Bolton on the Afghanistan Withdrawal

The Republican Party is transitioning back to its pre-1941 (Pearl Harbor) foreign policy, the foreign policy of Henry Cabot Lodge and away from the Wilsonian views that defined the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Donald Trump is the agent of this transformation and those 40% of Republicans that voted for Nikki Hayley represent the remnants of the Reagan wing of the GOP. John Bolton’s memoir, The Room Where it Happened, offers a Reaganesque critique of the Trump administration’s foreign relations.

Published in 2020, this book predicts chaos from Trump’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, a decision that Biden delayed but ultimately followed through with by August 30, 2021. As Trump’s National Security Advisor, Bolton opposed agreeing to the Taliban’s terms, which is what Trump did soon after Bolton’s resignation.

Since I resigned, Trump resumed talks with the Taliban, which were just as detrimental to the United States as before. Combined, however, with the October withdrawal debacle in Syria, a clear unforced error by Trump personally, political opposition to surrendering in Afghanistan grew stronger. Nonetheless, on Saturday, February 29, 2020, the United States and the Taliban signed an agreement that, in my view, looked very much like the agreement that had come unstuck in September. This still being the Twitter presidency, I tweeted my opposition that morning: “Signing this agreement with Taliban is an unacceptable risk to America’s civilian population. This is an Obama-style deal. Legitimizing the Taliban sends the wrong signal to ISIS and al Qaeda terrorists, and to America’s enemies generally.” Trump responded in typical fashion at a press conference a few hours later, saying of me, “He had his chance; he didn’t do it.” The preceding chapter demonstrates, to the contrary, that this Afghanistan deal is entirely Trump’s. Time will prove who is right, and the full effects of the deal may not become apparent until after Trump leaves office. But there should be no mistaking this reality: Trump will be responsible for the consequences, politically and militarily.

It’s popular among partisans to say Trump would have executed this withdrawal better, an assertion that cavalierly forgets chaos in execution was the norm for Trump’s presidency. The chaos ultimately comes from Taliban rule. Handing them Afghanistan is the U.S. nexus to that chaos, a policy Trump chose.

Yet, the existence of that chaos is not a valid argument for Bolton’s side of this argument. I supported the Trump administration’s efforts at withdrawal and defended the Biden administration for following through on his his predecessor’s policy. The long-term occupation of Afghanistan was clearly more costly, in both lives and the federal budget, than the cost of withdrawal. If you believe in that policy, then you have to own the consequences, including the inherent chaos.

Bolton didn’t believe in the policy, but his book has its own missing ownership. In all Bolton’s hawkish foreign policy observations, I didn’t see him connect the dots from his worldview to our federal budget deficit.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there.