Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Neoconservative Denial

Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM).

I want to stop, but maybe just one more column, this one from Robert Kagan of the Kagan dynasty, co-founder with Dr. William Kristol of the Project for a New American Century, and prophet of neoconservatism, as he defined it in 2008, as a kind of political faith going back to 1776 and Alexander Hamilton, whose tenets are

a potent moralism and idealism in world affairs, a belief in America’s exceptional role as a promoter of the principles of liberty and democracy, a belief in the preservation of American primacy and in the exercise of power, including military power, as a tool for defending and advancing moralistic and idealistic causes, as well as a suspicion of international institutions and a tendency toward unilateralism. 

(Though the quotation he uses to bring Hamilton to his side is pretty distorted, when he claims that "Hamilton, even in the 1790s, looked forward to the day when America would be powerful enough to assist peoples in the 'gloomy regions of despotism' to rise up against the 'tyrants that oppressed them"; in fact what Hamilton said, not in the 1790s but 1784, had no reference to "assisting" anybody in the future—merely to the young US already then setting an inspiring example, by its underdog victory in the Revolution: "The influence of our example has penetrated the gloomy regions of despotism, and has pointed the way to inquiries, which may shake it to its deepest foundations.")

But is, anyhow, very anxious at the moment from his (officially ex-neoconservative—he now identifies as "'liberal' and 'progressive' in a distinctly American tradition") position as Washington Post opinionist to assure us (contra WaPo's national security columnist, Greg Jaffe, who writes about the "hubris" of the American project) that the effort in Afghanistan was no effort in "advancing moralistic and idealistic causes" ("It wasn’t hubris that drove America into Afghanistan. It was fear."):

For better or for worse, it was fear that drove the United States into Afghanistan — fear of another attack by al-Qaeda, which was then firmly ensconced in the Taliban-controlled country; fear of possible attacks by other groups using chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons; fear of other sleeper cells already hiding in the United States. Experts warned that it was just a matter of time before the next big attack. And these fears persisted.

Which sounds true enough, but his instantiation comes from a Pew poll of almost a year after the invasion of Afghanistan, in which the public was ambivalent about Afghanistan (15% said it was a success, 12% a failure, while 70% said it was too early to tell), even as the Bush administration prepared them for a different incursion:

By a margin of 48 percent to 29 percent, Americans agreed that increasing the U.S. military presence abroad was a more effective means of combating terrorism than decreasing it. A month before Bush went to Congress for authorization to use force in Iraq, 64 percent of Americans polled favored using military force to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

If fear of Hussein motivated the public view on Iraq, it didn't motivate the decisionmakers in the administration, who were directly inspired by Kagan's and Kristol's 1996 argument that the thing to fear was not looking tough enough:

The ubiquitous post-Cold War question -- where is the threat? -- is thus misconceived. In a world in which peace and American security depend on American power and the will to use it, the main threat the United States faces now and in the future is its own weakness. American hegemony is the only reliable defense against a breakdown of peace and international order. The appropriate goal of American foreign policy, therefore, is to preserve that hegemony as far into the future as possible. To achieve this goal, the United States needs a neo-Reaganite foreign policy of military supremacy and moral confidence.

And the unilateralism advised in their 1998 letter to Bill Clinton (co-signed among others by Perle, Wolfowitz,  Woolsey, Abrams, Rumsfeld, Zoellick, and Bolton) that the US could "no longer depend on our partners in the Gulf War to continue to uphold the sanctions or to punish Saddam when he blocks or evades UN inspections [and] cannot continue to be crippled by a misguided insistence on unanimity in the UN Security Council... has the authority under existing UN resolutions to take the necessary steps, including military steps, to protect our vital interests in the Gulf."

And then as far as Afghanistan does go, in last week's column, Kagan immediately went on to contradict his principle assertion: for the decisionmakers, it had nothing to do with fear:

Bush and his advisers were mortified that they had allowed this uniquely horrific attack on American soil, and their focus was on punishing those who had perpetrated it, as well as those who sheltered them. Bush personally wanted vengeance. As Secretary of State Colin Powell thought to himself, according to Woodward, Dan Balz and Jeff Himmelman, the president “wanted to kill somebody.” He wanted to do so for strategic reasons, as a deterrent to others. He wanted to do so partly to buoy the crushed spirits of Americans unaccustomed to being attacked. But he also wanted to avenge the lives that had been lost on his watch.

That may not be hubris, but it is deeply involved in the concepts of arrogant confidence, honor, and shame that animate the discourse of what hubris is. And it's certainly neoconservative in Kagan's 2008 sense, aiming at establishing the unique right of America to judge and punish, on its own account, to "buoy spirits".

As far as promoting democracy goes, Kagan insists that US aims were much more modest:

But the idea that Americans sought nothing less than creating a “Western democracy" rather than “what was sustainable or workable in an Afghan context” is simply wrong. The word “democracy” does not once appear in Balz and Woodward’s eight-part series in 2002. Top officials knew that even bringing stability to Afghanistan was going to be a tall order.

But he also boasts about the extent to which it was done anyway:

In January 2004, Afghan leaders approved a new constitution, which led to reasonably fair presidential and parliamentary elections and the election of the moderate Hamid Karzai as president.

Not to mention, since Kagan doesn't mention, all the other initiatives toward creating a "liberal society" in general; because the object of nation-building exercises is not limited to conducting elections. What about the building of a 300,000-man army, even if a lot of the soldiers were imaginary? But what about the journalists, the human rights defenders, the local NGOs? What about the (disastrous) implementation of a market economy

from its modern origins in the Afghan Constitution of 2004 to the impacts of joining the World Trade Organization in 2015. Without infrastructure, human capital, and industry, Afghanistan was not ready to adopt a market economy, and its establishment resulted in urbanization, the decline of its traditional agriculture sector, and rising poverty rates. The “market access to goods and services” provision of the WTO agreement in particular hurt domestic farmers. While the international development community has facilitated the transition to the market economy, it has also captured much of the investment and made the county dependent on its support.

What about all those opportunities for women? The girls' schools, the women's health facilities? Not that all the schools were actually there—

"Previous officials in the education ministry embezzled millions of dollars from the international community," Iqbal Heidari, a teacher at Bamyan University in central Afghanistan, told Xinhua.

Plans for new schools have also halted due to misspent funds, according to Reuters. This includes schools and teachers who do not really exist but are on the government's payroll.

Bribes are being paid for school certificates to be modified, textbooks to be distributed, schools to be constructed but the most serious vulnerability remains the appointment of teachers on the basis of influence, nepotism and bribery. Teachers seeking jobs have been known to pay $US 1,000 in bribes, the equivalent of almost five months pay.

The general picture you can glean from reading Kagan's piece with the occasional corrective reality check, and a working memory of the huge thing he is hiding from, the simultaneous adventure in Iraq, is very different from what he claims to be describing.

Afghanistan was a neoconservative adventure too, though not the one he and Kristol wanted to have, which is why they gave it such short shrift, as did Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle, Feith, and so on (Kagan keeps referring to W. Bush and his opposition to nation-building as if Bush had been seriously in charge, but I hope we know better by this point). And it was not a response to public fear of more attacks after 9/11, at least not a successful one (that same Pew poll found only 34% of the public believing the war was making them safer from terrorist attack, and I don't think that number ever got much better).

Of course they didn't go in initially to "build democracy" either, but that was never really the point. The real point was best articulated, perhaps, by Karl Rove ("we're an empire now, and we create our own reality"), but solidly neocon: to repair the damaged reputation of American supremacy, especially after 9/11, with the establishment of a following of pseudo-colonized client states, preferably Muslim, as a living sign of renewed American hegemony. Building "democracy", along with that essential market economy, would be how the client states acknowledged the supremacy of the American style, but it wasn't so important in its own right, especially in Afghanistan, where they didn't think they could make it work. That was a reason why it wasn't the war they wanted, because they didn't have any faith in it; they thought Iraq, with its oil riches, was a better bet.

Ironically, it was in Afghanistan where a really significant portion of the population ended up believing them, all those newly emancipated women in the first place, and then all the musicians and theater people (the Taliban renewed its prohibition of public music making last week, though it's not quite clear yet how strict that's going to be, but the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, founded 2010 and offering lessons in Western and West Asian instrumental music as well as an all-female orchestra, has closed down for the time being) and journalists and serious educators, and all the interpreters, and technicians, and even some brave soldiers, I'm sure. And I'm sure they'll be glad to learn straight from Kagan that they were never part of his plan.

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