John C. Hulsman says that America’s declining status will ultimately doom its Afghan campaign. Obama must learn from Britain how best to manage the decline of an empire
I have just returned from two weeks talking to my friends in the administration and it is horrifyingly apparent that the Obama White House is sleepwalking toward disaster in Afghanistan. The President, reminded by his domestic advisers of the fate of another domestically ambitious president, LBJ, has hesitated before going all-in to rescue the mission in Kabul. He is right to take his time before risking his presidency on a war whose outcome is clearly uncertain. But by all accounts, pressured by both his generals and the neoconservative opposition, Obama is about to make the fateful decision to go ahead with a significant new deployment. And the problem is, as Bismarck put it, that when you draw the sword you roll the dice. In this case, tragically, President Obama will find that the odds of his dice throw are monumentally stacked against him.
The general in charge on the ground, Stanley McChrystal, has been refreshingly blunt. If 40,000 American troops are not quickly dispatched to Afghanistan, the entire mission is likely to fail. But the compromise Obama seems to be settling on, McChrystal lite — giving the general tens of thousands of new American troops, if not quite the 40,000 he has asked for — is exactly what Johnson did in Vietnam. He threaded the needle, never giving his generals the almost limitless number of troops they demanded, while at the same time stoking the war beyond what sceptics could endure.
Once again, this middle approach will satisfy almost no one. The president is storing up trouble politically, and will probably have to, as in the case of Vietnam, revisit the issue down the road, after the new deployment predictably fails to stop the erosion of the Karzai government.
The other historical parallel that has come to mind is with 1920s Britain. I have spent much of the last three years in the desert (metaphorically) with T.E. Lawrence, working on a biography, and during this time I have been continually struck by the similarities between post-Great War Britain and the United States of today.
After 1918, as is increasingly the case with Obama’s America, Britain was first among equals in the global order, but in relative decline, surrounded by a panoply of rising competitors. In what was historically a blink of an eye, the British empire descended from its post-Versailles high-water mark into a desperate fight for survival. The British were suffering from a classic case of imperial overstretch, whereby their global commitments far outran their ability to shape events.
As in America today, the bad news came from all corners of the globe. London was supporting reactionary white revolutionaries in their doomed fight against the Bolsheviks in Russia. The third Afghan war had flared up.
The British also had to suppress insurgency in the Punjab, which led to the infamous Amritsar massacre. Ireland continued to fester, as it had done for decades. Everything the empire, so recently at its apogee, touched seemed to turn to lead.
These serious setbacks were compounded by a severe British economic slump. In 1920 the British economy went into a pronounced recession, as the country was gripped by mass unemployment. In such an environment, it is no wonder that both politicians and the general public alike began to question whether Britain could afford to dabble in far-flung adventures in places like Palestine and Mesopotamia.
With the economy in free-fall and British military commitments straining London to breaking point, Britain needed a whole new modus operandi to salvage its global leadership. This played directly into the hands of foreign policy reformers such as Winston Churchill, T.E. Lawrence and Sir Edmund Allenby, who argued that capabilities and commitments had to be more evenly matched, especially in the Middle East. In an editorial printed on 7 August 1920, at the height of the Iraqi insurrection, the Times asked: ‘how much longer are valuable lives to be sacrificed in the vain endeavour to impose upon the Arab population an elaborate and expensive administration which they never asked for and do not want?’ Given the myriad similarities between the Britain of 1920 and the America of 2010, this pointed question is one that continues to demand an answer.
For Obama, an added problem in Afghanistan is the lack of any sort of credible local partner to manage nation-building on the ground. Everyone admits the recent presidential election in Afghanistan was a farce. Throughout it all President Karzai and his supporters did a credible impression of the former President Diem of South Vietnam, proving themselves corrupt, otherworldly, and incompetent all at the same time. Constant but ineffectual Western meddling in the process did no one any favours either; the one thing the Taleban and Western observers agree on was that the avoidance of a second round was generally engineered by the west, and not by the Afghan people themselves. This lack of local legitimacy, perhaps the single key ingredient any successful effort in nation-building must possess, is now beyond the reach of Karzai, dooming the efforts of the Western powers that have hitched their wagons to his dubious star.
This truly matters because the basic problem with Afghan politics is that its constitutional system does not match the indigenous political facts on the ground. It is common knowledge that Afghanistan is one of the most disparate polities in the world (read Kipling). A series of tribes form the local unit of politics, rather than some Jeffersonian ideal. As such, a confederation, with as much power as possible being devolved to the local level, would suit the country’s realities. Sadly, the Afghan constitution vests far too much control at the national rather than the regional level, where the political rubber hits the road. This is a recipe for endemic conflict.
There is one more reason the coming deployment in Afghanistan is doomed to fail. That is in the nature of America’s changing place in the world itself. The United States simply lacks the wherewithal to continue to engage in high-risk, low-yield foreign adventures, which is where the real comparison with Britain applies.
For like the British in 1920, America today is economically imperilled. Using the White House’s own dubious numbers, the American deficit over the next decade is projected to explode by $9 trillion, which is greater than all the debt accumulated by the republic since its founding. This is the uncomfortable elephant in the corner of the room that will, sooner or later, dampen Washington’s zeal for social engineering abroad. Likewise, though a long way off, the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and the other rising powers are clearly gaining on an America winding down a disastrous war in Iraq, mired in Afghanistan, desperately trying to stop the Iranian government from going nuclear, getting nowhere with the Israelis and the Palestinians, and having to accommodate the rise of Beijing. So much for the peace prize.
This is not to say that America will not remain, for a long time and by a long way, the most powerful nation on earth. However, nothing is inevitable. If America can finally realise that it cannot do everything in the world and all at once, paradoxically its power is likely to prove far more enduring and useful for global stability than if it fritters it away, believing itself to remain in a position of pre-eminence that has passed it by. President Obama could do with some more time spent thinking about how the last great power coped with decline.