The comprehensive American and NATO defeat in Afghanistan has prompted an elite freakout unlike anything we’ve seen in recent memory. It’s been an opportune moment for people like myself, who never lived through, say, Suez or Vietnam, to fully experience an empire shaken to its core in the wake of a humiliating military loss.
This is what’s really behind the meltdowns in both the media and wider political worlds over the past week or so. It’s not, despite repeated protestations to the contrary, about the nature of the withdrawal from Afghanistan; it’s about the withdrawal itself, about the underlying fact that U.S. troops will no longer be stationed forever in another Middle Eastern country. This new reality is causing all of those people to lose their bearings in extravagant fashion.
You can feel that sense of total unease in two very Distinguished interventions in the debate over the weekend—one from former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, and another from former British prime minister and black card member of the War Criminal Club Tony Blair. Crocker wrote an impassioned op-ed for the New York Times, and Blair wrote an impassioned op-ed on his own website. Both are suffused with a kind of imperialist grief, and both rage at the idea that the U.S. and its allies should not be in Afghanistan forever. (“We didn’t need to do it. We chose to do it. We did it in obedience to an imbecilic political slogan about ending ‘the forever wars,'” Blair sneers.) Both also play on the theme that the withdrawal suggests a dangerous new turn in world history, where America and the “West” flash warning signs about their own decline. Here’s Blair:
Unsurprisingly therefore friends and foes ask: is this a moment when the West is in epoch-changing retreat? I can’t believe we are in such retreat, but we are going to have to give tangible demonstration that we are not.
What fascinates me most about these jeremiads—which, I think it’s fair to say, reflect the consensus view in elite circles about Afghanistan—is what has prompted them.
To people like Tony Blair, and the media and political establishment that so clearly stands with him, the withdrawal from Afghanistan is the moment to worry about the state of American greatness. Afghanistan is the point at which the world starts to doubt America’s “commitments”—the point at which, as so many have intoned over the past week, American “credibility” is at stake.
This prompts the very obvious question: why now? Why wasn’t there this sort of freakout about, say, the complete unraveling of the Iraq War? Why didn’t a war which was launched based on lies and carried out with the most reckless kind of brutality cause this sort of introspection? Why didn’t an invasion and occupation which, among its many bloody crimes, literally helped spawn ISIS contain with it any lasting lessons about American credibility?
Why wasn’t the obvious failure of the Afghan occupation something that caused Western elites more grief? Afghanistan has been unraveling for years and years. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, a great many of them by the United States. Civilian casualties have only been getting worse. The country was awash in corruption (most of it fueled by the U.S.) and led by feckless and crooked American puppets. The notion that you could liberate women at the barrel of a gun has been found, to say the least, wanting. And the entire project was so ill-conceived, so obviously based on little more than its own perpetual motion, that it fell apart in an instant.
Why was none of that—the buckets of blood, the staggering costs, the grinding cruelty, the decades of lies, the very clear failure—worthy of a cold look in the mirror?
The answer is obvious: because, to the Tony Blairs of the world, be they in the halls of power or in the top echelons of our media, permanent war is a necessary part of any foreign policy, and American “credibility” flows from our willingness to kill people overseas. As long as we’re still doing that, everything is as it should be. It’s when we stop, even for a moment, that alarm bells go off.
These people don’t care about Afghans, not really. Afghans have been dying continually for many years, and it has played virtually no substantial role in our politics. The three major news networks devoted a total of five minutes to Afghanistan in all of 2020. The edifice of lies supporting the war effort has been public knowledge for years; none of these people blinked an eye. Lies and the deaths of the Others, after all, form the backbone of American might. They are to be expected. What’s not to be expected is America actually having to admit defeat, to show to the world that it has failed. That’s when we get out the collective smelling salts. Tony Blair and Ryan Crocker and CNN and The Atlantic and all the rest of them see endless, disastrous war as a thing to be cherished, the only thing that holds the world together. Without it, they fall apart.