According to the more sophisticated definition of Baby Boomers--those born from 1943 through 1960--the youngest of them are turning 61 this year. They make up a substantial portion of the Biden cabinet, but unless Donald Trump wins another term in 2024, their time in the White House itself appears to be over. In a situation without precedent, three of the most powerful people in Washington--President Biden, Speaker Pelosi, and Minority leader McConnell--belong to the even older Silent generation. John Boehner will almost surely be the last Boomer Speaker of the House. Boomer influence on our politics peaked, I would argue, under George W. Bush, and I still think he did more than any other president to create the unfortunate world in which we live now. The war in Afghanistan, now near its end, exemplifies his legacy and its catastrophic effect.
I doubt that George W. Bush ever read The Fourth Turning, but I would be very surprised if Karl Rove did not. Some years ago, writing a long post about our great crisis, I called Rove's office to ask them about this, but they declined to answer. Rove clearly wanted to transform American politics and create a lasting Republican majority. He and Bush seized upon 9/11 to unite the country behind them, and they were spectacularly successful initially. The whole country supported the invasion of Afghanistan, and I was one of very few people publicly to express reservations about the project. The country, including nearly all of the prominent politicians of the Boom generation such as Hillary Clinton, also fell behind the invasion of Iraq about 18 months later. By the time Barack Obama took office in 2009 Afghanistan had become the new "good war," in contrast to the bad one in Iraq, and Obama re-escalated the former while getting out of the latter. Donald Trump emerged as the first opponent of the Afghanistan war in the White House, and Joe Biden has decided to follow in Trump's footsteps.
The Afghan war is now ending as the Vietnam War did in 1974-5. It seems almost certain that the Taliban will take over the country within months after the US departure is complete, rather than the two-plus years it took for South Vietnam to collapse. How did leadership from the Boom generation--supposedly shaped by Vietnam--manage to repeat their elders' greatest mistake? Well, to begin with, the neoconservatives who dominated foreign policy under Bush thought that Vietnam was not a mistake, but that we had not fought hard or long enough. Defense intellectuals had also convinced themselves that new technologies could allow us to fight any war cheaply, and thus did not care that Afghanistan had three or four times as many people in it, spread over an enormously larger territory, than South Vietnam did. It took us many years to acknowledge a fundamental strategic fact in Afghanistan: that the Taliban enjoyed sanctuary in, and support from, our supposed ally Pakistan, which wanted to keep Afghanistan in friendly hands. We tried to avoid one supposed mistake in Vietnam, our decision to bless a coup against Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. Hamid Karzai, our first chosen leader, obviously had problems but we were determined to back him until the end. Like Diem, he also had a very unpopular and troublesome brother, Walid Karzai. Americans like Edward Lansdale had persuaded themselves that Diem would do just fine if he could dispense with Ngo Dinh Nhu, his brother, but Diem would never do this. In Afghanistan we got to rerun this experiment when Walid Karzai was assassinated, but that did not help. Hamid Karzai eventually left office anyway. Despite tens of thousands of training troops and billions of dollars, we never built up a reliable Afghan army, much less one that could hold its own without American air support. Now that we are not coming to their rescue, the Afghan forces are melting away.
In retrospect, the committed or ambitious members of the Boom generation took one of two paths. One large cohort, influenced by the late 1960s, renounced traditional avenues to power and became activists of one kind or another, or went into academia. Those have now succeeded in transforming many values of our society, first within academia and now in major institutions. The second type, including leading political figures and defense intellectuals, went into government or business and transformed existing institutions to suit their own ambitions. That is what Bush, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice, Douglas Feith and the rest were doing in their plans to use military force to transform the Middle East, and that is what their contemporaries did on Wall Street. They took advantage of the dominating military establishment that earlier generations had built up during the Cold War, and of the post-Cold War environment in which the United States did not as yet have a real peer competitor. Wolfowitz, apparently, said frankly that the US had only a relatively brief time to eliminate hostile regimes like those in Iran, Iraq and North Korea before a peer competitor emerged. He had failed to push this view through during the Bush I administration, but by 2001 it reigned supreme.
In Afghanistan and most of the rest of the Middle East the Bush II policy--continued, in Egypt and Libya, by his successor--has been a disaster. Democracy has not caught on, except perhaps in Tunisia, and it is now threatened even there. Iraq and Libya are riven by civil war. Iran is at least the equal of Saudi Arabia as a regional power. But that is not all. The utter, undeniable failure of this initiative has destroyed the link between our elites and our people on foreign policy. Donald Trump realized that, and it helped him reach the White House.
In 1774-1794, 1861-65, and 1929-45, the US government demonstrated its ability to undertake and complete great tasks that required the mobilization of much of the population, economic sacrifice, and a disciplined population. In the crisis that began in 2001 we have failed to do any of that repeatedly, most recently during the ongoing pandemic, in which our contempt for authority has cost us many tens of thousands of lives. Not only have we failed to solve great problems, but we have also lost the common identity that came from belonging to one strong and effective nation--an identity which in early periods extended even to what we now call marginalized groups. The whole basis of our government is now threatened in many ways. On the right, the gun rights movement denies the government the power that Max Weber defined as the essence of the modern state: the monopoly on the legitimate use of force. On the left, various movements argue that our founding principle have never been anything but a sham. Effective use of government power, at home or abroad, may be the only antidote to diseases like these. We have missed it for too long.