When Will Americans Learn that Other Nations are Nationalistic Too?

I had planned not to write this week, but then Kabul fell. So I’ll skip next Monday instead. There will be no Zoom call this Friday, August 20. Our next call will be on Friday, August 27 at 11 AM ET with Salem Barahmeh, a member of the Palestinian youth movement, Generation for Democratic Renewal. I’ll send a reminder to paid subscribers next week. Now onto the news of the day.

Joe Biden deserves criticism for how he’s managed America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. He deserves special criticism for not better preparing to evacuate those Afghans who worked with the US, and whose lives are now at risk. But I’m not the right guy to offer that criticism. I didn’t condemn the withdrawal when Biden announced it in April. I didn’t condemn the drawdown as it unfolded over the spring and summer. So it would be disingenuous for me to condemn it now, with the benefit of hindsight.

What’s more, I suspect that even the most well-executed US withdrawal would have only delayed, not prevented, the Afghan military’s collapse. If the United States—after twenty years and more than two trillion dollars—could not build an Afghan government able to defend itself, it’s unlikely that a few more months, or even a few more years, would have made any long-term difference. Which is why the bulk of America’s soul-searching should focus not on how the US left Afghanistan but why it invaded in the first place. 

The debate over invading Afghanistan was not like the debate over invading Iraq. It was not divisive; it was virtually unanimous. With a lone exception, Representative Barbara Lee, every member of Congress voted to give President Bush the authority to topple the Taliban. Now, with the Taliban back in power, Americans need ask why almost everyone in Washington, myself very much included, was so hideously wrong. 

The answer has a lot to do with nationalism. The US invaded Afghanistan both because it was blinded by its own nationalism after September 11 and because it was blind to the nationalism of the people whose country it conquered. If not addressed, this irony of American foreign policy—our fervently nationalistic country’s inability to recognize nationalism’s power in other lands—will produce more disasters in the years to come.

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In some ways, the 9/11 attacks brought out the best in Americans. The attacks provoked a common grief, which inspired many Americans to think less about themselves and more about the common good. But with this collective purpose came a righteous victimhood, an intolerance of any public utterance that did not describe America’s enemies as entirely evil and America as entirely innocent. When the comedian Bill Maher suggested six days after the attacks that the Al Qaeda hijackers, for all their immorality, had shown more bravery than the US military, which preferred “lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away,” he was forced to apologize and his show was later cancelled. In the months after 9/11, it was widely considered unpatriotic to suggest that America’s own actions might, in any way, be responsible for the carnage visited on its shores. When Reverend Jeremiah Wright cited America’s violence overseas and quoted Malcolm X as saying that chickens were coming home to roost, he made himself such a pariah that Barack Obama—whose own wedding Wright had officiated—would later be forced to repudiate him. As Spencer Ackerman has noted, “the culture of the war on terror is a cancel culture.” It certainly was in the months leading up to America’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Because American public discourse did not tolerate any analysis that could be interpreted as blaming America for the attacks, American policymakers disregarded the explanation offered by the attack’s mastermind, Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden declared that Al Qaeda had targeted the US not because of its domestic freedoms but because of its quasi-imperial role in majority-Muslim lands. Bin Laden was, of course, a singularly odious spokesperson for this anti-imperial view—so when he quoted secular leftists like Noam Chomsky, few took much notice. But in a more open-minded political climate, more Americans might have recognized that what Bin Laden was advising the US to do—stop seeking to dominate foreign lands—echoed a homegrown American view articulated by figures as diverse as George McGovern, Jesse Jackson, Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul and later, in certain ways, even Donald Trump. Since the massive post-Cold War expansion of America’s global military footprint had produced the 9/11 attacks, more prominent Americans might have questioned whether it was wise to extend that footprint even further by invading and occupying a land-locked majority-Muslim country half a world away.

Why didn’t more Americans articulate that skepticism? In part, because the US had been on a decade-long military winning streak—which stretched from Panama in 1989 through the Gulf War in 1991 to Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999—which inflated expectations of what the US military could achieve. But also because America’s hyper-charged, post-9/11 nationalism constricted the terms of public debate. In official Washington, in the fall and winter of 2001, it became difficult to express one’s devotion to country without endorsing myths of American omnipotence and innocence. And that made it difficult to question the Afghan war. 

At the same time that Americans fell prey to the seductive power of American nationalism, they failed to recognize the power of nationalism in the country they were about to invade. The 9/11 attacks came after a decades-long “third wave” of democratization, in which representative government has surged forward in Southern Europe, Latin America, East Asia, and then Eastern Europe and Africa. In this climate of democratic self-confidence, what Americans emphasized about both Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts was their hostility to individual freedom. In his speech to Congress nine days after 9/11, President George W. Bush declared, “We have seen their kind before. They’re the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions, by abandoning every value except the will to power, they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way to where it ends in history's unmarked grave of discarded lies.” After Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, American democracy now faced a third great totalitarian adversary. This one just appeared in Islamic guise.

But while the Taliban was, in important ways, a totalitarian movement, Bush’s emphasis on its illiberalism obscured something else: It was also a nationalist movement. Its roots lay not merely in a global, Saudi-funded, upsurge in Salafi Islam but also in a nationalist battle against Afghanistan’s Soviet invaders. In Bush’s historical narrative, freedom and democracy had triumphed in World War and the Cold War, and now would again in the “war on terror.” But what had triumphed in 1945 and 1989 was also nationalism. It was nationalism—French, British, Russian—that defeated Hitler’s effort to build a pan-European empire. And it was nationalism—Polish, Hungarian, German—that ended the Kremlin’s empire in Eastern Europe. 

What prominent Americans forgot in the months after 9/11 was that nationalism, whether allied with liberal democracy or not, is a fearsome foe. In the 1960s and 1970s, Ho Chi Minh hitched Marxism to Vietnamese nationalism and humbled a superpower. In the 1980s, the Mujahadin hitched Islam to Afghan nationalism and did the same. In the fall of 2001, against the backdrop of Francis Fukuyama’s prophesy of a world moving inexorably toward democracy and freedom, Bush and many others in Washington assumed that if America forged an elected government in Afghanistan it would vanquish its “Islamofascist” adversaries, which like their totalitarian predecessors, were destined for “history's unmarked grave of discarded lies.” What they forgot was that even relatively liberal governments struggle with legitimacy when installed at the point of an imperial gun and even brutally illiberal movements can win fierce loyalty when fighting to expel alien invaders from their native soil. 

As in Vietnam, America’s leaders defined the war in Afghanistan as a struggle between freedom and tyranny when their foes defined it as a struggle between nation and empire. And because the US underestimated nationalism’s power, it underestimated the Taliban, as it had once underestimated the Vietcong. 

Many Afghans do believe, passionately, in individual liberty. Today and tomorrow, America’s primary responsibility is to evacuate them to countries where they are safe and free. But to avoid catastrophes like the Afghan war in the future, America’s leaders must learn that, whatever its own self-conception, America looks to most of the world like an empire. And that in most countries, most of the time, people will resist imperial control—not necessarily because their homegrown alternatives are more liberal or democratic, but simply because they are homegrown. Americans must learn that people in foreign countries are just as doggedly, fervently, and even self-destructively, nationalistic as we are ourselves.

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See you on Friday, August 27,

Peter