Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
By Tuesday August 31, the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan on the last plane, a few days after the terrorist murder of nearly two hundred people, including 13 U.S. military personnel. The fate of untold numbers of Americans who have been left behind remains uncertain. This bloody and shameful ending of 20 years of U.S. engagement in that country has confirmed the feckless incompetence and rookie mistakes of the Biden foreign policy team. Biden and his advisors both civilian and military should be held accountable for this disaster, the consequence of partisan politics, careerist mediocrity, and stale foreign policy paradigms.
Yet we also need to acknowledge the responsibility that we the voting people have in shaping foreign policy decisions, a role sanctioned by our rights to deliberate on policy, choose our leaders, and hold them accountable. In other words, the very institutions and rights that create political freedom paradoxically can also endanger that freedom by compromising our national security.
From Thucydides to Winston Churchill, this weakness of democracies in conducting foreign policy has been a constant theme in the history of war. In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville had observed about foreign affairs, “A democracy can only with great difficulty regulate the details of an important undertaking, persevere in a fixed design, and work out its execution in spite of serious obstacles. It cannot combine its measures with secrecy or await their consequences with patience.” Similarly, in his 1946 The Gathering Storm, Churchill highlighted “the structure and habits of democratic states,” which “lack those elements of persistence and conviction” necessary for national security, and in which “even in matters of self-preservation, no policy is pursued for even ten or fifteen years.”
“Structures” like regularly scheduled elections, for example––which voters can use to punish leaders for unpopular policies, and reward those who promise to gratify the voters’ preference for “butter” over “guns”–– ensure that every two years any policy is hostage to the self-interested or sometimes irrational vox populi. In matters of foreign policy, civilian control of the military through a president, who is also commander-in-chief, creates accountability that often for elected policy-makers an exorbitant political risk that can inhibit necessary policies out of fear of electoral retribution.
Equally important, the President and Congress can propose policies that also carry risks that aren’t always made apparent, or aren’t adequately explained to the voters, many of whom pay no attention to foreign affairs anyway. Dubious ideals and assumptions about what complexly diverse foreign cultures believe or value can lead to policies and aims doomed to fail.
This perennial danger of democratic government has been particularly obvious over the last 30 years. For example, President George H.W. Bush laid out an idealistic vision of global affairs and our nation’s role abroad in his 1991 State of the Union address delivered during the first Gulf War. The fast-approaching disintegration of the Soviet Union seemingly demonstrated the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy, unalienable rights, confessional tolerance, and free-market capitalism. The defeat of communism, the free West’s most deadly enemy, had created space, Bush said, for “a new world order where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind––peace and security, freedom, and the rule of law.”
The swift victory of Bush’s multinational coalition over Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War––approved by 70% of voters––was taken by “new world order” foreign policy evangelists to be a real-world confirmation of such idealism, as was the doubling of democratic nations over the following decades. Yet set aside was the begged question that there were in fact “universal aspirations” like peace and freedom that trump all the other aims and goods, such as obedience to God or jealousy of a nation’s honor, that “diverse nations” cherish and pursue.
Indeed, as the Nineties progressed, the “old world order” predicated on the primacy of state interests and cultural particularities, especially ethnonationalist states defined by religion or ethnic chauvinism, challenged the assumed global “harmony of interests” that lay behind the “new world order.” In Iraq, Hussein’s postwar massacre of Shia Iraqis went unpunished by the victors, who were restrained by their national interests and the opinions of their voters. Hussein also with impunity rope-a-doped the International Atomic Energy Agency, a supranational institution, whose inspectors were trying to determine the extent of Hussein’s prewar programs to develop and produce weapons of mass destruction. In 1998 Hussein simply threw them out of the country without any penalty from the “new world order.”
Meanwhile, the premier globalist institution, the UN, revealed it was dominated by nation-state interests and government functionaries’ greed when Hussein ignored or violated its numerous Security Council resolutions trying to change his behavior with non-lethal persuasion or sanctions; and the UN’s 2005 Food for Oil program was riddled with the widespread corruption of member-state political officials.
During that decade, the “new world order” also was embarrassed by vicious ethnic conflicts and gruesome violence in Rwanda and the Balkans, among other regions. The “postmodern” foreign policy based, as one academic champion defined it, on “civilian forms of influence and action,” “tolerance between states,” and principles of “integration, prevention, mediation, and persuasion” were impotent in the face of such slaughter, often occurring within sight of UN “peacekeepers.” In the Balkans violent ethnic-cleansing and massacres redolent of World War II were finally stopped not by diplomatic “persuasion,” but by American bombing given a multinational patina by the participation of some NATO forces.
The terrorist attacks on 9/11 should have put paid to such visions of a global “harmony of interests” comprising Western political principles like freedom, tolerance, separation of religion from government, equality before the law, accountability to the citizenry, and unalienable rights, now all dressed up in internationalist rhetoric and international institutions mainly paid for by U.S. taxpayers. History, understood as the competition between liberal democracy and its fascist and communist alternatives, had not “ended.” On that day, one of history’s most successful empires and great militant faiths struck back against the U.S., the hegemon of the “new world order,” in spectacularly horrendous fashion.
Yet President George W. Bush continued to be guided by the idealistic “new world order” paradigm. In the 2002 National Security Strategy, Bush defined American foreign policy as the promotion of a “single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise,” for “these values of freedom are right and true for every person across the globe. We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world.”
This sincere yet naïve idealism seemingly ignored the complex diversity of peoples and cultures that, like Islamic nations, have their own visions of the good for human life and fulfillment, and are willing to fight, kill, and die in order to defend them against what they believe to be their enemies. That is one reason why from Afghanistan to the so-called Arab Spring reform movements, true liberal democracy has failed in Muslim majority nations that find in the Koran and Sharia law the divine, eternal “single sustainable model” for success in this world and the next.
Thus the war against the Taliban––quickly won by CIA agents, special forces, sophisticated surveillance, air supremacy, and alliances with tribal enemies of the Taliban––changed, with little public scrutiny or debate, into a war to create liberal democracy. The mission to punish the enablers of 9/11 and to deny territory and support for other terrorist outfits would have no withdrawal date.
But the American people either weren’t told that this mission was open-ended, or didn’t pay attention. Their continuing support was contingent on perceptions of short-term success and a paucity of casualties, or was hostage to the optics of the dead and wounded, and urgency of other issues such as the economy. The war was won, the offenders punished, and now it was time to bring the “troops” home for a victory parade.
Instead, Bush turned the antiterrorism mission into a poorly understood democracy-building one. Over the years, troops were sent to support that dream of democratization, when in reality the majority of Afghans saw infidel invaders besmirching their faith and culture. The point is not that Afghan or any Muslims are incapable of embracing all the political and economic boons Bush promised; millions no doubt do. Rather, the pious majority saw programs like the social liberation of women to be affronts to Sharia law and their cultural mores and traditions.
Yet year after year we spent lives and money on this dream, only to see it in the past few weeks collapse in humiliation and shame, our fellow citizens the hostages of terrorists, thousands of Afghan allies left to their brutal enemies, and 13 of our finest Americans blown up by an alleged enemy of the Taliban that still could penetrate the airport security provided by their supposed foe.
Again, Biden’s team is responsible for the chaos and death in Kabul. Voters are rightfully angered by the colossal blunders and stupidity with which the pull-out has been executed. But most voters are not angry about withdrawing our forces from Afghanistan, a move initiated by Donald Trump for the same reason Biden promised to in 2020: It’s politically popular, a product of specious “endless war” rhetoric that confuses antiterrorism surveillance and intervention with misguided democracy promotion requiring many more troops on the ground. But even an orderly and less bloody retreat would have surrendered a valuable geopolitical asset, one bordering China and Iran, both of which mean us harm.
The fact is, in a world more interconnected through global trade, and communication and transportation technologies, America has inherited the global responsibilities as the provider of security upon which the world economy depends. And fulfilling that responsibility requires from us a forward projection not of conquering armies trying to transform diverse peoples into versions of ourselves, but geostrategically placed surveillance- and force-projecting platforms monitoring jihadist terrorists who want to destroy us, as well as keeping an eye on the regional machinations of Russia, China, and Iran. No distant, “over the horizon” capabilities can replace it.
Finally, no matter how much we dislike that responsibility and its implications of costly “entangling alliances,” we would like much less whatever power expanded to fill the void were we to leave. Communist China has publicly announced its grand ambition is to replace us as the global hegemon, and our ignominious retreat from Afghanistan cedes more influence and regional leverage to this totalitarian rival. Such an abandonment, moreover, damages our prestige, which depends on there being no better friend, no worse enemy than we.
Like his boss Barack Obama, Biden with his feckless retreat has shown that there is no worse friend, and no better enemy than the freest, most powerful nation in history. But we the people have contributed to that decline by putting short-term passions and interests over long-term strategy, a recipe for disaster. As Tocqueville pointed out, “if their [the people’s] present sufferings are great, it is to be feared, that the still greater sufferings attendant upon defeat will be forgotten.” Let’s hope we don’t have to learn that wisdom through hard experience.