After Afghanistan, Biden can't afford any more missteps

In this handout provided by the US Air Force, an air crew prepares to load evacuees aboard a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in support of the Afghanistan evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 21, 2021 in Kabul.

This story was excerpted from the August 31 edition of CNN's Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.

(CNN)For the first time in nearly 20 years, Afghans spent the day without US troops on their soil, after the last jet carrying the rearguard of a onetime conqueror lifted off the tarmac at Kabul airport late Monday.

If nothing else, President Joe Biden can claim to have had the courage to end US involvement in a war that his predecessors all knew was going nowhere. But his erratic handling of the trauma of the last two weeks shredded his reputation as a foreign policy expert and safe pair of hands, and left millions of Afghans again in the hands of the fundamentalist Taliban and their even more extreme adversaries in the country's ISIS franchise.
Tens of thousands of Afghans who worked with NATO troops and Western diplomats fear execution. Somewhere in Afghanistan are around 250 US citizens who wanted to leave but couldn't. But over 122,000 Americans, Afghans and people of other nationalities were rescued in one of the biggest airlifts in history.
    America is mourning its last casualties of the war — 13 troops killed by a suicide bomber last week as they tried to organize the evacuation of Afghan refugees. The deaths of more than 170 locals in the same blast reflect the long-running lopsided toll of a war that has claimed far more Afghan civilians than Westerners.
      Meanwhile, the idea touted by Biden in Europe that "America is back" is being questioned by allies, who sense a continuation of some of ex-President Donald Trump's isolationist tendencies.
        All of these events have unfolded with such staggering speed and intensity that it's difficult to assess their lasting impact on the Biden presidency and global geopolitics. There is a definite feeling in the US that this is the end of a chapter that opened at 8.46 a.m. on September 11, 2001, when a hijacked jet careened into the World Trade Center.
        But it's a case of back to the future: When Biden marks the 20th anniversary of those attacks next month, the Taliban will be celebrating their control of a country where they once hosted Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.

          Off the list again

          The United States is no longer "safe."
          That at least is the conclusion of the European Union, which is advising its 27 member states to slap travel restrictions back on Americans as the pandemic rages stateside.
          The move underscores just how hopes for a resumption of something like normal life were scuppered this summer by the surging Delta variant. The US is again recording an average of more than 150,000 new cases of Covid-19 every day.
          The Europeans haven't exactly hidden frustration that the US didn't reciprocate their earlier step of lifting curbs on American travelers when the pandemic appeared to be easing -- in fact, Biden reimposed limits on Europeans entering the US. But the European recommendation that Americans be dropped from member countries' "safe lists" isn't as strict as it sounds: Individual nations still may set their own policies toward Americans, who pour billions of tourist dollars into the bloc's economy every year.
          And vaccinated Americans are still likely to be welcome, as noted Jen Psaki, the press secretary of a White House that has spent months pleading with Americans to save themselves, with free and safe inoculations. "The fastest path to reopening travel is for people to get vaccinated, to mask up and slow the spread of the deadly virus," she said.
            Psaki also hinted at the way that more sustainable travel links might be maintained reciprocally between the US and EU, including strengthened testing and proof of vaccinations with limited exceptions. But Washington isn't in any hurry, even though the US appears to pose more of a threat of infection to Europeans than the other way around.
            For one thing, after Afghanistan, Biden can't afford any more missteps. Even a small chance of letting some new variant onto US soil is probably not worth the risk.