Nobody should be more excited about what Joe Biden has done in Afghanistan than the ardent isolationists who supported Donald Trump. Not only is he getting America out of a 20 year war with no foreseeable end, he’s largely blown up the foreign policy establishment that supports military interventions first and foremost. The howling over the evacuation comes from both the left and the right of the foreign policy establishment. The media who are emotionally invested in the region are covering the story as if there could have been an orderly and disciplined exit. Given the speed with which the country fell to the Taliban, that clearly wasn’t possible.
Republicans are calling for Biden to be impeached or resign. That’s absurd. Some version of what’s happening in Afghanistan was going to happen when we tried to get out, whether it was this year or next or ten years from now. We clearly over-estimated our influence in the country. The Taliban took the country barely firing a shot.
Nobody called for Reagan to resign or be impeached when the barracks were bombed in Lebanon killing 241 American soldiers. Nobody called for George W. Bush to resign in the wake of 9/11. And nobody called for Donald Trump to resign when he abandoned the Kurds.
The events, though, are nonetheless horrific and tragic. The suicide bombing that took the lives of at least 13 American soldiers and more than 74 Afghans was carried out by ISIS, the terrorist force that Trump insisted he defeated. In fact, he used their defeat as a reason for abandoning the Kurds in Syria. Maybe if the Kurds were still a viable force in Syria, ISIS wouldn’t be a force in Afghanistan.
Foreign policy hawks from sides of the aisle and in the media are declaring the evacuation a disaster. One reporter said that it was clearly worse than Saigon. To put that in perspective, the evacuation of South Vietnam was carried out over about a month in April 1975. Within the first week, a plane load of evacuees crashed, killing 155 of them. By the end of the month, the South Vietnamese army had collapsed and defectors had turned on the government. Americans lost control of the airport altogether so there were no flights leaving Saigon, hence the helicopter scenes. At the end of April, about 7,000 Americans were evacuated. During the month of April, a total of about 90,000 people had been evacuated from the country of 50,000,000 people. And, yes, we left some Americans behind, most of whom were allowed to leave later.
So far, more than 105,000 people have been evacuated from Afghanistan since August 14. By the August 31 deadline, that number will probably be close to 150,000. Unfortunately, people who helped Americans will be left behind. Evacuating everybody was never going to happen, but the people leaving won’t stop next Tuesday, either. About 350,000 Vietnamese left the country over a ten year period and we can expect Afghan refugees for years to come.
The real blame for the debacle we’re seeing now is US hubris. We believed we could build a democracy from scratch. Every time we try, we fail. We failed in Afghanistan. We failed in Iraq. Our interventionist tendencies destabilized the whole Middle East and led, both directly and indirectly, to failed states in Libya and Yemen. Just about the only successful interventions in my lifetime were when we invaded Grenada and went into Panama to topple Noriega.
We need to change our approach to foreign policy. Yes, we’re the most powerful country in the world, but that doesn’t mean we can bend every country to our will through military force. Instead, as Ezra Klein wrote yesterday, we should use our power to intervene in positive ways. Build schools and hospitals. Develop sources for clean water. Help in natural disasters. Using force as a first response clearly hasn’t worked very well. It’s time to try something different.
Joe Biden did what Donald Trump wouldn’t. He blew up our foreign policy and extricated us from Afghanistan. All those who cheered Trump’s bravado should be cheering Biden’s actions. Use this time to build consensus for a new approach to foreign policy.