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Opinion Could the American public learn the right lessons from Afghanistan?

A lone American flag adorns a headstone in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

If you’ve been following the debate about Afghanistan on social media, you’ve probably come across arguments about which of the last four presidents bears the most blame, or whether the catastrophe will hurt President Biden politically for more than a week.

None of that really matters, but not because we shouldn’t be thinking about public opinion. We should, not to make some who’s-up-who’s-down assessment that treats everything in politics like a game, but to really understand how Americans are viewing what’s happening in Afghanistan. That could determine how many wars we start in the future.

Consider a few early reads on how the public sees America’s longest war and its aftermath:

  • A Yahoo/YouGov poll found support for the current withdrawal dropping from 50 percent to 40 percent of Americans between July and August, though in both cases nearly a third weren’t sure.
  • A Morning Consult/Politico poll found support for the withdrawal dropping among registered voters from 69 percent in April to 49 percent in August.
  • Gallup has long asked whether sending troops to Afghanistan was "a mistake.” In July, 47 percent of Americans said yes, including 56 percent of Democrats and 29 percent of Republicans.
  • An Associated Press/National Opinion Research Center poll found that 62 percent of Americans now say the Afghanistan war was “not worth fighting," and 63 percent say that about Iraq. While the parties differ somewhat, majorities of both agree.

It’s no surprise that Republicans are more critical of the current situation, while Democrats are more supportive of Biden’s decisions. But let’s consider the findings on whether these wars were worth fighting.

The Gallup formulation about whether the war was “a mistake” — which focuses on both American error and the initial decision to begin the war (which you could say was right even if things turned out badly) — unsurprisingly produces more resistance, especially from Republicans. It’s more striking that such a clear majority in the AP poll sees these wars as having not been worth fighting.

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While that’s clearly a response to the facts — that we expended an extraordinary amount of effort, time, money and lives in both countries and have almost nothing to show for it — it’s also a product of the ways leaders in both parties have come to see and talk about these wars.

Let’s review. In 2002, just about every ambitious Democrat voted to rubber-stamp George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, not necessarily because they thought it was a good idea but because they feared being tarred as weak and anti-American if they didn’t. The supporters included Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Chuck Schumer and yes, Joe Biden.

But a few years later, Barack Obama — who as a state senator had opposed the war — came into office with a foreign policy doctrine often described as “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff” (though “stuff” was not the word used). It was supposed to be realistic and thoughtful, appreciating the possibility of unintended consequences and limitations on what American military power could accomplish, in contrast to Bush’s naive ambitions.

By 2008, with the Iraq War such an obvious disaster, the party was ready for this message. At the same time, Obama characterized Afghanistan as the good war, the one we were justified to wage, so he planned to send a surge of troops that he hoped would secure the Afghan government’s position and allow us to leave.

In the other party, a more striking change eventually took place: In 2016, Donald Trump gleefully attacked the decision to wage both wars — which had been supported by virtually every Republican — and rejected the fundamental premise behind them, that when we wage war it could and should be a force for good, bringing the blessings of liberty to benighted people anywhere.

Trump asked Republicans to create a national selfishness to mirror his own; he said over and over that the biggest problem with the Iraq War was that we did not steal the country’s oil. Most Republicans came to agree, at least in rejecting the Bush Doctrine, which said we should remake the world in our image through the force of arms.

Where were the parties left after those presidencies? Democrats (at least most of them) are no longer reflexively hawkish out of terror of being called weak — because of the Iraq and Afghanistan disasters, and because Obama demonstrated how to ignore that attack and remain popular.

And after Trump, many Republicans no longer reflexively believe military force is the answer to any foreign policy challenge. If you express sufficient xenophobia and thirst for cruelty, in practice you can even be a Republican dove.

In other words, we just might come to the next potential war, despite differences in approach and perspective, being able to agree on one thing: It’s complicated. Military force inevitably brings unintended consequences. There may be political complexities on the ground that we don’t fully understand. Success isn’t assured no matter how skilled and committed our military personnel might be.

There’s another way to look at how this experience could ultimately fit into our perspective on American military power: that just as we forgot the lessons of Vietnam in our enthusiasm to invade Iraq and Afghanistan, eventually we’ll forget these recent lessons and try yet again to remake far-off countries in our image. That’s possible, maybe even likely.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. This would require the public to make a sober, realistic assessment of what the past 20 years have meant — and keeping it in mind the next time the government starts warning about a supposedly dire foreign threat and beating the war drums. It seems like a lot to ask, but we can hope.