A former prime ministerial speech writer decodes the President’s address to the US people after 13 U.S. troops and dozens of Afghans were killed in an attack at the Kabul Airport on August 26.
Biden: This evening in Kabul, as you all know, terrorists attacked, that we’ve been talking about, and worried about, that the intelligence community has undertaken an attack by a group known as Isis-K took the lives of American service members standing guard at the airport, and wounded several others seriously. They also wounded a number of civilians and civilians were killed as well. I’ve been engaged all day in constant contact with the military commanders here in Washington, and the Pentagon, as well as in Afghanistan, and Doha. And, my commanders here in Washington in the field have been on this with great detail and you’ve had a chance to speak to some so far. The situation on the ground is still evolving and I’m constantly being updated. These American service members who gave their lives, it’s an overused word, but it’s totally appropriate here, were heroes. Heroes who’ve been engaged in a dangerous, selfless mission to save the lives of others. They were a part of an airlift and evacuation effort unlike any seen in history, with more than 100,000 American citizens, American partners, Afghans who helped us and others taking to safety in the last 11 days. Just the last 12 hours or so, another 7,000 have gotten out. They were part of the bravest, most capable, and most selfless military on the face of the earth, and they’re part of simply what I call the backbone of America. They’re the spine of America, the best the country has to offer. Jill and I, our hearts ache, like I’m sure all of you do as well, for all those Afghan families who lost loved ones, including small children, or been wounded with this vicious attack and we’re outraged as well as heartbroken.
The gap between scripted and ex tempore words is obvious from the beginning here. The transcript is unforgiving in that it exposes the grammatical riot of Biden’s speech. The president has long been known in American politics for his volubility. He is the American equivalent of Neil Kinnock – of whom John Major said that the reason he talked so much is that, as he had no idea what he was trying to say, he didn’t know when he had finished. You get this sense from this somewhat incoherent opening; which might as well be the invitation to a continued military engagement rather than the prelude to a withdrawal. The evocation of American heroes is a strange way into remarks about a retreat and is something of an indication, perhaps without even the full realisation of the speaker, that not all is well. There is more than a little here of protesting too much. There would be less need to insist upon the heroism if this introductory speech were the first bars of a triumphant march. Sadly, it is nothing of the sort.
There is a long tradition of the great war address. Rhetoric itself is usually dated from the Funeral Oration of Pericles which was a paean to the idea of the city of Athens, dressed up as a eulogy to those who fell in the Peloponnesian Wars. War is the most acute crisis of political leadership, the moment of peril which helps to define political character. All of a sudden the grand style is warranted in a way it so rarely is.
Churchill used to lavish his words on small topics which could not bear the weight of his grandeur. “Never before in the history of Africa” he once said while opening an irrigation scheme, “has so much water been carried by so little masonry”. The bathos suddenly lifted in the summer of 1940 when his rhetorical ornamentation met its subject.
Elizabeth I, Abraham Lincoln, David Lloyd George, Charles de Gaulle, Dwight D Eisenhower – they were all warriors with the spoken word. The really odd thing about everything Joe Biden has said about the retreat from Afghanistan, and says here, is that regardless of the actual context in which he speaks, the president is placing himself in this tradition. He is talking as if he were the latest in a long line of heroes. It’s a deeply strange choice for a man who has been, on other occasions, brutally candid about walking away.
Biden: Being the father of an Army major who served for a year in Iraq, and before that was in Kosovo as a US attorney for the better part of six months in the middle of a war, when he came home after a year in Iraq he was diagnosed like many, many coming home with an aggressive and lethal cancer of the brain and we lost. We have some sense, like many of you do, what the families of these brave heroes are feeling today. You get this feeling like you’re being sucked into a black hole in the middle of your chest. There’s no way out. My heart aches for you, but I know this, we have a continuing obligation, a sacred obligation to all of you, the families of those heroes. That obligation is not temporary, it lasts forever. The lives we lost were lives given in the service of liberty, the service of security, in the service of others, in the service of America. Like their fellow brothers and sisters in arms who died defending our vision and our values and the struggle against terrorism, of the fallen this day are part of a great noble company of American heroes. For 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.
Biden has not been so long in politics without learning a few of the tricks of the trade. There are two standard rhetorical devices here, the combined effect of which is a bit slippery. First, he calls upon his own unimpeachable character as the father of a fallen service man. In the Rhetoric Aristotle argues that character is the principal means of persuasion and it is, indeed, very difficult to take issue with the argument of a man who has just raised the memory of his lost son.
Yet in truth this is a rhetorical sleight. The sacred obligation to which the president refers here is not the mission itself, as it at first seems to be, but the duty of the state to care for the service men now they are back home. The confusion is increased by the lines that follow, at the end of this passage, which is a standard evoking of liberty, the cause for which the men laid down their lives. Again, this is peculiar in the context when no such ideal can really have been said to have been served. Pericles was the first to make this point, in his Funeral Oration in the late 5th century BC. The men died for the greater glory of the state, he said and he has been echoed ever since by every leader who wants to give a justifying force to bloodshed. Yet, where Pericles can go on and wish for victories to come (most of which did not in the event ever transpire), Biden then hits the buffers. His sentences run into the ground, as the mission has done. He is struggling badly here, using the tropes of glory and victory in a moment in which they are not warranted.
Biden: We will not be deterred by terrorists. We will not let them stop our mission. We will continue the evacuation. I’ve also ordered my commanders to develop operational plans to strike Isis-K assets, leadership, and facilities. We will respond with force and precision at our time, at the place we choose, and a moment of our choosing. Here’s what you need to know. These Isis terrorists will not win. We will rescue the Americans in there. We will get our Afghan allies out and our mission will go on. America will not be intimidated, and I have the utmost confidence in our brave service members who continue to execute this mission with courage and honor to save lives and get Americans, our partners, our Afghan allies out of Afghanistan.
The two tangled threads come together here and create a huge knot. Once again the rhetorical frame is that of war tout court and the claim is that complete victory will be ours. But President Biden is not, of course, saying anything like that. He is simply borrowing the rhetorical device of victorious war leaders and applying that standard to an evacuation. It is to be expected that he should seek to justify the retreat but, in his remarks about Dunkirk, Churchill was always able to praise the honour of the men involved while not leaving any doubt that retreat was the opposite of advance.
Biden is too direct here, nothing like subtle enough, and he makes claims that are straightforwardly false. “Our mission will go on”. No, it won’t. “America will not be intimidated”. Yes, it will. The only way this can make sense is if the “mission” is diminished to the project of getting out. “These Isis terrorists will not win” means only that they will not be permitted to hurt American troops as the latter leave. Once the Americans have gone, it is going to feel like a pretty comprehensive victory. It is not clear why Biden has chosen to adopt this strategy. It is almost as if he is pretending that he is presiding over a moment of national triumph.
Biden: Those who have served through the ages have drawn inspiration from the Book of Isaiah. When the Lord says, “Whom shall I send? Who shall go for us?” The American military has been answering for a long time, here I am Lord, send me. Here I am, send me. Each one of these women and men of our armed forces are the heirs of that tradition of sacrifice, and of volunteering to go in harm’s way to risk everything, not for glory, not-for-profit, but to defend what we love and the people we love, and I ask that you join me now in a moment of silence for all those in uniform and out of uniform, military and civilian, who have given the last full measure of devotion. Thank you and God bless you all, and may God protect these troops and all those standing watch for America. We have so much to do and it’s within our capacity to do it. We just have to remain steadfast, steadfast. We will complete our mission and we will continue after our troops are withdrawn to find means by which we can find any American who wishes to get out of Afghanistan. We will find them and we will get them out.
Rather than enter into a serious argument the president here takes the bombast into Spinal Tap territory. The argument, such as it is, merely repeats what he has said before but with the additional rhetorical layer of biblical quotation. The substantive claim at the end of this section – that any American left in Kabul – will be helped out is hardly likely to be true. And that is without even mention those many Afghans who helped the Americans while they were there. This is evidence that America First is not the invention of a deranged President but the basic premise of American exceptionalism. Recall the fate of a previous war President, Woodrow Wilson who toured the nation desperately trying to win support for his idea of a League of Nations. The exertion exhausted and eventually killed him and America never did become a signatory. It just didn’t want that much to do with the world. The diplomatic truth in Kabul is that America thought it could prevent a bloody battle for Kabul and might, in the aftermath, extract some concessions. The almost instant collapse of the Afghan government revealed this as a fond hope. We get no serious analysis here, just a dialled-up fake glory.
Reporter’s Question: Basically, you’re saying you’re squarely stand by your decision to pull out?
Biden: Yes I do, because look at it this way, folks, and I have another meeting, for real, but imagine where we’d be if I had indicated on May the 1st, I was not going to renegotiate an evacuation date, we were going to stay there, I’d have only one alternative, pour thousands of more troops back into Afghanistan to fight a war that we had already won relative to why the reason we went in the first place. I have never been of the view that we should be sacrificing American lives to try to establish a democratic government in Afghanistan, a country that has never once in its entire history been a united country and is made up, and I don’t mean this in a derogatory, made up of different tribes who have never, ever, ever gotten along with one another.
And so, as I said before, and this is the last comment I’ll make, we’ll have more chance to talk about this, unfortunately, beyond because we’re not out yet, if Osama Bin Laden as well as Al-Qaeda had chosen to launch an attack when they left Saudi Arabia out of Yemen, would we have ever gone to Afghanistan? Even though the Taliban completely controlled Afghanistan at the time, would we have ever gone? I know it’s not fair to ask you questions. It’s rhetorical. But raise your hand if you think we should have gone and given up thousands of lives and tens of thousands of wounded? Our interest in going was to prevent Al-Qaeda from re-emerging. First, to get Bin Laden, wipe out Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, prevent that from happening again… As I’ve said 100 times, terrorism has metastasized around the world. We have greater threats coming out of other countries heck of a lot closer to the United States. We don’t have military encampments there. We don’t keep people there. We have over them a rising capability to keep them from going after us. Ladies and gentlemen, it was time to end a 20 year war.
“I know it’s not fair to ask you questions”, says the president. “It’s rhetorical”. Only, for the first time in the session, it isn’t really. This is the unvarnished President, stripped of the pretence and irritated into candour. The final line here is a pay-off and a farewell. “It was time to end a 20-year war” is a phrase which contains no argument. Twenty years is enough and that is that. The sentence is a tautology. Earlier in this answer, the president unfairly asks reporters to raise their hand if any of them wanted further deaths. He knows this is a stupid question. He even raises the prospect that the engagement in Afghanistan might have been an error in the first place, which rather undermines his pious statements about the glory of the deaths that have occurred in its service. The closest the president comes to an actual argument is his claim, undocumented and unspecified, that there are other terrorist threats which, presumably, have a greater claim on American attention than Afghanistan.
Yet these are just words. The passage is empty until the final line penetrates to the truth. It was just time. It has gone on long enough and it was time. With that, the president closes down the session, having inadvertently run out of arguments just at the point that he revealed the only thing he really had to say.
Photograph by Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images