Credit and Debt at the End of the War
Donald Trump paved the way to peace. What now?
November 28, 2019: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to troops during a surprise Thanksgiving Day visit to Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. (Photo by Olivier Douliery / AFP via Getty Images)
“Fathers of things,” Kingsley Amis once wrote, “are seen as merit by others, but seen as the cause of it.” Is that a fair assessment of Donald Trump’s policy in Afghanistan? Whatever criticism of the way our withdrawal was handled, Joe Biden is praised – at least by healthy people – for implementing a strategy inherited from his predecessor that, more precisely, he himself disavowed last like last year.
On the one hand, it seems dizzyingly obvious that Trump should get credit for obliging the United States to withdraw. Trump made the exit possible, not least because he did what Ron Paul and others failed: convincing both the GOP base and ordinary members of the House and Senate that there was nothing to be achieved the wars there and in Iraq were not only a colossal failure, they were badly thought out from the start. He did this not with an appeal to prudence or even pragmatic questions about the extent of American power, but with a naked rhetorical appeal to the lowest instincts of the voters. His inflammatory speeches about “Shithole countries” matched his utter indifference to the fate of Afghan men and women. They were also the logical and polar opposite of the absurd meliorism of previous politicians from both parties about universal human rights, which in practice was spending $ 300 million a day to turn Jalalabad into an Oberlin College.
Now Trump is saying that we should be ready to invade the country again to prove to the undoubtedly very indulgent goatherds who have stood against us for two decades who is really in charge. This reminds us, among other things, that he never really understood his arguments against intervention except as a kind of tough guy aesthetic: Americans can and should forget about your country at all costs, but only if they think you are worth their time.
It should come as no surprise that Trump (who recently gave an utterly incomprehensible interview on the subject to the Fox Business Network) has no firm or definitive views on the effectiveness of American engagement in the empires graveyard. His instincts tend to fail him when faced with a choice between a calm, consistent articulation of principles and the ability to publicly beat the Democrats with a rhetorical stick. So he’s ready to claim that he saved the lives of millions of Americans by allowing drug companies to quadruple their stock prices, but he refuses to appear with Kanye West at a recent pro-vaccine rally in Chicago. This is how he was during his re-election campaign: not serious enough about the virus for the liberal establishment, just willing to be skeptical of even the most absurd lockdown measures long after the act and in the most reserved language; At the same time, he committed himself to a pseudo-conciliatory attitude towards racial relations, which included a careless approach to insurgency in big cities, and to using the most inflammatory language in response to crises in which he was unwilling to act.
But enough for a day on the curious legacy of the former president. A more important question is the one that ultimately arises as a result of our withdrawal from Afghanistan. What would a healthy American foreign policy look like? It would start with the realization that, like it or not, we are more of an empire than a nation. We cannot fake indifference or escape the cares of a world where we are the richest and most powerful country, having inherited a post-war order in which we were the only non-communist nation with an intact economy. For example, we should be perfectly able to help end the ongoing genocide in Tigray without committing to 20 years of war and a trillion dollar bill.
But it does not follow from this knowledge that we are able to redress every wrong. Specifically, we shouldn’t pretend that such horrors are our top priority. It is good to feel responsible for displaced people around the world, but what about the millions of de facto refugees already living within our borders – homeless, addicts, the insane and obese? A country that offers San Francisco as evidence of its superior way of life is unlikely to convince the world that it knows what it is doing. As long as we cannot achieve an internally coherent vision of human dignity, it will be difficult for us to share our so-called values with the Taliban.
Matthew Walther is editor of The lamp Magazine and a contributing editor The American Conservative.