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Politics

How This Week Impacted Biden's Legacy And America's Standing In The World

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A week ago today, President Biden was boarding Marine One for a long-planned vacation at Camp David. By Sunday, things had changed drastically.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The Taliban have moved into Kabul and are now patrolling the streets.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: U.S. forces there are rushing to evacuate all personnel from the embassy.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: There is a Taliban delegation inside the presidential palace, we understand.

KELLY: Well, Biden has spent the week defending his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and defending the execution of that withdrawal, most recently this afternoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: If we had decided 15 years ago to leave Afghanistan, it would have been really difficult. If we decided five years ago, if we start - if we continued the war for another decade and tried to leave, there's no way in which you'd be able to leave Afghanistan without there being some of what you're seeing now.

KELLY: So what do the chaotic scenes of this last week mean for Biden's legacy and for America's standing in the world? We have two guests to take on those questions. Ishaan Tharoor writes The Washington Post's Today's WorldView column. Hi there. Welcome.

ISHAAN THAROOR: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: And Charles Kupchan, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was also an adviser in the Obama White House. Welcome to you.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: Good to be with you.

KELLY: First question - I want to get you both in on this one. Ishaan, you first. What did we learn about Biden as a leader this week?

THAROOR: Well, we learned that he is somebody who is very keen on sticking to his guns when it comes to rather major issues of policy, as well as domestic politics.

KELLY: Yeah, he gave no ground - full, vigorous defense of of everything that's happened, including this week.

THAROOR: Absolutely. And this is despite the fact that it's very clear that this administration was taken a bit by surprise by the way, the speed with which events unfolded, that this administration has been relatively complacent in recent months about preparing for evacuations and for whatever sort of new dispensation would arrive when the Taliban reached Kabul. And so in terms of the short-term management of this current phase of the situation in Afghanistan, it's been quite calamitous. But Biden has instead wheeled around and pointed to a much bigger-picture argument that he's making to the American people.

KELLY: Charles Kupchan - calamitous. What do you think?

KUPCHAN: There's no question this is a bad week for President Biden and will be remembered as a bad week. But, you know, I agree with Ishaan that the president did the right thing. He looked presidential by coming out and saying, I made the tough decision. I stand by my tough decision. And I think we have to take at face value his claim that this is not what was expected. Was there some intelligence assessment somewhere that might suggest the Taliban would run across Afghanistan? Sure. But the collective wisdom of the intelligence community and the Pentagon was we have months. Maybe we have a year. And that's why they began this process more slowly than they should have. But obviously, things moved very quickly. And now we have a bit of a fiasco in Kabul. And I think Biden was right to pivot - beginning of the week, yes, I'm standing by my guns - to today, where he said, we need to do the best we can on the evacuation. He realizes that he has to put the pedal to the metal to try to get as many people out as possible.

KELLY: To step back just a little bit, how do either of you reconcile what the Biden administration has repeatedly said is the goal at the center of U.S. foreign policy now, human rights, putting human rights at the center of it? How do we reconcile that with the situation unfolding today in Afghanistan as - so many questions about what the future holds for women, so many questions about the moral obligation to refugees. Charles.

KUPCHAN: Well, I think that the president made a decision based on his judgment that the mission in Afghanistan wasn't working and was not going to work, that we could have stayed another year, another two years, and the end result is that we did not have a state that was going to cohere as an integrated polity. And his judgment was it's time to call it quits. In making that judgment, there are inevitable downsides because the quality of life for women, the quality of life for civil society is going to take a hit. We know that from the Taliban's track record.

And I think, number one, we need to put a lot of pressure on the Taliban. And that pressure is already there to preserve as much of the civil rights that the Afghan people were able to enjoy over the last 20 years and to do what we can on the ground - escorts to the airport, putting NGOs on the ground to help push back against potential violations of human rights. Yes, we have a moral responsibility, even though in my mind, this was the right strategic decision in the long run.

KELLY: So you think right strategic decision, flawed execution. Is that basically where you come down?

KUPCHAN: I would say that the execution was right, given the misjudgment about how long we had. Given that things unraveled as quickly as it did, the administration has no choice but to scramble to try to get people to the airport and out of the country.

KELLY: Ishaan, on this note, I was surprised by one of President Biden's answers today. He did take questions today. And he was asked whether international partners were critical of the U.S. strategy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: This is where we should be. This is about America leading the world. And all our allies have agreed with that.

KELLY: All our allies have agreed with that. Does that square with what you are hearing?

THAROOR: Well, no. There has been a lot of hand-wringing, especially in European capitals, from members of parliaments in various places, from political elites who have also been invested in this NATO-led project in Afghanistan for so many years. And there is a lot of consternation about the way things have unfolded, about the nature of the collapse and the sudden collapse we've seen so far. And yes, you're seeing a lot of complaints about how the Biden administration guided this process. I think at the same time, there is a degree to which people overestimate, you know, the importance of this idea of, you know, whether this damages U.S. credibility or not. These are conversations that sort of sit in very particular halls of power in certain Western capitals and not very much - not in many other places.

KELLY: Right.

THAROOR: I think the Bush administration, as we've been discussing, has been looking at other data points and other reactions. You know, you saw a poll this week, an AP-NORC poll that showed that 6 out of 10 Americans at this point don't believe the Afghanistan war was worth fighting in the first place.

KELLY: That is - well, we'll have to leave it there. That is Ishaan Tharoor with The Washington Post and Charles Kupchan with the Council on Foreign Relations. Thanks to you both. We look forward to continuing the conversation.

KUPCHAN: Good to be with you. Thanks.

THAROOR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.