policies (Ruger has backed Biden on the exit, and is a board member of The American Conservative).
Those not on-side on the Afghanistan issue have found themselves out of GOP power circles for some time.
Former National Security Advisor John Bolton has attacked Biden’s decision. “I do think that public opinion has turned against this war and I blame it squarely on our political leadership for at least the last 12 years,” Bolton told Meet the Press in July. “We have not had presidents who articulated clearly the reason why we were there.”
Bolton has gone on to claim the U.S. did not actually lose the war, merely losing the will to win. Bolton’s stridency on the Afghanistan matter saw him sidelined in Trump’s White House two years ago this month, and contributed significantly to his sudden downfall with Trump in September 2019, as first reported in these pages. Bolton, a former national security official, has long maintained a political PAC operation, and is arguing in public that Trump will not seek reelection in 2024. In contrast to other conservative Trump critics, Bolton’s interest in remaining influential in Republican politics is clear, though he is facing an uphill climb.
Take, for instance: Bolton’s successor, Robert C. O’Brien, is looking at a 2024 bid, and backed Trump to the hilt in office.
O’Brien openly clashed with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley last year over Afghanistan policy, in a sign of conservative tensions with the brass that spilled out into the open in 2021. And Biden is said to have gone against the counsel of Milley and Lloyd Austin, the former four-star general and Secretary of Defense, in making this move, though the Pentagon under his leadership has signaled more or less full public support.
But the break between official tastemakers in Washington and those hoping to cultivate a populist political base is most pronounced on the Republican side.
Embattled Rep. Matt Gaetz dedicated his podcast show on Thursday to supporting Biden’s withdrawal, saying “Zoomers shouldn’t fight Boomer wars” in a preview of the potentially tricky terrain that is backing a Democratic president to finish the work of a Republican president.
But on a personnel level, the party remains deeply, conventionally militarist. There aren’t primary elections for positions at the Center for New American Security.
Trump’s own Afghanistan pointwoman at the National Security Council, Lisa Curtis, is stashed there now—and is against leaving. CNAS, historically tight with the McCain wing of the Republican Party, has been seen as a safe sounding board for national security-minded Republicans. Sen. Josh Hawley gave what amounted to his coming-out foreign policy address at the outfit two years ago.
But Hawley is in favor of leaving the country, while CNAS’ head, Richard Fontaine (a McCain alum), has been loudly critical, most recently in the New York Times. And another of Trump’s national security advisors, H.R. McMaster, is now a bigwig at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and has shocked even some longtime admirers for his desire to stay in the country, given his military pedigree of criticizing U.S. mistakes in America’s second longest war: Vietnam.
So, as lopsided one civil war winds down in Central Asia, another is heating up in Washington.