Poll: 72% of Republicans say airport attack shows it's wrong for U.S. to leave Afghanistan

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

“The segment of the Republican base that is ideologically committed to withdrawal from Afghanistan, rather than supporting the mission or situationally reacting to cues from the two parties’ leadership, is 17%,” Dan McLaughlin said after glimpsing this result.

I think it’s more complicated than that but his point is generally true. There’s a bona fide isolationist wing of the GOP but it’s small, just a subset of the MAGAs who are themselves a subset of the wider party. The isolationists seemed more numerous than they are when Trump was president because he has isolationist instincts and the party was willing to back anything he wanted to do in the name of partisan solidarity. But the number of committed isolationists, who care about this stuff once it’s no longer a de facto loyalty test to Trump? Smallish.

It’s similar in a way to Republicans’ anti-spending activism during the tea-party era. When there’s a Democrat in the White House who wants to do X, Republicans’ preference for Not X flares. Withdrawal from Afghanistan looks a lot grubbier to righties when Sleepy Joe is insisting upon it than when Trump was. But the analogy between deficit hawkery and military hawkery isn’t perfect: After all, Biden and the Dem majority are spending boatloads more money than Obama did and there’s no resurgent tea party. GOP voters may be disgruntled by bigger government but they’re no longer exercised about it.

Maybe the same will hold true for pulling out of Afghanistan? It was a bad decision, Republicans may conclude, but not so bad that it’ll turn into a lingering grievance with the administration.

Post-attack, Democrats and independents still favor evacuating to different degrees. Republicans? Strongly against. We could argue with the phrasing of the question and say that it’s unclear about how long American troops should stay, in which case some GOPers may simply want to extend the operation a few more weeks to make sure every American is out safely. But the wording of the hawkish option suggests something more durable, keeping troops in place because “the country remains a threat to the U.S.” That’s not going to end in a few weeks. If anything, withdrawal means groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS-K will become more of a threat going forward than they were.

The part that McLaughlin left out in his tweet is that Republican voters are drawn to policies that show strength — or, better yet, dominance — even if those policies fly in the face of alleged preferences like “ending endless wars” and bringing the boys home. It’s why plenty of MAGA fans seem willing for the U.S. to defend Taiwan even though that contradicts the “America First” ethos: The important thing is to show China how strong we are, which overrides the isolationist impulse. Trump’s entire brand could be summed up as “the politics of dominance,” in fact, especially domestically. He and his fans relish humiliating political opponents, especially on the right, and exasperating enemies among the left and the media. “Own the libs” is comic shorthand for righty political priorities in the Trump era but it’s a revealing phrase in its hint at dominance as a key attraction.

What’s happening in Kabul now and over the past two weeks is the opposite of dominance. We’re following a deadline demanded by jihadis, we’re abandoning allies who trusted us to get them out because we’ve botched the evacuation, and we’ve left our troops pinned down and sitting ducks for suicide bombers. We’ve been owned, repeatedly, by fascist primitives. Which means it’s time to reestablish dominance:

Play that out. If we ignored the Taliban’s deadline, American troops would be left massed in a single location, surrounded on all sides, with no way to resupply them if something happened to the runway at the airport to prevent planes from landing. They’d have to fend off the Taliban and ISIS-K indefinitely. It could be a bloodbath. That’s the opposite of what someone should want to see happen *if* they believe on the merits that ending this endless war and withdrawing ASAP is in the country’s best interest. But it’s logical for someone whose top priority in all things is reasserting dominance over an inferior enemy. Albeit one whom we couldn’t beat in 20 years and which just took over the country.

Having to reconcile the appetite for dominance with four years of “end endless wars” rhetoric has gotten tricky this week for Republican politicians. Trump himself gave it a go last night on Hannity, standing by his calls for withdrawal — but insisting that we should have held onto Bagram, apparently indefinitely:

It sounds like he’s saying that Bagram was strategically important to the U.S. in the region and therefore never should have been evacuated. How does he imagine we would have defended it once the Taliban took back the rest of the country and surrounded the base? What if Russia or China or Pakistan had lent artillery to the group and they started shelling it?

Kevin McCarthy was asked this morning how he squares his own calls for withdrawal when Trump was president with his criticism of Biden this week:

Does he mean we should have held Bagram only until the evacuation is finished or is he trying to keep up with Trump by imagining us holding the base indefinitely?

He’s been criticizing Biden this week too for stooping to negotiating with the Taliban, which prompted another obvious question:

Actually, Trump opposed extra conditions for withdrawal. William Saletan has a link-rich piece today about how the House, led by veteran Jason Crow, tried last year (and ultimately succeeded) to attach conditions to Trump’s agreement with the Taliban, which Trump essentially ignored:

These included “consultation and coordination” with allies, protection of “United States personnel in Afghanistan,” severance of the Taliban from al-Qaida, prevention of “terrorist safe havens inside Afghanistan,” and adequate “capacity of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces” to fight off Taliban attacks. The amendment also required investigation of any prisoners, released as part of the deal, who might be connected to terrorism. In short, the amendment would do what Trump had failed to do: impose real conditions on the withdrawal. Crow told his colleagues that he, too, wanted to get out, but that Afghan security forces weren’t yet “ready to stand on their own.”

[Matt] Gaetz dismissed these warnings. The Taliban was already taking over the country, he argued, and imposing conditions would just get in the way of the pullout. “I don’t think there’s ever a bad day to end the war in Afghanistan,” he said.

House Republicans at the time opposed it. Now they’re attacking Biden for having also ignored conditions on the ground in moving too quickly to pull out. “Everything they’re now complaining about—coordination with allies, severance of the Taliban from al-Qaida, adequate preparation of the Afghan security forces, vetting of prisoners to be released—was in the Crow amendment and the vetoed defense bill,” Saletan writes of the GOP. Right, but the posture has changed. Not only is a Democrat (weak) in charge now instead of a Republican (strong) but the abject fiasco at the airport has grievously damaged perceptions of American dominance. That’s why some MAGA fans have gone around this week insisting that Trump never would have let the Taliban humiliate him this way, despite the fact that (a) he was prepared to invite them to Camp David just before the anniversary of 9/11 to celebrate his weak “peace” agreement with them and (b) if he really did hit back hard we’d be staring at the bloodbath I described above, the avoidance of which is supposedly the whole reason Republicans want out of Afghanistan. There’s not much strategy to any of this, just the fixation on strength at any given moment.