Republicans are trying to blame President Biden for the defeat in Afghanistan while Democrats are pointing to President Trump’s peace deal with the Taliban as the cause. In fact, a Taliban victory became inevitable when, early in the war, the U.S. expanded its objectives from driving out or killing al Qaeda to turning Afghanistan into a modern, secular democracy. That objective was unattainable no matter what we did. If we want to blame Presidents, the culprits are the idiot George W. Bush and the empty suit Barack Obama. The first allowed the mission creep and the second presided over its continuation, content to kick the can down the road. It is to the credit of both Biden and Trump that, after nineteen years of failure, they made and stuck with the decision to pull the plug.
But how could the whole Washington defense and foreign policy establishment get it so wrong? One answer is that, if you want to become and remain a member of the establishment, you must never make waves. Since almost all the people in question want to be something, not do something, they follow that rule regardless of where it leads. A defeat in war is but a small matter when compared to a risk to their careers.
Another answer is that members of the establishment are almost all nominalists. That is to say, if they give something a name, it takes on real existence in their minds. The Afghan National Army offers a perfect example. Because we called it an army, gave it lots of American money, equipment and training, and knew its order of battle, it was an army. But it wasn’t. Apart from a few commando units, it was a ragtag collection of men who needed jobs and had little or no interest in fighting. Those men seldom saw their pay, because it was stolen before it reached them. Rations and ammunition often suffered the same fate. That army collapsed overnight because it never really existed outside the minds of establishment nominalists.
That same nominalism applied to the entire Afghan government. Washington nominalists thought it was real; Afghans knew it was not. A Marine battalion commander just back from Afghanistan put it best. He said, “Talking to a 14th century Afghan villager about the government in Kabul is like talking to your cat about the dark side of the moon. You don’t know what it’s like and he doesn’t care.”
We see nominalism running all through American policy-making. Washington nominalists think Iraq is a state. It isn’t, because real power is in the hands of ethnic and religious militias. The state is merely a facade, but since it has a parliament, elections, cabinet ministers, etc. it is real to nominalists. Not surprisingly, our policy there has been a series of disasters ever since the initial disaster of invading the place.
The Washington elite’s nominalism is not restricted to foreign policy. It looks at the U.S. military the same way. If you call something an army, it must be able to fight, even though you have filled its ranks with women, made promotion depend on Political Correctness rather than military ability and given it bureaucrats for generals. When it loses a war, as it just did in Afghanistan, it must be a matter of bad luck. The fact that it ceased to be a real army decades ago is not recognized.
The Washington establishment’s civilians have been soaking in nominalism ever since they began their “education” at various elite institutions. Woe to any who pointed out that the U.N. has proven worthless in one crisis after another, that our “democratic” allies are all really oligarchies or that “human rights” vary enormously in their definition from one culture and people to another. To call an entity a state or an army or a democracy means it magically becomes one. And the magical thinking that dominates the establishment’s picture of the world leads to repeated debacles from which it learns nothing.
A return to reality from nominalism can only occur when the whole establishment is replaced. We just watched that happen in Afghanistan with stunning speed. I suspect that the American establishment’s collapse will be equally fast once it starts.