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Into the Whirlwind, Part Two: Lessons Unlearned

Members of Taliban forces sit at a checkpost in Kabul, Afghanistan August 17, 2021. (Stringers/Reuters)

Editors Note: For Part One, click here.

The impact of the Afghan crisis on Afghanistan is obviously important, but it’s less important than its impact on the U.S. and the structure of American alliances throughout the world. How do those prospects look?

Both have been badly shaken at a time when U.S. power and influence seem to be shrinking in the face of a rising and aggressive China and the entrenched hostility of other serious powers such as Russia. America’s internal crisis of cultural masochism complicates both any U.S. recovery and the crafting of a realistic foreign policy. How can a divided nation in which half of the people regard their country as “the focus of evil in the modern world” (as Reagan described the Soviet Union) pursue a policy to protect its interests and advance its values? It will falter in a dozen ways when it tries to do so.

For now, a crippling defeat at the hands of jihadist terrorists will shortly be celebrated throughout Afghanistan with beheadings, stonings, and the disappearance of women into purdah.

Most Americans will interpret these consequences not as a justification of U.S. imperialism exactly, but as evidence that Western democracy may perhaps be superior to whatever we call the system prevailing under the Taliban. Some Americans, however, will interpret this defeat as inevitable or deserved, and blame the excesses of the Taliban on the U.S. intervention (though they preceded the intervention as well as following it) because . . . well, because America cannot possibly be the right side of any progressive history. Those Americans include the cultural, media, corporate, and political elites and thus the U.S. foreign-policy establishment whose more left-wing members are currently determining post-Afghanistan policy.

With such attitudes, they can’t really feel that America’s defeat in Afghanistan is a bad thing or be overly concerned with its impact on America’s reputation and relationships with allies. They minimize its consequences and even justify them as the costs of adopting a more progressive route to a better world. As James Burnham points out in The Suicide of the West (and the “liberalism” in the quote below is what we now tend to call “progressivism”):

Liberalism permits Western civilization to be reconciled to dissolution . . . not as a final defeat, but as the transition to a new and higher order in which Mankind as a whole joins in a universal civilization that has risen above the parochial distinctions, divisions and discriminations of the past . . .

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It’s hard to see that mindset drawing the right lessons from the Afghan expedition. And that’s what we’re seeing in the arguments used by the Biden administration, and especially by Biden himself, to justify the retreat.

To borrow Walter Russell Mead’s terminology for America’s different cultural traditions on foreign policy, it’s a Jeffersonian policy lightly disguised by Jacksonian rhetoric. Biden is defining a disorderly retreat under fire, leaving hostages behind, as tough and necessary realism that will be justified by history. If the Afghans can’t live up to our expectations of them, he suggests, then the hell with them.

The truth is that Biden never much liked them anyway — or their predecessors. He was happy not only to leave the South Vietnamese in the lurch but also to remove the U.S. air support from their armies when they were still fighting bravely and to abandon those who had worked for us to the enemy’s re-education Gulag (the only escape route being the open sea with the real threat of pirates).

After all, how could they be good people if they were on our side? It was a mantra of the Left’s 1960s and 1970s protest movement that those nations and leaders allied to us in the Third World were usually corrupt and oppressive cliques undeserving of U.S. friendship. Maybe that was sometimes true, but we supported them from self-interest and because we thought their totalitarian alternatives were much worse, as in post–1975 Vietnam they proved to be. The Left’s moral strictures didn’t apply to their people anyway — though “the people” were always on the Left’s lips. A Biden apparatchik was recently explaining the Taliban’s victory the other day on the grounds that the Taliban lived among “the people.” But so did the Afghan army and Afghan translators working with the U.S. army. That’s why they’re vulnerable now.

Biden’s indifference to their fate, either ignored or candidly expressed, reflects his early career as a young Democratic pol in a party being pushed leftwards by its post–1968 protest wing. He may have more personal motives too. The Afghans he’s left behind are plainly an embarrassment to him and an obstacle to the success of his Afghan policy. Knowing this, he might well resent the injuries he’s done them. Why won’t they go quietly into the Gulag of history?

*    *    *

Earlier I mentioned the example of de Gaulle’s betrayal of the Harkis who supported the French government in Algeria. (Some were merely murdered; others buried alive.) De Gaulle justified this betrayal (to my mind very inadequately) on the grounds that it would cement the complete separation of France from Algeria that he then sought. Biden’s betrayal has done the opposite. If America’s retreat had occurred in relatively good order without the scenes from Kabul airport, most Americans except the families of the dead and wounded would have forgotten the U.S. intervention in a short time. But Biden has created a link between the U.S. and Afghanistan that won’t disappear, symbolized as it is by the president’s turned back as he walks away to avoid questions about what will happen to all those he has left behind. It’s Biden’s albatross.

And he’s wearing the albatross around his neck internationally as well as domestically. It was not only British members of Parliament, especially Tories, who were strongly repelled by the combination of narrow U.S. self-interest and callousness towards his Afghan allies that shaped Biden’s rhetoric. It rightly seemed dishonorable and unseemly to them. Other allies in and outside NATO, political leaders, and media commentators all expressed “puzzlement” that the famously empathetic Joe Biden seemed oddly indifferent to the fate of Afghans in general and those who fought alongside G.I.s in particular. He attacked them as people who didn’t fight for their country when in fact they died doing so in large numbers. He claimed that they enjoyed the benefits of U.S. military aid which was true for many years but which ceased abruptly when the U.S. started to withdraw. The Taliban inherited some of that military aid and sophisticated equipment when the U.S. abandoned its military bases, and the Afghan army found itself with planes that couldn’t fly and logistical support that wasn’t there. Not to mention that the mere announcement of America’s imminent departure told everyone that the war was lost. And no one in any war wants to be the last man killed.

Nor the next ally betrayed. In talking so contemptuously of his Afghan allies, Biden was warning the NATO countries, in effect, that they might find themselves at the sharp end of very similar jibes. They responded quickly by asking the U.S. to delay the final evacuation of Americans and Afghans until beyond the deadline of August 31 agreed to with the Taliban, since it’s evident that large numbers of both will still be in Kabul at that date. At the G-7 meeting to discuss the delay, however, the Biden administration was adamant. It had washed its hands of the Afghanistan imbroglio and that was that.

*    *    *

In the last week, there’s been a good deal of talk in NATO about the lessons learned from the Afghan retreat. Unfortunately, they look like the wrong lessons — three in particular:

  1. Trump and Biden between them show that Europe can’t trust America to help defend it. That view reflects more than anything else the slightly snobbish illusion which most Europeans had swallowed that Biden and the Democrats were more solid allies than Trump’s isolationist Republicans. The U.K. government still seems to be in the grip of this fantasy. In fact, despite all his off-the-cuff insults and impulsive absurdities, Trump had strengthened NATO, browbeating them into spending more on defense, supplying arms to Ukraine, deploying troops in Poland and the Baltic states, fostering Poland’s Three Seas Initiative, and formulating a NATO doctrine in his Warsaw address that rested on cooperation between nation-states strengthened by national interests and loyalties. Trump stood for “America First.” Biden, in his justification for his Afghan retreat, stands for “America First — and the Rest Nowhere.” His isolationism is that of social philosopher who thinks his country is a bad influence on others. But how reliable an ally is an America that hates itself as a deeply racist country and inevitably sees countries such as Britain and France as other cases of “white supremacy?”
  2. Europe must now develop its own “strategic autonomy” in order to defend itself in a world without an American ally. In reality, Europe’s strategic autonomy is a threat to Europe’s security because it undermines NATO — which is the sole real provider of European security — by diverting resources from the transatlantic alliance without any prospect of replacing it. It’s an argument that the EU should sacrifice a real alliance today, albeit one with major problems, in the hope of constructing a fantasy one in the distant future. Even if this were a practical possibility, what NATO needs is not a European competitor to Uncle Sam but the end of Europe as a free rider on him. That dependency is a justified source of American resentment which Biden-style masochistic isolationists exploit.
  3. In the U.K., “Hard Remainers” were quick to argue that Britain must now replace its illusory special relationship with the U.S. by renegotiating it post-Brexit relationship with the EU to deepen mutual defense ties. There is certainly a case for great Anglo-French military cooperation, ideally within NATO. But anyone peddling this argument must come to terms with the changing character of Germany. Whatever criticisms we may have of the U.S. under Biden, Germany under Merkel has outdone them in policies of national selfishness. Germany’s national character is now a blend of anti-Americanism, pro-business commercialism, and pacifism. Its foreign policy is to sell its industrial goods to China and Iran, to follow an “economic Rapallo” policy with Russia built on buying its energy, to shape the EU as its own Zollverein through the Euro, and to sacrifice the interests of its EU partners when they conflict with Germany’s interests in, for instance, the Nord Stream 2. This drift of German policy is likely to aggravate tensions within the EU which — since Europe can only be unified under U.S. protection — may lead to the further disintegration of the EU and perhaps NATO.

All in all, in the light of these trends and of the Afghan defeat, we are very likely looking at the re-distribution of economic, political, and military power (and therefore of alliances) on a large scale. This is too large a topic to cover in appropriate depth here, but my instinct is that Germany, Russia, and China will form the core of an alliance of the “Central Powers” of the world-island while the U.S., India, Japan, and the Anglosphere develop a coalition of democratic countries on the periphery. A new game of diplomacy, modeled on this idea, might give us hours of endless fun. And anxiety.

*    *    *

If Burnham’s insight is one key to playing this game of geopolitics well — see his Struggle for the World as a primer — who should be our guide on how the U.S. and the West should deal with those nations which now and then invite our well-intentioned intervention — sometimes by attacking us? When Blair and Bush were launching the Iraq war, they talked up the idea of “nation-building” as a moral justification for running another people’s country by proxy. This was an essentially progressive idea; conservatives have tended to respond to it by pointing out that nation-building is a misnomer for the deconstruction and reconstruction of a nation. It’s a recipe for a long cultural civil war in which one side is often quite ignorant about the habits, customs, beliefs, and tastes of the country it imagines itself to be governing until its progressive house of cards collapses.

There’s quite a distinguished roster of conservatives — economists, political theorists, diplomats, and novelists — who have explored the tragedies and absurdities growing out of this conflict. The most fertile imagination to be inspired by this theme is England’s brilliant satirical novelist, Evelyn Waugh, who in Scoop and Black Mischief describes the comic and horrible misunderstandings that flourish when progress is imposed on more rooted societies. Others who have developed important critiques of the same phenomenon include V. S. and Shiva Naipaul, the Anglo-Hungarian economist Lord Peter Bauer, the American cultural anthropologist Grace Goodell, William Easterly, and many more.

They have now been joined by the Portuguese ex-diplomat-turned-writer, Bruno Macaes, who, writing in the London Spectator, noticed sharp contrasts between Afghanistan collapsing under the weight of aid and America’s good intentions and the small statelet of Somaliland that flourishes freely and economically like the green bay tree in diplomatic isolation with little or no Western aid. Macaes speculates that it’s Somaliland’s lack of outside assistance that explains its success: The region has built that success on a political model rooted in its old traditions such as an Upper House of Parliament composed of tribal elders. He continues like a blend of Bauer and Waugh:

It is easy to imagine what would happen if Western experts were put in charge. The parliament would be reformed and the upper house abolished. The fabric of small businesses covering every corner of Hargeisa would be replaced by local cronies fed by vast transfers of Western funds. Local elites would be replaced by the local version of Ashraf Ghani, the celebrated author of “Fixing Failed States”, an academic brought from an obscure American university to educate his fellow citizens in the Western ways. And the experiment would end as badly as you can imagine.

Well, as badly as Afghanistan has done.

Macaes is not arguing that the West should refuse all help to either country, merely that it should be used to strengthen their traditional institutions rather than seeking to replace them wholesale. How we project our influence and power in such countries obviously needs a unique intellectual blend of qualities: sharp and realistic social observation, intellectual humility in the face of local knowledge, and yet moral self-confidence in our own system, especially in its conservative elements. Afghanistan was a case of getting it wrong — it’s handed over to China almost half the known world’s reserves of lithium. Given what we know of how China treats the peoples and governments of its economic colonies, however, Beijing will get it wrong soon, too. Its system is a more exaggerated form of progressive interventionism than anything concocted in the Ivy League. We’ve outgrown that.

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