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National Security & Defense

American Defeat in Afghanistan Exposes the ‘Smart Power’ Mirage

Then-President Barack Obama, Then-Vice President Joe Biden (C), and former president Bill Clinton (R) attend the memorial service for Senator Robert Byrd on the steps of the state capitol in Charleston, W.Va., July 2, 2010. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

On the menu today: As the U.S. mission in Afghanistan ends in disaster and the Taliban returns to rule with wanton and widespread cruelty again, it is time to once and for all cast away the notion that the Democrats are the party of “smart power” abroad.

The Foreign Policy ‘Smart Set’ Leads America to Defeat Again

Every four years, a Democratic presidential candidate pops up and reminds us that he — or, one cycle, she — represents the smart party when it comes to foreign policy. These Democrats boast that they’re not isolationist, like Donald Trump, and they’re not unilateralist cowboys, like George W. Bush. They, and their top advisers, assure us that they are right, tough, smart, nuanced, and sophisticated. And every four years, the U.S. foreign-policy establishment — think-tank wonks, retired diplomats, columnists and authors, certain retired generals — almost uniformly swoons at these Democratic presidential candidates’ keen grasp of a complicated and dangerous world.

And these top Democrats are not shy about telling us how they understand the world better than anyone else does.

Bill Clinton’s website informs us that, “President Clinton understood from the beginning of his presidency that the most pervasive force in our world is globalization.” (Perhaps the most consequential decision of Clinton’s presidency was setting the U.S. and China on a path to economic integration that is likely to be the preeminent foreign-policy challenge of this decade.) “Tough and smart,” they assured us about John Kerry, who went on to become Obama’s secretary of state and Joe Biden’s climate czar. Barack Obama, by virtue of his unique heritage, “would do more for America’s soft power around the world than anything else we could do.” Hillary Clinton, then Obama’s nominee to be secretary of state, declared at her confirmation hearing that, “We must use what has been called ‘smart power’, the full range of tools at our disposal.” The Obama administration could not explain its worldview without reaffirming that it was the smart one; the administration literally referred to its own strategy as “smart power.” The Democrats represented the sophisticated, up-to-date worldview, while the Republicans were outdated dinosaurs — as Obama scoffed at Mitt Romney during a debate while discussing Russia and Vladimir Putin, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

We were told during the Obama years that Joe Biden was an unparalleled diplomatic asset because of his “strategic empathy.” As a candidate, Biden pledged that, “I will take immediate steps to renew U.S. democracy and alliances, protect the United States’ economic future, and once more have America lead the world. . . . This is the time to tap the strength and audacity that took us to victory in two world wars and brought down the Iron Curtain.” Upon Biden’s election, the Financial Times declared that, “the grown-ups are back in charge in Washington.” Biden boasted, shortly after taking the oath of office that, “America is back!”

In the worldview of the Democratic foreign-policy cognoscenti, Americans should expect foreign-policy crises during Republican presidencies, because GOP presidents and their foreign-policy teams are either crazed warmongers or ignorant, selfish isolationists, or some combination of the two. They just don’t understand the world as well as the self-identified “smart” Democratic foreign-policy thinkers.

But something odd happens whenever the self-identified “smart” Democratic foreign-policy thinkers come to power. Somehow, randomly — through no fault of their own, they insist — disaster strikes.

As its eight years came to a close, the Clinton administration assured Americans that it had “defined a new security agenda that addresses contemporary threats.” There was no mention of that once-obscure extremist who steadily and gradually expanded his power until he commanded a worldwide army of Islamist terrorists, probing for holes and weak spots in America’s open society — detonating truck bombs in New York City, leveling embassies, blowing up U.S. Navy ships. Clinton’s decision-making on Osama bin Laden was so sterling that Sandy Berger was left stuffing official documents in his socks at the archives.

In Syria, the self-identified “smart” Democratic foreign-policy thinkers declared a foreign-policy “red line” about the use of chemical weapons . . . and then stood and watched as Assad gassed his own people. The Syrian civil war killed so many people that the world couldn’t get a reliable estimate, and waves of refugees poured into Europe, destabilizing European politics. Bashar al-Assad said he got rid of his chemical weapons, and the Obama team chose to believe him.

The self-identified “smart” Democratic foreign-policy thinkers offered Russia a “reset,” convinced that the Putin regime would come around now that the dreaded cowboy unilateralists were gone. Nearly two terms later, Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, was left appealing to the consciences of Vladimir Putin and the Russian government. “Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin?” The answer is no, and that answer was clear long before 2016.

The self-identified “smart” Democratic foreign-policy thinkers insisted they had safely withdrawn from Iraq, and dismissed this group called ISIS as just the “jayvee team,” and then watched as the “jayvee team” created the Islamic State in the empty vacuum and set about committing genocide and launching and inspiring terrorist attacks all around the world.

The self-identified “smart” Democratic foreign-policy thinkers patted themselves on the back for “leading from behind” in Libya and then watched as American diplomats and security personnel got killed while begging for assistance in Benghazi. The U.S. has not had a significant diplomatic presence in Libya since 2014.

Russia rolled into Crimea, but the self-identified “smart” Democratic foreign-policy thinkers didn’t really do much. Russian forces shot down a civilian passenger airliner over Ukraine, but the self-identified “smart” Democratic foreign-policy thinkers dithered until the world’s anger faded. China repeatedly violated its treaty agreements, but the Obama administration believed Chinese promises to honor its commitments in the future.

Iran seized ten U.S. sailors in international waters, paraded images of their capture on state-run television, and the Obama administration thanked the regime for releasing them.

Iran built secret nuclear facilities, but the self-identified “smart” Democratic foreign-policy thinkers didn’t really do much. The self-identified “smart” Democratic foreign-policy thinkers pledged that the U.S. would never accept North Korea as a nuclear state . . . after North Korea tested nuclear weapons. The self-identified “smart” Democratic foreign-policy thinkers seem to think that the primary obstacle to peace between the Israelis and Palestinians is that past American presidents just haven’t tried hard enough.

Foreign-policy makers such as these are always attending Holocaust Remembrance Day and decrying those who did nothing while the horrors of Nazi Germany raged, solemnly swearing “never again.” Then, while in office, they don’t do much of anything during Rwanda or Srebrenica or Sudan or massacres of the Yazidis or the Rohinga in Myanmar. Their life’s work amounts to opposing genocide in theory, but rarely if ever in practice.

The Democratic foreign-policy establishment has perfected the art of appearing as if it cares without actually caring.

The Neocons care, and want to act, even if those actions will often be destructive and have unforeseen consequences. They’re going to make a mess, and spend a lot in blood and treasure, but they’re hell-bent on punishing the world’s most malevolent leaders, regimes, and factions. Maybe you think that’s worthwhile, maybe you don’t, but it’s a coherent worldview that doesn’t rely on the pledges and promises of the world’s most ruthless regimes. The Trump-y isolationists don’t care, and openly say so. Agree or disagree, there’s something refreshingly honest about their lack of empathy and eagerness to tell the rest of the world that they’re on their own.

But the Democrats? The Democratic foreign-policy establishment never speaks or acts as if it faces a menu of difficult choices, with the risks of reacting too hard or too soft in the face of potential threats. It’s always convinced it knows just what to do, once it’s back in power. It’s always telling us that it can generate much better results because its people are so much smarter than everyone else. It understands the world so much better than the other guys. It points to the sterling resumes of its members and warm receptions at the Davos Summit and applause at the Aspen Ideas festival. In many cases, it has already met, conversed, and even dined with the figures who represent the preeminent challenges to U.S. foreign policy.

Every four years, the message is the same: Trust us, we’re the ones who know what we’re doing.

And yet, the oddest thing happens — the Democratic foreign-policy establishment gets in power, and a short while later, so many things go wrong.

One month ago, the president of the United States stood before this country and assured Americans that, “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” “I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped, and more competent in terms of conducting war.” “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a embassy in the — of the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.”

Of course, all of that came to pass this past weekend.

It is fair to wonder if the people who keep telling us about how they’re the “grown-ups” and how they use “smart power” and “strategic empathy” really have spent decades looking at the world, as they claim. They seem to have spent decades looking in the mirror, falling in love with themselves, and walking around with a maddeningly overinflated sense of their own judgment and abilities.

ADDENDUM: Look, I understand the White House communications shop is probably panicking right now, and felt the need to rush out a photo of Joe Biden in action on Sunday afternoon. I’m just saying that when it tweeted out a photo of Biden in a teleconference with his advisers, it probably should have cropped out or blurred the two video monitors labeled “CIA” and “DOHA STATION.” Also note the administration’s painfully generic euphemism of the situation in the Situation Room: “This morning, the President and Vice President met with their national security team and senior officials to hear updates on the draw down of our civilian personnel in Afghanistan, evacuations of SIV applicants and other Afghan allies, and the ongoing security situation in Kabul.”

The U.S. used Army AH-64 Apache helicopters to clear crowds of panicked, desperate Afghans from the tarmac so a giant C-17 could take off. What we’re seeing on our screens today makes the 1975 evacuation of the American embassy in Saigon look orderly and smooth by comparison.

But in the eyes of this administration, it is just an “ongoing security situation.”


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