Foreign Policy Assessment: With the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks upon us, politicians and pundits are reflecting on the legacy of American foreign policy. Here’s what both sides are saying. To have stories like this and more delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.
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As we approach the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, it’s been nearly impossible to keep up with the deluge of Afghanistan-related headlines over the past few weeks. Kabul fell so quickly that most Americans found themselves wondering, “What the hell just happened?” What were we missing? What went wrong?” Amid thousands of words published on the subject in less than a month, one line from Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass stands out. In a New York Times story by Mark Landler it’s reported that Haass said, “The foreign policy establishment did get it wrong in Iraq, where the US overreached. We got it wrong in Libya, we got it wrong in Vietnam. But over the last 75 years, the foreign policy establishment has gotten most things right.” Heading into what’s meant to be a reflective weekend about America’s intentions abroad and our relations with other nations, we’ve chosen to pop the hood on this quote. Is Haass right? Here’s what both sides are saying:
On The Right
Right-leaning commentators and outlets believe America’s foreign policy establishment elites need to be held accountable after decades spent misleading the public. They believe an independent audit is necessary to avoid repeating the same mistakes.
“A Reckoning for US Foreign Policy Elites is Long Overdue” Andrew Doran, The National Interest: “Where did the United States go wrong? Much has been written and much more will be written, but a few general trends emerge. First, the enemy, ‘terror,’ was an abstraction, and it’s impossible to wage war on an abstraction. Second, we didn’t understand the nature of Afghanistan—or of Iraq, or Syria, or Libya. America was successful at rebuilding post-tribal, modern societies like Germany and Japan, but not premodern societies. … Third, we possessed neither concrete objectives, nor a coherent strategy, nor a definite timeline. … Perhaps above all, there was a misplaced confidence in the tools of the state and of statecraft. As many have noted, America is itself in need of nation-building and is in no position to lecture others. … The reckoning for US foreign policy elites—politicians, policymakers, generals, diplomats, think tanks that had access and influence—is long overdue. It’s time for a painstaking inquiry into what went wrong to ensure that it doesn’t happen again in the era of great power competition. … The present humiliation should be borne by foreign policy elites, the generals, the best and the brightest, not by the American people—and especially not by those who served, though they doubtless feel it more viscerally than the hawkish elites who counseled war.”
“Our military has been lying to us for 20 years” Tucker Carlson, Fox News: “No matter how bad it got in Afghanistan, the Pentagon and its spokesmen repeatedly told us they were making incredible progress. … So if you’re wondering why Americans are so confused that Kabul fell in an afternoon and the Taliban controlled the country we occupied for 20 years, maybe it’s because they thought we were making progress. … Lying to the rest of us about what is actually happening with our troops with our money in our name in a foreign country has been the philosophy of this nation’s military establishment for the last twenty years, and it’s also the philosophy of every high-ranking official in the Biden administration. Project the illusion of progress, even when it’s clear we’re failing. … Meanwhile, while we’ve been leading with our diplomacy, we’ve given billions of dollars of American military equipment to the Taliban. So now, we’re arming the Taliban and marooning our own citizens in Afghanistan. Who could possibly have seen that coming?”
“The Army Needs to Understand the Afghanistan Disaster” Frank Sobchak and Matthew Zais, Wall Street Journal: “This disastrous outcome deserves an honest reckoning. … The House Armed Services Committee recently approved a commission, but an inquiry done by lawmakers will fall prey to partisanship.” Keep reading.
On The Left
Left-leaning commentators hold mixed opinions. The first author below thinks we shouldn’t be so hard on those who have guided our foreign policy over the past half-century. Others are a bit more cynical and even believe we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes.
“In defense of the much-maligned foreign policy establishment” Max Boot, Washington Post: “Only by studying what went wrong in the past can we avoid making the same mistakes in the future. (Instead, we’ll probably make different mistakes.) But I worry about attacks that go too far and focus only on the establishment’s failures while ignoring its more numerous successes. That can only empower populists such as former president Donald Trump whose track record is far worse than the establishment’s. (His mishandling of COVID-19 may have caused 160,000 unnecessary deaths — more than the number of Americans killed in all of our post-1945 wars combined.) … The establishment is vilified for a 20-year commitment to Afghanistan that unraveled in a few days. But the events of August show precisely why presidents of both parties stayed in Afghanistan. … Yes, there were disastrous miscalculations in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the war on terror (e.g., the use of torture). But 20 years later, there hasn’t been another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 — something few would have predicted on Sept. 12, 2001. … It’s easy to fault the establishment when you know how the story turned out. … Even if they made the wrong calls, how do we know that other decisions would have worked out any better?”
“America’s confrontational foreign policy failed. It should pursue a cooperative global policy.” Jeffrey Sachs, Boston Globe: “During the past 60 years, the United States has suffered a series of failed wars in Indochina, Central America, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. Each of these wars produced mayhem and suffering, followed by an American retreat. While the American right wing has always argued that success needed just one more surge or bombing spree, the truth has been simpler and sadder. Ours have been wars of hatred, not logic, and doomed to fail — at a mind-boggling human and financial cost. … It is uncertain whether America will change its relentless aggressive foreign policy for our own good, and the world’s. Our nation has been at war for centuries. Our repeated failures have led the political right to double down, calling with increasing fervor for more weapons, and further escalation with China, Iran, Russia, and other alleged foes. Yes, we have pulled out of Afghanistan — 42 years too late — and that is good. But will the United States adopt a new foreign policy based on peace and problem-solving? That’s the real question.”
“The US foreign policy blob will win in the end” Janan Ganesh, Financial Times: “For the fourth or fifth time in my life, America is said to be on the verge of something called ‘isolationism’. The record, by contrast, tells us to expect another show of force in some remote trouble spot or other by mid-decade.” Keep reading.
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As it relates to Afghanistan, Americans tend to back Biden’s decision to leave the country, but they fault his execution. A Pew Research Center poll found that 54 percent of Americans say it was the right decision to pull troops from Afghanistan, while 42 percent believe it was the wrong decision. However, just 27 percent rate Biden’s handling of the situation as “excellent” or “good,” while 29 percent rate it “only fair” and 42 percent deem it “poor.” Another poll from ABC News/Ipsos found similar results: just 38 percent of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of Afghanistan, while 59 percent disapprove.
Flag This: “Foreign policy mattered little to voters in the 2020 and 2018 contests,” Sahil Kapur writes for NBC News. “A Gallup tracking poll found that in July 2021, just 1 percent cited foreign policy as their top issue, while wars and Middle East conflicts didn’t rate.”
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On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most excellent, how do you rate the United States’ foreign policy conduct over the past 60 years? Comment below to share your thoughts.