When my editor asked me to write about President Biden’s communication strategy for pulling out of Afghanistan, I was tempted to write back, “What strategy?”
Sure, Monday morning quarterbacking is cheap. It’s a lot easier to critique than create. But it’s also fair to note that the only time people feel the need to quarterback on Monday is when the team messes up the night before. And in many ways, the chaos of the pullout of American troops from Afghanistan has been mirrored by the chance-medley way it’s been communicated to the public
The former was unavoidable. The latter was not.
With acknowledgment that a critical analysis of an American president mere hours after the country experiences a devastating loss of life is inherently crude, it’s the very gravity of the past two days and their highly public nature that demonstrate the need for a balanced overview of the way the pullout of Afghanistan has been communicated to the American public.
The first rule of crisis communication is to not believe anyone who says there’s a first rule of crisis communication. There’s no one way to navigate a crisis, no one-size-fits-all plan, and as the stakes get higher, so does the unpredictability.
While there might not be a magic bullet, there are, of course, things that tend to work. The biggest misstep in the communication of the Afghanistan pullout, one that has become a pattern in this White House, is the lack of a centralized spokesperson.
Consider the events taken by the government on August 16. Three key events stood out to me, and they happened in near succession:
The first centers on journalist Nazira Kamiri, who stood up at the Pentagon press briefing and delivered an impassioned plea. “Everybody is upset, especially women,” she said. Then, in a moment right out of the movies, she took off her face mask, which was adorned with the Afghan flag. “They took off my flag,” she said as she removed the mask.
Fine, it might not have been a question, and you could make a case that a press briefing is not the place for a journalist to make a plea, no matter how important or impassioned. But it’s a moment that’ll go down in history along with Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby’s limp response to it.
Then there’s the president himself. President Biden delivered a strong speech that day that was right out of a Roland Emmerich flick.
“This is one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history,” Biden explained. “And the only country in the world capable of projecting this much power on the far side of the world with this degree of precision is the United States of America.”
Incidentally, the president is developing a pattern here. He seems to be modeling his more high-profile television moments on a couple of fictional presidents from the movies. Friday’s remarks were reminiscent of his March 11 primetime address marking the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 shutdowns, where he declared that if enough people got vaccinated, we’d be able to once again celebrate on July 4th.
But unlike those movies, where the president always wins, Biden’s remarks on Afghanistan were undercut minutes later when Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin contradicted some of the most fundamental data in the president’s speech. Above all others, Austin said that some Americans had been “beaten” by the Taliban, which undercut Biden’s claim that Americans were being evacuated without issue.
More contradictions would follow, like the State Department contradicting Biden’s reassurance about the safety of Hamid Karzai International Airport, and many world leaders contradicting Biden’s implication that the U.S. was operating in consent with its NATO allies.
Finally, the third moment was the smash cut to end all smash cuts on Jake Tapper’s face upon the conclusion of Biden’s remarks, where the CNN anchor looked into the camera with the same disdain he used to reserve for Donald Trump and levied the following:
“You’ve been listening to President Biden speaking at the White House, forced to talk about the worsening crisis in Afghanistan, forced to speak to the nation after the calamity of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.”
Ouch. And things were just getting started.
“The president stated that he stands squarely behind the decision he made to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan,” Tapper said, “even though he has in fact been forced to send roughly 6,000 back in. The president said that the buck stopped with him, but, in fact, the speech was full of finger-pointing and blame, especially for the Afghans.”
Deep breaths. But wait, there’s more.
“Mr. Biden also focused on the larger decision to end the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, that was, in fact, his larger focus, whether or not the U.S. should continue to be there, he did not really get into or accept any blame for the catastrophic exit that we have been watching on television in the last several days.”
It was a damning takedown, a stunning choice of words delivered in an unusually harsh tone.
Tapper is very good at these moments. He’s somehow able to seem neutral yet fully invested at the same time. He stares into the camera with a look that says, “I’m not mad. I’m upset.”
So, there you have it. Many big moments playing out in near succession on a single day. The worst kind of crisis.
What’s to blame for the breakdowns in communication? There are too many cooks in the kitchen. Secretary Austin, Admiral Kirby, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, State Department spokesperson Ned Price, and, of course, Biden himself. Having all these people speak on a single issue in a single afternoon runs counter to one of the most basic best practices in crisis communication. During times of crisis, designating one qualified official through which all information flows to project a sense of consistency and credibility.
Moreover, the fact that the White House Press Secretary hasn’t factored into this conversation is a big problem. Though I’m not convinced it’s Jen Psaki’s making. I’m sure Psaki would have rather been out there coordinating all of this. She’s the one, after all, who had to mop up the floor after the men were done dirtying it.
Perhaps the White House deserves to be cut a little slack. Twenty-year wars don’t come around often, and the single-spokesperson model is easier to pull off on the local level. This was most apparent on September 11, 2001. Both of President Bush’s short statements that day, the first from a Florida classroom, the second from the Oval, were successful in tone setting. But in terms of oratory, it was then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s day, and hopefully history will not forget his many important moments – especially that stirring “more than any of us can bear” line.
Further underscoring the notion that single spokespersons are easier to coordinate on the local level, it’s the same strategy we see whenever there’s a mass shooting. A mayor refuses to speak for the police chief, and vice versa, for good reason. It’s also the strategy that won Andrew Cuomo an Emmy.
The reason I’m reluctant to cut slack is because communication foul-ups seem to have become endemic for the Biden administration. One of the reasons there is still vaccine hesitancy in the U.S. has to do with the largely slipshod way the vaccines have been communicated to the public. Indeed, COVID is another example of a series of people going on television and making their case.
When their message is in harmony, it’s easy for the nation to keep up. But when the message changes based on who’s delivering it, such as when CDC director Rochelle Walensky had to walk back her comments about a nationwide mask mandate, people become confused. Confusion leads to rumor, rumor leads to skepticism, and skepticism leads to hesitancy.
A crisis demands an all-hands-on deck approach, but communicating a crisis is best left to a single, consistent, credible individual. After the past two years, the last thing Americans need is a new character entering when least expected to inject a change in the narrative. Global pandemics and the breakdown of democracy shouldn’t have eleven o’clock numbers.