What Courage Looks Like

Even in the face of terrorist attacks and a barrage of critics, President Biden demonstrates competence, clarity of purpose and compassion

If you are not already a paid subscriber, I hope you will consider becoming one to sustain this work.

In the East Room of the White House, President Joe Biden speaks about the suicide bomb attacks in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 26. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

“Ladies and gentlemen, it was time to end a 20-year war.”

That’s how President Joe Biden ended his press conference yesterday when—with sober analysis, grim determination and a heavy heart—he discussed the heinous suicide bomb attacks by ISIS-K that killed at least 13 US service members, injured at least 18 other Americans, and took the lives of at least 60 Afghan civilians.

It’s a statement agreed upon by most Americans, despite the deadly last day and the ongoing dread that the US exit will likely be followed by widespread violence and executions, no matter what the Taliban is claiming now. It’s a position that is not easy to stand by, especially when only a fraction of the Afghans who deserve visas to flee the country and start a new life will soon get them. But that’s what courage looks like—even when making the right decision is painful and certain to cause terrible suffering.

It didn’t take long for the GOP critics to pop out, blaming the depraved suicide bombings on Biden and revealing their shameful prioritizing of politics over human decency. That included nearly two dozen GOP Senate and House members calling for his resignation or removal.

“Joe Biden has blood on his hands. This horrific national security and humanitarian disaster is solely the result of Joe Biden’s weak and incompetent leadership. He is unfit to be Commander-in-Chief.” That was from Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the number three Republican who replaced Liz Cheney.

“This tragedy is the direct result of the failure of this incompetent withdrawal plan,” insisted Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher.

Earlier Thursday, before the attack, the evacuation effort looked like this, according to the White House: 95,700 US evacuations since August 14 and flights leaving every 39 minutes.

It was a far different narrative than we were hearing at the beginning. When President Biden announced his decision to exit Afghanistan by August 31 and after the Afghan security forces collapsed, the criticisms came fast and furious. It was as if the Republican and media critics did not grasp or refused to acknowledge that war is usually chaotic and ending war is always chaotic.

“An embarrassing spectacle, a diplomatic humiliation and a national security catastrophe.” That was from Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

An “unmitigated disaster…looks to me like [the Biden administration] couldn’t organize a two-car funeral.” That’s from Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky senator and self-described “grim reaper.”

"I think this is way worse than Benghazi. Without a doubt.” That’s from Ron Johnson, the same Wisconsin senator who insisted January 6 was a “largely peaceful” event.

Florida Sen. Rick Scott, chair of the Senate GOP campaign arm, may have earned a special prize for gaslighting: "After the disastrous events in Afghanistan, we must confront a serious question: Is Joe Biden capable of discharging the duties of his office or has time come to exercise the provisions of the 25th Amendment?"

Of course, the gleeful piling on played into the desire to characterize Biden as incompetent and weak, even if it meant ignoring context. Hear anyone mention that Trump insisted in 2019 that ISIS was all gone? How about Trump providing the Taliban a year and 5,000 former prisoners for its takeover? What about Trump’s gutting of State Department staff or the freezing of special immigrant visas for Afghan refugees?

“The buck stops with me,” Biden said from the beginning, talking like a responsible adult, even when he knew there would be tough and probably deadly days ahead.

But that was all this self-serving crowd—looking for a political angle rather than acknowledging the complicated reality of ending a failed, unpopular war—needed to take down Biden. He would bungle the evacuation, they assumed. That was before nearly 100,000 people were evacuated in an airlift that has dwarfed the number of Americans and South Vietnamese (over 7,000) who were helicoptered out of Saigon in 1975.

We cannot underestimate the danger. Yesterday’s attack made that clear. As General Frank McKenzie, commander of US Central Command noted, describing the high-risk, hands-on screening process: “This is close up war…The breath of the person you are searching is upon you…Please remember we have screened over 104,000 people.”

Nor can we let the voices determined to sow doubt about the ability of the US president to finish this grim job and the capacity of his team to recognize the threat they are facing. They have been warning for days that ISIS-K, what Biden described as a terrorist affiliate of ISIS and a sworn enemy of the Taliban, is a clear and present danger.

“Every day we are on the ground,” Biden said on Tuesday, “is another day we know ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both the US and Allied forces and innocent civilians.”

After Thursday’s attack, President Biden left little doubt about his mindset, even as they head toward the stated August 31 deadline to depart: “We will not be deterred by terrorists…To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this: We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”

I leave you with a flashback from 2003. That was when the Dixie Chicks, who had become the top-selling female band of all time after releasing three albums, became a target of hatred by Republicans and the country music world when singer Natalie Maines uttered two sentences during a concert in London.

“Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all,” she said two weeks before the launch of the Iraq war. “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”

The result after the news spread? Their shows were boycotted, their CDs destroyed, their songs banned from country radio and, worst of all, Maines faced death threats.

Let that be a reminder of the virulent, one-sided “patriotism”—the assumption that when Republican President George W. Bush was planning to go to war, nary a word of criticism should be uttered, especially on foreign soil.

Flash forward to today—when a Democratic president is seeking to end a disastrous war—many of those same folks think there’s nothing wrong with trashing the actions of the Commander-in-Chief. As we saw yesterday, even as American troops face a life-and-death struggle, some think it’s more important to point fingers and score political points than acknowledge acts of courage, recognize the complexity and honor the fallen.


Find value in this writing? I hope you’ll become a paid subscriber.