After the Taliban captured Kabul far faster than anyone in Washington forecast, secretary of state Tony Blinken went on Sunday morning talk shows and announced that the US mission in Afghanistan had been “successful.” Unfortunately, there will be plenty of robotic civil servants and political appointees who recite that deranged verdict in the coming years.
There is no reason to expect the twenty-year US debacle in Afghanistan to humble Washington policymakers. Korean War fiascos were swept under the rug, paving the way for fresh delusions that led to the Vietnam War. The debacles of the Vietnam War were buried long ago, spurring similar follies in the Afghan and Iraq wars in this century. John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR), reported finding “a USAID lessons-learned report from 1980s on Afghan reconstruction but nobody at AID had read it!” Foreign policy makers will likely remain arrogant and myopic regardless of how many more nations they despoil.
On a winter hike almost a decade ago, I witnessed firsthand both the haughtiness of officialdom and its human cost. I arrived at Great Falls National Park in Maryland early for that Sunday morning jaunt and found a wooden rail fence to lean against as I awaited the arrival of other hikers.
A few minutes later, a handicapped van pulled to the side of the nearby road. A twenty-something woman bounded out of the shotgun seat and zipped around to the side of the van. Her long brown hair was pulled back into a single ponytail topped by a St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap. That bright red hat perfectly complemented a bit of rouge—or maybe she was naturally red cheeked.
When she slid open the side door, her husband poked his head out warily. He had a sturdy jaw rounding out Hollywood-caliber rugged good looks. His military-style close-cropped haircut and his Army Rangers T-shirt settled any doubt about his occupation.
She reached up to provide a slight assist as he moved gingerly out of the van like a toddler taking his first steps. One shirt sleeve was cut off. Instead of a left arm, I saw a metal rod with a wire hand at the end protruding from it. As he exited the van, I noticed that in place of legs he had two metal rods extending downward from his knees.
The soldier clenched a monogrammed wooden cane in his right hand while his wife eased him forward by his left side, brightening a cloudy morning with an unforgettable radiant smile. Perhaps this was a day that she had been hoping and praying for ever since she got the bad news from the other side of the world. This couple was desperately seeking to regain a little normalcy and recapture some of the joys they feared were lost forever when the husband was maimed by a roadside bomb, likely one of thousands of American casualties during Obama’s surge in Afghanistan.
I had no idea how long this guy had been in rehab or how much progress he might have already made. Walter Reed Hospital, the nation’s top military hospital, was only a dozen miles away from the park. The drop-off point the van chose offered quick access to the C&O Canal Towpath and a vista overlooking the Potomac River. I have seen many such couples at this park, at the National Zoo, and at the National Mall. The vast advances in medical treatment had assured that far more soldiers survived grisly wounds than in prior wars. But there had been no corresponding progress in assuring that politicians gave a damn about the plight of the soldiers they sent off to fight.
As I waited, a chunky, blue-eyed blond recognized me from earlier hikes and plumped down hard on the fence rail next to mine. The hangover she boasted of having made her look fortyish before her time. She sported a bright green down vest over a maroon running outfit and the latest chic walking shoes.
Heather was an affable Midwesterner who, like many hikers, defined herself in part by athletic feats she flourished like a row of Olympic medals. She told me she’d hiked half of the two thousand–plus–mile Appalachian Trail all by herself and was forced to abandon the quest to become a “through hiker” because of severe ankle problems. Twenty years earlier, as a college student in Switzerland, she had continued hiking in the Alps even though altitude sickness spurred severe migraines and heavy vomiting day after day. She wanted to prove beyond a doubt that she was not a “quitter”—perhaps the most despised term in her vocabulary.
Turnout was sparse for the hike and Heather couldn’t find anyone else to brag to. She probably assumed that I was not “the sharpest knife in the drawer” based on my barn coat and battered Aussie-style canvas hat. (Okay, maybe it was the scruffy beard.) Her hunch that I was a loser was confirmed when in response to her question I said I’d never done a marathon but had run 880-yard relays for the high school track team. Any distance less than twenty-six miles was beyond contempt.
She confided that when she applied to grad school for her master’s in business administration, “my GMAT scores were very impressive.” After she repeated that point, I wondered if she had the test scores tattooed where the sun doesn’t shine. She had transcended that triumph by passing the Foreign Service Officer exam.
And she was off and running with the “my brilliant career” storyline. She boasted that she had an extremely high level of security clearance—unlike the other half million Washingtonian-area employees with humdrum security clearances. She spent a decade based at US embassies in South America, defending the US drug war and other policies that made life hell for the locals.
She extolled the State Department as the wisest of federal agencies. Other government agencies were not only technologically far behind the State Department, she said, but they also had failed to develop ways to assure that the best and brightest (such as herself) rose to positions of command and influence.
“What about Americans who say the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the biggest blunder since the Vietnam War?” I asked.
“It is unclear whether invading Iraq was a bad idea,” she curtly replied. “Saddam Hussein was an evil ruler. There is a lot of inside information that has not been made public that would put the Bush administration’s decision in a very different light.”
“Didn’t bipartisan congressional investigations conclude that the Bush team blundered horribly?”
Heather scoffed: “There were a lot of facts that Congress didn’t know—you can’t rely on their conclusions.”
This woman sounded like she had exclusive access to the Temple of Delphi, or at least the inside-the-Beltway equivalent.
Tapping my “innocuous country boy” tone, I asked, “What do you make of Wikileaks disclosing all those secret State Department cables that contradicted the public statements of the US policymakers?”
She snorted. “I have not looked at any of those cables. We were told that we would lose our security clearance if we read any of those unauthorized disclosures.” Since the information had not been officially disclosed, good Washingtonians were obliged to pretend it did not exist.
I mentioned in passing that I was a journalist but that tidbit did not hold her attention. She was enjoying strutting her expertise—which was fine by me.
She then revealed why private citizens could not make competent criticisms of US foreign policy: “Even if you study the relationship between the US and another country the whole time, you would only know at most 80 percent of the most important facts. It is like trying to judge a married couple who you casually know—it is simply not possible to do.”
And since Heather was between the sheets of US foreign policy, I should take her word that Americans weren’t getting screwed.
“If you want to deal with unadulterated mass stupidity,” she said, warming to the subject, “just look at the opinion polls on foreign aid. Almost everybody is against it but they don’t even know how much money the US distributes abroad. Even worse, people totally fail to recognize how aid advances America’s grand strategic objectives.”
“Haven’t there been some controversies about US aid money bankrolling atrocities by foreign governments?”
“The US has no responsibility for the actions of foreign governments that receive US foreign aid. They are separate entities. It is like responsible adults—they do their own thing.”
I silently lamented that the US government hadn’t given me a few billion dollars to “do my own thing.” I had been writing about foreign aid for decades but couldn’t recall it previously vindicated as a windfall for foreign politicians’ self-expression.
“Help me figure this out,” I said. “Any American who donates to a foreign group that commits atrocities gets charged with material support of terrorism. Why isn’t the same standard applied to recipients of US foreign aid?”
“It’s different when our government does it, because it serves the national interest.”
“How do we know that?” I asked.
She affixed me with the glare a schoolmarm uses to smite the dumbest kid in the class: “That’s why we have a democracy—there are checks and balances.”
“How can we have self-government when the feds withhold so much information from citizens?”
“People know what they need to know,” she replied testily. “They don’t need to be told everything, because the people in charge are experts. Besides, sometimes it’s more important for the government to do what’s right, not just what’s popular.” She omitted mentioning that the US State Department is doing God’s work—or doing what God would do if He knew the facts of the matter.
“But if the government is so secretive … ”
“Americans are free because they can vote—everybody knows that,” she snapped.
Sensing that her patience with my pesky questions was damn near done, I asked if she felt any personal responsibility for promoting policies that worked out badly for the US or foreigners.
“I have to be an adult—and being an adult means taking responsibility. It is like proposing a budget … Sometimes you don’t have control of all the items in your budget and not all the numbers are met. But you have to take responsibility.” Heather knew all the rhetorical tricks to absolve the government and herself.
“How does that apply to cases where the US bombs foreign nations and unleashes mass killing and chaos like in Libya?”
“You know, I should not even be talking to you,” she growled as she glared with disgust.
“Kind of late, honey,” I didn’t say. Instead, I gave her my best Cheshire Cat smile as she scowled and raced ahead on the trail.
Heather was a classic Washington high achiever, a very intelligent woman whose career progress hinged on zero intellectual curiosity. She only read official sources, and thus knew that officialdom was wonderful. Disputing with her was like conversing with a religious devotee who had memorized responses from a foreign policy catechism.
For her, any alleged US foreign policy debacle was either nonexistent or irrelevant. Her guiding principle was “government is smarter than you are.” Her notion of democracy consisted of little more than inferiors submitting to the secret decisions of their anointed superiors. And as long as government keeps so much information classified, it can always deride ignorant critics.
As I headed back to my car, I saw another van pull up at the edge of the parking lot. A reddish-curly-haired lass barely out of her teens sprang out of the shotgun seat and circled around to the side door. She was wearing a puffy pink sweater and a calico skirt, but her young face was riddled with angst. Her soldier husband/boyfriend was missing only one leg but I suspected that he also suffered a lot of other physical damage that would not be evident to a passerby. He repeatedly grimaced in pain, but that couple advanced together bravely regardless.
Heather was long gone by that point, but I suspected she would not have given that couple a second glance. She would have presumed that none of the maimed soldiers hobbling through the park that day could have passed the Foreign Service Officer exam.