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Josh Hawley wants to block Biden's nominees over Afghanistan

Josh Hawley wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan under Trump. Why is he mad at Joe Biden for doing it?
Photo illustration: Fractured images of Josh Hawley, Joe Biden and of the US troops returning from Afghanistan.
Sen. Josh Hawley seems to have forgotten that Biden pulled off the plan he had enthusiastically supported during the Trump administration.MSNBC / Getty Images; AP

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., wants America to know he’s very upset about President Joe Biden’s handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. On Tuesday he called for Biden to resign and he pledged to hold up every Biden nomination for the State Department and the Department of Defense unless their top officials — Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin respectively — as well as Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, resign.

Hawley is a 2024 White House hopeful, and one surefire way to garner attention is to grandstand against the president.

Those top officials are not going to resign, and Hawley alone doesn’t have the power to actually block Pentagon or State Department nominations. Democrats control the Senate, so at best Hawley can drag his feet and delay the nominations by forcing Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to go through additional procedural steps on the Senate floor to move ahead with the nominations.

Hawley and everyone else in Washington knows this rebellion is mostly a symbolic one, and one which is meant to generate attention more than results. But what’s striking is how Hawley is seeking to wound Biden for his prosecution of a policy that he himself enthusiastically supported while former President Donald Trump was in office, as part of an "America First" commitment to ending forever wars. Hawley is thrashing around ideologically, prioritizing political point-scoring against Biden while conveniently downplaying that the president pulled off the very policy he wanted to come to fruition.

During his speech on the Senate floor, Hawley called for Biden to resign over the way he handled the Afghanistan withdrawal. Hawley criticized the scenes of chaos at the Kabul airport, the fact that 13 U.S. service members were killed in a terrorist attack in Kabul and the fact that some U.S. civilians remained in Afghanistan even as the formal withdrawal ended in August.

“[Biden’s] behavior is disgraceful,” he said. “He has dishonored this country with his shameful leadership in this crisis. And it is time for him to resign.”

He also said he would “not consent to the nomination of any nominee for the Department of Defense or for the Department of State” unless Blinken, Austin and Sullivan step down.

Hawley’s putative position is not impugning Biden for the withdrawal per se, but the way he executed it. But his call for Biden and his top officials to resign over it suggests that Biden completely botched it and, implicitly, that Trump or someone else would’ve done a much different job under this plan. That assessment is hard to defend.

To be clear, Biden does deserve criticism for his handling of the withdrawal: In particular, his failure to streamline visas and evacuations for vulnerable Afghans who helped the U.S. war effort was preventable and indefensible, and his refugee resettlement efforts have been embarrassingly weak. But, notably, this is not Hawley’s focus.

The reason Afghan security forces fell so quickly to the Taliban is not incompetence specific to the Biden administration but deeper structural problems with the United States’ rudderless nation-building project that stretches across four presidencies. Experts and intelligence officials knew the Taliban would retake the country, and easily, due to the Afghan state’s dysfunction and inability to properly motivate and supply their security forces.

Democrats control the Senate, so at best Hawley can drag his feet and delay the nominations.

Despite that problem, the withdrawal was swifter even than the administration had promised and peaceful, with the notable exception of the ISIS-K terrorist attack. While that attack was tragic, it was not something that could have been easily prevented — or prevented at all — in the scheme of an operation involving the evacuation of over 120,000 people out of a war zone in what was one of the largest airlifts in history. Moreover, fixating on that attack obscures the real stakes: Had the U.S. chosen to stay and break its peace deal with the Taliban, war would have begun once more, and U.S. casualties would’ve skyrocketed once again to numbers that would have dwarfed the casualties from a one-off attack.

As for U.S. civilians left in Afghanistan, the exact number is unclear, but it’s estimated to be under 200, and consist of at least some people who wanted to stay, according to U.S. officials. The U.S. also secured an agreement with the Taliban allowing for the safe passage of people out of Afghanistan even after the withdrawal, although admittedly the reliability of that agreement is unclear as it applies to Afghans.

Overall: far from a catastrophe. And given that Biden deliberately took longer to withdraw than the Trump administration had proposed under its initial agreement, there’s an argument to be made that things would’ve been far more chaotic if the original plan had been executed — which Hawley had called for in the spring. “President Biden should withdraw troops in Afghanistan by May 1, as the Trump administration planned, but better late than never. It’s time for this forever war to end,” Hawley tweeted April 13.

Hawley seems to have forgotten that Biden really did pull off the plan he had enthusiastically supported during the Trump administration. Hawley also seems to have lost sight of the fact that Biden’s arguments for leaving Afghanistan actually mirror his own past arguments — that the U.S. should drop ambitions of nation-building and focus on more strategic engagement with threats.

“It is time for a new departure, based on America’s needs in this new century,” Hawley said during a 2019 speech on foreign policy in which he decried unfocused foreign occupations. “Because the point of American foreign policy should not be to remake the world, but to keep Americans safe and prosperous.”

Biden has pulled off a plan that Hawley aligns with philosophically, and he did it fairly competently, even if far from flawlessly. So what gives?

Well, Hawley is a 2024 White House hopeful, and one surefire way to garner attention is to grandstand against the president. As Hawley hammers away at the Biden administration, one is left wondering whether his earlier declared positions on foreign policy were pure political posturing in the first place.