This year, December brings the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and next week is the 20th anniversary of the terrorism attacks against Manhattan and Washington – both of which shed light on several vital elements of the American reaction to the debacle in Afghanistan.
In 1941, Joseph W. Martin Jr. of Massachusetts, the minority leader of the House of Representatives and thus the chamber’s chief Republican in the Washington of Democratic president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, said “there is no politics here” after the Japanese attack that drew the United States into the Second World War. He added, “There is only one party when it comes to the integrity and honour of the country.”
Sixty years later, in 2001, former vice-president Al Gore, who only months earlier had lost a bitter overtime election fight, said of his campaign rival, “George W. Bush is my commander-in-chief.”
This is not 1941 or 2001.
Though Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said after 13 American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan that “it’s not a day for politics,” Republicans immediately unleashed withering criticism of the President, with GOP Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, blaming “Joe Biden’s catastrophic failure of leadership” and declaring, “It is now painfully clear he has neither the will nor the capacity to lead. He must resign.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California said Mr. Biden would face a “reckoning” for the upheaval in Afghanistan.
“Climactic events that are seen as a threat to the nation unify us,” Ronald E. Neumann, who was American ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007 and who now serves as the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, said in an interview. “But disunity has characterized us as often as unity. Now the U.S. has led NATO to its first defeat in a war – and at home there is disunity between the parties and even among the Democrats.”
This year also marks the 175th anniversary of the beginning of the Mexican War, which divided the country and the parties in 1846. It also is the 160th anniversary of the opening of the Civil War, which in 1861 ripped the country apart as it tore the Democrats in the South apart from the Republicans in the North for more than a century.
“The Mexican War was trumped up, Vietnam was controversial after Lyndon Johnson escalated our troop level in 1965, and support for the war in Afghanistan fell gradually,” said Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University historian and author of a book about dissent during the First World War. “We are united when there are worries about the security of the country, and when there aren’t those worries, we are not united.”
The attack on Pearl Harbor, for example, was, in the words of Roosevelt speechwriter Robert E. Sherwood, “so insulting and enraging, that the divided and confused American people were instantly rendered unanimous and certain.”
After the war, in 1947, senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, a onetime isolationist turned internationalist and influential chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, coined the aphorism that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” For a generation, in the Cold War years through the mid-1960s, that adage prevailed.
But there has been substantial political climate change since then, and the water’s edge has shifted – or disappeared.
The shift began in the Vietnam War years, when the policies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon stirred deep dissent even among members of their own parties. Democratic senators Frank Church of Idaho, Robert F. Kennedy of New York and George S. McGovern of South Dakota, among many others, opposed the Vietnam policies of Mr. Johnson, a fellow liberal Democrat. Republicans such as senators Jacob K. Javits of New York and Charles Mathias Jr. of Maryland and representative Paul McCloskey of California, among others, opposed the polices of Mr. Nixon, a fellow Republican.
Today’s opposition to Mr. Biden’s actions in Afghanistan spans both parties, with particular enmity among Republicans, some of whom have called for the President’s impeachment – an act that until recent years was a forbidding legislative procedure reserved for the most heinous crimes, not for political or military misdeeds or poor judgment. Though former Republican representative Gerald Ford of Michigan, who became president after Mr. Nixon resigned in the face of certain impeachment and conviction, once said that an impeachable crime was “whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history,” the Constitution restricts it to “high crimes and misdemeanors” – conditions that the House regarded as appropriate in the cases of Bill Clinton and Donald Trump (twice).
A presidential impeachment is virtually impossible as long as the Democrats control the House, which will be the case at least for the next 16 months, and in any case conviction in the Senate is basically out of the question. No impeached president ever has been convicted and removed from office. Andrew Johnson, who in 1868 became the first president to be impeached, was acquitted in the Senate by a single vote. No other president came close.
But apart from that, Mr. Biden’s pleas for unity almost certainly will not be redeemed.
At another critical historical juncture, a president at a time of great foreign-policy challenge delivered a public address. “The American people have faced other grave crises in their history – with American courage, and with American resolution,” he said, responding to the attack on the destroyer USS Greer, which though flying an American flag, was torpedoed by a German submarine southeast of Greenland while the United States was still uninvolved in the Second World War. “They will do no less today.” The speaker was Mr. Roosevelt, the occasion was his 18th Fireside Chat, and the date was Sept. 11, 1941 – precisely 60 years before the 9/11 terror attacks of 2001.
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