The Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan is a major disaster.
It is a great disaster for the Afghan population, who will now have to live under a theocratic regime that suppresses their most basic freedoms, ruthlessly punishes dissidents and proudly oppresses women. It is a major disaster for many countries in the region, which will now have to deal with the profoundly destabilizing effects of yet another huge refugee crisis.
And it’s a major disaster for the credibility of the West, whose promises to defend the security of allies threatened by authoritarian competitors like Russia and China will now seem even more hollow.
Among those horrors, a more indirect consequence of the past few days has understandably been overlooked: the abject failure of the United States in Afghanistan also serves as a rebuttal to a theory that lies at the heart of Joe Biden’s foreign policy — which is fundamentally an attempt to answer to the challenge posed by Donald Trump.
Trump’s foreign policy was an incoherent mess. But it would be a mistake to let Trump’s personal instability obscure the cold coherence that characterizes his basic beliefs about the world.
Generally speaking, his views on foreign policy are, like those of many other populists in the world — including Jair Bolsonaro — guided by three simple principles.
First, he believes that political leaders must always place their own country’s immediate interests above all other considerations. Second, he believes that the national interest is rarely served by time-consuming or costly involvement in foreign countries. And third, he believes that the pursuit of that self-interest often requires his country to break formal and informal rules of international politics.
That basic vision was fully visible in Trump’s attitude toward Afghanistan. During his first election campaign, he frequently criticized the mission. Allied effort there, he claimed, was taking too high a toll on American life and treasure. As he tweeted, “We must leave Afghanistan immediately…Rebuild America first.”
Deeply disturbed by Trump’s rise, the international policy establishment in Washington gradually took parts of his criticism seriously. Thought groups have long feared the unpopularity of the “liberal international order” and the lack of popular support for American engagements abroad.
Trump’s success seemed to prove that the old ways had become unsustainable. What could you do? Many people who are directing the Biden administration’s foreign policy — including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan — have rallied around a particular answer to that question.
Voters, they have come to believe, are convinced that US foreign policy has failed to serve national interests. To compete with Trump, they concluded, Democrats must abandon unpopular foreign entanglements and recast the country’s commitment to international rules as an effective way to serve voters’ financial interests.
This helps to understand Biden’s determination to get out of Afghanistan at unbridled speed. A clear majority of Americans consistently favored the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. The American presence in the country did not serve significant economic interests.
The endgame was nowhere in sight. From a “middle-class foreign policy” perspective, Afghanistan was an easy case.
But America’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan is not only having a series of tragic consequences for that country and the world, it is also failing to fulfill its original purpose. Intended to weaken the game of populists like Donald Trump, it will only make their resurgence more likely.
Images of helicopters rescuing US diplomats from the embassy in Kabul and Afghans hanging from US transport planes in a desperate attempt to escape the Taliban are likely to become iconic. They symbolize a new era of American weakness and will help shape Biden’s foreign policy record.
By the fall (northern hemisphere) of 2022 or 2024, many Americans will likely have forgotten all about the Afghan population. But even when its original source fades from memory, the impression of government weakness and incompetence is likely to remain.
And for a populist like Trump, who has always talked about his ability to restore American strength and his promise to reduce the country’s external imbroglios, that creates a giant breach.
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves
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