I wrote at the beginning of the week that the lightning collapse of the Afghan Army and the Afghan state, far from making me question the decision to withdraw, had removed any doubt in my mind that it was the correct one. The subsequent week has only deepened this judgment. Since then I’ve been wrestling with and trying to make sense of the elite or prestige national media response to the unfolding events. TPM Reader GF captured some of this on Tuesday …
I had to laugh at your post today titled “DC Press Bigs Escalate to Peak Screech Over Biden Defiance” as it made me think of a Punchbowl news article I read first thing this am. The article said the execution of the withdrawal has been awful, Biden has played it poorly etc. etc. The truly gold statement in that Punchbowl article just after saying how poorly Biden has managed the execution of the withdrawal was “There has to have been a better way.” None of these folks know or can suggest what would have been the better way except to make such silly statements as Biden did poorly because there had to be a better way with no follow-on as to what the better way is or was.
Like hyenas and chimpanzees, reporters hunt in packs. There’s a reason they call them “feeding frenzies.” They’re also obsessed with images. But none of that is unique to the current situation. There’s something more at work here.
Some claim that there is a great appetite in the press to beat up on Joe Biden to demonstrate that all the criticism of Donald Trump wasn’t bias, just solid reporting. That’s a significant factor but I don’t think the most important. Will Bunch points out a real and very human factor: many reporters at national news outlets know at least the kinds of people endangered by the Taliban rout and in many cases particular people. Your news organization worked with interpreters and handlers. You embedded with military formations and met military interpreters or members of the Afghan Army. This is human and real, even righteous. But again, I think this is only a part and not the biggest part of what we’ve seen play out over recent days.
I will repeat what I wrote before this bottom fell out. The US has a profound responsibility to everyone who worked for the US during the mission in Afghanistan and is now endangered by the association. We should welcome them all, along with their families, for resettlement in the United States. We should go to great lengths to make good on that commitment. America always needs more good people.
Let’s go back to GF‘s “there has to have been a better way.” Both parties’ foreign policy establishments opposed leaving Afghanistan. Since Sunday, many on the center-right have argued that the collapse shows that withdrawal was a mistake. The US can maintain a few thousand troops in a mostly advisory role indefinitely and it’s really not a problem. But this hasn’t been the premise of most news commentary. It’s rather been that, yes, it was probably time to leave Afghanistan, but, yes, “there has to have been a better way.”
Certainly the way it’s played out has been messy, chaotic, mortifying. Many armchair quarterbacks have the idea that the US could have evacuated everyone who had worked with us in advance of withdrawal. But as I and many other have argued that’s a basic misunderstanding of the situation. If you evacuate everyone who might be endangered by the fall of the government in advance, you are basically signing the regime’s death warrant. You are saying you don’t expect the regime to last and that the fall will come fast. That message is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In retrospect, of course, knowing that the regime did immediately collapse, there’s sort of no loss. But the US couldn’t do that. The whole point of the almost twenty year enterprise was to build a state and an army that could stand on its own. The US was never going to prevent that regime from even trying to survive.
My point here isn’t that there’s nothing the Biden administration could have done differently or better. At a minimum they could have been processing exit paperwork more rapidly in advance for interpreters and others who worked for the US and had clearer contingency planning for evacuations of personnel outside of Kabul for a rapid collapse scenario. My point is simply that to a great extent what we are seeing today was baked into the US mission in Afghanistan all along. It is ugly. And a lot of people are going to suffer. It is mortifying on various levels – some trivial and shallow and others profound – for the United States. But it was always baked in. And what is critical to understand is that the fact that it was always baked in, and no one was ready to grab that kryptonite or make that reckoning, is precisely why we have been there for almost twenty years.
What is being imagined and demanded is an hermetic, clean and painless end to a failed military mission. That’s not responsibility but rather denial.
Here we get to the heart of the matter.
From the beginning of this twenty years there has been a tendency among intellectuals to cast America’s response to the 9/11 attacks and Islamist fanaticism in grand world-historical terms. I wrote about this 18 years ago in a review of Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism (“The Orwell Temptation“).
A snippet …
May you live, as the Chinese curse has it, in interesting times. For the last 18 months, we’ve all been living in “interesting times”—often frightfully so. Yet for intellectuals there is always a craving that times would be … well, just a little more interesting.
That’s been especially true for the last half century because a shadow has hung over political intellectuals in the English- speaking world, and in some respects throughout the West. It is the shadow of the ideological wars (and the blood-and iron wars) that grew out of World War I—from communism, to fascism, appeasement, vital-center liberalism, and the rest of it. Even as these struggles congeal into history, their magnitude and seriousness hardly diminish. Understanding fascism, understanding that it could be neither accommodated nor appeased, understanding that Soviet communism was really rather like fascism—these were much more than examples of getting things right or of demonstrating intellectual courage and moral seriousness. These insights, decisions, and moments of action came to define those qualities.
Since then, things have never been quite the same. Like doctors who want to treat the most challenging patients or cops who want to take down the worst criminals, it’s only natural for people who think seriously about political and moral issues to seek out the most challenging and morally vexing questions to ponder and confront. Yet, since the Cold War hit its middle period in the late 1950s, nothing has really quite compared. For a time, the struggles of the 1960s came to rival those heady days from earlier in the century. But the tenor was too antic, the stakes too meager, and the legacy too mixed to ever quite match up. And while momentous, the collapse of communism in the late 1980s was bittersweet for intellectuals. In his essay “The End of History,” Francis Fukuyama even posited that history had “ended” with the collapse of communism, ushering in an era in which there would be no more great debates or challenges, but rather a bourgeois millennium of endlessly growing investment funds, a brave new world of consumer appliances. Later, the Balkans provided a crisis of moral weight sufficient to rival those earlier times–especially for those writers and journalists, mostly on the center-left, who had the courage and intrepidity to go there. But Yugoslavia’s collapse was essentially a local affair, with no clear connections to the world beyond the mangled and rancid history of the region.
Few people think this way any more. But lingering long after has been the idea that the US missions in Iraq and Afghanistan were latter day analogues to America’s conquests, occupations and decades-long military and diplomatic commitments in Asia and Europe which still form the cornerstones of US military and diplomatic strategies in the world. They were simply ones that contemporary America lacked the fortitude, commitment or character to see through.
This was never true. They were altogether different. These were far tawdrier affairs, a tawdriness that two generations of valor from American military personnel could never truly upgrade or burnish.
And yet official DC, which means the city’s elite national political press, was deeply bought in. This doesn’t mean they were warmongers or rah-rah militarists. They were seldom the biggest cheerleaders for invasions and the organizations they work for often produced some of the deepest critiques or exposes of the failures and shortcomings of these efforts. But they were deeply bought in in ways that are likely best seen in sociological terms. Countless numbers embedded with US military formations. They accompanied members of Congress on “CODELS” to the warzones. They’ve been immersed with a Pentagon which has spent two decades building hammers to hit nails in the Middle East and Central Asia. Their peers study and write in the world of DC think tanks focused on the best ways of striking those nails. Wrapping this all together, they have built relationships with America’s local allies, particularly the more cosmopolitan and liberal city dwellers who aspire to a future more like the one people take for granted in North America and Europe.
We hear about the very real and dire fate of women and young girls under the Taliban, robbed of futures, banished from public life. And yet when these realities are adduced as the justification for continued or expanded military occupations we must also see that they are both very real and also the latter day cant of empire, much like the way the British East India Company justified its rule of the subcontinent by banning practices like the suttee, the immolation of wives on their husband’s funeral pyres.
I will emphasize again that what I’m describing isn’t a flag-waving, America’s never wrong, “pro-war” mindset. It’s more varied and critical, capable of seeing the collateral damage of these engagements, the toll on American service members post combat, the corruption endemic in occupation-backed governments. And yet it is still very bought-in. You see this in a different way in some of the country’s most accomplished longform magazine writers, many of whom have spent ample time in these warzones. Again, not at all militarists or gungho armchair warriors but people capable of capturing the subtleties and discontents of these missions and the individuals caught up in their storms. And yet they are still very bought-in. And it is from these voices that we are hearing many of the most anguished accusations of betrayal and abandonment. It is harrowing to process years or decades of denial in hours or days.
What we see in so many reactions, claims of disgrace and betrayal are no more than people who have been deeply bought into these endeavors suddenly forced to confront how much of it was simply an illusion. “There had to have been a better way” is no more than monumental deflection, whatever mistakes or poor planning were involved. Nowhere has this been more blindingly clear than in the Capital’s news-driving email newsletters and the eager voices of the same folks on Twitter, ramping themselves up into escalating paroxysms of outrage and doom casting over the ugly scenes emerging on viral videos, all the while overlooking their support for the policies that made the events inevitable. The intensity of the reaction, the need to stay tethered to the imagery of Sunday and Monday, is a perfect measure of the shock of being forced to confront the reality of the situation in real time.
This morning I noticed this tweet from The New York Times’ Peter Baker, half of the husband and wife team of Susan Glasser and Peter Baker, two of Washington’s most respected journalists, both of whom have spent the last week castigating America’s betrayal of its friends and the loss of American credibility abroad. Baker laments the “cold political calculation” of the Biden administration, which hopes Americans won’t care about the consequences of withdrawal as long as Americans are safe.
The Biden team's cold political calculation is that Americans won't care what happens in Afghanistan as long as Americans are safe. To their point, today there are no front-page stories on Afghanistan in cities like Boston, Austin, Chicago, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Fresno or Miami.
— Peter Baker (@peterbakernyt) August 19, 2021
Who is the villain here? Joe Biden who pulled the plug or the American people who can be relied upon not to care? To Baker, it seems like the answer is both. And he’s not alone.