Biden Defied the Military Establishment: Is the Kennedy-Nixon Rule Still in Effect?

In a 2020 essay, “Removing a president without an election,” I described attempts to remove five presidents in the middle of a term: Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump.

Kennedy and Nixon, the two presidents whose terms were cut short, had made the mistake of defying the U.S. military establishment, on Cuba and Vietnam respectively. The other eleven modern presidents subordinated themselves and served their full terms in office unmolested. Even Trump, who hurled vulgar insults at the military, ended up doing what they wanted. Every time he signed an order that was out of line, they talked him out of it, delayed it, changed it, ignored it, or lied to him by saying they had carried it out.

At the core of the military establishment are the Pentagon, big tech firms and weapons manufacturers led by Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrup Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics. Elsewhere in the government, it includes the Congress, Supreme Court, White House, Departments of Energy, State, Treasury, and Homeland Security, CIA, FBI, National Security Agency, and fifteen other intelligence agencies, AID, and the National Endowment for Democracy. Playing supporting roles are big media, foundations, think tanks, universities, consultants, Democratic and Republican parties, and private security services contractors.

During the 2020 election, the safe bet was that Joe Biden would join the ranks of obedient presidents. His voting record, platform, contributors, advisers, and staff all pointed to it. His foreign policy decisions as president have been largely consistent with this.

Afghanistan was an exception. Year after year, the military establishment had successfully lobbied the White House to continue the U.S. occupation. George W. Bush didn’t need persuasion, Barack Obama was easily overcome, and while Trump talked about getting out, he didn’t succeed.

Surprisingly, only months into his presidency, Joe Biden insisted on a full U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, and made it happen.

This is the first time in a half-century a president has violated the unwritten Kennedy-Nixon Rule. He defied the military establishment on a significant foreign policy matter.

Under the rule, the establishment should now be moving to remove Biden from office. If so, they are off to a good start. In August, Biden found himself under siege from every direction. The New York Times led the way, as Gareth Porter described in “Afghan collapse reveals Beltway media’s loyalty to permanent war state.”

During the crucial three weeks in August, producers of the five Sunday talk shows — NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, and Fox — scheduled thirty-four appearances by twenty-two U.S. guests to discuss Afghanistan. All were either elected officials who had taken military industry PAC money, consultants or advisors to the military industry, former members of the military, or high administration officials. The result was scathing commentary on Biden’s decision to withdraw (”Afghanistan withdrawal: Sundays with the military industrial complex”,” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), October 20, 2021).

Attacks also came from Britain and Europe with a notably personal tone.

Czech President Milos Zeman called Biden’s decision to pull troops out of Afghanistan “a betrayal” and “cowardice,” adding that “the Americans have lost the prestige of a global leader.”

Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt said Biden’s “‘America is back’ suggested a golden age in our relations. But it didn’t happen . . . The complete lack of consultations over the withdrawal has left a scar.”

Bill Clinton’s protégé, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, wrote that Biden acted “in obedience to an imbecilic political slogan about ending ‘the forever wars’.” Then Blair called for a “respectful exchange of different points of view.”

Oxford-graduate Blair must know “imbecilic” is not a respectful word. It comes from Latin, meaning “too feeble to hold a walking stick.” During the heyday of eugenics, it referred to people with an IQ between 26 and 50. People thus labelled suffered hellish mistreatment. “Imbecilic,” long since abandoned, is the word Blair chose to label Biden.

In the movies and in real life, just before an assassination the target notices their companions and bodyguards have suddenly vanished. A puzzled look turns to one of doom. That’s how Biden must have felt in August.

Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Jim Clyburn, Kamala Harris, and Bill Clinton offered perfunctory words of support or said nothing.

Hillary Clinton had already publicly split with Biden in May. She told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria the consequences of Biden’s decision included “probably civil war,” “a huge refugee outflow,” and “resumption of activities by global terrorist groups, most particularly Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State [ISIS].”

Barack Obama tried to have it both ways. On April 14, he called Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan “bold leadership.” By August, however, when criticisms were flying and Biden needed help, Obama was silent.

The least Obama could have done is persuade former high officials in his administration to support Biden’s decision. Instead, a parade of his top officials went on television to attack Biden, including Leon Panetta, Secretary of Defense and CIA Director; Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense; John Brennan and David Petraeus, both CIA Directors; Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security; Mike Mullin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; David Axelrod, Senior Advisor; and Ryan Crocker and James Cunningham, both Ambassadors to Afghanistan.

Biden’s subordinates turned their backs on him as well. At the end of September, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, and Commander of U.S. Central Command General Kenneth McKenzie testified before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. The three assured the committee they could not and would not discuss their conversations with the president. With that formality out of the way, they made it clear they advised Biden not to withdraw, but he did it anyway.

Not even Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan forcefully spoke up for their boss’ decision. On the Sunday talk shows, “in four of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s seven appearances, and three of National Security Adviser Sullivan’s five appearances, they were only asked process questions, and made no statements in support of the decision to withdraw,” according to the FAIR review cited above.

The media siege worked. Biden’s job approval rating plunged to 43%, putting him and the Democratic Party in political danger.

In modern times, there have been seven midterm elections in which the president’s approval was 45% or less. In these elections, the president’s party lost an average of forty House seats. If Biden’s party loses just three seats next year, their House majority will be gone.

It’s hard to tell whether Biden has other decisions in mind that would defy the military. His statements on Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, and Taiwan have been incoherent at best.

Where is all this headed?

The conflict over Afghanistan policy does not reflect a “split in the ruling class.” Every part of the ruling class is united in favoring continued U.S. occupation. Biden is isolated. Only public opinion favors withdrawal. There are no vested interests in peace involved, and no peace movement.

That is why the U.S. war in Afghanistan may not be over.

The military establishment may decide the only flaw in its media campaign this year was starting too late. If it had begun in February instead of July, they might have been able impress Biden with how alone he was. By July, however, he was too committed to his position to change.

With that in mind, the Pentagon is laying the groundwork for reversing Biden’s withdrawal decision. On October 26, Colin Kahl, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We could see ISIS-K generate that capability [to launch an attack, ‘including against the United States’] in somewhere between six or twelve months. . . And for al Qaeda, it would take a year or two to reconstitute that capability.”

We can expect to see months of dire warnings, incidents, atrocities, false flag attacks, and other pretexts. Then will come a demand for a new U.S. occupation voiced by the same parade of people who flayed Biden in August.

Is the Kennedy-Nixon Rule still in effect? What about Biden’s defiance?

When Kennedy and Nixon were removed, the U.S. empire was at its apex. Half a century later, the U.S. military establishment is not what it was. Too much money for too long will rot anything. Eventually it becomes unable to enforce obedience from its presidents, and that day may have arrived.

If, however, the Kennedy-Nixon Rule is still enforceable, the military establishment will take further steps to remove Biden before the 2024 election. This would create a vacancy for Vice President Kamala Harris to fill. There is nothing in her record to suggest she would defy the military establishment, and the Biden example would serve to remind her who runs Washington.

There would be another problem. If Donald Trump runs for president in 2024, he might win. Even though the military establishment always got its way with Trump during his first term, it was chaotic and dangerous. They surely don’t want to go through that again and may well be considering their options.

Paul Ryder has been research assistant to attorney Leonard Weinglass, Pentagon Papers Legal Defense; national staff, Indochina Peace Campaign; policy director for Ohio Governor Richard Celeste; and organizing director for Ohio Citizen Action. He is the principal author and editor of “The Good Neighbor Campaign Handbook” (2006) and co-editor with Susan Wind Early of “Tom Hayden on Social Movements” (2019).