Drawing Lessons from Afghanistan

Hawkish credibility claims are annoying because they are both sweeping and extremely vague.

Bret Stephens is in full fearmongering mode:

Now, in the aftermath of Saigon redux, every enemy will draw the lesson that the United States is a feckless power, with no lasting appetite for defending the Pax Americana that is still the basis for world order. And every ally — Taiwan, Ukraine, the Baltic States, Israel, Japan — will draw the lesson that it is on its own in the face of its enemies. The Biden Doctrine means the burial of the Truman Doctrine.

Since everyone wants to make the comparison with Saigon and the fall of South Vietnam, it is instructive to look at what did and didn’t happen after 1975. Every other U.S. ally did not draw the lesson that it is on its own. Formal U.S. allies did not change their allegiances, nor did they assume that the U.S. wouldn’t fulfill its commitments to them. Just a few years after the fall of Saigon, the U.S. terminated its defense treaty with Taiwan, and once again nothing of the sort happened. It’s as if other governments don’t judge U.S. reliability as the hawks claim they do. Hawks are unable to see the world as these other states do, and so they project their reactions onto these governments to lend their complaints more weight. The trouble is that the allies and clients mostly don’t see things the way they do, and don’t draw sweeping conclusions about U.S. reliability everywhere from its decision to end involvement in one conflict. When you see hawks holding forth about the dangers of losing credibility, understand that they are promoting a propaganda message and not offering serious analysis.

Hawkish credibility claims are annoying because they are both sweeping and extremely vague. According to them, the entire alliance system is now in jeopardy because the U.S. ended its part in an unwinnable war. But they never spell out what that means in practice. Stephens says that allies and clients will “draw the lesson” that they are on their own, but what is the practical significance of that? What are these states going to do in the future that they aren’t doing now? If the hawks are right about this (they’re not), how would they prove it? If the other states were losing confidence in U.S. guarantees, we should expect to see fairly significant and sudden changes in the military spending and shifting alignments of many countries. If these states now fear that they are “on their own” (they don’t), they ought to be taking more responsibility for their own security. If past experience is any guide, that isn’t going to happen. Warning about lost credibility is a cheap and easy way to attack a president’s decision when you can’t really defend your own policy preferences.

Adversaries are not going to “draw the lesson” of American fecklessness. They will almost certainly take into account the fact that the U.S. is no longer going to be distracted by a pointless war in Central Asia. That may not affect their calculations much, but it will hardly make them conclude that the U.S. won’t fight. The Soviets were not impressed by U.S. persistence in Vietnam. They marveled at how senseless and irrational the U.S. commitment there was. As Jonathan Mercer noted eight years ago, “Soviet officials were surprised that Americans would sacrifice so much for something the Soviets viewed as tangential to U.S. interests.” Keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan even longer would have been similarly baffling—and welcome—to Russia and China. Hawks are weirdly the ones most committed to the idea that the U.S. is an unreliable ally, and they are the ones always looking for reasons to cast doubt on U.S. resolve if they think it will serve some short-term goal of starting a war or blocking a withdrawal.

The U.S. withdrew from Vietnam and lost the Vietnam War, and in the end it didn’t matter very much to the U.S. position in the world or how the Cold War ended. It turned out that the war was always a peripheral one and the U.S. could and should have avoided fighting it for all those years. Now the U.S. has withdrawn from Afghanistan and lost the war there, but the U.S. position will not be affected very much because the war was a peripheral one and not worth fighting. Hawks desperately need losing Afghanistan to have a global consequences, because they have spent so many years inflating the significance of the war for U.S. and global security.