The national consensus on war came to an end only in the latter stages of the Cold War. Vietnam was the Waterloo of the Wilsonian principle that America could use its military might to shape a better world. And liberals would no longer trust American leaders who invoked national security, as FDR or Truman had, as grounds for military intervention. Only when the Cold War was over did the Wilsonian principle reemerge. With our national security no longer under threat, Americans began to consider the possibility that force could be used for strictly moral purposes—to rescue people in states that, absent American or Russian support, had begun collapsing into anarchy. First in Somalia, then in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, the U.S. sent the military to places of no obvious strategic importance. Popular opinion about these forays did not divide along left-right Cold War lines but rather separated idealists in both camps from “realists” skeptical about the whole idea of using force for the vindication of right.
And then 9/11 brought this “honeymoon from history” to a crashing end. The terrorist attacks took America back to the earliest years of the Cold War, when a virus let loose in remote parts of the world threatened to bring terrible harm to the home front. For the first time in its history, NATO invoked Article 5, a pledge requiring a NATO member country to consider an act of war on a fellow member as an act directed at itself. Like FDR, President Bush had no need to resort to high principle in justifying a military response. Afghanistan was not a “liberal war” in the post–Cold War sense. Bush had little to say about the sufferings of the Afghan people under the medieval rule of the Taliban; he even gave Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, the chance to retain power and avoid war by turning over Osama bin Laden. Yet the war enjoyed almost universal approval in the U.S. and in much of the world. Indeed, Afghanistan offered liberals an opportunity to demonstrate a patriotic belief in war as an instrument of national self-defense. But how long could it be before the Cold War cycle of commitment and disillusionment ran its course?
The first phase of the war was very brief and very successful: A few hundred CIA officers and special-operations personnel teamed up with an indigenous force to drive the Taliban and their allies from Al Qaeda out of the country. The U.S. and the U.N. helped stand up a new government, and then both the Bush administration and the American people turned their attention elsewhere—to Iraq, mostly.
Afghanistan really returned to the news only when Obama and other Democrats began to use the war to bludgeon Bush’s failure to focus on the real source of terrorism. Whatever the political calculation, the threat was genuine: By this time, the Taliban were flourishing once again in the Afghan countryside, Al Qaeda was securely established in Pakistani sanctuaries, the opium harvest was booming, and the government of President Hamid Karzai was proving itself thoroughly feckless.
What happened? It’s correct, up to a point, to say that Bush had drained Afghanistan of crucial resources in order to fight the war he really cared about, in Iraq. But his administration had never thought far beyond that first phase because it did not believe in using the military for the nontraditional purposes that had become common in the post–Cold War era, like peacekeeping or nation-building. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the mastermind of the Afghan War, viewed nation-building as a species of socialism. In Bush at War, Bob Woodward records that three days before the start of hostilities, the president asked his national-security advisers, “Who will run the country?” and none of them had any idea. Bush refused European offers—possibly not altogether sincere in any case—to provide tens of thousands of troops for peacekeeping. Only the most tentative effort was made to train Afghan security forces.
Bush himself has since expressed regret for this mistake. In his new memoir, Decision Points, he writes that stabilizing Afghanistan “turned out to be even more daunting than I anticipated” and concedes that “democracy is a journey that requires a nation to build governing institutions such as courts of law, security forces, an education system, a free press, and a vibrant civil society.” An awful lot of people tried to tell the president that at the time.
What, then, are the stakes of this failed war that Barack Obama was unlucky enough to inherit? Few observers question that the Taliban are bad for Afghanistan and that a return to Taliban rule, even in parts of the country, would be a disaster for women and girls and for all the hopes of modernization raised by the international presence of the past nine years. But would it be bad for the U.S. and the West? Would the Taliban, in fact, bring back Al Qaeda? There is no consensus on this question. In a recent report titled “A New Way Forward,” a panel of scholars and military and intelligence experts called the Afghan Study Group predicts that “the Taliban may be reluctant to risk renewed U.S. attacks by welcoming Al Qaeda into Afghan soil.” Al Qaeda might not even accept such an invitation, since Pakistan “is both safer and a better base from which to operate than isolated and landlocked Afghanistan.” The report’s conclusion: “The U.S. interests at stake do not warrant this level of sacrifice” being made in both lives and money.