The conquest of Afghanistan by the Taliban is a major disaster.
It is a great disaster for the Afghan people, who will now have to live under a theocratic regime that suppresses their most basic freedoms, ruthlessly punishes dissidents and proudly oppresses women. This is a major disaster for many countries in the region, which will now have to face the deeply destabilizing effects of yet another refugee crisis. And it is a major disaster for the credibility of the West, whose promises to defend the security of allies threatened by authoritarian competitors like Russia and China will now appear even more hollow.
Among these horrors, a more indirect consequence of recent days has naturally been overlooked: the dismal US failure in Afghanistan also serves as a rebuttal to a theory that is at the heart of Joe Biden’s foreign policy – which is fundamentally a attempt to respond to the challenge posed by Donald Trump.
Trump’s foreign policy was an inconsistent mess. But it would be a mistake to let Trump’s personal instability cloud the cold coherence that characterizes his core beliefs about the world.
Broadly speaking, his views on foreign policy are, like those of many other populists around the world, including Jair Bolsonaro, guided by three simple principles.
First, he believes that political leaders should always put the immediate interests of their own country above all other considerations. Second, he believes that the national interest is rarely served by long or costly involvement in foreign countries. And third, he believes that the pursuit of that self-interest often requires his country to break the formal and informal rules of international politics.
This basic vision was fully visible in Trump’s attitude towards Afghanistan. During his first election campaign, he frequently criticized the mission. The Allied effort there, he said, was taking too heavy a toll on American life and treasures. As he tweeted, “We must leave Afghanistan immediately … Rebuild America first.”
Deeply disturbed by Trump’s rise to power, the international political establishment in Washington has gradually taken some of his criticisms seriously. Thought groups have long feared the unpopularity of the “liberal international order” and the lack of popular support for US engagements abroad.
Trump’s success seemed to prove that the old ways had become unsustainable. What can you do? Many people who run the Biden administration’s foreign policy – including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan – have rallied to a particular answer to this question.
Voters, they have come to believe, are convinced that American foreign policy has not served national interests. To compete with Trump, they concluded, Democrats must abandon unpopular foreign entanglements and redefine the country’s commitment to international rules as an effective way to serve the financial interests of voters.
It helps to understand Biden’s determination to get out of Afghanistan at breakneck speed. A clear majority of Americans have always spoken in favor of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. The American presence in the country did not serve important economic interests.
The end of the game was nowhere in sight. From a “middle class foreign policy” perspective, Afghanistan was an easy case.
But the precipitous withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan not only has a series of tragic consequences for that country and the world, it also fails to fulfill its original purpose. Intended to weaken the game of populists like Donald Trump, it will only make their resurgence more likely.
Images of helicopters rescuing US diplomats from the embassy in Kabul and Afghans suspended from US transport planes in a desperate attempt to escape the Taliban are likely to become iconic. They symbolize a new era of American weakness and will help shape Biden’s foreign policy record.
By the fall (northern hemisphere) of 2022 or 2024, many Americans will likely have forgotten everything about the Afghan population. But even when its original source is faded from memory, the impression of government weakness and incompetence is likely to linger.
And for a populist like Trump, who has always spoken of his ability to restore American strength and his promise to reduce the country’s external entanglements, it creates a giant dent.
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves
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