There's no denying that August was a terrible month both for President Joe Biden and for the reputation of the United States. But the disastrously handled American withdrawal from Afghanistan has also given rise to a number of myths about the overall U.S. failure in that central Asian country, myths that distort thinking about America's future foreign policy and, indeed, about the future of international order.
Certainly, the chaotic and tragic manner of the withdrawal from Afghanistan was damaging for what it told us about the quality of American planning, intelligence and execution. It was damaging for what it told us about the quality of the foreign affairs team at the White House and about the judgement of President Biden himself. Yet as we reflect upon that damage we must be careful not to confuse contemporary errors with longer term issues.
For sure, it is chastening that the American withdrawal has led so swiftly to the re-establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan by the Taliban, the very same group that U.S.-led forces removed from power two decades ago. This does mean that those 20 years of occupation by U.S. and other NATO forces have failed to create governing institutions (whether democratic or not) sufficiently strong to last even for a few weeks. And it is also clear that the manner of the U.S. withdrawal has led to complaints from allies in NATO and elsewhere of a lack of consultation and communication by the Americans.
Yet from that apparent clarity have emerged at least three important myths. The first is that this exit could mark the end of U.S. military interventions overseas. The second is that this failure marks the end of a U.S. strategy of "nation-building" in the service of liberal, democratic values. The third is that the exit and a lack of consultation surrounding it has embittered allies so much as to make the U.S. now look an unreliable partner, one lacking in credibility.
Let's start with the first myth. What is true is that, just as after previous debacles such as in Vietnam in 1975, the killing of more than 300 U.S. Marines and others in Beirut in 1983, or defeat in the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia in 1993, the public and political will to engage in military conflict overseas will now remain severely diminished for some time to come. What those examples also show, however, is that these cycles of engagement and disengagement are nothing new. It all depends on what happens next, and when.
For let us ask ourselves this. What would America do now if a new terrorist attack were to occur on its territory, of a scale even remotely similar to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 in which nearly 3,000 people died? The answer, almost certainly, is that America would again go to war with whoever was responsible. That is what countries do, when others make war against them.
Throughout the 1990s, U.S. foreign policy was dominated by two instincts, firmly held by President Bill Clinton: to avoid taking up a role of global policeman, a role being urged upon the United States by others now that the Cold War had ended; and that if the use of military force seemed unavoidable, the U.S. should rely solely on air power rather than placing "boots on the ground." Those instincts, born out of the humiliation in Somalia (as later portrayed in Ridley Scott's 2001 movie, "Black Hawk Down"), arguably prevented U.S. intervention in the Rwanda genocide of 1994 and delayed by several years its intervention in the wars over the former Yugoslavia of 1991-2001.
It was the 9/11 attacks that changed this. And it was the desire to respond with military force to that tremendous shock and outrage that brings us to myth No. 2, about nation-building. Too many commentators forget now that during the 2000 presidential election campaign George W. Bush and his senior team repeatedly criticised the Clinton administration -- and hence his opponent, Vice-President Al Gore -- for having pursued "foreign policy as social work," borrowing the headline from a 1996 article in Foreign Affairs by a scholar, Michael Mandelbaum. They rejected any notion of engagement in nation-building. Until, that is, as a result of two wars they ended up in possession of two nations, Afghanistan and Iraq, which they had little choice but to try to rebuild.
The basic American instinct, ever since George Washington's 1796 warnings against foreign "entanglements," has been to avoid holding colonies or building nations. With the important exception of the Philippines (from 1898 to 1946), America's strategy has generally been to intervene militarily but then withdraw, as it did for example in the first Gulf War of 1991. This may seem a strange thing to say of a country which has an estimated 800 overseas military bases, large and small, in about 70 countries, but the U.S. has been an unusual hegemonic (or as some would say, imperial) power in that it has preferred to act through alliances and agreements rather than conquest. Nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq has been a huge, costly and failed exception, but not the rule.
So how about myth No. 3, of embittered allies and damaged credibility? The part that is a myth is the part about lack of consultation. If that had truly happened, it would not be new: America's two closest allies, Japan and the UK, can both attest to painful absences of consultation, with for Japan the "Nixon shock" of opening to China in 1971-72 or for Britain Ronald Reagan's 1983 invasion of Grenada, its former colony in the Caribbean. But did it actually happen this time? The Trump administration's negotiations with the Taliban during 2020 were conducted in plain sight. President Biden's decision to stick with the deal and U.S. withdrawal was likewise public, as were the new dates he set. Allies had plenty of opportunity to make their own plans. Blaming America for poor consultation is just a political diversionary tactic.
What then are we left with? The terrible American planning and execution of a withdrawal most thought inevitable. A US aversion to overseas wars that could change in an instant if it is attacked or if its vital interests are at stake. Failed nation-building by a nation leery of doing any such thing. Above all, however, we are left with a global superpower whose status and strength were severely dented by the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath; and a world transformed by the rise of China and some lesser emerging powers.
In that world, the U.S. will be as reluctant a global "policeman" as ever, but will remain the world's most powerful military force as well, for now, as its largest economy. Its domestic politics are polarised and in many ways rotten. But its long-term allies in Europe and Asia would still rather be under its military umbrella than exposed to the stormy international weather.
(Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)