Republicans are angry with President Joe Biden for abandoning the people of Afghanistan. At a briefing two weeks ago, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy accused Biden of ditching Afghans who had assisted U.S. forces in that country. McCarthy recalled with horror the images of Afghans “clinging to our planes and falling off” as we left Kabul. But when he was asked about welcoming Afghan refugees to the United States, McCarthy flinched. He warned that the refugees “need to go to a third country, and they have to be screened,” because ISIS, al-Qaida, and the Taliban probably “put some people in there.”
McCarthy’s ambivalence reflects an underlying tension in the GOP. Many Republicans want to criticize Biden for doing too little to help the Afghans, but they also don’t want to let the Afghans come to America. They want to sermonize as though they’re the idealistic, world-policing party of George W. Bush, when in reality they’ve become the isolationist, anti-immigrant party of Donald Trump. And this isn’t just an equivocation by the party’s leaders. It’s a deep division among rank-and-file Republicans.
In polls taken since early August, when the Afghan army and government began to collapse, Democrats have said consistently and decisively that the United States should accept Afghan refugees. But fewer than half of Republicans—on average, about 35 percent—have agreed. A week ago, in a Yahoo News survey, nearly two-thirds of Republicans said the United States wasn’t “doing enough to get at-risk Afghans out of Afghanistan safely,” but only one-third said the refugees should “be allowed to come to the United States.”
The closer to home these questions get, the more Republicans squirm. Two weeks ago, in a Politico/Morning Consult survey, more than 70 percent of Republicans said the United States should help Afghan civilians with “evacuation from Afghanistan” and “relocation to countries other than the U.S.” When the poll asked about helping these civilians with “relocation to the U.S.,” Democrats overwhelmingly supported the idea, but Republicans narrowly opposed it. And when Republicans were asked about helping the Afghans with “relocation to my state,” their opposition increased.
Another poll, taken by YouGov for CBS News, captured the GOP’s internal conflict. The poll asked whether the United States was “doing too much, not enough, or about the right amount” to help Afghans leave their country. By 7 percentage points, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to say that the United States wasn’t doing enough. But on the same question, by 10 points, Republicans were also more likely than Democrats to say that the United States was doing too much. Republicans agreed with one another that Biden was wrong. But they couldn’t agree about whether he was too soft on the Taliban or too soft on the refugees.
McCarthy, like other politicians, says his wariness of the refugees is just a matter of vetting. But a week ago, when a Washington Post/ABC News survey asked about “taking in refugees from Afghanistan after screening them for security,” nearly 40 percent of Republicans opposed that idea. (Nearly 80 percent of Democrats supported it.) When the Yahoo News poll specified innocuous categories of refugees—“journalists, humanitarian workers, and women”—63 percent of Democrats said the refugees should be admitted. But only 30 percent of Republicans agreed.
Republicans are much more willing to welcome Afghans who helped the U.S. military than to welcome Afghans who didn’t. But even this select group of refugees gets less support from Republicans than from Democrats, by about 15 percentage points. And when Republicans are reminded of our obligations to these Afghans, most are unpersuaded. A Navigator poll in late August asked voters to choose between an anti-immigrant position—“letting in mass numbers of Afghan refugees will only make our country less safe and divide us even more”—and the argument that we had “a moral duty to take in Afghan refugees” because they “risked their lives to help keep us safe.” Only 44 percent of Republicans chose the moral argument. Thirty-five percent chose the anti-immigration argument.
Why do so many Republicans reject Afghan refugees, even if the refugees are vetted and even if they risked their lives to help our armed forces? One reason is that these Republicans don’t think morality should guide our treatment of other peoples or countries. In an Economist/YouGov poll conducted a week ago, Democrats overwhelmingly agreed that “the United States has a special responsibility to provide humanitarian assistance when people in other countries need help.” But Republicans rejected that idea, 47 percent to 35 percent. In a Suffolk/USA Today poll, 30 percent of Republicans, compared to 20 percent of Democrats, said that helping “other countries build democracies” should not be an important goal of American foreign policy.
But a second, more direct explanation is hostility to immigration, particularly nonwhite immigration. In an Economist/YouGov survey taken last month, 57 percent of Republicans said that immigration had made America worse; only 16 percent said it had made America better. The numbers among Democrats were almost exactly the opposite. More than 70 percent of Democrats said the United States should offer asylum to people fleeing violence or political persecution; only 36 percent of Republicans agreed. In another Economist/YouGov survey, 59 percent of Republicans said, correctly, that “the number of people in the United States who identify as white” was declining. Among white Republicans who gave that answer, most said the decline was “a bad thing.” Only one percent said it was a good thing.
There’s plenty to criticize about our pullout from Afghanistan. You can say that Biden misjudged how long the Afghan government would hold out, that he misled Americans about the risk of collapse, that he failed to prepare adequately for that scenario, and that he should have delayed our final exit—even at the risk of more military casualties—in order to evacuate more of our Afghan partners. But if, while saying these things, you also refuse to let vetted Afghan refugees into the United States, that’s pretty clear evidence that you’re not really motivated by what’s good for the Afghans. You’re motivated by something else.