US Representative Seth Moulton is back to a familiar place in the Massachusetts congressional delegation — out there, alone, as he speaks the truth about the chaotic aftermath of President Biden’s decision to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan.
“To say that today is anything short of a disaster would be dishonest,” Moulton said in a statement he also posted on Facebook after the Taliban took over Kabul and scenes of Afghans, desperate to leave their country, took over cable news. When Biden first went on television to defend the withdrawal and blamed the chaos on Afghans who “did not want to leave earlier,” Moulton called out that presidential excuse as “utter BS.” He also told CNN’s Jake Tapper that the hasty withdrawal could lead to more veteran suicides.
Meanwhile, the rest of the all-Democratic delegation have been tiptoeing down an increasingly uncomfortable line of loyalty to Biden, given the unfolding ugliness. Massachusetts lawmakers are defending Biden for doing his best with an inherited mess and pressing the administration to safely evacuate US staff and Afghan allies while avoiding any honest critiques of the president who got us into the current mess. In an interview with Slate, Representative Jake Auchincloss, an Afghan war veteran, said he had unspecified questions he would like the administration to answer, but praised Biden for having “the integrity to tell the truth” about the status of the war. Senators Edward J. Markey and Elizabeth Warren signed a bipartisan letter asking the Biden administration to protect Afghan women.
That leaves Moulton on the outside, where he has been ever since he beat Representative John Tierney in a 2015 primary fight. In Washington, he ruffles everyone’s feathers. When he campaigned to get young Democratic veterans elected to Congress, some on the left were unhappy with him, and when he tried to oust House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in 2016 and 2018, he angered the party’s powerful center. His 2020 presidential bid went nowhere, delighting detractors back home.
Moulton has the credentials to call Afghanistan as he sees it. A Harvard graduate, he joined the Marines a few months before the terrorist attacks of 9/11; he served four tours of combat in Iraq and was twice decorated for heroism. At the same time, his critique of the Biden administration’s mishandling of the Afghanistan withdrawal feeds into Republican attacks on Biden. It also raises Moulton’s political profile. Still, Moulton is saying out loud what many Americans, including many Democrats, are thinking. While there might be no right time for withdrawal, as Biden said, the bungled execution of the one that happened on his watch is hard to stomach.
As reported by The New York Times, for months before the scheduled withdrawal, Moulton joined other human rights advocates who told officials in the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon “they need to stop processing visas in Afghanistan and just get people to safety.” That didn’t happen, and the human toll is there for all to see. Over the weekend, Biden suggested the possibility of keeping an American presence at the airport past the original Aug. 31 deadline, but a Taliban spokesman warned of “consequences” from such an action.
There was much hand-wringing from Democrats over the decline of America’s standing in the world during Donald Trump’s presidency. As Tom Donilon, now a Biden senior adviser, told The Washington Post in July 2020, “By almost every measure, America’s standing and influence in the world has been damaged over the last three-and-a-half years.” Over the past few days, global reaction to America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has not been kind — and neither has Moulton.
Scott Ferson, a political consultant who advised Moulton during his first congressional run, said that one of his traits, “either like it or dislike it, is that he’s not afraid to say what he believes.” What if that helps to undermine the president Moulton endorsed and supports? “Everything is politicized today,” said Ferson. “But why do we as Democrats think it’s a good idea to continue to not face the reality of the situation [in Afghanistan]?” It’s not the withdrawal policy, Ferson said. “It’s the intelligence failure of the withdrawal that needs to be talked about amongst Democrats.”
Moulton started talking about that truth right away. Painful as it is, more Democrats need to join in the conversation.
Correction: An earlier version of this column had the incorrect date for when Seth Moulton joined the Marines. It was a few months before the 9/11 attacks.