Afghanistan in American History: Public Approval for the Presidents and Their Wars

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Following the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan after 20 years of war, millions of Americans are thinking about their nation’s history of war.

Since World War II, the United States had a mixed record in terms of war victories. Some of the most infamous wars in American history include the prolonged wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

Vietnam War Memorial.

Others like the invasion of Grenada and the Gulf War demonstrated quick American victories.

This post will connect Biden’s Afghanistan decision to a longer history of presidents and their wars, as well as public approval polls when presidents started and ended wars.

Mid-Century Quagmires: Korea and Vietnam

If you were to ask someone which presidents were most affected by their decisions in regards to war, the names of Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson would pop up a lot.

President Johnson signing Medicare into law with Harry Truman in attendance.

Harry Truman decided not to run for a second term in 1952 following the stalemate in the Korean War which killed around 33,739 American troops.

“The decision to fight in Korea was a popular one. Truman’s brisk, decisive action during the first week of the invasion raised his standing considerably in the opinion polls.”

from “A Country Made By War: From the Revolution to Vietnam – The Story of America’s Rise to Power” by Geoffrey Perret

Lyndon Johnson held a similar fate as Truman with his escalation of the Vietnam War. Taunted with chants of “hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”, Johnson announced that he too would not seek a second term due to his unpopularity.

The Vietnam War is the primary war Americans think of when they think of American defeat in battle. With 47,434 Americans killed in Vietnam, the war shaped much of modern American culture and foreign policy.

Following the defeat in Vietnam, many Americans were hesitant to become once again bogged down in the quagmire of another unwinnable war.

Following Nixon’s resignation, Gerald Ford was the president who decided to end the war in Vietnam.

In the simplest terms, the fall of Saigon and the subsequent North Vietnamese invasion was an American defeat.

President Ford with a Vietnamese refugee and her baby.

It seems plausible that Ford’s decision to withdraw would have tanked his presidency and his popularity. However, many Americans agreed with his decision, seeing the large number of American deaths over several presidencies ultimately lead nowhere.

In a Roper Center poll, 59 percent of Americans said that Ford was not at all to blame for what happened in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.

The Swift Wars of the 1980s and 1990s: Grenada and the Gulf War

In one of America’s forgotten military invasions, Reagan’s decision to invade Grenada to curb communist influence proved to be immensely popular and positive for his approval rating.

“Seventy-one percent of U.S. citizens approved. The U.S. military considered it a success, and Reagan’s approval rating jumped from the thirties to the sixties.”

from McPherson’s “A Short History of U.S. Interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean
Following the Beirut barracks bombing, American victory in Grenada was a much needed boost for American morale.

Fearing that the small Caribbean island nation would be used as a launching point for communism throughout Latin America, Reagan chose to invade in 1983, justifying the invasion with the protection of American students on the island.

“In all, 63 percent of the 1,505 people interviewed in the poll said they approve of Reagan’s handling of the presidency and 31 percent said they disapprove. From November, 1981, until the invasion of Grenada, Reagan had been rated slightly negatively or only slightly positively on that measure of popularity.”

from “Grenada Move Earns Reagan Broad Political Gains, Poll Shows” (1983) in the Washington Post

Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush gained popularity following his decision to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait during the Gulf War.

During the Gulf War in 1991, Colin Powell played a key role in military strategy. He formulated the Powell Doctrine, which aimed to build up forces and to exert all military power in a relentless manner to force a quick victory.

With limited goals that were achievable in a quick period of time, Bush avoided the quagmire of Vietnam which still haunted Americans.

“It’s a proud day for America. And, by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”

George H.W. Bush after swift victory in the Gulf War
A company from the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) marches across the apron to board the aircraft that will carry the unit to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Shield.

Bush gained popularity in defeating Iraq with a coalition of other nations, projecting an image of strength in a world led by America and its values.

“Bush’s approval rating surged from 64% the week prior to the start of military action to 82% right after it, staying high throughout the war. After victory in the war, in March of that year, Bush received an 89% approval rating, the highest presidential job approval rating ever recorded to that date.”

from “George H.W. Bush Retrospective” in Gallup

However, Bush’s son would fail to follow the Powell Doctrine which aimed to achieve quick, attainable conditions of victory.

21st Century: Afghanistan and Iraq

Following the September 11th attacks, George W. Bush went to war with Afghanistan in 2001 and with Iraq in 2003 in a global War on Terror.

George W. Bush’s approval rating climbed to 86 percent following the September 11th attacks as Americans rallied around the president for leadership during a dark time.

The war in Afghanistan saw initial success in achieving its goal of breaking up al-Qaeda terrorist cells and preventing Afghanistan from being a base for terrorist attacks against the United States.

In Iraq, American troops successfully carried out the capture of Saddam Hussein.

Following these achievements, the wars should have concluded.

However, policymakers instead prolonged the wars, justifying the continuation with efforts to nation-build, liberalize, and democratize Afghanistan and Iraq, objectives that were not part of the original justifications of war.

As the wars continued on, Americans turned on Bush, who they viewed as most responsible for the prolonging of the wars as well as the growing number of American casualties overseas.

In the last month of his presidency, Bush fell to a low approval rating of just 24 percent, with over half of respondents mentioning his legacy of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Following his electoral victory, Barack Obama sought to end the wars he inherited from Bush by increasing the number of troops sent to the Middle East. He viewed Afghanistan as a justified war that he refused to lose.

During his presidency, Obama ordered the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, which was successfully completed in 2011.

At this point, the Afghanistan War should have truly come to an end.

Every objective of victory had been completed.

Obama’s decision to continue the prolonged wars proved unpopular, with American support for the decisions declining.

“With Obama’s surge under way – and casualties rising – the number of Americans who say the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting has declined from 52 percent in December to 43 percent now. And his approval rating for handling it, 56 percent in April, is down to 45 percent.”

from “Poll: Approval of Afghan War Slips, But U.S. Uneasy About Taliban Talks” (2010) by ABC News

Donald Trump paved a path to begin talks with the Taliban in an effort to end the Afghanistan War.

He deserves credit for his efforts, but very little actually came from it.

“We had a very good conversation with the leader of the Taliban today, and they’re looking to get this ended, and we’re looking to get it ended. I think we all have a very common interest,

President Donald Trump in “Trump says he spoke to a Taliban leader, had ‘good talk’” (2020) in AP
President Trump at Bagram airfield in Afghanistan in 2019.

Joe Biden’s withdrawal from America’s longest war is the most serious.

As he doubled down on his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, many in media and politics criticized his decision, citing the harm that would come if the Taliban returned to power, which they have.

“Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building.  It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy. Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland.”

President Joe Biden

Over $2 trillion was spent by the United States in the war, and there were “2,500 U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan and nearly 4,000 more U.S. civilian contractors killed” according to Forbes.

Conclusion

By looking back at history, it seems that war played a mixed record on presidential legacies and approval ratings.

Quick wars with limited, achievable goals like the Grenada invasion or the Gulf War bolstered the approval of Reagan and Bush Sr.

However, quagmires like Vietnam and Korea tarnished the legacies of Truman and Johnson.

Those presidents who continued quagmires by sending in more troops such as President Obama saw declines in approval by the public.

However, it was those who chose to end long quagmires like Ford whose approval ratings remained around the same level.

While approval ratings are subject to far more factors than just war and peace, foreign policy definitely plays a role.

Ford was afforded the distance away from the start of the Vietnam War which started to brew during the Eisenhower presidency. With over a decade of war having passed, Americans knew that Ford was essentially blameless and that he was cleaning up the mess of his predecessors.

This is true of Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan today. Over 20 years have passed since the war was declared, and so little remains to show for American efforts.

So much time has passed since the war began that Americans will view Donald Trump and Joe Biden as distanced from it. They are smart enough to know that the real blame lies with President Bush and President Obama for the prolonging of the war.

Yes, there will be those who attack Biden’s decision from a purely partisan stance, but I hope that most Americans will be able to clearly see that there was no good time to withdraw and that someone at some point would have to make the decision to do so to save American lives and resources.

Despite Afghanistan going down in history as an American defeat, it beats the continuation of the war and the continued loss of American lives.

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7 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Quentin, good post. What is happening in Afghanistan is awful, but it is not a surprise. The Taliban taking over was bound to happen no matter when the allies pulled out. Truly, the only surprise is the haste of the change. Afghanistan has long been called the “graveyard of empires” because no invading nation has ever been successful.

    The US failed to heed that lesson, even after a reminder of the USSR failure in the 1980s. The opposing force is too distributed and the terrain too mountainous and arid-like. And, the Taliban carries through on its threats against locals who favor the enemy. As a result, the locals are scared to cross them.

    Sadly, this failure falls on many presidents, even dating back to Ronald Reagan when Congressman Charlie Wilson helped secretly fund and supply the Taliban to drive out the Soviets in the 1980s. What we failed to do is help the country after the Soviets left and the US became more mistrusted and things deteriorated (Tom Hanks stars as Wilson in “Charlie Wilson’s War”)

    But, with George W. Bush authoring the invasion after 9/11, Barack Obama’s continuing push, Donald Trump’s acquiescence to the Taliban and Joe Biden’s decision to honor the agreement to leave with poor planning, we have shown an inability to solve problems, leaving behind more. Since we dove in, leaving entirely may not have been the most elegant answer, as it is like the husband leaving the wife when times got hard. They needed to stay together to make it work. So, now our trustworthiness is even lower than if we never invaded.

    Yet, like with Iraq, we went in without a clear mission and definition of what success looked like. Even with that, we would have likely failed because we did not study history. Keith

    1. Keith, thank you for such an insightful comment. I’ve been thinking a lot about the failed Soviet War in Afghanistan and figuring out whether or not the U.S. can learn the correct lessons from this failed war.

      Quentin

    1. Neil, thanks so much! I’m glad you thought so. It’s important for people to remember that nothing happens in a vacuum but that they follow historical patterns.

      Thanks,
      Quentin

      1. Yes, Neil. It’s also frightening how short, easily winnable wars can be declared, and the president’s approval shoots straight up because they chose to go to war.

        Quentin

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