Nir Rosen is rightly skeptical of the counterinsurgency campaign the United States seems hellbent on pursuing in Afghanistan. Yet the problems highlighted by U.S. military action in that unfortunate country go much further: Americans misperceive the world and their own role in determining its evolution.
The bedrock assumption to which all of official Washington adheres, liberal Democrats no less than conservative Republicans, is that the United States itself constitutes the axis around which history turns. We define the future. Our actions determine its course. The world needs, expects, and yearns for America to lead, thereby ensuring the ultimate triumph of liberty. For the United States to shrink from its responsibility to lead is, at the very least, to put at risk the precarious stability to which humanity clings and in all likelihood would open the door to unspeakable catastrophe. Alternatives to American leadership simply do not exist.
Reject these propositions and your chances of working in the White House, securing a cushy billet at some Washington think tank, or landing an invitation to pontificate on one of the Sunday-morning talk shows are reduced to just about zero.
This self-image, combining grandeur with insufferable smugness, both energizes and perverts U.S. foreign policy. It inspires American policymakers to undertake breathtakingly bold initiatives such as the Marshall Plan—Harry Truman setting out to rebuild a Europe laid prostrate by war. Yet it also inspires the likes of George W. Bush to pursue his Freedom Agenda—an expressed intent to transform the entire Islamic world, providing a rationale for open-ended “global war.”
The conviction that the United States is history’s prime mover also blinds Washington to forces that may well exercise a far greater impact on the course of events than do the actions of the United States itself.
During the Cold War, for example, U.S. policymakers viewed events through the lens of bipolarity. The world, they insisted, broke neatly into two camps divided by an iron curtain. In the 1950s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles declared that neutrality was immoral and impermissible. Governments had to choose: you either sided with the free world (led, of course, by the United States) or you aligned yourself with the communists.
This oversimplified with-us-or-against-us mentality made it difficult, if not impossible, for Dulles and other U.S. leaders to comprehend the eruption of third-world nationalism triggered by and feeding off of the collapse of the old European empires after World War II. In Washington “non-aligned” became a synonym for “fellow traveler.” Faced with expressions of self-determination that did not fit neatly into the prevailing East-West paradigm, U.S. officials assumed the worst and acted to enforce conformity to Western—i.e., American—requirements. This misperception—that self-professed nationalists in places such as Iran, Guatemala, and Vietnam were actually agents of the Kremlin—produced a penchant for U.S. intervention, both overt and covert, that yielded disastrous consequences, many of them still dogging us today.
Had U.S. officials accurately gauged the wellsprings of postcolonial nationalism, the United States might have demonstrated greater self-restraint when faced with third-world recalcitrance. The insistence that Egypt’s Nasser or Cuba’s Castro toe some line dictated from Washington turned out to be neither necessary nor productive.
Yet appreciating the new nationalism might also have offered Washington an insight into the profound internal weakness of the multinational, multiethnic Soviet Empire. Poles, Afghans, and Chinese had no interest in taking their marching orders from Moscow. Nor, as events would show, did Ukrainians, Georgians, and Kazakhs. The post-1945 Soviet Empire was as obsolete as the empires of Great Britain and France. Its collapse was a bit longer in coming, but was equally foreordained.
A similar misperception afflicts U.S. policy today. In the wake of 9/11, a with-us-or-against-us mentality once again swept Washington. “Terrorism” assumed the place of communism as the great evil that the United States was called upon to extirpate. This effort triggered a revival of interventionism, pursued heedless of cost and regardless of consequences, whether practical or moral.
The tens of thousands of U.S. troops shipped to Afghanistan matter less than the hundreds of billions of American dollars shipped each year to China.
In the Pentagon, they call this the Long War. With his decision to escalate the U.S. military commitment to Afghanistan, President Barack Obama—effectively abandoning his promise to “change the way Washington works”—has signaled his administration’s commitment to the Long War.
Yet, as with the Cold War, the Long War rests on a false premise. To divide the world into two camps today makes no more sense than it did in Dulles’s time. Rather than creating clarity, indulging in this sort of oversimplification sows confusion and encourages miscalculation. It allows Americans to avert their eyes from the gathering forces—largely beyond the control of the United States—that are actually reshaping the international order. Sending U.S. troops to fight in Afghanistan sustains the pretense that we ourselves, exercising the prerogatives of global leadership, are somehow shaping that order.
Violent anti-Western jihadism—a cause that has about as much prospect of conquering the planet as Soviet-style communism—is not going to define the 21st century. Far more likely to do so is the transfer of power—first economic, then political—from the West to the East, from the Atlantic basin to the heartland of Asia. In that regard, the tens of thousands of U.S. troops shipped to Afghanistan matter less than the hundreds of billions of American dollars shipped each year to China.
Complicating this transfer of power and creating conditions from which a new era of violent conflict may emerge is the challenge of dealing with the detritus created during the age of Western dominance now ending: weapons of mass destruction; vast disparities of wealth; the depletion of essential natural resources; massive and potentially irreversible environmental devastation; and a culture ravaged by the pursuit of “freedom” defined in terms of conspicuous consumption and unbridled individual autonomy.
The Long War that President Bush began and that President Obama has now made his own provides an excuse for Americans to avoid confronting these larger matters. A policy of avoidance will not make the problems go away, of course. It will merely advance the day of reckoning that awaits.