Competence or lack thereof seems to be the latest stalking horse for pundits aiming their indignation at President Biden for the sadly flawed exit from Afghanistan. Having enjoyed favorable polling numbers since his Jan. 20, 2021, inauguration, Biden has now suddenly become inept and incompetent for the messy departure from the Kabul airport more than a week ago.
The From and Fuller’s weekly interchange of opinions last Thursday in The Spy exemplifies the doom and gloom permeating the media over the Kabul uncoupling. I found it unsettling.
Fortunately, Craig Fuller proposed taking a long view; 20 years of futile combat accounting for nearly 2,500 American lives and thousands of invisible and visible wounds suffered by American soldiers offered Biden little choice but to stanch the literal and figurative bloodletting by pulling out American troops and citizens.
Fuller’s viewpoint, based on his extensive experience with disappointing and disorderly decisions made by our presidents, was refreshing. He brushed aside the “harsh” judgments.
So, this obviously poorly planned withdrawal has drawn a horde of critics questioning the competency of our president for the initially botched exit. While I agree that Biden and his team deserve criticism for a sloppy and deadly pullout, I cannot subscribe to the theory that the president is incompetent. Or that his presidency is doomed to an irrefutable perception of incompetency.
The undercurrent to the scathing attacks is Biden’s age (78) and the alleged decline of his cognitive abilities based on hearsay and unfounded rumors. As Biden is wont to say, “Hey, man, give me a break.”
Was the young President John F. Kennedy incompetent for his authorization of the ill-fated Bay of Pigs incursion in 1961—but suddenly brilliant (and competent) for his handling of the Cuban Crisis in 1962?
Was President George Herbert Walker Bush competent for his adroit leadership during the first Persian War in early 1991—but incompetent and ill-advised for agreeing with a Democratic Congress on a tax hike in 1990 that led to a strong economy under his successor, Bill Clinton? I well understand he disavowed any intention (“read my lips”) to raise taxes during his presidential campaign and then changed his mind when in office.
Was Franklin Delano Roosevelt incompetent for not anticipating Japan’s successful attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, but a paragon of leadership and resolve for overseeing the war-changing assault on the Normandy beaches on D-Day, June 6, 1944?
I could go on and on with other examples of competent vs. incompetent decisions by our presidents. Doing so would be unproductive. Not all decisions—including ones not made–are good ones. Nor are they always ruinous to a presidency.
My point is straightforward: in our poisonous political theater, the knives emerge quickly and contemptibly during a crisis. Sometimes the condemnation is justified. Sometimes it is premature.
A friend referred to the awful scene at the Kabul airport as “one of the most amazing system failures of our lifetime.” This friend is normally averse to apocalyptic statements. Not this time.
A system failure would be 9/11 when nearly 3,000 people, mostly Americans, were killed by terrorists who had hijacked four US aircraft. Well aware of Osama bin Laden and his effective Al Qaeda organization, our intelligence organizations failed to communicate with each other.
I do not believe that anyone accused President George W. Bush of incompetence. Instead, he drew praise for how he handled the response and comforted the nation.
As a longtime Republican who came to Washington as a young staffer with President Reagan and then as chief of staff to Bush 41, Fuller correctly opined during last week’s Spy that questions about Biden’s competency represented a “harsh judgment that was unwarranted…that his choices were terrible and worse.”
Amen, Craig Fuller.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.