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Biden has wanted to pull out of Afghanistan since at least 2009, when he stood alone in opposition to President Obama surging troops into the conflict. But now that 13 Americans service members have died executing his withdrawal and his poll numbers have plummeted, Republicans are suggesting that this is a political hit at home he may not recover from.
But as Presidents Reagan found out in Lebanon and Clinton in Somalia, a devastating military loss doesn’t always amount to a political repudiation. Asked if Reagan would be blamed for the deaths of 220 unarmed Marines killed by a truck bomb in Beirut as they were sleeping, a senior White House aide turned the question around. “Why would he be blamed? He wasn’t driving the truck.” To reporters' surprise, the aide, Ed Meese, readily agreed to put his name behind his remark. And he turned out to be right.
Clinton faced withering criticism as a new president with no foreign policy experience when a humanitarian mission turned deadly as Somali militiamen shot down three U.S. Black Hawk helicopters. A fierce battle ensued lasting through the night that resulted in the deaths of 19 American soldiers. Some of their bodies were dragged through the streets of the capital city, Mogadishu. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin resigned.
“The analogies to Beirut and Mogadishu are the correct ones,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. “They were screwups and people died as a result, but the president was able to win reelection because, unless it’s an ongoing war, Americans don’t pay that much attention to foreign policy. Vietnam hurt [President] Johnson because it was ongoing,” and there was a draft.
“Biden has been damaged but it’s not necessarily politically fatal. It’s unlikely this tragedy of 2021 will shape the 2024 election,” Pitney concluded with one caveat: “Everything changes if Afghanistan becomes a base for terrorist attacks against the United States.”
Democrats were on track to lose the House in 2022 because of redistricting before Afghanistan, Pitney said, and the Senate depends on the quality of the candidates the two parties field. Herschel Walker with his personal baggage entering the race in Georgia makes it more likely that Democrat Raphael Warnock can retain his seat.
Pitney was in Washington working on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant for Republicans when Reagan changed the subject just two days after the Beirut bombing by launching a surprise invasion of the tiny Caribbean Island of Grenada where a Marxist-Leninist government had taken power in a coup, and where the lives of American medical school students studying on the island were allegedly being threatened. “There were initial suspicions of what would later be known as ‘wag the dog,’ though the movie didn’t come out until the 1990s,” said Pitney. “The idea it was a diversion was very strong until the students kissed the ground (once back on American soil) and then the critics went quiet.”
After-action reports found the dawn assault didn’t go as smoothly as advertised with 19 American forces killed, including four Seals and eight Rangers. Still, the invasion remained popular with voters. A November 1983 poll showed Reagan’s approval rating higher than any time since September 1981 as Americans “rallied round the flag” to support the president."