Since its inception in 2001, the so-called ‘War on Terror’ has occasioned some memorable images from American leaders. But the most recent image to emerge—President Biden as a solitary figure, old, isolated, and presiding over the disastrous American withdrawal from Afghanistan, represents a new low for Presidential self-fashioning in the social media age.
We are far from the triumphant Henry V at Agincourt. This, instead, is the aged and isolated Richard II: ‘let us sit and tell sad stories of the deaths of empires’.
Though it was historically overhasty, one understands that Bush was trying to project strength and decisiveness with his ‘Mission Accomplished’ photo-op. And the famous image of Obama wearing a steely look of resolve as he oversaw the raid on Abottabad gave rise to a sense of the ex-President as a clear-sighted tactical commander.
Subsequently, as one of the inventors of reality television, Trump understood the power of images in today’s information economy. This is why he went to great lengths to project images that rivaled those of his fellow-strongmen: think Erdogan, Orban, and Putin hunting shirtless in Urals.
Images form today’s realpolitik. President Macron is famously obsessed with curating his image in line with those he sees as his predecessors (Napoleon, Saint Joan of Arc).
Into this enters Joe Biden, and the end of the American War on Terror—something he sees as a crucial part of his legacy. Already, striking comparisons have been made between the images of the evacuation of Kabul with the fall of Saigon. These are not just unfortunate images from the perspective of political self-fashioning, they are resounding historical echoes of America’s two greatest shames. The waste of young lives that was the war in Vietnam has now found its 21st century companion, with many—especially those who lost loved ones—asking what it was all for. The scale of the humanitarian crisis to come, to be sure, marks this as one of the most disgraceful moments in the history of American foreign policy.
Given this context, how an image that presents the American president as a solitary, shriveled figure at the edge of the frame could have been approved and released by the White House puzzles me. While Biden poses with influencers, America is potentially sleep-walking into a crisis of global terror potentially greater than ever before. And amid all this, Biden, as the image of the American state, makes his nation seem a very sleepy power indeed.