A president's words come back to haunt him

Martin Schram
Watch on Washington

Riding the train home to Delaware at day’s end, long ago, my old pal Joe, then a young senator, would surely have wanted to discuss any momentous happening that America had seen on the TV news.

Columnist Martin Schram is a TNS op-ed writer. (TNS)

Especially if it was news about how yet another president had mindlessly trapped himself into telling an obvious lie on TV – and only made it worse the more he tried to make it better as the interview went on.

So, today I can imagine how our conversation could have gone if young Senator Joe and I had been able to be talking, many years ago, about having just seen an infamous interview that actually occurred Aug. 18, 2021, when America’s 46th president was interviewed by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.

I can see myself helpfully observing to Senator Joe that watching President Joe Biden in that interview was like watching a president trying to tap dance on quicksand.

And mainly I can imagine the Senator Joe I knew would have agreed. Senator Joe would have understood, back then, that the greatest strength of the President Biden we saw on TV was his ability to make candor and his common-man aura his greatest political asset. Even when it revealed his own vulnerability. Biden was always at his best when playing the political game with all his cards turned face up.

This past week, Biden’s ABC interview from August seemed to be looping throughout the Senate and House Armed Services Committee hearings on the helter-skelter, way-too-late way America ended the war in Afghanistan.

Remember the Stephanopoulos interview: The anchor asked about widely published reports that “your top military advisors … wanted you to keep about 2,500 troops.”

“No, they didn't,” Biden interjected, according to the ABC News transcript. “It was split. Tha – that wasn't true. That wasn't true.”

Stephanopoulos: “They didn't tell you that they wanted troops to stay?”

Biden: “No. Not at — not in terms of whether we were going to get out in a timeframe all troops. They didn't argue against that."

Stephanopoulos: “So no one told — your military advisors did not tell you, ‘No, we should just keep 2,500 troops …?’”

Biden: “No. No one said that to me that I can recall.”

Time out! The anchor never simply asked which version was the truth: “It was split?” Or: “No one said that to me?”

We got the answer in this past week’s hearings. Gen. Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, and Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the commander of U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan, testified they recommended keeping a reserve of 2,500 troops in Afghanistan through the U.S. evacuation. But Biden cut troop levels to a mere 650, barely enough to protect the U.S. Embassy.

Bizarrely, Biden seemed blind-sided by Stephanopoulos’ most predictable question. And clearly he wasn’t prepared with a strong answer that had the added advantage of being the whole truth.

But the young Senator Joe I knew would have advised President Biden to simply tell Stephanopoulos and all of America something like:

"The Taliban had been threatening to resume attacks on U.S. and allied forces ever since the United States delayed fulfilling former President Donald Trump’s commitment to withdraw all troops as of last May 1. I considered their advice but decided it would be unwise and unfair to keep a small force of 2,500 in harm’s way after summer. As commander in chief, I made that tough call. Our generals enforced my decision."

Meanwhile, a significant American national security problem remains unsolved and virtually unexplored: Why were the U.S. military, defense and intelligence best and brightest blind-sided when the Afghan military they armed and trained suddenly collapsed?

“We cannot, or have yet to develop, a really effective technique to read people’s hearts, their will, their mind, their leadership skills,” Gen. Milley admitted. That’s because our generals talked to their Afghan military counterparts, but don’t know how to do gritty intelligence gathering – or even basic journalism.

For more than a year, the news media reported about mass desertions in an Afghan army that was rife with corruption, with troops unpaid, under-equipped and underfed. Late in the last hearing, Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., asked why the enlisted troops, including those at the lowest levels, “were always telling me something extremely different from what I was getting from reports from many of you generals here.” Namely: The Afghan army “was not ready and (was) not going to be sustainable on their own.” But, he added, “some of our greatest minds on the civilian side and on the uniformed side absolutely missed this.”

“I think that’s a reasonable criticism,” replied Gen. McKenzie. “ … I’m conflicted by that as well, I’ll be very candid with you.”

My long ago pal Senator Joe would be among the first urging President Biden to make sure that national security problem is probed – and hopefully fixed – on his watch.

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at martin.schram@gmail.com.