An intriguing aspect of the United States’ pullout from Afghanistan is the way many Americans interpreted it in light of their country’s vaunted exceptionalism. The implicit, and often explicit, message was that the sudden abandonment of tens of thousands of Afghans who had worked with U.S. forces was shameful for a nation whose high moral principles didn’t allow that kind of thing.
Certainly, there were Americans, particularly military veterans, who acted on such a belief by trying to bring former Afghan comrades to the United States. The size of the Kabul evacuation has also been remarkable, with 114,000 people transported out in just two weeks. But aside from these heartening examples, tens of thousands of Afghans will be left behind and are likely to suffer the consequences.
What is surprising is that this should be a surprise. In the broader Middle East, the United States has time and again turned tail and walked out on conflicts, deserting locals who had depended on them. Washington is still living off its reputation as a country that, after 1945, maintained a military presence in Europe to deter the Soviet Union and keep the continent democratic. But such long-term commitments are more often the exception in U.S. behavior.
In February 1984, U.S. Marines stationed in Beirut in the Multilateral Peacekeeping Force withdrew from the city as the Lebanese army battled militias supported by Syria. Then president Ronald Reagan sensed the negative symbolism of running and lied to put a good face on things: “I don’t think we have lost as yet, although I know things don’t look too bright,” Reagan said. “As long as there is a chance, we are not bugging out. We are moving to deploy into a more defensive position.” But for those living in Beirut at the time, the fact that the U.S. Marines were redeploying to their ships offshore seemed to indicate that the Americans were indeed “bugging out.”
Then there is the matter of what the Americans did in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in February 1989. After having supplied the mujahideen with weapons to fight the Soviet Union, the United States closed shop once the Soviet troops left, doing nothing to halt Afghanistan’s descent into chaos. This need not, and should not, have implied a military intervention. However, for Washington to have led an international diplomatic initiative to stabilize the country would have been very desirable. Instead, the Taliban takeover in 1994, followed by Osama bin Laden’s arrival after his expulsion from Sudan, would have far-reaching consequences.
Things were even worse in 1991, when a multinational coalition drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. At the time, then president George H. W. Bush had encouraged the Iraqi people to rise up against Saddam Hussein’s regime. At a speech in Andover, Massachusetts, Bush had declared, “There’s another way for the bloodshed to stop, and this is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.” Yet when the Shia and Kurds rose up against the Baath regime in March 1991, the Americans stood by as the revolt was crushed under the leadership of Saddam’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid.
All this was hauntingly reminiscent of the single event Americans regard as the embodiment of humiliating abandonment—the withdrawal from Saigon in April 1975. In a book critical of U.S. actions, a CIA agent, Frank Snepp, accused the U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger and the U.S. ambassador in Saigon Graham Martin of having failed to prepare for an evacuation, believing it would undermine the South Vietnamese government. That is why when Saigon was taken, many Vietnamese who had worked with the Americans were left behind and fell into the communists’ hands.
The title of Snepp’s book, Decent Interval, highlighted U.S. cynicism. It implied that if the U.S. could create a decent interval between the moment it decided to cut loose its South Vietnamese allies and their downfall at the hands of their enemies, this would be acceptable. The same logic prevailed in Afghanistan. No one in Washington had great confidence the Taliban could be defeated, but if the Afghan government could resist long enough so that people would forget U.S. failures, the Biden administration might just get away with it.
What explains the U.S. tendency to desert its friends? The fact that so many of these episodes happened in the broader Middle East might lead to an assumption that the Americans are more likely to sacrifice people with whom they have little cultural affinity, than those with whom they do. That there are those in America saying that fleeing Afghans who helped the United States must be barred from entering the country lends credence to such a view. But then again Americans, and even Republicans, remain divided over the matter, so that reducing everything to this explanation seems unjustified.
More likely, the explanation is simpler. There is a point in any frustrating conflict in which American officials start tallying costs and benefits, before tilting strongly in favor of retreating to the American island. Domestic politics and isolationist impulses play a powerful role in their rationale. But this assumes that Americans are driven by interests, since assessing costs and benefits is what interests are about. However, whether it’s Beirut in 1984, Afghanistan after 1989, or Iraq in 1991, the Americans on balance paid a heavy price for mishandling their withdrawals. Their interests were not served.
The pullout from Beirut led many U.S. foes, among them Osama bin Laden, to assume that the Americans had clay feet. It also allowed U.S. rivals Iran and Syria to use the country as a base to oppose Washington’s regional interests and those of its allies. The decision to allow Saddam Hussein to remain in power and massacre his enemies only created a problem for the Clinton administration, which later encouraged the George W. Bush administration to invade the country and topple the Iraqi leader. Many Americans regard that outcome as an unmitigated disaster. And Washington’s unwillingness to concern itself with Afghanistan after the Soviet pullout ultimately allowed Osama bin Laden to use the country as a headquarters to organize his devastating attacks against the United States in 2001.
In other words, the Americans may be good at measuring immediate costs and benefits, but they are less adept at anticipating the potential consequences of their actions in the future. Written out of this equation, unfortunately, is what happens to those who had confidence in the United States. This is worth looking at more closely. As more and more people end up being burned by the Americans, even as many Americans themselves continue to interpret their own actions in the glowing light of moral preeminence, Washington may have increasing difficulty to find dedicated allies.
Machiavelli wrote that it is better for a prince to be feared than loved if he cannot achieve both. The Americans’ readiness to withdraw from countries when the situation becomes difficult and leave their allies hanging indicates a damaging predisposition to end up being neither feared nor loved. No superpower can long afford this.