I am glad that President Biden has announced that all American troops will leave Afghanistan within four months, but I was astounded that he publicly and explicitly linked the final withdrawal date to the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. The response to that event of the American political elite--of which Biden himself was already a member in very good standing--may have been the worst foreign policy blunder in American history. It also destroyed much of the peoples' confidence in our leadership. Biden seems quite willing to emphasize what a failure it all was. That suggests to me that the gulf between the foreign policy establishment and the people still exists.
It was quite possible to see even in the immediate wake of 9/11 that the invasion of Afghanistan might turn out very badly. I know, because I said so at the time in this piece, which must have been written before the invasion began. We did not trap Osama Bin Laden there, and it took ten years to find him and kill him living safely in a garrison town inside our "ally" Pakistan. We got the Taliban out of power, but it has used sanctuary in Pakistan--and active support from important institutions in that country--to rebuild, and it now controls much of the country and some of the urban areas as well, and may well be back in power in Kabul within a couple of years. The Afghanistan war became the prelude to the even more disastrous war in Iraq, which has still not achieved stability while falling into the orbit of Iran, another regime that Bush II hoped to topple The democracy project in the Middle East seemed to be succeeding in 2011 at the time of the Arab Spring, but only in Tunisia has it had a good medium-term result. Egypt lapsed into despotism, the Syrian regime defeated the rebellion against it, and Libya remains in a 10-year civil war.
The experience of the Vietnam war changed me from a run-of-the-mill liberal cold warrior into a determined skeptic about intervention. It did not have that effect on my contemporaries who sought power and glory as foreign policy bureaucrats or politicians elected to office. Republicans, led by neoconservatives, blamed liberals for the defeat in Vietnam and looked for new dragons to slay in the Middle East and elsewhere. Leading Democrats such as Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Joe Biden, and even Barack Obama (after he became President anyway) decided that they could not risk looking soft on national security, and undertook or endorsed a series of interventions of their own. Women's rights have become another excuse for US intervention in distant lands. In Fear, Bob Woodward quoted Lindsay Graham telling Donald Trump that there would always be evil abroad in the world and that the US had a destiny to fight it. Trump, to his credit, was not impressed. Biden has endorsed Trump's withdrawal policy for now, but he has also appointed a completely traditional foreign policy team. Meanwhile, through all this, the defense budget has continued to grow.
Several leading Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, have attacked Biden's decision. (To be fair, McConnell attacked the withdrawal policy when Trump announced it, as well.) Many however have not. For all his greed, mendacity and incompetence, Donald Trump realized that much of the American people no longer accepted the mainstream thinking of the elite on many issues, including foreign policy. He has left a big legacy within the Republican Party and in the nation at large. The Boom generation is falling out of power. The question now is whether new generations can adopt genuinely new principles in foreign policy. With real trouble brewing in both Russia and China, I suspect the answer is no.