Watching the Obama administration try to extricate itself from Afghanistan is like watching a familiar tragedy. You know it’s not going to end well. Instead of facing facts, the protagonists cling to the delusion that they can somehow—with the right decision implemented in the right way at the right time—avoid failure.
Two previous, major U.S. military interventions reveal how self-deceived policymakers can be. Gradually, inexorably, the U.S. position in Korea in 1950-1951 and in Vietnam in the late 1960s became impossible and forced Washington to abandon even the pretense of victory. The sequence of setbacks then as now is pretty clear but also not pretty.
It begins with those on the ground—troops, commanders, and correspondents—admitting doubts to themselves and then sharing those doubts with others. Skepticism begins to grip official Washington as military “progress” reports fail to demonstrate progress and big-wigs return discouraged from inspection trips to the combat zone. Insiders start talking off the record to journalists and leaking candid assessments. Soon pundits from the foreign-policy establishment in Washington and New York are publishing pessimistic op-eds. As consensus at the elite level collapses, the parameters for respectable dissent widen in Congress and the media. Critics, emboldened by newfound legitimacy, get louder.
At this point with all those supposedly in the know in disarray, the public understandably begins to express buyer’s remorse. The policy decisions accepted with alacrity, even enthusiasm, earlier, no longer seem so compelling. The money keeps flowing out, the casualty announcements keep coming in, and the continuing incapacity of the U.S. client makes “what’s the point?” an increasingly common question. Opinion surveys show support for the military effort dropping below the symbolically significant 50 percent mark.
With the foundation for support at the elite and popular level now badly eroded, the maneuvering to find an exit begins. The president and his chief lieutenants will deliver a round of speeches to rally support and win time. It doesn’t. Maybe allies can be induced to increase their support. They don’t. Maybe a new strategy will make the enemy blink. They don’t. Maybe the client with more aid and training can be made stronger and more self reliant. It can’t.
With the downward spiral accelerating, the tragedy moves toward its inexorable conclusion. Congress asserts itself in appropriation bills that threaten the flow of funds to the battlefield or in demands for restricting presidential authority. These steps demonstrate dramatically that the political basis for continuing the war is all but gone and electoral troubles will follow if the president persists. Troubles in the economy—inflation, a weakening of the dollar, or a major downturn—intensify the calls for a quick resolution.
Facing deadlock on the battlefield and a foe cheered by falling U.S. troop numbers and collapsing public patience, the president scrambles ever more desperately to devise some kind of face-saving exit. Privately he curses a stubborn and ruthless foe, turncoat associates who are babbling too much, and simple-minded, partisan critics.
Just as the Nixon administration finally gave up on a project in Vietnam that the French had failed at, so too the Obama administration has to face failure on a battlefield that also frustrated the Soviets and long before that the British. This outcome is understandably hard for the president to accept as his administration prepares for another round of formal discussion of sterile options. But it will come.
And then we can look forward to the final stage in the drama: a chorus reflecting on the significance of yet another failed U.S. intervention. But if the past is any guide, the lessons to be learned will be superficial, disputed, and evanescent, and the stage will be set for another tragedy.
But at what point does tragedy of this sort repeated often enough become farce? And what does it say of a nation so unable to grasp tragedy that its obtuseness itself borders on the farcical?
Michael H. Hunt is Everett H. Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His ten books include The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. His comments “on Washington and the world” appear here regularly and can also be found on his website.