A Case for Foreign Policy Reform

The Taliban’s stunning victory has unsettled many in the United States and around the world. The speed with which the group took Kabul turned Joe Biden’s risky decision to withdraw completely from Afghanistan into an utterly embarrassing fiasco even before twin suicide bombings on Thursday killed 12 U.S. troops and, according to reports, 90 Afghans. And it is leading many to reexamine not only the war in Afghanistan, but also overall U.S. foreign policy. The question is whether to retrench, redouble, or reform.

For the retrenchers, the message is clear: Afghanistan is just one of many places from which Americans should retreat. These neo-isolationists recite the litany of American mistakes and failures in Afghanistan to make a broader point: American foreign policy leaders across both parties have for decades pursued unattainable goals through foolhardy methods as the country has deteriorated. 

As they see it, nation building in Afghanistan is the most emblematic of American failures. After defeating the Taliban, the U.S. attempted to create a heavily centralized national government in a country that had rarely been governed in such a manner. Still more ambitious, the traditional Afghan forums for developing consensus were expanded into a full democracy that would reconcile disparate ethnic groups while empowering women and the LBGT community. This new government was to be protected by a large military that would train and fight like the U.S. military, albeit with somewhat less technological sophistication. Every component of this strategy has failed abysmally.

Nation building is only one of a set of American mistakes, however. Many in this camp, conservatives included, think that Barack Obama was right when he called for nation building at home. Voters agree: Remember that George W. Bush ran on a largely domestic-policy platform and changed course only after September 11. And every successful presidential candidate this century has campaigned on pursuing a more restrained foreign policy. Some retrenchers  lament that the U.S. will still fight terrorists intent on attacking Americans and harming U.S. interests abroad; others that Washington has not yet ceded control of the Indo-Pacific to Beijing. To these self-styled “realists,” combating climate change or vanquishing internal political opponents are higher priorities than supporting a global balance of power that favors American interests.

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