PATRICK LAWRENCE: No Insight After Afghanistan

Remaking the world — all of it — in the U.S. image has been a foundation stone of American foreign policy since the Wilson administration — a century ago.

On July 8, U.S. President Joe Biden said there was little likelihood of the Taliban “overrunning everything and owning the whole country.” (White House, Hannah Foslien)

By Patrick Lawrence
Special to Consortium News

Tragedy, a scholarly friend reminds me, does not mean merely a disastrous event or events — serial murders, a ravaging hurricane, losses in war, famines. Tragedy entails self-knowledge through suffering, transcendent clarity after great destruction.

In Sophocles’ celebrated tragedy, pride and hubris have blinded Oedipus to who he is and what he has done. He hunts his father’s murderer only to discover he is the patricidal killer. When he blinds himself in despair, it signifies he has seen the truth. He knows himself at last by way of another kind of sight and that is insight. 

The debacle in Afghanistan is not a tragedy however many times we call it one. The 20 years of violence and destruction are a disaster, yes. Nearly 160,000 people have died, the Watson Institute’s Cost of War Project tells us, and the U.S. wasted $2.3 trillion it could have spent bettering the human condition anywhere it wanted at home or abroad.  Is there clarity, self-recognition, insight? Don’t look for any now that the Afghan adventure is over.

Sarah Abdallah, a Lebanese journalist with a lively presence on Twitter, compiled a list of eight U.S. presidents who had a hand in the Afghanistan war — her chronology extending back not two decades but four.

None of these eight is a tragic figure, given they never got past the blinding pride and hubris that drive the American imperium. The possible exception is Jimmy Carter, who seemed to have looked back after he left the White House, seen what he had done and acted accordingly by way of his various projects, including Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (Simon and Schuster, 2006), a book that nearly got him tarred and feathered.

For the rest, they proved merely stupid or without conscience. President Joe Biden is both, despite all the effusive nonsense lately as to his “surfeit of empathy,” as The New York Times weirdly put it in a piece on his “values” last week.

‘Lessons of Vietnam’

Aug. 10, 1968: Protest against the Vietnam War as Chicago was preparing to host the Democratic National Convention. (David Wilson, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

People — people with no memories and no history before 2001 — talk about “the lessons of Vietnam.” We must ask what they could possibly mean. Among the only things Washington learned after April 30, 1975, were that the American public must be kept ignorant of U.S. conduct abroad and, in the interest of that objective, the American press must be turned into a permanent propaganda machine. We cannot dignify these as lessons. There is nothing in them worthy of the term “insight.”

Now there is talk of “the lessons of Afghanistan.” Let us not descend into silliness.

The fashion of the moment among the liberal commentators appears to be a sort of purgative acknowledgement that America’s insistence that all nations conform to our standards (such as they are), our “model,” our free-market fundamentalism has been wrong all along.

Kathleen Parker, that reliable font of deep thinking on The Washington Post’s opinion page, had a piece last week headlined, “Afghanistan shows us that we can’t invent other nations in our image.”

Don’t you wish weather vanes such as Ms. Parker did something more than make it up as they go along? We are now invited to think that Afghanistan was a one-off error in this regard. The topic she and others do not even know they are exploring is American universalism, sibling of American exceptionalism and in my view the more insidious of the two ideologies. Remaking the world — all of it — in the U.S. image has been one of the foundation stones of American foreign policy since the Wilson administration — neatly enough a century ago.

It is perfectly true that our policy cliques could learn the lesson Parker and others propose, that they could achieve cathartic insights into who they are and what they have done and then begin to do things very differently. But to suggest that they will now learn these lessons or achieve these insights is simply irresponsible.

Those of us who manage, somehow, to see beyond the passing admissions of error we now read — which will fade into oblivion in a trice, mark my word — must take lessons our corporate press has no intention of urging upon us. I propose two.

Lesson No. 1  

Taliban fighters in Kabul, Aug. 17. (VOA, Wikimedia Commons)

One, the failure in Afghanistan after 20 years of wastage and war-profiteering is an imperial failure, and our lesson — a paradox here — is that the American empire will learn no lessons from it. The withdrawal, however bungled, is an important step and Biden deserves credit for it. To read this as a suggestion that Washington will now step back from a century of universalist ideology and seven decades of hegemonic ambition is a mistake so obvious even the Eagle Scouts among us can avoid it.

There will be no change whatsoever in post–Afghanistan foreign policy, in short. The evidence in this regard accumulates as we speak. Let us reach back all of five days into the annals of American diplomacy.

Last Thursday the Treasury Department announced yet another set of sanctions against Cuba, these against senior Defense Ministry officials, in response to the July 11 protests in various Cuban cities. This is, count ’em, the fourth set of new sanctions imposed on Cuba in the past five weeks. Biden’s people promise more.

As noted previously in this space, the demonstrations at issue were funded and orchestrated by the National Endowment for Democracy and the Agency for International Development, two coup-cultivating U.S. institutions. So it comes to this: We will foment unrest and protests against the privations resulting from American sanctions, then sanction you again and again in response to the demonstrations we backed.

Last Friday was a big day in this line.

Treasury announced that it was sanctioning nine officials and two divisions of the FSB, Russia’s security service, “in response to the state-sponsored poisoning of Russian opposition leader Aleksey Navalny that took place one year ago today.”

The Navalny incident, like the Skripal poisonings in 2018, has never been definitively linked to the Kremlin. But what difference does that make these days?

The same day, the Biden White House advised Congress of a new executive order authorizing a set of sanctions against those participating in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. The wording is a blur, as is the provenance of this latest EO. It “blocks the property and interests in property of foreign persons … engaging in certain activities or providing certain services to facilitate construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, among others.”

Why, why now, and why so vaguely stated?

The order says NS 2 threatens Western Europe’s energy independence —which is of course Western Europe’s to decide — and therefore threatens “the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.” But who wrote this EO? It would appear someone other than Biden, who earlier dropped the sanctions related to NS 2 that the Trump administration had in place.

The order was issued, we should note, the day the soon-to-retire Angela Merkel had her final summit with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, during which the German and Russian leaders noted differences but also the enduring Russo–German relationship.

The move most deserving of attention concerns Afghanistan. It now appears that Washington will replace aid to support the Afghan economy with sanctions. Just before the weekend the U.S. blocked Kabul’s access to Afghanistan’s $9.4 billion in foreign reserves — a small sum but key to a crippled economy’s survival. The always warm-of-heart International Monetary Fund simultaneously suspended distribution of $400 million in emergency funding.

How’s that from the people with all those thoughts and prayers for Afghans?  

Memo to Kathleen Parker: These are the acts of a desperate but determined empire that intends to alter its coercive post–Afghanistan policies toward other nations not one jot. You need a new lead.

Lesson No. 2 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in March, while meeting with Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska. (State Department, Ron Przysucha)

The second lesson for those of us determined to pay attention despite the incessant churn of the American fog machine concerns the question of competence. This was another preoccupation in the press last week—not competence exactly, but whether other nations, allies and adversaries alike, still think Americans are competent after the display of incompetence since the collapse of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan.

Here is Biden Friday, as the chaos in Kabul fell around his ears:

“I cannot promise what the final outcome will be, or what it will be that it will be without risk of loss.”

I had to read it three times. Now you know that the appearance of competence is not America’s problem. Straight-out incompetence is America’s problem.

I urged elsewhere after the president’s performance at his June 16 summit with Putin, shockingly choreographed to keep his appearance in public to the barest minimum, that we had better set aside what partisan animosities we may entertain and face the shared reality that we have a president who is mentally impaired. We do not, in short, have an able leader.

We can mark down the Geneva summit with Putin as an embarrassment. Now the problem of incompetence grows greatly more serious. This administration is as opaque as Trump’s, if for different reasons. However, from all appearances it is being run not by an experienced president but by appointed technocrats and yes-men and yes-women who are in far over their heads.

Brett Bruen, a top official on the foreign policy side during the Obama administration, published an opinion piece in USA Today a week ago calling on Biden to fire Jake Sullivan. Here is what Bruen has to say about Biden’s national security adviser:

“The national security adviser has two jobs. As the name suggests, they are the last and ideally closest counselor to the president in the Situation Room. Their second duty is to translate the commander in chief’s decisions and direction into practical policies. Sometimes that requires speaking truth to power. On all of these scores, the current occupant of the office appears to have failed.”

Coming from a Democratic apparatchik, an insider, this is a serious assertion. And I am certain Bruen knows without saying so that the Sullivan problem is not the half of it. Antony Blinken is visibly drowning as secretary of state — no idea what he is doing. Ned Price, Blinken’s mouthpiece at State, should be checked to confirm he is not an artificial-intelligence robot — incapable of a rational exchange with diligent diplomatic correspondents such as the AP’s Matt Lee.

We are riding for a fall so long as Biden is in office. It begins to look worse than the later years of the Reagan administration, when the permanent apparatus ran the country while the Great Communicator napped all afternoon. And one begins to wonder whether this is not how said permanent apparatus — the national security state and its visible appendages — prefers it.

Biden was right to get the U.S. out of Afghanistan, although we have to see whether he will continue intervening by way of crippling, coercive sanctions, special forces, CIA contractors and Air Force bombers. The only thing that makes Biden look good post–Afghanistan is the thought of a Kamala Harris presidency, and I don’t have it in me to go into that just yet.

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. Follow him on Twitter @thefloutist. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon site. 

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

24 comments for “PATRICK LAWRENCE: No Insight After Afghanistan

  1. Robert Emmett
    August 27, 2021 at 09:02

    Slackjaw America,

    Grind your teeth to bits.
    Swallow your tongue.
    Your petard hung from
    every foreign post
    lit by fake smiles
    beguiles none but yourself.

    Dimwits safely out of reach
    (who) preach a manliness
    of stone age bombery
    of earth faced wipery
    never count the cost of misery
    wielded by doped-up weapons
    in punch drunk ignorance.

    Sulk behind your puffed-up glower;
    it only proves Eisenhower’s point.
    You’re become your own
    (and the world’s)
    worst enemy.

  2. Aaron
    August 26, 2021 at 21:02

    I think we have to look at the big picture, if everybody keeps piling on Biden like this, it’s obviously going to result in TRUMP in 2024. This is by far the worst case scenario. And all of the terrible stories about Afghanistan are really proof that Biden is doing the right thing by ending the war. Sure it’s ugly as hell and mistakes have been made, but of all those 8 presidents, he’s the only one to finally end it. There is no way to rip off that band-aid without a lot of pain. If nobody circles the wagon for Biden, the greatest tragedy of all will occur in 2024. I suppose this is like why a lot of dentists commit suicide. Patients are miserable and hate going through their process, but some things have to be done, sooner or later, and we must support Biden, or Trump will win easily, that’s not something that the country or world can deal with.

  3. August 26, 2021 at 09:57

    Another Odious Occupation Implodes

    This recent January marks the date
    When I came home some fifty years ago
    From Vietnam to realize my fate:
    Forever after I would truly know
    How shallow, base, and stupid were the men
    And women of my government, how prone
    To leap with vain alacrity each time
    The siren silhouette of Folly shone,
    Its dim outline inviting once again
    A blunder? No, much worse: a venal crime.

    Enraptured by possession of the keys
    To power and the wealth that from it grows
    Their Midas minds set out to grasp and seize
    Each gainful opportunity that flows
    And ebbs with time and tides. Let none pass by
    Without some speculator selling short,
    Or politician groveling for bribes,
    Or lobbyist rewriting laws for sport
    Deciding who will live while others die
    In wars against the world’s least favored tribes.

    Possessed of weaponry and willing hands
    To wield it on command, their hubris grows.
    Upon benighted, backward, peasant lands
    The leaders of the U. S. A. propose
    To bomb obedience into the awed
    And shocked survivors of explosive love
    Administered by lethal robot drones
    That target heat and movement from above.
    Back home, the body counts our rubes applaud
    Whom we have spared the shrieks and cries and moans.

    And now once more our vanquished legions leave
    In dark of night so none can photograph
    Their vanishing: a transient reprieve;
    A mound of trash their tawdry epitaph.
    Ten years ago, Obama also claimed
    To have withdrawn our forces from Iraq,
    As Biden promises the Taliban.
    Yet in Iraq our troops have wandered back
    To pad the totals of the killed and maimed.
    A tale not lost upon Afghanistan?

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2021

  4. August 26, 2021 at 09:54

    Another Catastrophic Success

    With their tails tucked proudly ‘tween their legs
    Advancing towards the exit march the dregs
    Of empire, whose retreat this question begs:
    No promised omelet, just the broken eggs?

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2011

  5. Zhu
    August 26, 2021 at 05:32

    Re History, it is “a record of the follies and vices of mankind.” — Edward Gbbon

  6. jotwall
    August 25, 2021 at 19:58

    If somebody in government says “Let’s start a war!” and someone else objects and says “No, that would be a disaster,” but the government goes ahead and starts a war anyway, is that a tragedy? Or, to coin a word, is that a stragedy (similar to a strategy), i.e., the purposeful, intentional engineering of what may be a tragedy for many, but a very lucrative enterprise for a few?

    • Zhu
      August 26, 2021 at 05:15

      It is a Giant Cock-up. Haven’t you heard of the Giant Cock-up theory of history? Moreover, given a choice of explaining some disaster with a conspiracy and a giant cock-up, always choose the cock-up — that’s a historians’ proverb.

  7. Marie-France Germain
    August 25, 2021 at 18:06

    This article by Mr. Lawrence is, as his are usually, a very good assessment of what non-American anti-interventionist socialists see clearly, especially brave to have included Mr. Biden’s very obvious tenuous mental agility or competence. Anyone who can read people saw that quite clearly and then on top of that, the FDA, out of the blue and against all advice, approved a drug that is said to ameliorate Alzheimer’s regardless that it has a reputation for not being effective. Why would the FDA do this if not needed for a high ranking individual the same way that regeneron was approved when Trump was about to die from the ‘Rona. Of course, I may be wrong and he is not acting like my demented aunt.

  8. TimN
    August 25, 2021 at 17:52

    First-rate, as usual. Disturbing too. I’d forgotten about that third-rate reactionary hack Kathleen Parker. Back when I used to read the Chicago Tribune, she would appear on the op-ed page regularly, spouting nonsense. She’s still around! Proof of journalism’s steady tumble into the abyss.

  9. Tom Carroll
    August 25, 2021 at 17:22

    Great definition of tragedy-the feeble attempts of the us to lash out are not even a threat-the US was defeated and will continue to be defeated-buckle up the ride down is going to be scary No Great power would take orders from such a monstrosity as Isreal-that is just one illustration of the inner chaos that plague the West-the redoubtable Alastair Crooke has some great words on this

  10. Anne Kass
    August 25, 2021 at 17:16

    I, yet again, am awakened to the fact that our attention is focused on individual personalities rather than policies and we call that democracy. Seems to me that the US doesn’t actually “do policies” because policy making is a scientific process…hypothesis/goal, plan, activation, data collection, data analysis applied to the goal and if the goal wasn’t advanced, change the plan and start again, doing something different. Our military has just kept doing the same thing over and over even though the data are clear that the stated goal of “spreading democracy” is not being advanced. That’s not policy. That’s dogma. I find that few Americans know about 1953 and Iran and few know about 1973 and Chile, and, frankly, until I read Pilger’s history lesson today, I didn’t know about 1979 and Afghanistan. Of course, if the goal is to enrich military contractors and other big business, well it’s working fine for those few, but that’s not policy, it’s not even dogma. It is corruption. Anne

  11. Lois Gagnon
    August 25, 2021 at 15:41

    The president hasn’t run the country in a long time. Wall St., the national security state including the military and the corporate media run it. All they want from a president is what Obama so masterfully delivered. He should be nicknamed Soma Obama.

    • FizzBit
      August 26, 2021 at 05:55

      Good observation. Obama ran as a progressive, but flipped one day into his administration. I say that deliberately, because on his first day he released some damning material on GWB secret “contingency laws” regarding succession of power, continuation of power, etc. It seems the GWB legal team had concocted some rather bizarre and blatantly totalitarian legal constructs. After that one release of information, the Obama administration became identical to that of GWB.

      • Nathan Mulcahy
        August 26, 2021 at 12:57

        Actually Obama had flipped even before getting elected. How so? I’ll give you just two examples.

        Right before the election, he went to AIPAC meeting to genuflect and confess his submissiveness to a foreign country. OK, that’s not peculiar to Obama only – that’s the entry ticket to power in our country.

        Then there was that AT&T thing. I don’t know how many people still remember. Bush’s warrantless spying on Americans was enabled by the complicity of the telecoms, especially of AT&T. Therefore, Bush admin had concocted a bill that would retroactively pardon AT&T. The then Senator Obama from Chicago had promised with lots of hoopla to filibuster this bill. But then, AT&T sponsored the Democratic Convention in which Obama was elected as the Democratic candidate. And voila – no more filibuster from Obama and the bill was passed.

        And then, I still remember how Obama was condemning the Iraq war as the “dumb” war – as opposed to the “smart and just and righteous” war in Afghanistan.

        Considering the above, and more, I had ended up not voting for Obama even the first time around (leading to a significant decrease in my number of “friends”).

        The point I am trying to make is that ever since I had started paying attention to politics, I have realized that there have always been plenty of pretty obvious clues as to how the candidates and the parties are going to conduct business. It is mind boggling how blind American voters continue to be to these hints and clues.

        • John Ressler
          August 26, 2021 at 19:54

          Excellent comment Nathan -thank you.

  12. August 25, 2021 at 15:35

    poem of the day, 82521 1533 est us of a

    Well, I guess the question is will it be 21st century ideas that prevail or are we stuck on the 20th century conflagration.
    Will history get any respect or will it be her story that rises to dominate the exposition. Narratives are like ships……..
    Ships on Lake Superior sometimes run afoul of a surprise November storm. Ask the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
    If the history ever gets told, the 20th century will be like the climax of a story that would make one ponder…..
    Whether there could be an ending worth saving. Makes one wonder. Oh, well. Time moves on.
    I reckon we are fixing to find out.
    Lets the best ideas win!
    Let all ideas have a chance.
    Say “no” to tyranny.
    It is inhumane.

    Peace is easy,

  13. Michael R Weddle
    August 25, 2021 at 13:30

    After a 20-year war with the US, the Taliban suddenly captured all of
    Afghanistan. They accomplished this by mostly drinking tea and negotiating with the provincial governors, without bloodletting. In the process the very expensive US-trained and equipped Afghan military simply surrendered all US-made weapons to the Taliban! The Western media then dutifully reported, one parrot after the other, on how the Taliban “over-ran” all of the Afghani positions. This reporting gave an impression that the Taliban had achieved military victories. But, in reality, the victories were attained by the power of wise counsel and negotiation. Astonishingly, not a single comparative has yet been made relative to how the ultimate Taliban victory was similar to how Mahatma Gandhi defeated British colonial rule in India, without bloodshed. In my humble opinion, historians will eventually make note! hXXps://

    • August 25, 2021 at 16:10

      I think history is moving quicker these days and I think note has been made.
      An impressive show of skilled agility.
      A lesson to be learned.
      Of course, some will say, it is to close to judge, but I think what you say Michael R Weddle rings true. It resonates with me. I’ve thought the same in a way, but not so well as you expressed it.
      So, thank-you for your insight.

  14. Helga Fellay
    August 25, 2021 at 13:29

    I found Sara Abdullah’s tweet “How 8 US Presidents maintained war in Afghanistan” rather amusing, especially the following: “2017 – Trump drops the Mother of All Bombs on Afghanistan, killing dozens.”

    After many decades of US carpet bombings killing millions, or even going back to the bombing of Dresden in Germany during WWII, killing hundreds of thousands, President Trump is accused of dropping “the Mother of all Bombs KILLING DOZENS.” Very quaint.

  15. Jeff Harrison
    August 25, 2021 at 12:54

    Well done as usual, Patrick. I would comment that the real lesson that the US refuses to learn is that the rest of the world doesn’t want to be like the US, and that’s OK. That’s really two lessons in one. One is that they don’t want to be like us and two is that we should have enough self confidence to accept that other societies will be different than ours.

  16. August 25, 2021 at 12:04

    Reflection, introspection, and a path towards what’s right, in all likelihood to be utterly obfuscated by the Deep State and its nefarious minions, the corporate media, pseudo historians, the Democratic Party and traditionalist Republicans.

  17. Carolyn L Zaremba
    August 25, 2021 at 11:45

    Excellent commentary. I’m currently reading Daniel Ellsberg’s book “Secrets” about the Vietnam War and the Pentagon Papers. He discovered that the U.S. government did much the same regarding Vietnam as it is now doing in regard to Afghanistan. No lessons learned whatsoever.

  18. pasha
    August 25, 2021 at 11:42

    Wise words. That whooshing sound you hear is every single one of them flying by over the heads of the stupids who should be reading and acting upon them.

  19. Dfnslblty
    August 25, 2021 at 08:50

    Keep writing!
    Great assessment of current hubris, hypocrisy and ignorance.
    Disaster – yes; tragedy – yes.

    Protest Loudly!

Comments are closed.