At the moment, an influential segment of the press is consumed by the idea that Joe Biden has made a substantively shameful and politically disastrous blunder by withdrawing United States troops from Afghanistan after 20 (!) years of brutal stalemate. (There is, to be clear, a line of targeted criticism out there about the way the administration seems to have conducted the withdrawal without any regard for the survival of Afghans who had worked with the U.S.; it is at least equaled in volume by analysis of what the purportedly embarrassing “optics” or “images” of the withdrawal itself say about the U.S. and its level of world power, and the latter is what I’m talking about here.) As recently as a few months ago, American voters, politicians, and opinion journalists almost universally believed that leaving the country was the sensible course of action. Now, though, the terrain—or at least the terrain of national commentary—has shifted because the evacuation of Kabul reminds the center-lane media of one of the few events in post-WWII American history it has collectively internalized, namely, the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese forces in 1975. (The others are Nixon resigning, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and 9/11—basically, the things that seemed most exciting on TV.)
The lesson that this part of the press seems to have taken, though, from the admittedly compelling image of a final helicopter taking off from a roof near the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, is that the United States should have extended its military engagement in Vietnam.* These writers might not put it this way, given that they also know Vietnam was a “quagmire” in which regrettable things happened while “All Along the Watchtower” played on speakers mounted to the outside of a helicopter, but that’s the logical endpoint of the analogy: that Biden screwed up by ending the war because it associates him with images that might make Americans sad about “losing.”
Probably the most perverse example of this perverse idea—that a global audience encountering images of American defeat is a more alarming news event than actual Americans continuing to die and kill others indefinitely—was published this week in the Atlantic. In the piece, writer Yascha Mounk (a former Slate contributor) argues that the withdrawal was a mistake because the U.S. public will deplore its connotations of “American weakness” and is “likely to judge Biden harshly for the scenes of national humiliation.” Americans, Mounk claims, again projecting his argument onto an empirically wobbly claim about what U.S. citizens are “likely” to “judge harshly,” are “likely to judge their leaders harshly if their actions humiliate the country in dramatic fashion or fail to protect the homeland.” (He writes elsewhere that photos of the Kabul withdrawal are “likely to become iconic.” If only there were some group of people who were allowed to interpret events in the world—to mediate them, if you will, through mediums like magazines, in order to prevent the public from likely drawing such destructively atavistic and nationalist conclusions!)
Readers who have a passing familiarity with 20th century history might be reminded of certain other times that the military occupation of foreign countries was purportedly required to rectify a perceived “national humiliation” on behalf of a “homeland.” Given that Mounk’s goal as a crusading public intellectual is to prevent fascists from taking power, it might seem odd that he is in effect making the case for pulling a Hitler here, but he claims that it is necessary in order to prevent the rise of, basically, a Super Hitler in 2024. “Designed to weaken the hands of populists like Donald Trump,” he says, Biden’s choice of retreat over endless bloodshed “will only make their resurgence more likely.” American strength needs to be projected abroad through violence, he says, lest Trump take power on a promise to “restore American strength.”
Though he claims he is not endorsing the “misguided military adventures that have diminished the country’s standing over the past decades,” Mounk concludes that the U.S. should have continued “doing what it took to ensure that the Taliban wouldn’t take over all of Afghanistan,” which is, confusingly, a good description of the permanently vague and inevitably permanent mission he described as “misguided” at the beginning of the same paragraph. The end goal of all of it, in any case, is to maintain support for what he describes as America’s leadership of the “liberal international order.” The liberal international order, though, is supposedly about the propagation of human rights and prosperity. So what Mounk is saying—and admittedly, this took me 36 hours to ultimately parse out—is that the U.S. needs to satisfy its thirst for violently established national superiority by continuing to bludgeon an essentially random country where it has manifestly failed to instill human rights and prosperity, in order to maintain its future capacity to act on humanistic values to spread prosperity.
To put that in terms that the Endless Repetition of the Same Few Historical References Media would understand, Mounk appears to be suggesting that we destroy the village in order to save it. And while one might have thought the reason that quotation was infamous is because it is so obviously indefensible, what we’ve really learned about our country in the past two weeks is that there is no historical lesson so clear-cut that it can’t be forgotten over, and over, and over.
For more on the Afghan perspective on America’s withdrawal, listen to this episode of What Next.
Correction, Aug. 20, 2021: This article originally misstated that a photo showed a helicopter taking off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. It was from a roof near the embassy.