The yawning vacuum of American competence has been a long time coming and will have lasting effects. It’s time for the US, and the Western world at large, to restore its credibility and competence of government, writes Robert Amsterdam, the founding partner of Amsterdam & Partners LLP
When President Donald Trump was defeated in the 2020 election, and when his last desperate grasps to hold onto power via threats, lies, and insurrection failed, we were promised a return to normalcy. The narrative was that we’d get so much good governance, we’d be sick of it.
But before President Joe Biden could finish saying ‘America is back’, Afghanistan collapsed in a unnecessarily spectacular fashion, and we’re facing the fact that the deep distrust, polarization, isolationism, and incompetence we came to know intimately during the Trump administration is going to continue to cast a very long shadow for years to come. And if we’re truly honest with ourselves, these deficiencies were always there right under the surface – they were not the mere innovation of the reality TV host president.
The abdication of global leadership we are seeing by the United States in 2021 will powerfully impact how much trust allies can have in Washington, while allowing for a massive realignment of influence in the international system. As I’ve written many times in this column, how America practises (or malpractises) its foreign policy can have far-reaching impact across the world. It changes which poles nations may gravitate towards, it changes the development of institutions and political economies, and it changes a vast array of normative calculations of what’s acceptable and unacceptable for how countries govern themselves.
Biden’s foreign policy agenda would much rather focus on favourite themes such as ‘containing China’ and ‘restoring alliances’. But isn’t it the case that China has been greatly strengthened by the chaotic US departure from Afghanistan? They appear to already have good relations with the Taliban, with an eye toward securing lucrative mineral extraction rights and blocking Uyghur exiles from setting up camp in exchange for major Belt and Road investments. Meanwhile, NATO allies which had been dragged into the war were not consulted on the drawdown and were once again left sitting with the check.
But still, nobody seems to be learning. Over the past few months we’ve been inundated with ‘expert opinions’ on Afghanistan – many of them coming from the same people who sold us the war in the first place – offering their views on the ‘lessons’ to be drawn.
The American discourse on Afghanistan is tortured by simple questions. Was a different outcome possible? What were they really trying to achieve?
One former diplomat, Ryan Crocker, wrote a piece in The New York Times arguing that Biden “lacked strategic patience” to get the job done.
“Societal change is a slow process,” the author writes, citing America’s post-revolution formation. “Yet we seem unable to appreciate that other societies will find the challenge just as difficult and even more so if the engine of change is a foreign army.”
Condoleezza Rice, who served as secretary of state under President George W. Bush, had a similar argument published in the Washington Post: “Twenty years was not enough to complete a journey from the 7th-century rule of the Taliban and a 30-year civil war to a stable government. Twenty years may also not have been enough to consolidate our gains against terrorism and assure our own safety. We — and they — needed more time.”
Leaving aside for a moment the breezy condescension of referring to the Afghan people as being stuck in the 7th or 18th centuries, the arguments for more patience and more time for the mostly unwelcomed armed occupation of a country are not very convincing. It’s beyond absurd to be comparing Afghanistan with South Korea, for example.
The Americans do not have a monopoly on incompetence of course – in fact, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made the cavalier rejection of expertise his brand. But when we see images of Dominic Raab going paddle boarding as Kabul falls, one begins to sense that the absence of the United Kingdom from crucial global events is nothing to boast about.
Most agree it was the right decision to leave Afghanistan, but there is less consensus on how it could have been done in an organized and politically satisfying manner – at the very least avoiding horrific images of desperate men falling off evacuating aircraft, families clamouring for asylum, and children being passed over chain link fences.
We may begin with untangling the intelligence failures of how quickly and easily the Taliban would regain control of the country, but this also overshadows the broader dishonesty and incompetence with how Washington has handled this occupation.
Weeks before the fall of Kabul, a Pentagon watchdog report eviscerated so much of the official rhetoric on the Afghanistan withdrawal. John Sopko, the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, spoke openly about the “hubris” and “mendacity” of the Biden administration (as well as past administrations). He said that both military leaders and diplomats ‘over exaggerated’, noting that countless officials over the years spoke about “just turning the corner” in the fight against the Taliban. “Well, we turned the corner so much, we did 360 degrees,” he said.
But the intelligence failure in Afghanistan goes way back. It’s part of a larger pattern of dereliction of duty in the strategic decision-making process, where evidence was shaped to support preferred conclusions instead of conclusions based on objective evidence – and there are quite a lot of men and women in positions of influence boasting the finest educations and resumes who were complicit in this process.
This was patently clear in the leadup to the US invasion of Iraq, a war which killed a half million people, cost trillions of dollars, and was based on a pretext that was proven to be false. On our podcast this past summer, we spoke with The New York Times journalist and author Robert Draper, who recently wrote a book on the selling of the Iraq to the US public. At a certain point, President Bush decided his position on Saddam Hussein, and this mentality was met with catastrophically unprofessional manoeuvring by key members of his staff to support that conclusion and hide and discredit compelling evidence against starting the war.
Even though ending America’s “forever wars” is broadly popular, there is decreasing confidence in the US commitment to alliances, and this flows from the American public’s declining level of trust in their elected officials. After being sold so many lies on what would happen with two decades of military commitment in Afghanistan and Iraq, is it unreasonable for people to disavow the “expertise” of the most educated elites? Is it really a mystery why so many Americans refuse to believe scientists on climate change, why so many refuse to be vaccinated against the coronavirus?
Instead of debating how many years it would take to build a democratic political culture in Central Asia, it would be more worthwhile to focus on restoring the credibility and competence of governance within the US and the Western world at large. And that begins with a clear and honest expression of the values and interests important to the country as well as the means to achieve them, while reckoning with how such catastrophic mistakes and lapses of intelligence were engendered in the recent past.
Maybe that’s a project where we should exercise greater ‘strategic patience’ and spend more time.