Stephen Wertheim: 9/11, Afghanistan, and Failed Foreign Policy

"You don’t get to lose a war and expect the result to look like you won it," says the author of Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy.


"You don't get to lose a war and expect the result to look like you won it," says historian Stephen Wertheim of the violent and chaotic withdrawal of United States forces and personnel from Afghanistan. "Yet some in Washington are denying reality, calling for still more war and blaming Biden for their failure."

Wertheim is the author of Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy, a study of how American strategists during World War II conflated military supremacy with internationalism, and a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

He talks with Nick Gillespie about how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were doomed to failure from their earliest days, what policy makers should be focused on as we approach the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and why a fundamental rethink of U.S. military and foreign policy is not only urgent but, after a radical shift in public opinion, eminently possible.

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  1. We only lost the war if you assume the purpose of it was to create a U.S. style democracy, but that was never a realistic outcome. The legitimate purpose of the Afghanistan War, or any other war, is defend the rights of the American people and to defend the Constitution from our enemies.

    We killed Osama bin Laden, and we disrupted Al Qaeda’s ability to operate against American targets from within Afghanistan. The legitimate and achievable goals of this war were achieved. In that sense, we were victorious, and we should be eternally grateful for the sacrifices made by those Americans who put themselves at risk to defend the Constitution and our rights from our enemies.

    If the Taliban allows terrorists to target Americans from within Afghanistan again, we should not send troops on the ground again. Our response should be swift, pervasive, dramatic, and come from orbit.

    There better not be a next time. No more wars on the ground. No more nation building. No more Mr. Nice Guy. If the world isn’t big enough for the Taliban and rights of the American people, then wherever the Taliban resides should be six feet deep and glow in the dark. The Taliban would do well to make sure that the world is big enough for both of us.

    1. The neo-con meme seems to be that the Taliban have no capability to come over here and commit terror on U.S. soil but they will give sanctuary to those who do. If they do, then “our response should be swift, pervasive, etc.” But why do terrorists need sanctuary in Afghanistan? Aren’t they already using sanctuary sites in other nations? What is so special about gaining sanctuary in Afghanistan?
      Shit, they can plan U.S. terrorist attacks in an office building in Geneva or Buenos Aires or Toronto can’t they?

      1. The neocons naively believe that the rest of the world wants to be like the United States, and if we plant the seeds of democracy and liberty in a place like Afghanistan, then democracy will grow out of control there–and it will spread to the rest of the neighbors, too.

        The people of Afghanistan don’t want to be like the United States any more than the people of Montana want to be like southern California. Democracy may be a necessary condition for legitimacy (the right of an authority to exercise power in the minds of the people), but democracy is not a sufficient condition for legitimacy–not even in the United States.

        I saw legitimacy break down in Los Angeles back in 1992–despite the democratically elected local government. Ultimately, legitimacy flows from reflecting the desires, concerns, and values of the people, and neocons might not like to hear it, but the fact is that autocratic leaders like Putin and Xi enjoy a certain amount of legitimacy without the benefit of free and fair elections.

        If the United States invaded China or Russia and defeated the governments there, the new governments we installed under the occupation of an American army would have all the same problems with legitimacy as the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq–regardless of whether we held elections. Not everybody wants what we want, and every culture interprets the same things in the same way.

        Sharia means the rule of law to plenty of Muslims throughout the Muslim world. Democracy means corruption. Democracy under occupation means collaboration. Like I said, democracy doesn’t even necessarily confer legitimacy in the United States. It helps when we separate our rights out from under the yoke of democracy with things like the First Amendment. Without that, democracy is two wolves and a lamb arguing about what they should have for dinner.

        1. . . . and [NOT] every culture interprets the same things in the same way

          —-Ken Shultz


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        2. Ken,

          Neocons had other interests as well..Israel (their view of a greater Israel) was always a driver as was enriching certain industries/sectors. To be honest they are traitors in my book..getting the Americans they despise the most (Rural kids) killed for their enrichment and globalism. They are perhaps the most vile folks who should have been kicked out of the GOP in 1980..

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      2. What is so special about gaining sanctuary in Afghanistan?

        It’s not so much “sanctuary” as “freedom from any kind of functioning government.” NW Pakistan is basically the same, and in fact there’s pretty much a whole swath of the Himalaya and its basins that lacks government anywhere but on maps.

        Sudan is pretty much the same thing, but in Africa.

      3. You left out schools in Sacramento from your list. There are more than enough Americans that hate America.

    2. The part discarded in the modern telling is the Afghan war was one of scope creep and domestic politics over actually winning a war.

      The killing of Osama and destroying Al Qaeda required cooperation from the Afghan government which has this pesky civil war going on so we trade support for access and support. Then we’re “at war in Afghanistan” so any defeat of us or our allies is our defeat so Presidents are stuck propping up the regime or being pilloried for failure and politicians aren’t exactly known for their spine in the face of criticism.

      After Al Qaeda was functionally dead there was no legitimate reason to be there except to play out an eternal game of Hot Potato with the blame until one madman decided to bite the bullet and his successor decided to fuck it all up in any way concievable.

  2. Failed exit that turned into a botched abandonment by Biden.

    1. News anymore seems to be a struggle between noble lies. They want us to believe the war was a failure, and they really care whether that’s true. They just want us to believe that’s true–because they think the world would be a better place if people believed that our wars are failures.

      It is true that the nation building was a doomed enterprise from the beginning. Why not just settle for that?

      1. because Biden led that charge.

        1. There’s also like a competition to be the most adamant.

          It’s like a town where they decide that it isn’t enough to be against gun control. They pass a law that requires every home to own a gun whether they want one or not.

          Only in this kind of messaging, it’s not enough to oppose occupying Afghanistan for 20 years. You have to enthusiastically proclaim that Pat Tillman died for nothing.

          Why is that necessary?

          You’ll see it on all sorts of issues. It’s not enough to be anti-abortion. You need to force rape victims to carry the fetus to term, too. It’s not enough to be pro-choice on the other side. You need to proclaim that elective abortion is perfectly ethical in all circumstances.

          It’s an ego war to see who can make the loudest noise above the noise of the crowd.

          1. >>Pat Tillman

            seeing them cheer his death online may have been my first “holy shit people are evil” moment

      2. Suppose you were a rising superpower like China, and you wanted to displace the top superpower (that is US), wouldn’t you want to demoralize the military of your opponent. And the people as well? The ‘hyped’ narrative seems to be that the US was militarily defeated. Consequently, China will not fear or respect us. That lack of respect leads directly to an absence of restraint, which has consequences. It exponentially increases the likelihood that the communist Chinese will attempt to invade Taiwan.

      3. It is true that the nation building was a doomed enterprise from the beginning. Why not just settle for that?

        We should settle for the thing we actually kind of succeeded at. We kind of showed them what an election looks like. Kind of showed them what a Western-type government might look like. Certainly showed them what Western culture looks like and my guess is a lot of Afghan women prefer that. Not nation building but maybe show-and-tell.

        Once you see what we kind of succeeded at, it’s easy to realize how futile and expensive and time-consuming this all was compared to airdropping some books/films/howto/etc.

        On the potentially bright side, once you realize what we could succeed at doing cheaply (airdropping stuff), then it becomes very easy to suggest viable alternatives next time the clowns of DC start talking about nation building.

        1. We showed them what corruption rationalized with elections looks like, and the Taliban just showed us what real political legitimacy looks like. Incidentally, the government of south Vietnam was also a corrupt democracy that enjoyed little or no legitimacy for being elected.

          If it isn’t impossible for a client state to enjoy real political legitimacy while under military occupation of a foreign power, then it’s awful close, and the good will of the occupation military imposing democracy at gunpoint doesn’t seem to make much difference in the outcome.

          To whatever extent the neocons were right about oppression being the cause of these countries’ problems, they’ve been proven horribly wrong about the solution to that problem in every way, and it wasn’t just in Afghanistan. Everything their good intentions touch turns to shit.

  3. >>lose a war

    lol fuck you

  4. Is this another apologia for the regime?

    1. ….sniff,sniff….
      Sure smells that way.

  5. Especially when you hightail it out of there leaving behind billions in equipment, and your escape doesn’t look planned at all.

    But that’s Biden’s fault, he doesn’t know it because he’s sleepy joe and all. Honestly this has Susan Rice’s fingerprints all over it.

    1. Susan Rice just lurches from disaster to disaster; Benghazi to Kabul. Utter incompetence.

  6. When the cold war ended it was time to shut it all down..the CIA, overseas army bases (naval bases are fine), and not get involved in regional issues but the neocons/neolibs (honestly they are the same types of folks..the former “blue blood” ivy league types and the later former Russian Troyskites many jewish ivy leaguers) all trying to impose American will on the world for “democracy” and their own enrichment..lockheed, goldman sachs, the grifter “non profit” sector.

    These folks have pushed cultural marxism on the country and honestly I’m not sure we have much of a shared identity left…

    Time to return to a foreign policy of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. no more foreign in goods and services and that is it..cut the State Dept 80%, cut the Pentagon fact cut the entire Federal Govt 50% and allow liberty to florish again..

  7. Reason seems to think that after 40 years of funding the military industrial complex, so he and his fully corrupt family could suckle at it’s tit, Biden will be the guy that leads us out of the nation building quagmire. Well we shall see. But it’s worth remembering that the only reason Biden is president is that Trump was a threat to the deep state, neocon, MIC, global government, great resetters. He had to be stopped and Gillespie and friends played along. While Reason was screeching about kids in cages and protesters in unmarked vans, Trump was attempting to drag the establishment, kicking and screaming, out of foreign entanglements. Liberaltarians never noticed. Libertarians did.
    If Biden in his dementia actually does finally embrace, dare I say it, an America First foreign policy it seems the neocons have an ace in the hole. A troublesome Biden is easily replaced by a compliant Harris. She has proven herself to be a completely unprincipled person and that’s exactly what they’re looking for. After a couple of years of reaching across the aisle to the anti Trump, neocon Republicans, she’ll bet ready to buy a mansion on Martha’s Vineyard.

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