Reprinted from The Nation with permission of the author.
Bush and Cheney sold the war, Obama normalized it, Trump disowned it, and Biden had the courage to end it.
Cecil Rhodes once said he would annex the planets if he could, and the United States, over the past four decades, has nursed an ambition quite as otherworldly. Everyone (we believed) would choose our way of life if only they had the chance. It followed that we should try to get them there through arts and manners and commerce and, if necessary, through wars. The wars would, of course, be fought against the enemies of freedom, even if the enemies were their neighbors and compatriots.
Tony Blair put the case memorably, just three weeks after September 11, 2001: “The kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux, soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us.” What poetry! To look on the world as a toy! That, for me, was the initial impression of Blair’s words. More peculiar, as one looks back, was the emphasis on dispatch. The reordering would be done soon and speedily, with a brave unconcern for prudential caution.
A few days earlier, Dick Cheney had spoken about the necessity of working “the dark side.” The larger context of the vice president’s September 16 appearance on Meet the Press showed the consonance of his thinking with Blair’s. “Things have changed since last Tuesday,” Cheney said. “The world shifted in some respects.” But he spoke with a dour realism about the likely duration of the conflict: “There’s not going to be an end date that we say, ‘There, it’s all over with.’” George W. Bush, for his part, issued a promise of both lasting resolve and a lucky ending: “We will not waver, we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail. Peace and freedom will prevail.”
The regrets now emanating from the North Atlantic policy elite suggest how little the fate of that project has changed their thinking. In an August 31 New Yorker piece deploring the US evacuation from Afghanistan, Robin Wright commented with punitive scorn: “America did tire. It did falter. And it did fail. Bold promises, over time, turned into mission abandonment. The hope of personal freedom has evaporated.” But whose hope and whose mission was she speaking for? Ellen Knickmeyer, in an August 17 Associated Press story, made a tally more matter-of-fact than Wright’s. Besides the 2,500 American dead, there were 66,000 killed among Afghan military and police, 51,000 among Taliban and other opposition fighters, 47,000 among Afghan civilians.
No metaphor of “evaporation” is needed to conclude that a large fraction of those 164,000 dead would not have died if the US had never occupied Afghanistan. For a proportionate sense of the numbers, imagine a civil war on American soil – fomented, funded, and protracted over 20 years by a foreign power – which ends up taking one and a half million American lives.
The dwindling Afghan support for the US mission was not a rejection of freedom but a last heave of disgust at the staggering burden of corruption this war spawned and nourished. As for the European criticism of our departure, it has been reported without the slightest irony regarding the relationship between defunct 19th-century empires and their successor. Britain and France showed an understandable embarrassment at having ceded to America so much authority for such a dismal result. Blair weighed in again, with a magnificent ferocity of reproach, and Bernard-Henri Lévy was grandiloquent: “The image of the liberal democracies, epitomized by the greatest among them, is tragically tarnished.”
Lévy denounces only our exit. He does not say the liberal image was tarnished by anything the US did while it occupied Afghanistan and Iraq. Regrets in a lower key were uttered by Leon Panetta: “We can leave a battlefield, but we can’t leave the war on terrorism.” But Afghanistan was not only a battlefield but a proving ground for a system of bribery, bounty-hunting, and assassinations, as Cheney acknowledged early on:
A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion…. You need to have on the payroll some very unsavory characters if, in fact, you’re going to be able to learn all that needs to be learned in order to forestall these kinds of activities. It is a mean, nasty, dangerous, dirty business out there, and we have to operate in that arena.
Our interest in the dark side increased the supply of dark operators.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were debt-financed at a cost of $2 trillion. The final bill of health care for veterans of the wars, encompassing disability, burial, and related expenses, will probably come to another $2 trillion, Knickmeyer reports. The Senate Finance Committee questioned these costs just once over the past 20 years; the Senate Appropriations Committee queried them five times. Should that level of oversight be taken to exemplify the freedom we were bringing to people 7,000 miles away?
We think more easily of the saved than the drowned: “We saved the women. What will the Taliban do to them now?” American intervention improved the lives of some Afghan women, and many of those who hoped to leave will not be able to. It is harder to say – harder, even, to remember – that we also killed many of the innocent and tortured brothers and husbands; or that the wedding parties we slaughtered in misjudged drone strikes also contained somebody’s children.
Some years ago a friend, a Cold War liberal, surprised me by saying out of nowhere, “Americans are better than other people – don’t you think?” It was clear from the context that this was not a chauvinist remark. The sense was rather that Americans, from a combination of national temperament and luck, were more generous than other people; and if on occasion we did real harm, it came from a reckless exuberance of goodwill. I didn’t agree at the time, and don’t agree now, but I believe this is the way a good many Americans think about us. We are generous judges in our own cause.
David Bromwich teaches literature at Yale University. His latest books are American Breakdown: The Trump Years and How They Befell Us (Verso Books), and How Words Make Things Happen (Oxford), both published in 2019.