The French were haunted for generations by their humiliation at Agincourt; the name itself became an admonition against hubris. The outnumbered, muddied English bowmen were thought to be no match for the mounted French knights panoplied in brilliant armor. The contempt with which Shakespeare’s Duke of Bourbon holds the common French whom he commands is a stark contrast with King Henry V’s democratic appeals to the English troops, with whom he walks and speaks and fights. Whereas Henry tells any man who doesn’t wish to die with him to depart freely, Bourbon terms any man who refuses to die “a base pander,” essentially a pimp, who should survive only to prostitute his own daughter to the lowly.
Shame and eternal shame, nothing but shame!
Let us die in honour: once more back again;
And he that will not follow Bourbon now,
Let him go hence, and with his cap in hand,
Like a base pander, hold the chamber-door
Whilst by a slave, no gentler than my dog,
His fairest daughter is contaminated.
-Duke of Bourbon, Shakespeare’s Henry V
Bourbon’s words could never be uttered by elites in our own democratic age, but they may still be found in the subtext: Yes, our arrogance led us to this—and you commoners will pay the price. Mere months after civilian and military elites scrutinized the ranks for ideological purity, their own rot was exposed before the country and the world.
War invariably falls hardest on common people, but until recent decades, senior officials were often held to account for failure. Statesmen and generals might pay for disaster with exile or even execution; at a minimum, they were forced to leave office in disgrace. Modern warfare is often harsher for soldiers and civilians alike but is somehow easier for elites. After Vietnam, a disgraced figure such as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara could go on an apology tour and reclaim some measure of respectability. Today, there is no accountability at all.
Foreign policy elites with careers unblemished by success live in comfort far from Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, and die in their beds while thousands of Marines and soldiers followed such American Bourbons to humiliating defeat, only to end up in humble graves in parts of America as alien to ruling elites as Afghanistan is to troops from Appalachia. Thousands more live with physical and psychological wounds. It is long since time to hold the foreign policy elites and generals who failed America to account.
Historian Charles Norris Cochrane described the Peloponnesian War as, “a terrifying record of human energy and resources dissipated to no profitable end.” Future historians may give a similar assessment of the last two decades of U.S. failure in the Middle East.
Where did the United States go wrong? Much has been written and much more will be written, but a few general trends emerge. First, the enemy, “terror,” was an abstraction, and it’s impossible to wage war on an abstraction. Second, we didn’t understand the nature of Afghanistan—or of Iraq, or Syria, or Libya. America was successful at rebuilding post-tribal, modern societies like Germany and Japan, but not premodern societies. No one thought to ask whether the democratic institutions that emerge in high-trust societies can be replicated in societies with traditions of religious and ideological extremism, literacy rates below one-third, or consanguineous marriage rates of nearly fifty percent—a strong indicator of low social trust. Third, we possessed neither concrete objectives, nor a coherent strategy, nor a definite timeline. Essentially tactical approaches like counterinsurgency and counterterrorism served as substitutes for strategy, and few elites took notice. Then, as is often the case in the region, militaries that cohere around a religious identity proved stronger than those that cohere around a national identity. Perhaps above all, there was a misplaced confidence in the tools of the state and of statecraft. As many have noted, America is itself in need of nation-building and is in no position to lecture others.
The hubris of U.S. foreign policy elites over the past twenty years followed in large part from the misapplication of the lessons of World War II to the Global War on Terror. America was the only real victor of World War II, while the other great powers were devastated. So, we inferred that war could solve more problems than it actually can. Nevertheless, the last two decades of failed policy in the Middle East have produced several victors: China and Russia, Iran, and perhaps also Turkey. And arguably the Taliban, and even Al Qaeda and its outgrowths.
The reckoning for U.S. foreign policy elites—politicians, policymakers, generals, diplomats, think tanks that had access and influence—is long overdue. It’s time for a painstaking inquiry into what went wrong to ensure that it doesn’t happen again in the era of great power competition. One model for accountability could be the Church Committee hearings of 1975, which exposed abuses by the intelligence community and federal law enforcement that so shocked Americans that some agencies were nearly shut down altogether. Americans today would likely be similarly outraged as they learn that senior officials were aware not only of the impossibility of victory but also of rampant bacha bazi (pedophilia), bribery, and corruption, and other scandalous conduct in Afghanistan.
In 1992, U.S. Army General Norman Schwarzkopf wrote, “I am certain that had we taken all of Iraq, we would have been like the dinosaur in the tar pit—we would still be there, and we, not the United Nations, would be bearing the costs of that occupation.” There will be other tar pits to avoid in the decades ahead. Terrorist attacks will occur, terrorists may flourish, but the United States must remain focused on national security priorities, starting with great power competition.
For its part, the Biden administration and its glittering Ivy League elites now stand over the wreckage of the failure in Afghanistan like the French nobles at Agincourt. The present humiliation should be borne by foreign policy elites, the generals, the best and the brightest, not by the American people—and especially not by those who served, though they doubtless feel it more viscerally than the hawkish elites who counseled war.
The Afghanistan failure has a thousand fathers. The hubris, naïve optimism, and overextension that has long been plain to most Americans have yet to be fully grasped by some foreign policy elites. It is these elites, rather than the heroes who served there, who should go cap-in-hand and live the rest of their days as base panders—in shame, and eternal shame.
Andrew Doran is a senior research fellow at the Philos Project. From 2018-21, he served on the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State.