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America’s Enduring Arrogance
America’s Enduring Arrogance
Talking last month about the planned American exit from Afghanistan, President Biden prophesied an orderly retreat and scoffed at the idea that a Taliban takeover was inevitable. The United States, after all, had equipped and trained hundreds of thousands of Afghan troops.
The Taliban takeover was swift. It caused harrowing scenes of chaos. And those troops? They might as well have been armed with white flags.
As a soothsayer, Biden stinks, and that has been noted ad nauseam over the past few days. But it’s worth looking beyond his cracked crystal ball to the cracked mind-set that explains it.
I don’t mean his. I mean our country’s. The United States — including many and probably most of our presidents — is routinely overconfident. We perpetually overreach. And while Biden obviously didn’t think we had the might to fix Afghanistan for good, he thought we had the muscle to flee Afghanistan without mortification. Call it a humbler strain of arrogance. It’s arrogance nonetheless.
I don’t fault him for wanting us out of a war that seemed endless and claimed too many lives and too much treasure. It’s the right call.
But he seemed to have much too much faith that the extraction would be quick, clean and relatively painless, just as other American leaders over the past two decades had too much faith that they could nurture a better Afghan government and a stronger Afghan military. To be enamored with American potency is to exaggerate it.
We are indeed potent, and our strength fuels an idealism that overlaps with — and is the upside of — our hubris. Many of us genuinely believe that we can make the world freer and improve the lives of people in lands less blessed than ours. In and immediately after World War II, we did so.
But there are limits. The decades since that war have been a serial education in that, and Afghanistan has long been one of the messiest, ugliest lessons. So why did Biden offer the assurances and articulate the (qualified) optimism that he did? Several possible reasons:
Presidents can become so fed up with reflexive naysayers that they become reflexive yeasayers. They itch too keenly to prove the doubters wrong. Look at Biden’s I-told-you-so after the bipartisan Senate vote in favor of the infrastructure bill: He revisited 50 pessimistic statements from journalists who said the legislation was a dead end.
Presidents spurn any glimmer of weakness. So Biden pretzeled himself into a foreign-policy oxymoron on a par with “leading from behind.” He pledged a robust retreat.
Presidents rise into office on so much oratory about American greatness — about a country that can solve any problem that it resolves to — that the unsolved problems and the ones we created are no longer front of mind.
In a cleareyed and sobering analysis published in The New Yorker early this week, Robin Wright charted our comeuppances in Vietnam, in Lebanon, in Iraq and now in Afghanistan. “The repeated miscalculations challenge basic Washington policy-making as well as US military strategy and intelligence capabilities,” she wrote. “Why wasn’t this looming calamity — or any of the earlier ones — anticipated? Or the exits better planned?”
The answer to that is the principal reason for Biden’s bad fortunetelling. He gave us false assurances because he was falsely assured — by the stubborn image of America as a country with super, even magical, powers. No matter how many times that image is contradicted, it lives on, propelling us to achievement but also setting us up for catastrophe.
The New York Times