That’s not literally what TV bookers and journalists have said, of course. But if you’ve been watching the debate, it almost seems that way.
The number of Afghanistan/Iraq hawks — the ones who brought us those twin disasters in the first place — who have been called on by major media organizations to offer their sage assessment of the current situation is truly remarkable.
Whether it’s retired generals who now earn money in the weapons industry, former officials from the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations who in many cases are directly responsible for the mistakes of the past two decades, or war enthusiast pundits with an unblemished record of wrongness, we’re now hearing from the same people who two decades ago told us how great these wars would be, then spent years telling us victory was right around the corner, and are now explaining how somebody else is to blame for Afghanistan.
One name you almost never hear in all the “Why this is President Biden’s greatest failure” talk is one George W. Bush, who took us to Afghanistan and whose delusion that we could spread democracy at the point of a gun got this whole mess started. You’ll have to look far and wide for an interview with someone who objected to the Afghanistan war when it began, but if you want to hear one former Bush official interview another former Bush official about what a mess Biden made, just turn on your TV.
This isn’t something new. In fact, it has characterized the debate over the entirety of this period.
Back in the early 2000s, the term “Very Serious People” was coined to refer to those who were wrong about Iraq but nevertheless were treated with great deference and respect because they were mouthing conventional wisdom and taking a position that the media and the broader Washington culture treated as hardheaded and rational.
In contrast, the people who were right about Iraq — who said there was no real evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, or was in cahoots with al-Qaeda, or was about to attack the United States — were treated as silly, unserious and not worth listening to.
Then as now, the supposedly unserious people continued to be sidelined and ignored even after events proved them right.
It’s not just about who gets a platform in this debate. It’s also about what the limits of that debate are. As Matt Duss, a foreign policy expert and adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), told me, the debate is shaped by “a general hawkish interventionist framing you see in the media and the foreign policy establishment." It presumes that the deployment of U.S. military power overseas is nearly always justified and likely to accomplish its goals.
In that framework, if things go wrong it must be because of some failure of planning or execution — and you can bet that if you bring a Bush, Obama or Trump official on your show, they’re going to say, “It wasn’t my fault — it must be Biden’s fault!”
What gets left out of that discussion? For starters, the fact that we spent 20 years trying to create and sustain the Afghan government, and it remained so plagued by corruption that it didn’t have legitimacy with the country’s population. As one 2010 State Department cable reported a senior Afghan official saying, “corruption is not just a problem for the system of governance in Afghanistan; it is the system of governance." You can read that and an endless catalogue of horrors in this report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
But the problem went deeper. “Even focusing on the failures of the Afghan government lets us off the hook," Duss told me. “When we’re talking about corruption, the biggest beneficiaries are U.S. multinationals.” Indeed, another recent government report found that between 2011 and 2019 we spent nearly $100 billion on private contractors in Afghanistan.
Do you think the corporations that have been feeding at that trough for 20 years were eager to have U.S. involvement end? And might we be skeptical of the opinions of people who serve on the boards of those companies?
Now there is a rush for accountability for the failures in Afghanistan — but only, it seems, the failures of the Biden administration. The urge is so powerful that three separate Senate committees led by Democrats are preparing to investigate the administration’s mistakes (though they might look as far back as last year, to the Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban).
This comes after no one was prosecuted for the torture policy of the Bush administration, and no one was punished for the Iraq debacle. Instead, those most responsible for America’s worst moral and practical foreign policy failures are treated as though they are the possessors of great wisdom and insight to which we all should attend.
When he was campaigning for president in 2008, Barack Obama said about Iraq, “I don’t want to just end the war. I want to end the mind-set that got us into war.” He never quite managed it, and judging by the way we’re talking about Afghanistan, that mind-set still holds us in its grip.