The fall of Kabul and the dying embers of the America Century

“Victory has 100 fathers,” President John F. Kennedy observed in the wake of the United States’ failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs a half-century ago, “and defeat is an orphan.” Within hours of images of Afghans clinging to the landing gear of American military transports flashing across social media, cable news shows, across the political spectrum, were awash with armchair generals telling us how it all could have been avoided. We should have waited until the winter to exit. We should have made sure all of the Afghans who had supported our efforts over the past two decades were given exit visas before we left. We should have negotiated a better deal with the Taliban. And — from Democrats panicked about the downstream political consequences — Biden should have waited until after the midterms.

Coming as it did in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, our war in Afghanistan was supposed to be the war Americans agreed on. Early on, according to Gallup, 90% of Americans supported the invasion of Afghanistan. But that support did not last. By 2009 a majority of the public had turned against the war, and by this past spring, three-quarters of Americans supported Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s determination to put an end to it. And those are significant numbers because in our world today, there is literally nothing that three-quarters of Americans agree on.

Americans, who supported the withdrawal from Afghanistan just a few months ago, panicked as they grappled with the consequences of America’s exit. According to a Morning Consult poll barely 50% now support our departure, with just under 50% having decided that our leaving is a bad idea “if it means the Taliban regains control of most of the country.” Democrats, fearful of the consequences for Afghan women and children, as well as for their Congressional majorities, are feverishly looking for an appropriate response. Republicans, who over the past four years have acceded to the GOP’s flipping from the party of Bush/Romney internationalism to Trump isolationism, have now flopped back against a withdrawal that Trump set in motion, and are demanding that heads roll.

But what, exactly, did Americans think was going to happen back when they supported our exiting the country, if not a return of the Taliban? Taliban control over much of the countryside has been a fait accompli for years now, rising to more than 50% of the country by early this year. While the fall of Kabul came quicker than expected, few if any observers seemed to doubt that a Taliban takeover of the country was inevitable. The simple truth is that despite all the recriminations raining down on President Biden, our departure from Afghanistan was less about military defeat than political weariness. Our footprint on the ground has been very small, barely more than 10,000 combat troops since combat operations ended in 2014, with barely 100 total fatalities over the ensuing years. Nonetheless, a solid, bipartisan majority of Americans opposed a continuing U.S. presence in the country, notwithstanding the importance of that presence for Afghan women and girls, in particular.

As JFK suggested, Joe Biden is bearing alone the price of our defeat in Afghanistan. Yet what we witnessed in Afghanistan may have been less a military defeat than the final exhaustion of the will of the American people to play the role that the world has thrust upon us, and that we have thrust upon the world, for much of the past 80 years. As hard as it may be to imagine as we watch bodies falling from planes and fear for the lives of young women destined to live under the dictates of the Taliban, this historical moment may have ramifications across the globe even more consequential than what is bound to transpire in Afghanistan itself. China’s Xinhua News Agency summed up this possibility as it described the images flashing around the world as marking the “death knell for declining U.S. hegemony.”

Just months before his Bay of Pigs comment, President Kennedy laid down his vision of American leadership in the post-World War II world. “Let every nation know,” he said in his 1961 inaugural address, “whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Kennedy’s rhetoric, which would echo as the marker of U.S. global leadership during its Cold War with the Soviet Union and beyond, mirrored the words twenty years earlier of Time magazine publisher Henry Luce, when he coined the term “The American Century.” In 1941, months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II, Luce defined a vision of America as the avatar of liberal democracy in the post-war world that would be embraced for decades to come by Republicans and Democrats alike. The United States, he argued, was not simply a democratic experiment at home, but necessarily a force for advancing liberal democracy in the world.

Yet, through all the post-war years — even as the United States led the creation of the network of institutions and treaty relationships that have come to define the modern world — the American public never fully embraced the Luce vision. The problem at root is that the American public — separated from much of the world by two oceans and rarely feeling its security under threat — has viewed the notion of the country having responsibilities for global leadership with deep suspicion dating back to George Washington’s farewell warning to the nation to avoid “foreign entanglements.” Public distrust has been exacerbated by our finding ourselves embroiled in wars under false pretenses, or supporting corrupt regimes and corporate interests. By 2005, when George W. Bush mimicked JFK and declared that “freedom is on the march” as the United States sought to impose its vision of a democratic order in Afghanistan and Iraq, the rhetoric had become unabashedly partisan. Ten years later, Donald Trump leveraged that distrust, as he ran for President on a nakedly isolationist platform, and succeeded in turning much of the Republican Party against the global order it had done so much to create.

The messy unwinding of our military engagements from Vietnam to Afghanistan have underscored both the difficulty in keeping the American public engaged in a sustained vision of America’s role in building democracy abroad, as well as the limited support for our military engagements among our allies on the ground. In Afghanistan, our closest “ally” in the region, Pakistan, has made no bones about celebrating our defeat at the hands of the Taliban. What many in the United States have for years viewed as Pakistan’s fecklessness simply reflects its geopolitical realities. After all, since its creation as a Sunni Muslim state carved out of British India three-quarters of a century ago, it has been surrounded by hostile states, notably Hindu India along its eastern border and Shia Iran to the west. Seeking a Sunni Muslim ally in its neighborhood, Pakistan and its intelligence services supported the Taliban dating back to the days when the Pakistanis and the CIA together supported the Afghan mujahideen against the then-Soviet occupiers. The mujahideen were an earlier incarnation of the Pashtun fighters that would morph into the Taliban. Pashtuns make up the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and the second largest in Pakistan, and as such, the Taliban were a natural ally for Pakistan.

Our Turkish ally similarly celebrated our abandonment of our Kurdish allies when Donald Trump agreed to pull U.S. troops out of Syria two years ago. As the seat of a thousand-year-old regional power, Turkey has long bristled at the United States’ seeking to impose its will in a region that Turkey views as its back yard, and in particular being told how it should treat the Kurds — whom Turkey views as terrorists. And despite our efforts to build a multi-ethic democracy in Iraq, our pullout after nearly a decade on the ground ended up being as much as anything a gift to Iran, our foremost adversary in the region.

While Pakistan, Turkey, and Iran each celebrated as we pulled troops out of Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, respectively, the end of our engagement in Afghanistan looms to be most significant for Russia and China. The end of U.S. global hegemony, as the Xinhua News Agency suggested, looms large for both countries, who have each been at odds with the U.S. over their desire to restore their historic dominance over their regions of the globe. Vladimir Putin has long stated his desire to return to a world order that ceded the right to regional powers to control their own neighborhood. For Russia, this means recognizing its dominion over its “near abroad,” which includes countries bordering on Russia, and in particular those historically part of the Russian state.

In a similar vein, China President Xi Jingping aspires to reverse what the Chinese view as a century or more of subjugation at the hands of the west and Japan, dating back to the Opium Wars with the British in the 1800s. China’s fixation for years now has been on reestablishing what it asserts are its historic rights over the South China Sea, usurping rights now accorded under international law to Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. And just as Ukraine is viewed by Russia as historically sovereign soil, Taiwan is viewed by China as an integral part of its territory.

Russia and China are each surely watching the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan — against the backdrop of our ongoing political turmoil, and the long history of ambivalence among the American people toward military engagements overseas — to see if it portends an opportunity to assert their own global interests. In the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq, it is hard not to believe the world may have changed. In the event of Russian troops entering Ukraine, or the Chinese military attacking Taiwan, will the world cede to us the power to intervene? Or equally important, will the American people — divided as we are over every issue that comes along, large or small — agree to go along? And if the answer to both is no, how will the world, as united as it might be against any given violation of the international order, seek to enforce that order?

As we put the war in Afghanistan behind us, a central question left hanging in the air is whether the American people any longer have the will to play the role in the world that Henry Luce and JFK imagined, and defend the global institutions created under our watch. Hu Xijin, an editor of the Chinese state-produced Global Times, tweeted a meme this week that underscored this question: “The power transition in Afghanistan is even more smooth than the presidential transition in the US.” Or, to put it succinctly, if the acceptance of election results and the peaceful transfer of power is the sine qua non of the democratic order that we have sought to advance across the world, it is hard to see how we continue to play the role that Henry Luce and JFK envisioned if one of our major political parties, and a solid minority of the citizenry, don’t believe in them at home. The fall of Kabul that we are witnessing before our eyes may fall on Joe Biden’s shoulders, as JFK suggested. But if we are really watching the end of the American Century, that is an event whose consequences are far more difficult to fathom.

Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”

Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Follow him on Twitter @joedworetzky or Instagram at @joefaces.