In May 2014, I embedded with Charley Company of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines to write about their “retrograde” from Afghanistan’s Sangin Valley—known to coalition forces as “Sangingrad” for the fierceness of the battles they had waged there against the Taliban. On our last night at FOB Nolay—a dusty and desolate forward operating base that had neither electricity nor running water—I asked one hard-bitten major why the military brass insisted on using the term “retrograde,” which seemed more appropriate to astrology than it did to combat.
“I guess they didn’t want to call it a retreat,” was his mordant reply.
Retrograde or retreat, it was an orderly business. Shortly before dusk, the Marines took out the trash, bid farewell to the nervous Afghan soldiers taking over the base, and drove off in their MRAPs and mine rollers. It’s a moment I’ve thought about often this summer while watching America’s shambolic final act in Afghanistan. It was obvious in 2014 that, barring unexpected leadership in Washington, we were on our way out and that the result would be a strategic debacle for the United States and a humanitarian catastrophe for Afghanistan.
Yet that knowledge did little to prepare me for the emotional impact of our exit, when the humiliation of our surrender to the Taliban was compounded by the shame of abandoning our Afghan friends to a terrible fate. America wasn’t merely a country that would rather lose a war outright than maintain a secure garrison at Bagram Air Base to provide Afghans with the air power, surveillance, maintenance, and logistics they needed to avert collapse. We were also a country that couldn’t quite manage to fast-track the visas of a few thousand military interpreters and others who had helped us, at grave risk to themselves, when we needed them most.
Our incompetence matched our fecklessness, and our fecklessness matched our untrustworthiness. To say this is how great powers fall would be an insult to the great powers of the past, which fell under greater strain, for weightier reasons.
What comes next? That is the subject of this essay. But first a word on what came before.
Nine years ago, I published an essay in COMMENTARY called “The Coming Global Disorder.” Barack Obama was running for re-election on the promise of ending “more than a decade of war” in order to “focus on nation-building here at home.” Much of the foreign-policy establishment was echoing the theme. American troops were out of Iraq; the surge in Afghanistan was winding down, Osama bin Laden was dead, and—as Obama snidely told Mitt Romney when his 2012 Republican challenger named Russia as our principal geopolitical foe—“the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”
That new consensus had obvious political appeal, and it helped win Obama a second term. But it was also dangerous, for three principal reasons.
The first danger was strategic. “You may not be interested in war,” goes a line usually attributed to Leon Trotsky, “but war is interested in you.” As Obama was all but declaring victory in the war on terror, Islamist terrorism was resurgent, largely on account of the vacuum he had left in Iraq.1 As Obama was resisting calls to stop the Assad regime’s depredations, Syrians were fleeing their country by the millions, creating a refugee crisis that would ultimately overwhelm Europe in 2015. As Obama was “resetting” relations with Russia, Vladimir Putin was plotting his next adventure to expand Russian frontiers and undermine Western democracies. As Obama was winding down NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, the Taliban understood, as one refrain went, that “Americans had the watches, but they had the time.” As Obama was trying to engage Tehran in nuclear diplomacy, Iran was entrenching its influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and Yemen. As Obama was slashing defense spending, China was bidding for naval dominance in the western Pacific while building artificial islands in the South China Sea to claim the waters as its own.
In short, what Obama called “retrenchment”— another euphemism for retreat—was, to America’s adversaries, an opportunity. They were not slow to seize it. Within little more than a year of Obama’s second inauguration, ISIS controlled a caliphate the size of Great Britain, Bashar al-Assad had gassed his own people without consequence to himself, and Putin had seized Crimea and ignited a deadly war in eastern Ukraine.
The second danger was conceptual. Obama’s mantra of “nation-building here at home” had as its premise the notion that an assertive foreign policy was something America did at the expense of domestic policy, rather than as an essential complement to it.
This was a stark reversal of more than six decades of American policy. It was also a reversal built on misleading data and vacuous clichés. The policy, beginning with the 1947 Truman Doctrine, was based on the understanding that American prosperity and safety rested heavily on the prosperity and safety of allies from Seoul to Berlin. We could not let friendly countries (even those that weren’t democracies) fend for themselves against totalitarian enemies and pretend it had nothing to do with us. The misleading data typically came in the form of eye-popping figures about the lifetime costs of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, which ignored the fact that U.S. defense expenditures have been a steadily shrinking fraction of gross domestic product (from 5.6 percent in 1990 to 3.4 percent in 2019) while social expenditures have been a steadily growing one (from 13.2 percent to 18.7 percent over the same time period). And the vacuous clichés came in phrases such as “forever wars,” which, as former British prime minister Tony Blair pointed out in August, was “an imbecilic political slogan” based on the false notion that “our engagement in 2021 was remotely comparable to our commitment 20 or even 10 years ago.”
The final danger was moral.
The United States did not embark on the so-called War on Terror as a spurious foreign-policy adventure. Nor did it do so on a partisan basis. On 9/11 we suffered the most devastating single-day violent loss of life on American soil since the battle of Antietam. There was no guarantee that we wouldn’t suffer more—or worse. We were attacked by a global terrorist network that was an inspiration to hundreds of thousands if not millions of radicalized Muslims worldwide. It was a network harbored by a barbaric regime that shared its ideology and refused to surrender its leaders.
Once we were in Afghanistan, a war both Obama and Biden claimed was a must-win for the United States when they ran for office in 2008, the only way out was through. We made many mistakes during the war. But we did stand up a government that, for all of its ineptitude and corruption, did not threaten other states, did not terrorize its own people, and did not fly the banners of jihad. It also did not have to collapse—if only it could have been sustained by basic, but persistent, U.S. support.
Like shrapnel, the moral damage flew in many directions. We sent hundreds of thousands of men and women to war, and thousands to their grave, in the name of national security and democratic idealism—only to throw away their victories for transparently political reasons. We validated the belief, underscored by bin Laden in one of his pre-9/11 fatwas, that Americans inevitably cut and run from fights against determined foes. We betrayed local allies after they had taken immense risks to stand with us, sending the fatal signal to future would-be allies that Uncle Sam is a fickle and dangerous partner. And we made Americans cynical about the United States as a beacon of steadfastness and hope in the face of the enemies of freedom.
This was the trajectory that Obama set America on when he came to the White House. It is one Donald Trump largely adopted, albeit with less consistency and greater truculence, in the guise of “America First.” And it culminated with Biden’s unnecessary surrender on August 31, perversely timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of al-Qaeda’s greatest victory.
There are several counterarguments to my critique, some smarter than others.
Among the less smart: that we should never have gone into Afghanistan in the first place. That the invasion of Iraq made us “take our eye off the ball” in Afghanistan. That we should have withdrawn after Osama bin Laden was killed. That the swift collapse of the Afghan army only proved that we had been building on sand from day one.
Not going into Afghanistan after 9/11 was never a serious option—not politically (the 2001 vote to authorize military force was 420–1 in the House and 98–0 in the Senate), and not militarily, since the only quick way to have killed or apprehended bin Laden was to dislodge the regime that was giving al-Qaeda sanctuary.2 The key problem with our strategy in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban was neither insufficient troop levels nor inadequate nation-building efforts. Rather, it was the sanctuary that Pakistan gave to the Taliban leadership after we had ousted them. That problem could only have been solved with a massive expansion of the war into the territory of that nuclear-armed Islamic nation—a strategically risky proposition that would have garnered a hysterical reaction from the same people who accused the Bush administration of shortchanging the Afghan war effort. The idea that we should have withdrawn after bin Laden’s death ignores the fact that this is essentially what we did: Before leaving office, Obama cut U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan by over 90 percent of their surge-level highs. That withdrawal only hastened the sharp deterioration of conditions in Afghanistan, which later became the explanation for why we should never have been there in the first place.
As for the suggestion that the failure of the Afghan army to hold off the Taliban proves the wisdom of Biden’s decision to withdraw, one might equally ask how long Latvia, Norway, or Poland would last against a long-running campaign of Russian subversion and aggression if they were not defended by U.S. security guarantees and boots on the ground. Pax Americana, like little Hans Brinker, has always been a matter of the United States keeping its finger in the hole in the dike.
In the end, the war in Afghanistan, like the war in Iraq, was lost not because it was “unwinnable.” We lost it because a president made a deliberate choice to guarantee our own defeat.
The more sophisticated counterargument runs as follows: Our involvement in the Middle East is a game that isn’t worth the candle. According to this line of thinking, we have made an investment of blood and treasure that cannot justify whatever conceivable strategic, diplomatic, or economic returns it might yield. Thanks to fracking, we no longer depend on Middle Eastern oil the way we once did (and, anyway, oil-producing states, hostile or friendly, have no choice but to pump and sell it to the global market). Terrorism is a worldwide, not Middle Eastern, problem: To bomb jihadists in Mosul merely radicalizes their cousins in Marseilles. The Muslim world appears to be incapable of democratic reform: Nearly every time a free and fair election is held, whether in Egypt, Gaza, or Turkey, Islamist parties with authoritarian tendencies win. So forget about nation-building. If Beijing’s panjandra want this mess (and there are already reports that the Chinese might want to lease Bagram Air Base), they are welcome to it.
This isn’t to say, the counterargument continues, that the U.S. can or should retreat from its global role. But we urgently need to realign resources to priorities, even if it means cutting our losses in ways that may feel humiliating now but that we’ll soon get over. Our top priorities lie in shoring up long-standing alliances with competent partners in Asia and Europe, so that we may jointly confront mounting threats from China and Russia. Helping Australia build nuclear submarines is a good example of the kind of steps we can take (even if those submarines won’t be operational for at least another decade).
The template here is our recovery from defeat in Vietnam, when we refocused our efforts on core rather than peripheral geopolitical challenges; achieved substantial diplomatic victories at Helsinki, Camp David, and Geneva; and discovered fresh sources of national power in places such as Silicon Valley and Wall Street, which came from neither victory nor defeat on distant battlefields.
This counterargument gets one central point right—not that anyone seriously disputes it anymore. We are again living in a world of great-power rivalry. China will be our most formidable geopolitical adversary for decades to come by virtue of its size, wealth, rapid arms buildup, reversion to Maoist-style rule, and increasingly brazen aggression. Russia also poses unique dangers owing to its revanchist ambitions, its habits of subversion, its grip on Europe’s energy markets, and its immense nuclear arsenal. And despite their latent rivalry, Beijing and Moscow have a powerful common interest in undermining Pax Americana—the complex network of military alliances, trade agreements, common rules, and shared values among the U.S. and our allies, which have undergirded the free world since the end of World War II.
Yet the idea that we can conveniently pivot from the Middle East to focus on more important areas is a conceit wrapped in a delusion. Irrespective of energy, the region engages five vital Western interests.
- Terrorism. The experience of the past several decades teaches us that, while domestic terrorism can be handled as a law-enforcement problem, the most dangerous breeding grounds of terror are sovereign states or quasi-autonomous areas that become magnets, training grounds, protectors, and ultimately exporters of jihad. That was the lesson of Afghanistan before 9/11 and of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria after 2013.
- Proliferation. The gravest problem with an Iranian bomb is not that the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism would possess the most lethal means of carrying out its designs. It’s that an Iranian bomb would swiftly lead to a Saudi bomb, a Saudi bomb to a Turkish bomb, and so on. Nuclear deterrence—difficult to conduct in the Cold War when the U.S. and the Soviet Union possessed largely symmetrical capabilities—becomes all but impossible when three or four nuclear states, in the world’s most combustible region, are each at daggers drawn with the others.
- Catastrophic state failure. The world can ill afford another state collapse in the broader Middle East similar to what we’ve already witnessed in Yemen, Syria, Libya, and now Lebanon. Nor can it afford a radical Islamist government capturing another major capital, as nearly happened in Egypt after the fall of the Mubarak regime.
- Refugees. The West would be crippled by a refugee crisis on a par with the one that swamped Europe in 2015. Among other effects, it would accelerate the populist backlash that has strengthened quasi-fascist parties like France’s National Front and Germany’s Alternative for Germany, while creating opportunities for Russia to make further inroads at the (increasingly powerful) fringes of European politics.
- Israel. Assuring the safety and security of the Jewish state is not merely a moral and historic responsibility for the Western world. It is also deeply in the interest of the United States that its principal Middle Eastern ally remain capable of taking decisive action—as it did against Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program in 1981 and Bashar al-Assad’s in 2007—when Washington lacked the stomach to curb regional threats.
The fall of Kabul has now gravely jeopardized every one of these interests.
Afghanistan will likely again become a terrorist sanctuary, though perhaps with less overt Taliban support. Iran will look at the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan (as well as our pending withdrawal from Iraq) as further evidence that we will do next to nothing serious to limit its ambitions, regional or nuclear. Pakistan, which heedlessly supported and cheered the Afghan Taliban, will now be more vulnerable to its own resurgent Taliban insurgency. A fresh refugee crisis stemming from conflict and repression in Afghanistan seems to be merely a matter of time. And Israel’s security, in an era of American retreat, will depend more than ever on its own limited resources.
The larger point is this: To believe that the self-inflicted wound the U.S. just suffered in Afghanistan has no bearing on our power, security, and reputation in the world is a fantasy.
As Kabul fell to the Taliban, China’s Global Times, the English-language sister publication of the People’s Daily, wasted no time in drawing some obvious, if self-interested, conclusions. “The U.S. strategy of withdrawing from Afghanistan, contracting its military presence in the Middle East and enhancing geopolitical rivalry with China in Southeast Asia will soon prove useless,” it boasted in an editorial.
The Taiwan authorities have tied themselves tightly to the U.S., but the U.S. will not offer unlimited support to the island at the cost of U.S. own interests…. When faced with the Chinese mainland’s determination for a military showdown, the U.S. is destined to retreat…. China and Russia should unite different forces to humiliate the U.S. over the Lithuania issue and the Taiwan question, generating a new, universally comprehensible “Afghan effect” in different forms. Washington’s arms are way too long, so Beijing and Moscow should cut them short in places where Washington shows its arrogance and parades its abilities.
The Global Times is a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, so bluster, propaganda, and bad prose go with its territory. Nonetheless, what the editorial calls the “universally comprehensible ‘Afghan effect’” is true, in two important senses.
First, our Afghan fiasco is forcing traditional American allies to reassess the wisdom of their reliance on Washington.
This is not just a matter of our tattered credibility (more about which below). It’s also one of capability and competence. It’s difficult to think of any aspect of the Afghan withdrawal, beginning with Biden’s judgment, predictions, and execution, that might inspire a geopolitical opponent to respect, much less fear, the American president as a canny global statesman.
As for capability, though the U.S. military remains by many metrics the most powerful in the world, it is a shadow of what it was when it last was confronted with great-power competition. In 1990, at the end of the Cold War, the Air Force had some 4,000 fighters in its hangars. The number is closer to 2,000 today. Our bomber force has lost nearly two-thirds of its fleet, and now mostly relies on B-52s built in the 1960s. The number of ships in the Navy has similarly declined by half despite concerted recent efforts to increase their numbers. China’s navy is now larger ship for ship, though not yet in capability or tonnage.
Beijing may still be the lesser power compared with the U.S., globally speaking. But in the areas where we are most likely to clash, it has all of the advantages of proximity, numbers, and initiative. The People’s Liberation Army “has transformed its force to specifically offset U.S. operational advantages in the Pacific theater,” noted Lee Hsi-min, former chief of staff of the Taiwanese military, in July. “To this end, the Chinese military has developed anti-ship ballistic missiles, attack submarines and an array of air and naval platforms for conducting saturation attacks to overwhelm enemies, all supported by space-based systems that make it more integrated and lethal.”
Second, the fiasco is an invitation to our adversaries to view the remainder of the Biden administration as neither a nuisance nor a threat, but rather as a possibly unique three-year window of strategic opportunity.
In March, Admiral Philip Davidson, head of the Indo-Pacific Command, predicted that China would try to seize Taiwan within six years. “We are accumulating risk,” he said delicately, “that may embolden China to unilaterally change the status quo before our forces may be able to deliver an effective response.” But why should China still wait six years? After Afghanistan, the U.S. is thinking as never before about how better to defend Taiwan, a process that would take several years to complete. The opportunity, from Beijing’s standpoint, is sooner rather than later.
As for Russia, opinions vary as to where Putin will strike next. It might be Ukraine, along whose border it again massed troops earlier this year; or Belarus, already a client state, where persistent unrest against a despised dictator risks inspiring Putin’s own domestic opponents; or Montenegro, where in 2016 Russian agents very nearly carried off a coup shortly before the country joined NATO; or, as I think, one of the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia), in order to expose the hollowness of American military guarantees while also breaking NATO’s spine.
Mikheil Saakashvilli, Georgia’s former president, has proposed a more intriguing possibility: Finland or Sweden. “I do not expect Russian tanks to roll into Helsinki or Stockholm, but it would be relatively simple for Moscow to execute a land grab in a remote Arctic enclave or a small island,” he speculated in 2019. “By attacking a non-NATO country, Putin does not risk a proportional response in accordance with Article 5. But by targeting a European country, he can expect to reap the rewards of public approval at home.”
Implausible? Outlandish? Perhaps. But how many of the same people who now think the Afghan retreat won’t matter all that much ever thought Putin would seize Crimea and start a war in eastern Ukraine at a cost of thousands of lives and with utter contempt for the West—until he did exactly that?
There are other conceivable scenarios. Ultimately, however, the specific targets of aggression don’t really matter. For Russia as well China, the central goal of their next foreign adventure is not to add another parcel to their already vast territories, while incurring the predictable price in casualties, sanctions, trade penalties, or perhaps a cancelled invitation to a diplomatic summit.
The real goal is to dislodge America, firmly and for good, as the dominant power in global affairs. To do so would also dislodge everything that dominance has come to represent: the power of the liberal-democratic-capitalist model; the concern for human rights and political dissidents; the willingness to use tools of economic and military power on behalf of moral objectives. A world in which the United States becomes a “normal” country—perhaps still faithful to its ideals but not all that interested in exporting them; transactional and amoral in its foreign policies; a big nation that can defend its own borders but not a superpower that can impose its will—is a world in which people like Putin, Xi Jinping, Ali Khamenei, and their ilk can truly thrive.
That’s a prize worth seizing while it’s there to be had. And there’s no better way of doing it than by further humbling an already humiliated America. Why give Biden and his administration the luxury to lick their wounds, gather their wits, and recover their strength? In the playbook of any bully or dictator, there’s never a better time to kick a man than when he is down.
Things might be different, of course, if the West’s unity of purpose under U.S. leadership could still be taken for granted. Here again, there’s serious room for doubt.
Though Americans are apt to forget, more than 1,000 troops from allied countries died fighting in Afghanistan. That includes 456 British troops—a toll that, proportionate to the UK’s population, is nearly equal to the scale of American sacrifice. They died because, after 9/11, NATO invoked Article 5 of its charter—that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all—to join the U.S. in its fight against the Taliban.
In the end, it was the United States that left them scrambling to get their soldiers, diplomats, aid workers and citizens out of the country before Biden’s arbitrary August 31 deadline for defeat.
Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee and a decorated veteran of the Afghan war, called Joe Biden’s behavior “shameful” in a moving speech to Parliament. Ben Wallace, the UK defense minister, went further, saying, “A superpower that is also not prepared to stick at something isn’t probably a superpower…. It is certainly not a global force, it’s just a big power.”
In Germany, Armin Laschet, leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union Party and (as of this writing) potentially Angela Merkel’s successor as chancellor, described the U.S. withdrawal as “the biggest debacle that NATO has suffered since its founding, and we’re standing before an epochal change.” In Brussels, Josep Borrell Fontelles, foreign-affairs chief for the European Union, called the withdrawal “a catastrophe for the Afghan people, for Western values and credibility, and for the developing of international relations.”
There have been previous crises in transatlantic relations, from the 1956 Suez debacle to the 2003 fight over the Iraq war. This one is fundamentally different. It calls into question not simply Washington’s judgment but its will.
If the U.S. will not maintain a garrison in Afghanistan to avert the victory of a jihadist enemy that, to this day, maintains ties with al-Qaeda, where else will America’s commitments be found wanting? Just as a past generation of Europeans didn’t particularly want to “die for Danzig,” as the notorious pre–World War II pacifist slogan had it, why should a current generation of Americans want to die for Tallinn or Podgorica, capitals of two small NATO member states that few Americans could even name or find on a map?
One answer offered by President Biden is that, unlike with Afghanistan, the U.S. has “sacred commitments” to its NATO allies in the form of signed treaties. It’s an answer that illustrates why French president Emmanuel Macron has complained publicly about the “brain death” of NATO. Nations don’t go to war merely because they have treaty obligations: They fight for the interests and values that treaties are supposed to formalize. Absent those interests and values, the treaties are—or will soon be—dead letters.
Another answer is that protecting vulnerable European allies from Russian aggression is a basic, inarguable U.S. interest that most Americans would readily understand and support. But is it? If Russia were to try to seize territory in one or several Baltic states by deploying the same forms of hybrid warfare that it used so successfully in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014—a combination of manufactured provocation, political unrest from ethnic Russians, “little green men” wearing the uniform of no country, and a clever campaign of dezinformatsiya—would the U.S. and its allies be willing to risk a full-scale war with Russia, on terrain heavily favorable to the Russian military, so that Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania could once again be whole and free?
I put the questions rhetorically because the answers are self-evident. America would most likely fight to defend its larger NATO allies—Britain, Germany, France, Italy; the core of the core—in the utterly improbable event of foreign attack. Much the same goes for our oldest alliances in Asia, such as with Australia and Japan. But there is almost no plausible circumstance in which this president, to say nothing of his predecessor, would go to war for smaller NATO members that are much likelier targets for attack. In trying to distinguish between “core” U.S. interests and “peripheral” ones, as advocates of the withdrawal from Afghanistan do, they have merely shrunk the core and redefined what constitutes the periphery.
What’s true of the U.S. in relation to the smaller NATO states is doubly so when it comes to the attitude of Europe’s strongest states toward their more vulnerable neighbors.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of Gazprom’s Nord Stream 2, an undersea pipeline running directly from Russia to the German port of Greifswald on the Baltic coast. The pipeline—built by a consortium whose chairman is none other than former German Chancellor and Putin stooge Gerhard Schroeder—had been the target of U.S. sanctions and pan-European opposition because it bypasses Ukraine and Poland as transit corridors while making Germany even more heavily dependent on Russian gas. The result, as Matthew Thomas at the Baltic Security Foundation points out, is that it allows “Russia to directly coerce favorable outcomes in Western Europe, while also allowing energy blackmail in the east to go unchecked by now unaffected western countries.” Incredibly, the Biden administration, which came to office with tough talk on Russia, lifted the most punitive sanctions, allowing the project to be completed this month.
The purpose of NATO, Hastings Ismay, its first secretary general, once said, was to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down. Now it’s the Germans who are keeping the Americans out, letting the Russians in, and pushing their vulnerable eastern neighbors down.
There is, of course, much more to transatlantic relations than Nord Stream or similar controversies, such as the one over China’s Huawei telecom bids. But it’s emblematic of a broader decay. The historic, cultural, linguistic, and emotional ties that once bonded Americans to Europe have been waning for decades. So, too are the economic ties: Europe’s overall share of the world economy has shrunk from 36 percent in 1960, to 22 percent in 2020, to a predicted 10 percent by the end of the century. After the fall of Kabul, Europeans will never be able to trust the strength of American security guarantees. Americans, for their part, have grown disenchanted by European freeloading on those guarantees, typified by Germany’s shrunken military budgets. This is a marital separation in the making, initiated by mutual consent.
Inertia is a powerful force in international affairs, and decay can go on for years. For now, NATO holds together because few American leaders (other than Trump) are willing to call the alliance into doubt, and because few European leaders (including Macron) are willing to put their money where their mouths are by spending sufficiently on their militaries to end their dependence on American arms. But reticence on one side and parsimony on the other will do nothing to reverse the slide. And the prospect of an outside shock to the alliance looms larger than it has in decades.
Is there a way back?
In 2009, as the Obama administration was laying the groundwork for America’s previous retrenchment, Charles Krauthammer delivered a memorable speech to the Manhattan Institute on the subject of national decline. “The question of whether America is in decline cannot be answered yes or no,” Krauthammer said.
There is no yes-or-no. Both answers are wrong, because the assumption that somehow there exists some predetermined inevitable trajectory, the result of uncontrollable external forces, is wrong. Nothing is inevitable. Nothing is written. For America today, decline is not a condition. Decline is a choice.
For many years I shared Krauthammer’s sense that America could still choose to avoid decline. Today I am less sanguine, for several reasons. Though Republicans are now in strenuous denial about their role in the Afghan debacle, they still bear a heavy burden of blame for what happened. Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s signature is on the February 2020 agreement with the Taliban dictating our withdrawal; there’s a picture of him standing next to Taliban co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar. So much for not negotiating with terrorists. Trump very nearly had the Taliban over for a photo-op peace agreement at Camp David.
Among the most destructive legacies of the Trump presidency is that, at the level of ideology if not of practice, he aligned the GOP with the same basic Retreat Doctrine that had animated Obama’s presidency and now lives on in Biden’s. Regrets, conservatives may have a few. But thanks to Trump, the new bipartisan foreign-policy consensus is no longer that we should pay any price and bear any burden to defend freedom in the world. It’s that America should generally mind its own business, spend more of its resources on itself, and let other parts of the world fend and fight for themselves. From the point of view of Xi or Putin, this is as close as it gets to an ideal American view of itself.
Second, the American social compact is being progressively rewritten—or, rather, rewritten by progressives—in a way that, over time, will make it difficult for the U.S. to maintain defense expenditures and foreign commitments adequate to a true superpower. In the 12 years since Krauthammer gave his speech, the U.S. has added a vast new permanent entitlement in the form of Obamacare; done nothing to redirect the trajectory toward insolvency that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are currently on; added trillions in debt to the federal fisc; funded economic growth in the form of cheap money that leads to asset price inflation; and may yet create a broad new set of social entitlements that will only become costlier over time. At some point, this level of spending may also call into question the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency—even now, our most valuable strategic asset against our adversaries.
One always has to be careful in making economic predictions, and the U.S. economy has often shown the capacity to surprise on the upside. But if the U.S. were to be hit by another financial crisis or an extended period of stagflation, how much appetite would there be for risky military confrontations at the new peripheries of Pax Americana?
Third, the idea of the United States as the world’s exceptional and indispensable nation is fading from the American conscience. Bold attempts at historical revisionism such as the 1619 Project seek to recast the American story as one of original, relentless, and ongoing racial supremacy, rather than as a country in which the forces of religious, political, civic, and personal liberty unfurled their banners to defeat the bigots.
Older, more historically literate Americans may treat this new narrative with the skepticism it richly deserves. But a younger generation already saturated with the new racialist ideology is likely to be more credulous. A country that conceives of itself as foundationally wicked and irredeemably sinful is going to have neither the moral self-confidence nor the historical perspective that the free world needs in a champion.
Finally, while Otto von Bismarck might have been on to something when he wisecracked that “there is providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children, and the United States of America,” even the luckiest countries can, eventually, do themselves in. The forces unleashed by “the Afghan effect” will, if left unchecked, develop an unbreakable and accelerating momentum of their own. Retreat needn’t always lead to surrender; but, as Napoleon is reputed to have said, “the logical outcome of retreat is surrender.”
As fate would have it, the fall of Kabul coincided almost to the day with the 80th anniversary of the issuance of the Atlantic Charter on August 14, 1941, following Franklin Roosevelt’s historic meeting with Winston Churchill in Newfoundland’s Placentia Bay. That charter laid the basis not only for the military alliance that defeated the Axis Powers. It also created an alliance of principle, power, courage, and ideals that have sustained the free world against successive enemies from Moscow to Beijing to Raqqa to Tehran.
There is still time to reclaim and revive that inheritance. But as we learned in Kabul this summer, there is often far less time than we expect. It’s a bitter but necessary lesson that we cannot afford to be taught twice.
1 Apologists of the Obama administration sometimes claim that maintaining a military presence in Iraq was never a possibility, thanks to the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement that the Bush administration had reached with the Iraqi government in 2008. This is false. As Leon Panetta, Obama’s CIA director and later secretary of defense, recalled in his memoir, the White House was “so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.”
2 In the event, bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in an operation that could only have been mounted from Afghanistan. Had the U.S. withdrawn its forces in 2009, as many opponents of the war urged at the time, the U.S. would have been deprived even of this consoling victory.
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