Over the past week, President Joe Biden has largely failed to convey humility and compassion in his remarks about the current crisis in Afghanistan. His initial speech to the American people on August 16 included surprisingly little recognition of the sacrifices of American service members and their families, as well as the horrific—and ongoing—suffering of the Afghan people. His address seemed defiant, defensive and disconnected. In a subsequent interview with George Stephanopoulos, the president callously dismissed a question about desperate Afghan civilians falling to their deaths from planes leaving Kabul airport.
These incidents reflected a shocking lack of empathy on the part of the president of the United States toward American veterans and Afghan civilians. But the Biden administration appears to be out of step with the American public as well. Reuters recently reported that White House officials believe Americans’ outrage over the chaos and violence in Afghanistan will eventually transform into support for the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops. This sentiment demonstrates a glaring failure to understand the American people—their heads and their hearts, their motivations and their concerns—and the reason some Americans supported withdrawing forces from the country, but not the withdrawal’s execution.
These empathy problems have resulted in a series of tone-deaf remarks to the American people, our allies and the world. First came an address that failed to acknowledge the terrible humanitarian disaster, and to reassure Americans that steps would be taken to remedy the situation and project enough strength to deter the Taliban from harming our citizens and partners. Second, the interview with Stephanopoulos made the president seem cold and uninformed. And then, Biden offered an attempted mulligan address that was astonishingly divorced from the reality on the ground in Afghanistan, and utterly blind to the likely reaction of Americans seeing his words contrast on a split screen with horrifying images from Kabul. The president’s cold, detached words have undoubtedly exacerbated feelings of fear and abandonment on the part of those in harm’s way.
If the Biden administration continues to struggle to put itself in the shoes of all those suffering in Afghanistan—not to mention America’s own citizens—its efforts to communicate to the public and the world will continue to miss the mark. The Biden team’s missteps in this area will also have critical national security consequences. The words of the American president have profound power to shape international events and deter aggression—see “Tear Down this Wall.” Empathy will be all the more important in this particular case, when American strength and leadership appear gravely threatened on the international stage.
Having served as President Donald Trump‘s senior national security speechwriter, I have thought quite a bit this week about how we would have handled the remarks differently. My thoughts have turned to a speech President Trump gave on April 13, 2018, after launching military strikes to protect innocent Syrians from horrific death by chemical weapons.
In those remarks, the president did not shy away from describing the “evil” we were seeing on the ground—an attempted “slaughter” of innocents by a “terrible regime,” the “crimes of a monster,” “gruesome suffering,” “barbarism and brutality” and a “ghastly specter” that left infants and children “thrashing in pain and gasping for air.” We were acting with allies, using “all instruments of our national power” to establish deterrence, and were prepared to sustain the response until the Syrian regime stopped its assault. The speech recognized that U.S. blood and treasure could not impose peace on the Middle East, and that the fate of the region was in the hands of its own people, but did so without ignoring the sacrifices of those who had stepped up their efforts. The president laid out all of these points honestly and clearly to the American people and the world.
President Trump’s Syria address offers important lessons for the Biden team in shaping their words in the coming days and weeks. The administration should confront the devastation we are seeing in Afghanistan with clear eyes and describe the horror candidly to the American people, recognizing the immense suffering on the ground. The president and his team should leave little doubt in the minds of both friend and foe that the United States is committed to ensuring the safe return of U.S. citizens and partners, plainly communicating intentions, redlines and consequences. Finally, they should remember that the United States can encourage regional responsibility and burden-sharing efforts while still promoting American leadership and respecting those who have heeded calls to action.
Above all, the Biden administration should embrace a more empathic approach, not only to Afghan civilians, but also to American citizens.
We too often assume that strong political communication is a matter of savvy politics, flowery language and perhaps even large datasets and subject-area expertise. In fact, the best speechwriters and political orators above all have a deep understanding of the human condition both in suffering and in triumph. In the dark days ahead in Afghanistan, meeting the moment will require recognizing this common humanity.
Dr. Amanda Rothschild is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and Senior Policy Director of the Vandenberg Coalition. She served at the White House as a Special Assistant to the President and Senior National Security Speechwriter and as a Member of Secretary of State Pompeo’s Policy Planning Staff during the Trump administration. Her research and academic writing concerns presidential history and presidential policy on genocide and mass atrocities.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.