The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In defense of the much-maligned foreign policy establishment

People visit the America's Response Monument, which commemorates Special Operations forces who fought during the first stages of the war in Afghanistan and the global war on terrorism, in New York on Aug. 30. (Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters)

After America’s first military defeat, in the Vietnam War, there were understandable attacks on the foreign policy establishment — “the best and the brightest,” in David Halberstam’s biting phrase. Now, after America’s second military defeat, in the Afghanistan War, there is equally understandable criticism of what some call “the Blob” or “the deep state.”

From the right: “The lesson to American voters should be clear: The foreign-policy and military establishment has failed and failed miserably.” From the left: “The real threat to Western security and credibility comes not from what happens in the Pashtun countryside, or from any regrouping of al-Qaida, but from what has passed for thinking in much of the Beltway.”

I understand the impulse, and to some extent applaud it. Only by studying what went wrong in the past can we avoid making the same mistakes in the future. (Instead, we’ll probably make different mistakes.) But I worry about attacks that go too far and focus only on the establishment’s failures while ignoring its more numerous successes. That can only empower populists such as former president Donald Trump whose track record is far worse than the establishment’s. (His mishandling of covid-19 may have caused 160,000 unnecessary deaths — more than the number of Americans killed in all of our post-1945 wars combined.)

It’s easy to fault the establishment when you know how the story turned out. But policymakers had to make difficult decisions with imperfect information while trying to choose the least bad option. Even if they made the wrong calls, how do we know that other decisions would have worked out any better?

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The establishment is vilified for a 20-year commitment to Afghanistan that unraveled in a few days. But the events of August show precisely why presidents of both parties stayed in Afghanistan. It wasn’t because they were trying to build the Switzerland of Central Asia. It was because they knew that a complete U.S. withdrawal would lead to a takeover by the same Taliban regime that had allowed its territory to be a staging ground for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

National security leaders, generals in particular, are now reviled for not winning the war, but that was never the mission. Learning from Vietnam, policymakers soon realized that it would be too hard to extinguish an entrenched insurgency with cross-border support. So they settled for not losing rather than winning. That helps to explain why the U.S. military toll in Afghanistan (2,461 killed) was so much lower than in Vietnam (58,220 killed). Arguably the mission in Afghanistan was accomplished — the war was a stalemate before President Biden, himself a long-standing member of the establishment, pulled the plug.

It is too early to know who was right: the presidents who kept U.S. forces in Afghanistan (George W. Bush and Barack Obama) or the ones (Trump and Biden) who pulled them out. If the worst in Afghanistan has already happened, then the withdrawal will be vindicated, and the 20-year war will be judged a terrible waste of money and lives. But if the worst is still to come — in particular, if Afghanistan once again becomes a haven for terrorism — then the commitment to Afghanistan will look better than it does at the moment.

Whatever the final judgment on the Afghanistan War — and we are still too close to events to make any definitive assessments — we can confidently say that, overall, the foreign policy establishment has served America well over the past 76 years.

Yes, post-1945 policymakers got it catastrophically wrong in Vietnam. But they got it right by containing the Soviet Union while building security alliances and promoting free trade. Those policies set the stage for the greatest expansion of freedom and prosperity in history, made the United States the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world, and eventually led to the peaceful end of the Cold War.

So, too, I would argue that post-2001 policymakers of both parties got far more right than wrong. Yes, there were disastrous miscalculations in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the war on terror (e.g., the use of torture). But 20 years later, there hasn’t been another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 — something few would have predicted on Sept. 12, 2001. New America reports that 107 people have died in jihadist attacks in the United States since 2001.

Some of this is because our enemies turned out to be weaker than they looked, but a lot of it is because we turned out to be smarter than they thought. The improvements in airline security and intelligence sharing — both domestically and internationally — paid huge benefits. Meanwhile, U.S. military action, such as drone strikes and Special Operations raids, crippled al-Qaeda and weakened other terrorist groups.

After early errors, Washington actually stumbled onto a model of fighting terrorism that works — witness the defeat of the Islamic State emirate in a campaign where the United States provided enablers such as air power and intelligence but seldom risked its own troops. By 2021, that light-footprint model had also been applied in Afghanistan. Now that’s history, and the blame game has begun. We don’t know to what extent our commitment in Afghanistan was contributing to our domestic security. We are about to find out.