Foreign Policy Deja Vu

From George Santayana to Winston Churchill, we have too often been reminded that those who are ignorant of history–or just, somehow, forget–are condemned to repeat it.

For example, we saw what played out in Vietnam for the U.S. It was the Cold War dominoes game—so why not replace the retreating, imperial French? The violently tragic upshot: Nearly 60,000 Americans died, anti-war demonstrations and riots polarized and ravaged this country, and “American exceptionalism” evolved into 20th century, neo-imperialist infamy. From the Dien Bien Phu French defeat, the Gulf of Tonkin deceit and the My Lai massacre to military misinformation and a humiliating-optics withdrawal. That’ll teach us. Not.

Now less than 50 years later, the U.S. finds itself in year 20 of a war, America’s longest, in Afghanistan. Initially, it made sense to go after Osama Bin Laden and his enablers. But long-term—in a world where nation-building and Afghan democracy, including women’s rights, were never attainable goals and terrorist radicalization is available online–it made no sense if, indeed, America’s best interest was the actual goal. Ongoing mission failure was the norm. More than 2,400 Americans have died amid the thousands of commando raids. And the U.S. had wedged itself into a historical pattern: the Afghan region has crushed foreign occupiers for two millennia.

No, the nationalist Ho Chi Minh was not Bin Laden, Saigon was not Kabul, and the Vietcong were not Al-Qaeda or the Taliban; the analogy isn’t perfect. It’s just relevant and applicable.

So, good move by Commander-in-Chief Joe Biden, the fourth U.S. president during the Afghan War, to rein in the Pentagon generals and declare that all remaining (more than 2,500) American troops, sans conditions, will be out of Afghanistan by, ironically enough, September 11. At some point an American president had to make the ultimate call, regardless of military disagreement. No surprise that it was Biden, the one who has been around countless briefings from the Senate to the vice presidency to the presidency—and who was alone among Oval Office insiders in disagreeing with the 2009 surge. Biden wouldn’t even agree to a “residual” force—knowing full well that a modest troop presence—always vulnerable to inevitable insurgencies—can quickly morph into many more at-risk Americans back in the battle. President Biden knew the bottom line: Commit to propping up an Afghan government and its security forces indefinitely—or leave.

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