The Taliban Doesn’t Have an ‘Existential Crisis.’ Biden Does.
Biden staked his presidency on proving that democracy works. But autocrats are laughing at America now.
“This is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies. We’ve got to prove democracy works.” People betting against American democracy “are wrong, and we have to prove them wrong.”
“It is clear, absolutely clear ... that this is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies.”
If you haven’t guessed, these are all lines previously delivered by President Joe Biden. It’s a sentiment I applaud, partly because these were sentiments that could have been spoken by presidents like John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, or George W. Bush—leaders who made long-term commitments to fight and win enduring struggles like the Cold War (in the case of JFK and Reagan) and the global war on terror (in the case of Bush).
Unfortunately, Biden’s humiliating withdrawal in Afghanistan falls terribly short of the standard he’s set.
“America is back”? It sure doesn’t feel that way. At least, not to the people who literally are betting against democracy in the 21st century. As America prepared to evacuate, “Chinese state media...reported on America's ‘humiliation’ in Afghanistan with relish,” according to CNN, and “Russia’s top security official Nikolai Patrushev said on July 19 that Ukraine shouldn’t rely on its American allies because one day they will abandon it just like their troops abandoned Afghanistan, letting the Taliban seize the country,” according to the Kyiv Post.
Before 9/11, Osama bin Laden said that if you kill enough Americans, they will leave. This week, we proved him right, while sending a signal to all of his disciples.
In a classic case of projection, Biden recently declared that the Taliban are going through a sort of “existential crisis.” The truth is, we are the ones going through a crisis. As Afghanistan goes down the drain, it’s worth asking what our exodus says about America.
It now appears that we lack the competence to execute a relatively orderly withdrawal, cannot be counted on to stick by our friends and allies when the chips are down, and lack the will or the stomach for the kinds of enduring struggles that are required to maintain order in the 21st century world (and, no, I’m not advocating for quixotic attempts at “democracy-building,” but rather, the long-term commitments that are in our strategic and national interest).
Keeping the world, and ourselves, safe requires constant vigilance. This is a quality that is at odds with our short attention spans, our admirable desire for peace, a governing system that swaps the commander-in-chief every four to eight years, and a deep-seated aversion to accepting perpetual stalemate as tantamount to a “win”—a foreign concept for a country where sporting contests are rarely allowed to end in a tie.
In a democracy, the people eventually get what they want, and since around 70 percent of the public supported withdrawing from Afghanistan before Biden did so, it would be easy to blame the American public. And there is enough blame to go around. As Tom Nichols writes in the Atlantic, “A serious people—the kind of people we once were—would have made serious choices, long before this current debacle was upon them.”
Personally, I lay most of the blame at the feet of our leaders. Real leadership isn’t about following public opinion (as has become the pattern), but guiding and persuading the public to support the right thing. Unfortunately, none of the last three U.S. presidents has provided this sort of leadership in Afghanistan. In fact, they have done the exact opposite. Retreating from Afghanistan may be one of the few areas where Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden were in agreement. Much of the debate in recent days has been about which president would have retreated more effectively. Indeed, Biden’s foreign policy has turned out to be “a lot like Trump’s, but with better manners.”
It’s worth asking what it is about Trumpism and modern progressivism that has led us here—and what it means.
America has two political parties, each of which has grown more isolationist in recent years. As it stands, the dominant wings in both parties share an assumption that America is badly flawed and should certainly not try to spread our (racist, according to the left, and decadent, according to the right) values. Both sides want to focus on managing the decline of America’s international dominance by putting “America first” and engaging in “nation-building at home.” This unfortunate worldview is driving our decisions.
The problem? We may be done with war, but it is most certainly not done with us. Our retreat from Afghanistan has already created another safe haven for terrorist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS to operate. You can expect more attacks to come. Will Americans resign themselves to a dangerous world where we accept our beta status, or will public opinion now swing wildly in the opposite direction, as we yearn to recover our dignity?
Sadly, unlike the last time America sought to transcend its malaise, Ronald Reagan is unavailable to comment. But Donald Trump is. It’s dangerous for America to be overconfident and cocky, but it’s arguably even more dangerous for her to be depressed and demoralized.
And that is the state of affairs. Maybe not an existential crisis—yet—but most surely, a crisis of confidence. An identity crisis. The despicable Taliban knows exactly who they are and what they believe. I’m not sure you could say the same about us.