August 29, 2021

“Hubris” is the word of choice to sneer at America’s global engagement. Now we’re scolded that we arrogantly deluded ourselves we could do good in Afghanistan. When a hard-nosed realism should have told us to forget it. And so we wasted 20 years, trillions of dollars, and many lives. With, in the end, nothing to show for it.

But 20 years in which millions of Afghans — especially women — could live decent fulfilling lives is not nothing. Legions of girls getting education was not nothing. Which could have continued, for what would really have been very modest cost to us. Quitting was penny wise and pound foolish. Any savings surely outweighed by the damage to America’s global standing. Just in casualties, the 13 soldiers killed in the Kabul airport bombing (a consequence of our leaving) exceeded those lost in Afghanistan since the start of 2020. And never mind the immense damage to Afghan people.

A New York Times essay by Ezra Klein* casts as a failure not the Afghan outcome, but the entire effort. Indicting our whole foreign policy mindset. It’s the “hubris” argument again. The problem with our Afghan venture, Klein argues — as with Iraq — was not merely flubbed execution, but “overreach.” He quotes scholar Emma Ashford: “we assume that because we are very powerful, we can achieve things that are unachievable.” Klein thinks focusing on botched implementation just obscures the deeper problem.

He sees it too as “not just the illusion of our control, but the illusion of our knowledge.” Again, Iraq — all the smart people were sure Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. When in fact he was bluffing. (I felt we couldn’t take the risk that he wasn’t.) Anyhow, Klein says, “we do not understand other countries well enough to remake them according to our ideals. We don’t even understand our own country well enough to achieve our ideals.”

And, he writes, “to many, America’s pretensions of humanitarian motivation were always suspect. There are vicious regimes America does nothing to stop.” And so forth. You know the cynic’s tropes. And, says Klein, binding humanitarian ambitions with “delusions of military mastery” too often end badly — and bloodily.

Klein’s critique itself overreaches. Nobody imagines America is omniscient and omnipotent. If that were the requisite for action, we’d be paralyzed. Sometimes action can make sense even knowing the outcome is uncertain. Indeed, it’s rarely otherwise.

This all recalls Andrew Bacevich’s 2008 book, The Limits of Power. Arguing that because historical processes are too vast and messy for anyone to really grasp, let alone control, and given the law of unintended consequences, trying to remake the world is futile. Reprising Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1952 book, The Irony of American History, similarly disparaging what he deemed a misguided “messianic” effort to manage history. Writing at a time when the U.S. had adopted an over-arching foreign policy vision to help rebuild nations walloped by WWII, including our former foes; to support democracy; and contain Communism. All rather successful.

Bacevich would have said: don’t even try.

But history is not some ineluctable force impervious to human effort. America is not on some “messianic” mission to democratize the world or “manage history;” rather, we merely believe the world can improve if certain countries can be helped to progress, and some problems can be ameliorated. True, we’re not always consistent, and as Klein notes, we tolerate some bad situations. But is inability to do everything a reason to do nothing?

The whole human story is unwillingness to accept things as they are, trying to do all we can to better our situation. In that, humanity has spectacularly succeeded. And U.S. foreign policy has not been a total failure either.

Some see the Afghan denouement as proving that nothing ever changes; that people never change. It’s certainly disheartening that Afghanistan’s rise from barbarism could not be sustained. Yet people do change. Societies progress. Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature documents how we’ve literally become better people over time. What Afghanistan really proves is that hard men with guns (especially with religion) can defeat such progress, and how to fight them remains a tremendous challenge.

But Klein concludes thus: “if we truly care about educating girls worldwide, we know how to build schools and finance education. If we truly care about protecting those who fear tyranny, we know how to issue visas and admit refugees . . . Only 1% of the residents of poor countries are vaccinated against the coronavirus. We could change that. More than 400,000 people die from malaria each year. We could change that too.”

We have learned that trying to solve problems by military means often turns out more problematic than we imagined. Of course the whole realm of nonmilitary global engagement — foreign aid and all that — also tends to be pitfall-ridden. The law of unintended consequences is powerful indeed. But throwing up our hands and doing nothing is again not the answer. We do the best we can. And Klein is right that we err in over-reliance on military efforts. Those resources are much better devoted to non-military initiatives:

“We are not powerful enough to achieve the unachievable. But we are powerful enough to do far more good, and far less harm, than we do now.”