The most striking couple of sentences in the breathtaking report from the Washington Post about the West’s failed nation-building in Afghanistan were right in the middle. The report stated, in no uncertain terms, “Some U.S. officials wanted to use the war to turn Afghanistan into a democracy. Others wanted to transform Afghan culture and elevate women’s rights.”
Think about that for a moment. More than $1 trillion spent, more than 2,000 lives lost, more than 20,000 men and women maimed and scarred physically and psychologically for life, all to shape the semi-feudal Afghanistan into modern Switzerland. To do what the British Empire and the Soviet Empire failed before: to impose a Western idea — developed and practiced in the West, with all the cultural forces that shaped it — in a land which has historically never had a Magna Carta, a James Madison, or an October Revolution. It doesn’t even have a normative society such as erstwhile pre-colonial India, Egypt, or China, or pre-1945 Germany or Japan.
The jaw-dropping hubris behind this idealistic endeavor was staggering, incapable of being explained in words. Forget about President George W. Bush or President Barack Obama, forget about the impeachment nonsense or the inspector general report — this story of how administration after administration repeated half-truths while paying lip-service to norms is the most important revelation in recent years. But even then, it is not unexpected, nor will it go away unless the root causes are discussed.
Everybody Lies About Afghanistan Foreign Policy
The common instinctive reaction from foreign policy realists, out of the levers of power in Washington and London since at least the late ’80s, would be to say, “See? I told you so.” The common reaction from non-international-relations theorists and civilians would be justified anger. How could government officials lie? The bureaucrats, think tanks, professors, journalists, supposed impartial statesmen, those who dedicated their lives to the nation, the uniformed men and women — they lied? How is that possible?
Well, it is no doubt partially possible because of the sheer mediocrity of bureaucrats, led by fanatical ideologues. But it is also possible because of people generally. Yes, that might come as a shock, but this is the time to reflect in the mirror. How do you or people around you react when a photo of a dead baby is spread on the TV or in Ukraine, Venezuela, or Syria?
In my entire life as a political and conflict correspondent, as an academic and theoretician, and later as a columnist, I’ve found two things that have never changed. One, the mind-numbing conformity in bureaucracy. Two, idealistic, well-off liberal and neoconservative civilians with no skin in the game who are the most vocal about intervening in far-away lands and who are mostly cursed with the hellish affliction of benevolent, altruistic impulses.
It is the same in London or Washington. The product of a hollowed-out academic curricula, which preaches rather than teaches vacuous nonsense like the idea that everything is eventually going to get better, that there is an end of history, or liberal-universalism, is the end state of human social evolution.
Think about it. Liberal democracy is a system that has been running for only a few hundred years and has only been perfected in the last 70 years, of which the last 20 years were under great power unipolarity. A blip in time? To think we have reached the irreversible pinnacle of societal organization is fascinating, strictly from a historian’s point of view. How confidently hubristic is that?
Yet go to any academic conference and you can hear the same nonsense: People are dying, we must do something, every war is an existential Manichaean struggle between good and evil, and everything will be good if only we act urgently.
Utopian Ideas Shouldn’t Inform Foreign Policy
The second is the well-intentioned civilians. Nothing is more dangerous than these people. None of them will ever be a victim in any of their harebrained schemes, from drugs, to rehabilitative justice, to foreign intervention and war. They are, in H.G. Wells’ terms, Elois, a naïve, childlike simpleton who knows nothing other than an instinctive, hyper-emotional “we must do something!” to any problem you place in front of them.
If you close your eyes, you can even hear the vocal fry in those words. For every single Grand Admiral Thrawn, there are hundreds of thousands of these Ezra Bridgers; for every Tyrion Lannister, there are thousands of Daenerys Targaryens. The only difference is that real life isn’t “Star Wars” or “Game of Thrones,” and the end usually isn’t happy.
Yet they are all wrong. There is, objectively, pure evil in the world that cannot be changed, or reasoned or argued with, but only exterminated or restrained. Unchangeable circumstances and societies exist, the Kobayashi Maru no-win situations of the world politics where people will be doomed in their own cycle of existence forever. Helpless acceptance of an inevitable tragedy is a fundamental lesson from the ancient Greeks. To borrow from Henry Kissinger, “As a historian, you have to be conscious of the fact that every civilization that has ever existed has ultimately collapsed,” and the least one can do is not to expedite that collapse by making terrible choices.
There’s a reason conservatism talks of conserving resources and maintaining an existing balance of power. There’s nothing conservative about trying to shape societies. Yet these are not even taught anymore, neither by liberals nor Marxists, the two modernist bastards stemming from the same philosophical parents, which teach that an end-stage of history can be achieved.
At this point, I am disillusioned about whether anyone can alter a grand strategy without battling the self-sustaining bureaucracy, the bleeding-heart Elois in the cities, and the utopian ideologues who want to shape the world because they believe things will eventually get better. The enemy is within. And this won’t stop until one acknowledges the lesson of history: that universalist, human rights-dictated foreign policy is unsustainable, and only narrow, strategic interests should matter.
The real lesson of the Afghanistan papers is not self-sustaining bureaucratic inertia. Nor is it myopic politicians or the military-industrial complex. Rather, the old lessons are new again. The root cause of the Afghanistan misadventures is the same as during Pericles’ day. The primary evil is the idealistic instincts of do-gooderism.
Unipolarity gave rise to complacency and misadventures. With the returning great power rivalry, a coming equilibrium will again remind people of the old wisdoms: that providential instincts and power are fatal and hubristic, as forces of nature are beyond human control, that true justice and balance only exist between rough comparative equals, and that there’s no greater morality than preferring order and preventing greater chaos.