“Raise ships and men to fight the pirates into reason than money to bribe them… It will procure us respect in Europe… and respect is a safeguard to interest.”
With these words Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the US Declaration of Independence, and the third President of the United States envisioned his country’s involvement in global affairs. While he was at the time mainly interested in fending off the Barbary pirates of North Africa, this doctrine has lived through successive American administrations, regardless if there was a sense of isolationism or reservations about pursuing political interventions anywhere in the world.
Jefferson’s ethos was virtually non-existent in President Joe Biden’s speech on August 16 as he defended his rational, but clumsy decision to evacuate Afghanistan, and to abandon a country where he himself as a Senator, a former Vice President and the current Commander-in-Chief is partly responsible for the current state of affairs.
The crux of the Afghanistan debacle does not really rest upon arguing for a continued US-armed presence in a country renowned for its many apocalyptic challenges. It falls on the gauche manner in which Biden decided for this long-awaited evacuation to transpire.
Unquestionably, this was not a technical mess up by the US forces whose military might and logistical capabilities could have avoided the ongoing dramatic scenes at Kabul airport, and one which has placed thousands of westerners and many local Afghans at risk. It has also compromised the global respect for the US, and the type of stature which Thomas Jefferson was adamant to uphold.
Biden’s underlying logic is not totally flawed. Perhaps a drastic move such as the hasty exit from Afghanistan is needed to break the vicious cycle that 9/11 unleashed. But the hasty retreat not only damaged Biden’s own image, but placed one on the United States’ most potent weapons: soft power.
American soft power is unmatched in modern history.
The US has the military might and intelligence to bomb, invade and assassinate terrorists. Its drive for soft power stems from the liberal values it holds dear which, despite all the failings of its politicians at times, has survived the test of time. Biden’s cardinal sin was to blame the Afghans for not being able to fight off the invading Taliban hordes. These are the same hordes that Biden - and before him Trump - brokered a deal with to give them quasi-transitional power.
In Biden’s breakup speech, the most powerful man in the world came off as weak, perhaps not militarily, but morally because he simply walked away from a humanitarian crisis that is set to worsen when the Taliban show their true colors.
The recent ISIS-Khorasan attack on Kabul airport is a sober reminder of what is really at stake, and the impression of a condescending Biden is galling for the Afghans. The issue here isn’t about defeating ISIS in all of its different forms and names, but rather Biden’s childish belief that the Taliban can be a strategic partner for the United States in the region. This is similar to Obama’s perception that the late General Qassem Soleimani and his Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) could be an ally to drive out ISIS from Iraq and Syria.
Biden ran for office under the banner of morality and ethics against an opponent that didn’t shy away from highlighting his many flaws, including a selfish outlook where pragmatism was the direction the US should follow.
The President, and many members of his cult of so-called progressive followers are scrambling to justify the Kabul debacle.
This is not to disparage how they have maintained respect for diversity, race and women’s empowerment.
The problem is that Biden’s commitment to these things, along with American liberal values and soft power have all been left on the tarmac of Kabul airport, with thousands of pro-western Afghans placed on long kill lists from a Talban setting out for revenge.
American soft power, rather than its military might makes the nation stand above the rest, and despite the many debacles of successive administrations, the United States must keep its commitment of helping people from struggling nations who are living in dangerous political environments. Biden is pushing the narrative that the decay of Afghanistan is self-inflicted. This is not true.
While Afghanistan will go down in history as Biden’s biggest fiasco, humanity is left with one essential truth: relying on the Taliban and its comrades is foolish. While Biden is in office for the next few years, soft power and liberal values and the people promoting them will always remind us never to try to bribe pirates nor try to portray them as angels.