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Another "Worst President Ever" Post? Not Exactly


Today's gracious GOP Happy President's Day card

As part of it's extensive Presidents' Day coverage, The Forward published a delightful piece by PJ Grisar-- Who Were The Most (And Least) Jewish Presidents and then proceeded to list every single president and his Yiddishkeit, starting with Washington's famous letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, R.I., avowing that the U.S. would give "to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance." They rated him: "Shabbos Goy." Did you know John Adams spoke Hebrew fluently and once called the Jews "the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth?" On the other hand, wrote Grisar, James Buchanan did not like Jews. The feeling’s mutual for writer Robert Strauss, author of Worst.President.Ever. His successor, Honest Abe, may have been Jewish. The rated Nixon the worst: "'The Jews are born spies' - RMN. When Henry Kissinger is your best Jewish friend, that says it all." Trump, of course, is hard to write about in a Jewish publication since so many Hasids are as bought into the con as Mississippians:


First president to have a Jewish daughter. First president to suggest Neo-Nazis were “very fine people” on national television and sign the Yad Vashem guest book “so amazing and will never forget.” Credit where it’s due, the Abraham Accords and the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem were very big deals. Will it be what most American Jews remember him for? I doubt it.
Jewish rating: Ketchup on the Kushner brisket

As for worst over-all president, notwithstanding any kind of Yiddishkeit, it would be hard to imagine history will allow anyone to beat Trump, not even John Tyler, who was eventually elected to serve in the Confederate Congress. Trump's the worst. So, who will be second worst? There's no saying for sure yet, but I've warning for several years that Biden would surely be a contender. And not because of anything Trump has to say about him.


Yesterday's Ezra Klein column in the NY Times, If Joe Biden Doesn’t Change Course, This Will Be His Worst Failure, is good, but barely scratches the surface of why it was such a colossal mistake to hand Biden the Democratic nomination in the hopes of placating implacable Republicans. As you probably know, I spent a lot more time in Afghanistan than most American officials charged with writing U.S. Afghan policy. And I love the country. And I don't think Biden's worst will be recorded as his stupid move in blocking Afghan recovery. It'll be up there, but not the top one which is likely to be how he lost the midterms and, possibly, smoothed the path for a Trumpist return to the White House.


Klein began by reminding his readers that "Ninety-five percent of Afghans don’t have enough to eat. Nearly nine million are at risk of starvation. The U.N.’s emergency aid request, at more than $5 billion, is the largest it has ever made for a single country. “The current humanitarian crisis could kill far more Afghans than the past 20 years of war,” David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, wrote recently. And we bear much of the blame. We have turned a crisis into a catastrophe."


By "we," he means Biden and his administration. For someone whose bona fides included his great handle on foreign affairs, he sure is stumbling from crisis to crisis. Not that it would be easy for anyone, but-- I'm sorry to say-- this guy should be in a rest home, not the Oval Office.


Klein wrote that "[N]either drought nor Taliban mismanagement fully explain the horror unfolding in Afghanistan. 'The long and short of it is Western economic restrictions are creating an economic crisis in the country which is driving tens of millions Afghans into starvation,' Graeme Smith, an Afghanistan expert at the International Crisis Group, told me. In August, President Biden withdrew American troops from Afghan soil. But even as we left Afghanistan’s land, we tightened a noose around its economy. The Afghan economy was built around our support. Roughly 45 percent of the G.D.P. and 75 percent of government spending was foreign aid. When we abruptly cut off that cash, we sent it into a tailspin. Then we went further. We froze more than $9 billion that belonged to the Afghan government-- the vast majority of its foreign reserves. Sanctions that had long applied to the Taliban as a terrorist group suddenly applied to the government of Afghanistan, and few companies or countries dared violate them. 'If state collapse was the object of policy, it could hardly be better designed,' Miliband told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in unusually blunt testimony. 'You saw people who had jobs in August,' Shelley Thakral, who works for the World Food Program in Afghanistan, said. 'Teachers, construction workers, people who worked in offices-- they don’t have jobs anymore. I remember coming in November, and sitting in some of our distribution sites and seeing people who, especially in Kabul, were just lost. They were standing in line for food assistance for the first time in their lives.'"


Economic collapse was predictable, and it was predicted. As the economic historian Adam Tooze put it in August, “The Taliban may threaten Afghan freedom and rights, but it is the abrupt end to funding from the West that jeopardizes Afghanistan’s material survival.” That we did so little to stop it, and so much to worsen it, is unconscionable.
The Biden administration isn’t made of monsters. They don’t want this. They don’t want it for Afghanistan, and they don’t want it for their own place in history. “The most urgent priority animating diplomacy as well as American decision making on Afghanistan is to meaningfully address the humanitarian and economic crises,” Tom West, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, said on Tuesday.
...When Representative Pramila Jayapal proposed an amendment requiring the United States to merely report on the “humanitarian impacts” these measures were causing, 44 House Democrats joined with virtually all House Republicans to reject the measure.

Military Industrial Complex Democrats like Jim Costa (Blue Dog-CA), Jared Golden (Blue Dog-ME), Val Demings (New Dem-FL), Kurt Schrader (Blue Dog-OR), Conor Lamb (PA), Cheri Bustos (New Dem-IL), Josh Gottheimer (Blue Dog-NJ), Stephanie Murphy (Blue Dog-FL), Abigail Spanberger (Blue Dog-VA), Jimmy Panetta (New Dem-CA), Ed Case (Blue Dog-HI), David Trone (New Dem-MD), Kathleen Rice (New Dem-NY), Susie Lee (New Dem-NV), Tom O'Halleran (Blue Dog-AZ), Elissa Slotkin (New Dem-MI)...


[I]n both the sanctions and the seizures, you can see an almost Kafka-esque madness in the American position. They are expending all this effort to ameliorate the consequences of a sanctions regime they are implementing. They are desperately brokering deals to preserve foreign reserves that they are freezing. When I ask why they continue to impose these policies at all, the administration says that the Taliban has American prisoners, that it is a brutal regime that murders opponents and represses women, that it has links to terrorists, and that our sanctions grant us much-needed leverage.
But what is that leverage, exactly? “To destabilize Taliban rule, the U.S. is weaponizing the aid-dependent Afghan state that it built,” wrote Spencer Ackerman, a national security reporter, in his excellent newsletter, Forever Wars. “This economic weapon works by harming the Afghan people directly, with the hope that the suffering of the people prompts the end of the Taliban regime.”
That this will work-- that these sanctions will destabilize the Taliban or persuade them to make the changes we want-- is a hypothesis. It is only the Afghans’ suffering that is fact. You do not have to absolve the Taliban of their sins to wonder if this policy makes sense.
“The reality is that the only thing Washington has control over is its own actions,” Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute, and a former Marine who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2012, told me. “It has a choice here to not make things worse for Afghans. And it’s actively choosing instead to make them exponentially worse.”
The officials I spoke to last week sounded exhausted. They’re working day and night to try to avert disaster. They’re frustrated by armchair quarterbacks like, well, me, who don’t have to grapple with all that could go wrong if they radically change course. “This question of why we don’t wave the wand and make the sanctions go away-- it’s too simplistic a question,” the official said. “The Taliban was involved in the 9/11 attacks. We were at war with them. They’re brutal domestically.”
But this is a framework that has lost its logic. America is trying to choke the Taliban with one hand while handing out aid and sanction exemptions with the other. Too often, the Biden administration’s humanitarian victories are scored against their own policies. It is spending precious time and energy fighting itself.
The administration has put a lot of work into clarifying the sanctions, issuing exemptions and licenses for legitimate activity, even working with individual companies and donors to reassure them that they would not fall afoul of the United States.
“We have taken a large number of steps at this point to try and open the aperture,” said the official. “After we’ve taken those steps we hear back-- ‘That was helpful, that’s good, now three other things aren’t working.’ This is an iterative process. We’re going to keep doing what we can to make these sanctions not impede private-sector business and N.G.O.s.”
But I think you can hear, in that quote, how impossible a task they’ve created for themselves, and how even their efforts to make it better can make the situation worse. I repeatedly heard the complaint that every time they explicitly allow something within their sanctions, it suggests that whatever was not named acceptable is prohibited.
The Biden administration has set itself up as the central planner of all foreign investment and trade with Afghanistan. That isn’t a job they can or should do. “U.S. bureaucrats cannot sit in their offices in D.C. and imagine all the different activities and sectors that can be permitted,” Smith said. “The people will starve.”
The frozen assets are, if anything, worse. That’s the Afghan people’s money, and the United States is simply taking it. “A year ago, the United States was trying hard to preserve and strengthen institutions in Afghanistan like the central bank,” wrote Mohsin Amin in The Washington Post. “Now, the Biden administration is knocking the legs out from under the country’s banking sector, thwarting the economy and leaving Afghans like me unable to access our savings.” I wonder if we have fully grappled with the fury this is causing in Afghanistan, and how that fury might haunt us in the future.
I found it hard, in my conversations with Biden officials, to get them to zoom out, to explain how our various policies fit into a sensible, humane whole. But this is how it looks to me, and to many analysts I spoke to: Over 20 years, the United States built an aid-dependent economy in Afghanistan. When we left, we withdrew the aid on which it depended. When the Taliban took over, we turned the sanctions and financial weapons we’d wielded against them against the government and country they now controlled. We comfort ourselves by saying we are the largest donor to the Afghanistan relief effort, but we are also a major reason the crisis is dire in the first place, and we continue to be.
In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Miliband, the president of the International Rescue Committee, was unsparing. “This crisis will not be solved by more humanitarian aid,” he said, “Aid cannot make up for an economy deprived of oxygen. Economic collapse makes the humanitarian challenge like running up an escalator that is going down faster and faster. It becomes impossible. That is why the need today is not just for more aid; it is for different policy.”
I make no pretense of knowing how to solve a problem as wicked as Afghanistan. But Joe Biden chose this policy. For his own legacy, and more important, for the tens of millions of human beings suffering in Afghanistan, he needs to figure out how to fix it.

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