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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Punditry in the aftermath

by John Brummett | August 22, 2021 at 1:51 a.m.

Tom Friedman, the earnestly wise columnist for The New York Times who actually has spent time in Afghanistan, told CNN the other night that many commentators have embarrassed themselves predicting events in that vast and enigmatic nation.

He was being interviewed about his column that day, which argued that the situation the morning after sometimes turns out to be less relevant than the way things look the morning after the morning after.

He meant that in a general sense, but he also meant it especially in regard to the current debacle in Afghanistan. And he didn't mean literally the first and second mornings. He was being metaphorical.

"Morning after" stood for the immediate aftermath. "Morning after the morning after" stood for the period of taking stock that comes next. Both are imprecise periods, though it's clear we're still in the original "morning after."

America is still trying to get people out. Afghans trained in providing vital public services are still hiding in their homes, endangering a functioning infrastructure. The Taliban is still promising more tolerance while clubbing street protesters. Some are still saying the Taliban can't run that vast land without foreign aid, while others are saying the poppy economy providing heroin and morphine to much of the world is something even the U.S. military couldn't wipe out, not to mention that the "informal economy" of Afghanistan in consumer goods is vast and of potential use to an outlaw extremist governing regime.

In other words, hold your horses, pundits and commentators.

The American political effect is a matter I'd be more willing to predict, but only after we get to the morning after the morning after.

President Biden's approval rating plummeted from above 50 percent the week before to below 50 last week. And it should have.

It's one thing--the right thing--to pull out of Afghanistan. Maybe we've learned a lesson about trying to tame and remake alien lands.

It's another matter entirely to have pulled out in such a way as to indicate total cluelessness and leave a perfect mess of human despair and American ignominy.

Yes, Donald Trump favored the American exit, negotiated with the Taliban for it and freed Taliban prisoners.

So what? Joe Biden is the president.

The effect of the debacle is broadly tragic, at least for the moment, including for domestic American politics and life.

Many Americans aren't getting a safe and effective vaccine against a potentially lethal virus at least in part because they don't believe their government is either righteous enough or competent enough to be worthy of trust. For America to look a fool to the world--and be made to look that way by religious kooks in Afghanistan--doesn't help restore faith.

Democratic thinkers profess to believe--and they at least hope--that, hard-heartedness aside, these horrid images will fade.

They calculate that Americans will settle on the judgment, quite possibly right, that Afghanistan was an American blunder from the start; that Biden was right to get us out, and that the morning after probably would have been a debacle no matter when and by whose order.

Consider the post on Twitter on Thursday from Peter Baker, noted New York Times political reporter and author: "The Biden team's cold political calculation is that Americans won't care what happens in Afghanistan as long as Americans are safe. To their point, today there are no front-page stories on Afghanistan in cities like Boston, Austin, Chicago, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Fresno or Miami."

It's indeed cold to make such a calculation. But American politics is cold, and the calculation may be on target.

No one else has been able to do a thing with Afghanistan, and, in the broad perspective, the product may matter more than the process--the product being our being out of there, and the process being the idiots we appeared to be while there and upon leaving.

But here in the morning after, another possible American political judgment pends for the morning after the morning after.

It's that Biden's only political currency was that he wasn't Donald Trump, but delightfully more uneventful. It's that his one job was to be better than Trump. It's that the currency might be lost in lingering images of bodies falling from American planes, less in the human tragedy of that than in Americans recoiling that not even the Trump administration could have made a bigger mess.

In that calculation, Biden's approval rating stays below 50 percent and the next Republican presidential nominee--and let's remain blissfully generic for now--is more in the game than he was before the Afghanistan story.

I'm probably rushing too quickly to the morning after the morning after the morning after.

In current American politics (and column-writing), short memories are the lifeblood.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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