In its cold war with China, America is repeating the “war on terror’s” mistakes

This Friday, September 10, one day before the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I’ll be talking at Noon ET with former deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes. Ben has been unusually candid about what it’s like to make US foreign policy at the highest levels. In a conversation we conducted earlier this year, he offered the most vivid and disturbing inside account I’ve ever heard of US policy-making toward Israel. This Friday, I want to ask about his experience of the “war on terror” when he served as Barack Obama’s chief foreign policy speechwriter and close confidante. How did Obama—who had spent part of his childhood in a Muslim-majority country, whose family background had acquainted him with the history of Western imperialism, and who had possessed the wisdom and courage to oppose the Iraq War—still end up perpetuating a “war on terror” that has proved so devastating to the US and the world? What can Obama’s (and Ben’s) experience teach us about how American foreign policy works? As always, I’ll include your questions along with mine. Subscribe and join us.

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In his August 31 speech announcing the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, Joe Biden offered several justifications for why the US had to leave. One argument was that the US needed to focus on new and greater dangers. “The world is changing. We’re engaged in a serious competition with China,” Biden declared, “and there’s nothing China or Russia would rather have, would want more in this competition, than the United States to be bogged down another decade in Afghanistan.”

I found those lines depressing. As Biden spoke, Hurricane Ida was ravaging its way across the US. It has now killed 62 Americans. Everyone who is paying attention knows it’s only a matter of time until another hurricane, flood, fire, or drought kills dozens, hundreds, or thousands more. For its part, Afghanistan is in the midst of a drought that reportedly threatens the lives of three million people. As Spencer Ackerman—who will be my guest on Friday, September 17—noted in a recent Tweet, the nativists now saying, “We can’t let in all these [Afghan] refugees or we’ll lose what’s so precious about our country…don’t realize that one day they and/or their children will probably be climate refugees.” 

The greatest threat that China poses to Americans—by far—is its contribution to climate change. (It’s contribution to global pandemics is probably number two.) China is currently building more coal-fired power plants than the rest of the world combined. Against the backdrop of Hurricane Ida, the Caldor Fire that has forced tens of thousands to evacuate in California, and flooding earlier this month that killed twenty-two in Tennessee—I could go on—why couldn’t Biden have said he ended the Afghan war so the US could focus on cooperating with China against the environmental threats that risk making both countries unlivable? Why can’t Biden end a shooting war without simultaneously announcing a new cold war?        

One answer is that the lessons he’s learned from Afghanistan are too narrow. In his speech, Biden said he was “ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.” That’s good. But even if America’s new confrontation with China doesn’t involve invading and occupying countries, it involves some of the same intellectual blind spots that have proved so damaging during the “war on terror.” 

One key blind spot is Washington’s failure to acknowledge the way the legacy of Western imperialism shapes how many people outside Europe view American foreign policy. Whether they say so explicitly or not, American policymakers constantly use America’s conflicts in Europe—in particular, its struggle against Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union—as historical templates. Thus, after 9/11, US officials repeatedly described the “war on terror” as pitting American freedom against the Taliban and Al Qaeda’s Islamist brand of totalitarianism. Now, Biden describes America’s competition with China through a similar ideological lens: American democracy against Chinese tyranny. After 9/11, and again today, American leaders depict their adversaries as successors to the Nazis and Soviets. 

Obviously, there’s some truth to this framework. The Taliban are brutally repressive. So, in different ways, is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But taken in isolation, this framework can’t explain—except by resorting to racism—why these authoritarian, anti-democratic movements might enjoy public support. As a result, many US politicians and commentators fall into one of two camps, each of them deeply problematic. Neoconservatives and some hawkish liberals—think Liz Cheney—conclude that since most people thirst for freedom, movements like the Taliban and CCP must be weaker than they appear. So if the US just imposes enough pressure, sooner or later the democratic forces in those societies will prevail—and ally with the United States—much like the Free French in 1944 or the East Germans, Czechs, and Poles in 1989. By contrast, nativist conservatives—think Tucker Carlson—conclude that people in China and Afghanistan can’t appreciate notions like freedom because they’re barbarians. Sometimes this racism makes nativist conservatives like Carlson less warlike. They oppose wars for democracy because they don’t think non-white, non-Christian people are capable of it. They want America to leave these alien races alone. But when nativists like Carlson conclude that these alien races won’t leave America alone, they morph from anti-interventionists into ferocious warmongers, who deride any limits on American violence. Donald Trump offers a case study. He wanted to leave Afghanistan, yet he also delighted in dropping the “mother of all bombs” on that country. Similarly, he alternated between seeking an accommodation with North Korea and threatening to nuke it.

Neither of these perspectives help Americans understand that, through many Afghan or Chinese eyes, the US doesn’t look like a champion of freedom at all. It looks like the most recent foreign power seeking to violently subjugate their nation. In official Washington, in fact, the legacy of Western imperialism is even more absent from discussions of China than from discussions of Afghanistan, where people at least occasionally trot out cliches about the Hindu Kush being a “graveyard of empire.”  

But without discussing China’s “century of humiliation” at the hands of Britain, France, Japan and yes, the US—which dated from roughly the First Opium War in 1839 until the end of the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s—it’s hard to understand why the CCP can convince many of its constituents that America’s rhetoric about democracy, economic fairness, and the “rules-based order” is a smokescreen for its efforts to keep China subservient and divided. “Every schoolchild in China and every educated Chinese person knows about the ‘century of humiliation,’” the historian Stephen R. Platt told The New York Times a couple of years ago. Has a top Biden administration official ever publicly used the phrase? A couple of years ago, when the Trump administration presented China with a series of trade demands, the headline in one of China’s major party-controlled publications asked: “Is it now 1840?” Would an American who closely followed official US discourse about China have any idea what that year signifies?  

Like its post-9/11 debate about the “war on terror,” official Washington’s post-post-9/11 debate about China lacks what Robert Wright often terms “cognitive empathy,” an understanding of how things look to people in adversary countries. Cognitive empathy isn’t apologetics. Understanding that China’s government, and many Chinese people, see American support for Taiwan as an extension of the West’s historic efforts to divide China doesn’t make Beijing’s behavior towards Taipei any less thuggish. Understanding that European powers used the South China Sea as a gateway to attack coastal cities like Guangzhou during the Opium Wars doesn’t justify China’s effort to claim dominion over the waterway today in violation of international law. But that understanding is crucial to wise foreign policy, nonetheless. It’s crucial to predicting how China will react to what America does.

Politically, the problem with openly expressing cognitive empathy is that it requires US politicians and policymakers to explain why people in foreign countries don’t see American foreign policy as benign. And that comes perilously close to acknowledging that American foreign policy often isn’t benign. Which contradicts American exceptionalism, a doctrine of American benevolence that, tragically, is often mistaken for patriotism. 

This is why Joe Biden’s pivot is insufficient. He’s withdrawn US ground troops from Afghanistan. He says he wants to stop overthrowing and occupying countries. But those are only symptoms. The underlying problem is American exceptionalism, a theology of national virtue that blinds Americans to how their country’s actions are viewed by much of the rest of humankind. Even if Biden succeeds in limiting the “war on terror,” the exceptionalist mindset that powered it will bring other calamities. Given the disparity between Afghanistan’s power and that of China, the calamities to come may be worse.

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Other stuff:

This Friday morning, before our Noon conversation with Ben Rhodes, I’m participating in a Quincy Institute panel on 9/11’s legacy with Andrew Bacevich, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Trita Parsi. 

In this newsletter, The New York Times’ Max Fisher explains why many urban Afghans felt betrayed when the US left yet many rural Afghans were grateful to see the US go.

In this Washington Post column, former US and Afghan special forces interpreter Baktash Ahadi goes even further. “From the point of view of many Afghans,” he writes, “Americans might as well have been extraterrestrials, descending out of the black sky every few weeks, looking and acting alien, and always bringing disruption, if not outright ruin.” 

In Responsible Statecraft, former Clinton administration official (and Beinart Notebook subscriber!) Gordon Adams argues that any withdrawal from Afghanistan would have been ugly and messy. 

In Foreign Affairs, Sarah Chayes, who lived in Afghanistan for many years, suggests that the debilitating corruption the US brought to that country was a function of the corruption in American politics itself.

Hope to see you on Friday,

Peter