More than 18 years since President George W. Bush ordered bombing in response to the 9/11 attacks, America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan may finally be nearing an end. The United States signed a dicey deal with the Taliban on February 29 amid upbeat rhetoric to end the war and lead to the withdrawal of American forces.
The peace is fragile. To make it work, the Taliban and the Afghan government negotiate the political terms for ending the war and sharing power.
Afghanistan is but one of a string of dicey foreign entanglements that mark U.S. policy since the end of the Cold War America’s longest war came at a tremendous cost of blood and treasure. By the numbers, it claimed the lives of more than 2,300 American soldiers, and 20,000 more have been injured. Tens of thousands of Afghans have been killed. It has cost U.S. taxpayers $2 trillion, according to Brown University’s Cost of War Project.
Since the disappearance of the existential threat of a nuclear-armed Soviet Union in 1991, the United States has indulged a missionary calling to remake the world in its image. It has ranged far and wide to export American values: Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and the beat goes on.
In the decades before the Cold War ended, the United States used its military and economic power to defend American interests at home and abroad. America’s desire to remake the world in its image was held in check by the existence of a powerful geopolitical rival: The Soviet Union.
When the fall of the Berlin Wall ended the Cold War, the American political establishment believed it had prevailed in a cosmic struggle with communism. The United States could bask in its new role as the world’s sole superpower. It was perched at the pinnacle of power.
History had validated American-style liberal democratic capitalism. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued that humanity had reached its final stage: liberal capitalist democracy. The world was witnessing the End of History. He predicted that unipolar American influence would bring lasting world peace. The U.S. had no major existential threats and everything seemed possible. The future looked bright.
This was a seismic event, yet there was no debate about America’s role in world affairs. Instead, the United States under three presidents chose to pursue a policy of promoting American values as universal values, what some have described as “missionary work” or, alternatively, “nation building” – using American power to reshape domestic institutions in foreign lands, regardless of whether American interests were at stake.
This foreign policy shift was embraced by both political parties. The post-Cold War presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama wandered into well-intentioned but clueless adventures in nation building, most of which have turned out badly. Elites had their heads up their hindquarters.
But it was in Afghanistan and Iraq that the notion of nation building became the ultimate policy objective. The Bush crowd, with extravagant hubris and ignorant of local conditions, thought that such transformations were feasible with limited resources. The United States failed to achieve a decisive victory in either war.
It is ironic that because the United States is so powerful and intrinsically secure, it has the freedom to wander around the world intruding in various places. The outcomes don’t have a decisive impact on American security, even if things go as badly as in the Vietnam debacle.
But the emergence of China as a global superpower and the reemergence of Russia have put an end to that post-Cold War world. Truth be told, the United States no longer has the power to make unilateral changes in other political cultures.
On the other hand, Americans can take comfort in the German statesman Otto Bismarck’s reputed comment that “There appears to be a special providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children and the United States of America.” Hopefully that is true.