What better epitomizes the follies and failures of US foreign policy than the endless war in Afghanistan, a country on the other side of the world with illusory strategic importance? The United States has squandered over $1 trillion on the war. Over 2,000 US soldiers have lost their lives, with 20,000 wounded. The war goes on with no plan for victory.
The current chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford, admitted that the war is a “stalemate.” Yet, when Donald Trump tweeted that he was going to begin pulling troops out of Afghanistan, the foreign-policy establishment howled in disapproval. Richard Haass, a vicar of that establishment, rushed to defend the current course in a recent op-ed.
Haass has been president of the Council on Foreign Relations since 2003, served as head of policy planning under George H.W. Bush, and has cycled through many elite foreign-policy think tanks. The author of several books on foreign policy, he has been an ardent supporter of what he termed an “imperial America,” suggesting that the United States should be the “reluctant sheriff” of the world, organizing a posse to deal with troublemakers. He was an ardent advocate of the invasion of Iraq, the greatest US debacle since Vietnam—a call he admits he “got wrong.”
His defense of endless war in Afghanistan is a classic example of the strategic lunacy of the conventional wisdom in the foreign-policy establishment. Haass admits that the situation in Afghanistan is a “slowly deteriorating stalemate,” with “no military victory” possible. He thinks negotiations are unlikely to succeed, simply because the Taliban sensibly believes it can outlast the United States—after all, they live there.
If the United States pulled out, the Afghan government might collapse, leaving behind a failed state and potential haven for terrorists, though Haass grants that “even if that were to happen, Afghanistan would be little different from other places where terrorists are able to operate unmolested.”
With bin Laden dispatched, why shouldn’t the United States declare victory and get out? Haass summons up only one rationale for staying: credibility. “An exit would cast further doubt on America’s willingness to sustain a leading role in the world.… Simply walking away would lead many allies—not just in the region, but also in Asia and Europe—to wonder if they might be the next American partner to be abandoned.” He proposes “keeping a few thousand troops deployed” indefinitely, with the narrow goal of simply making sure the Afghan government doesn’t collapse. “This is not a strategy for winning,” Haass admits, “but rather one for not losing.”
To paraphrase Mary McCarthy, every word Haass writes is inane, including “and” and “the.”
In Haass’s eyes, America gains in “credibility” by continuing a war that it cannot win. Our allies will certainly be reassured, as they witness us wasting lives and treasure propping up a kleptocratic regime whose people are constantly exposed to terror and whose economy is dependent on the drug trade.
Haass also assumes we can afford to fight a low-level war forever—at the cost of $50 billion or so a year—without anything changing. In fact, our endless and failed interventions have, understandably, soured Americans on global adventure.
The real credibility gap is between the foreign-policy establishment and the growing number of Americans who have little appetite for their global meddling. Not surprisingly, when Trump was willing to say the unspeakable in public—that America’s foreign policy “is a complete and total disaster”—he found a ready audience.
As a “reluctant sheriff,” the United States is now using drones to bomb seven countries, while fighting in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan; supporting a surrogate genocidal war in Yemen; and dispatching special forces to 147 countries, which is about three-quarters of the the world. Meanwhile, our infrastructure is crumbling, our children are forced into debt to get the education we say they need, and real and present national security threats—like catastrophic climate change—are denied or ignored. The World Bank estimates that we have a $4 trillion infrastructure-investment gap—and that does not include the cost of meeting the challenge of catastrophic climate change.
This isn’t rocket science. The argument that continuing an endless war without victory makes sense can only be sustained by an insular and unaccountable elite out of touch with the realities around them. Yet Haass accurately echoes the conventional wisdom of Washington’s bipartisan foreign-policy establishment—and of its political class.
Consider, Mitch McConnell chose not to challenge Trump when he embraced white nationalists, fought to throw millions off of health insurance, slandered America’s intelligence agencies, or shut down the government over his idiotic wall. Yet, when Trump announced he would begin removing troops from Afghanistan, McConnell leapt into the fray. In a direct rebuke to Trump, he introduced a resolution denouncing “precipitous withdrawal” of American troops from Syria and Afghanistan. “[W]hile it is tempting to retreat to the comfort and security of our shores, there is still a great deal of work to be done,” McConnell intoned.
When Clinton’s bellicose secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, called the United States the “indispensable nation,” she boasted that was because “we see further into the future.”
Not far enough, apparently, to see that destabilizing the Middle East by invading Iraq would be a debacle, or that attempting to police the world is a recipe for endless wars abroad and decline and discontent at home. If the foreign-policy elite continues to defend the indefensible, then we should not be surprised if the American people continue to look for leaders willing to throw the bums out.