As American supremacy is increasingly challenged by its rivals on multiple fronts, it is imperative for the US to recommit itself to maintaining and safeguarding existing alliances.
When I was researching the reasons for the belated US intervention in Bosnia in the 1990s, I was struck by how Vietnam's shadow impacted American decisionmakers. The fall of Saigon had taken place almost two decades before the outbreak of Bosnian war. Yet, the Vietnam syndrome had stuck and the notion of a Vietnam-like quagmire had featured prominently in US deliberations.
The then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, who had served in Vietnam, was opposed to intervening militarily in Bosnia. After all, the Powell Doctrine – laying out the conditions necessary for a military intervention – was meant to forestall US adventurism abroad. Vietnam had become a metaphor for a military intervention gone wrong.
The fall of Kabul on August 15 and the ensuing images of Afghans desperately trying to cling onto a US military plane about to take off evoked memories of Saigon. With every new footage from Kabul going viral on social media, the unfolding chaos in Afghanistan showed that – to quote US Secretary of State Antony Blinken – this was “not Saigon”. It was, in fact, much worse.
Kabul will now be a new metaphor that replaces Saigon, with Afghanistan supplanting Vietnam as the greatest US military failure. The question now asked by many is what will be the post-Afghanistan American foreign policy?
One possible answer is to look for some hints at post-Vietnam America. Following the fall of Saigon in 1975, America turned inwards. Jimmy Carter, an individual with virtually no foreign policy experience, was elected president in the wake of the Richard Nixon scandals. America became less interventionist though the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union continued. It took America more than a decade and a half to re-emerge as an interventionist power in the Balkans in the 1990s.
In today's America, Joe Biden, a Democrat, is in the White House following a scandal-prone Republican predecessor. The former senator with vast foreign policy experience has been largely a domestic issues president. The decision to withdraw from Afghanistan is his most consequential foreign policy decision since inauguration, and one already mired in controversy.
Judging by post-Vietnam-era America, Afghanistan will leave a significant shadow over future US foreign policy in the foreseeable future. The scale of American investment and spending in Afghanistan and the concomitant utter absence of competence of the now-former Kabul government will be a case study in how not to prop up a regime abroad. Anti-interventionists and isolationists at home need point no further than Ashraf Ghani.
Post-Afghanistan America will now be reluctant to militarily intervene in places where American national interest is not clear or at stake. Long-term military commitments like Afghanistan are highly unlikely. Potential national debates in the years ahead on the future use of American force abroad will be conducted against the backdrop of the Afghanistan fiasco. Kabul becomes the new byword for foreign policy failures.
The Afghanistan debacle has lessons for both America but also for small states. For the US, the first lesson is not to prop up regimes that may not survive on their own. This was the lesson in Saigon which repeated itself in Kabul.
The second lesson is the importance of planning. In much the same way that the George W Bush Administration failed to plan for a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq in 2003, the Biden Administration failed to plan for a post-American Afghanistan.
For small states hoping for American interventionism, the lesson will be that it took the US more than a decade and a half to re-emerge as a power willing to intervene in the 1990s. From the Baltics to the Balkans and beyond, a number of small states are pinning their hopes and basing their strategies on anticipated American support. Watching the chaos in Kabul over the past several days will generate greater concern about the expectations of long-term American commitment.
Unlike the bipolarity of the post-Vietnam era in the 1970s, today's world has multiple actors seeking to influence world politics. More than a decade ago, Fareed Zakaria wrote about the “post-American world”. With Russia and China resurgent, and a host of regional powers that have emerged, elements of a multipolarity are evident.
American primacy is now increasingly challenged on multiple fronts. The failure in Afghanistan will be taken up by America's rivals as evidence that the post-American world is in fact the new reality. For this reason, it is imperative for the US to recommit itself to maintaining and safeguarding existing alliances.
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