Why Biden's Saigon moment will haunt the US
The comparisons to Saigon’s fall were mostly about Americans fleeing as their puppet government collapsed, but there was more to it than that. In Kandahar, the Taliban captured American-made helicopters — the same Blackhawk models used in the evacuation of Saigon. Of course, Kabul airport was evacuated by transport plane this week, and the choppers in the sky were massive Chinooks, but when the journalistic imagination roams free, poetic metaphors win the day.
One of the more surprising historical references was over at Politico’s Brussels newsletter. Reporting on European countries that have set up makeshift embassies in Kabul airport to process refugee applications, the author commented, “echoes of Sugihara and Zwartendijk.”
Chiune Sugihara was the famed Japanese diplomat who rescued the Mir yeshivah, going rogue to provide bochurim visas to Japan. His less famous Dutch colleague, Jan Zwartendijk, risked his family’s life to assist in saving Jews. Top marks to Politico for historical knowledge.
Echoes of MacArthur?
While this is undoubtedly an inglorious rout, there are precedents for snatching victory from the jaws of retreat. The trouble for the Biden administration is that they depend on a) being heavily outnumbered, and b) vowing heroically to come back one day, and doing so.
The first condition made the retreat at Dunkirk a propaganda victory for Winston Churchill. The second turned General Douglas MacArthur’s 1942 “I Shall Return” promise to liberate the Philippines into an iconic moment. As Biden closes the door on a 20-year, $1 trillion sojourn in the graveyard of empires, history provides scant comfort.
A viral picture of Israel’s former PM sitting on a luggage cart in San Francisco airport on the way to a two-week break in America generated lots of schadenfreude among his detractors.
Is this, though, purely a vacation? America has always been a political springboard for Netanyahu, providing the major backers for his 2009 comeback. This trip might be a bid to shore up renewed support for a third round.
It’s also conceivable that Bibi could decide that a return to the premiership is a pipe dream. Might he finally, aged 72, choose to cash in on his celebrity status by heading for the US lecture circuit?
No such uncertainty hovers over Tony Blair, who recently dreamed of a comeback 15 years after leaving office. In the wake of his old Labour Party’s self-destruction under Jeremy Corbyn and ongoing struggles under Keir Starmer, Blair, 68, was reportedly mulling a comeback. That plan has now been ditched, and as Biden’s pullout from Afghanistan buries a signature Blair foreign policy initiative, Tony has sealed his political legacy as well.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 874)
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