FAILING AT FAILURE
If there is any question that the United States is an empire in decline, the events of this week have proved it in real time for the entire world to see. The United States surrender to the Taliban in Afghanistan has been a military surrender compounded by ongoing incompetence. While it is certainly not true that every aspect of the United States is equally incompetent, the public face of the crisis in Afghanistan has been embarrassing, disheartening, and one that is now raising serious doubts about the health of the nation. I wrote earlier of the crisis of legitimacy in the U.S.-backed Afghani government. This unfolding crisis is now raising the same concerns about our own government. Our international credibility is wounded.
Lies, mixed messaging, incompetence, betrayal, chaos, and human suffering fill our television screens and cable news reports. Our anger and disgust must motivate us to call upon our better angels. America is better than this. And if not, our nation is in almost as bad a shape as the Ghani-administration. I don’t know when I have been more embarrassed as a U.S. citizen by our current political and military leadership.
Consider this one appalling admission: The President, Pentagon, and State Department don’t know how many U.S. citizens need rescuing in Afghanistan. If you don’t know what you are aiming at, you can claim to hit it every time. This means that when push comes to shove, the President, Pentagon, and State Department can maintain plausible deniability when people are inevitably left behind when the U.S. forces pull out of the Hamid Karzai International Airport. “Plausible deniability” is a political term for CYA. It is presumptive spin control. Plausible deniability is the ability to deny any involvement in illegal or unethical activities because there is no clear evidence to prove involvement. Its aim is to provide political cover. It is institutionalized spin. The lack of evidence makes the denial credible, or plausible. The use of the tactic implies forethought, such as intentionally setting up the conditions to plausibly avoid responsibility for one’s future actions. This has been the latent intent of the President’s limited remarks. It is the opposite of transparent authenticity. It is political power in its most corrupt rhetorical form.
When the Biden administration shapes the public narrative around the process rather than the goal, it is setting up the preconditions for plausible deniability. When general statistics and aggregate large numbers are used in political answers, it is a rhetorical tactic used to deflect the listener from the meaningful reality on the ground. It is a kind of left-brain specificity that tells a right-brain lie.
The Biden administration is counting on Americans not really caring about Afghanistan. It is not a place to which many Americans have gone. It is not a culture that Americans understand or respect. It is not a country that many Americans can even find on a map. The administration is counting on our lack of cross-cultural empathy, our short media attention span, our immediate concerns over the Covid-19 Delta variant, rising gas prices, and our partisan biases that will claim that what we are witnessing is merely a partisan critique. “It’s not a reality problem, but a Fox News problem.” As a culture analyst, I’m not particularly political. But what I have watched this week has engendered emotions that can best be described as outrage.
The Roman Empire collapsed not at the hands of another great army. It collapsed by its own internal political corruption and moral decay. This enabled a disunited and disorganized coalition of barbaric Germanic tribes to defeat the largest and most powerful army in the world. There are parallels.
What I fear most in this debacle is not the Biden administration or the Democratic Party, but what this is revealing about the general state of our Republic as a whole. If this is America, then something is seriously wrong with what America stands for, has become, and is capable of handling. The exit from our military involvement in Afghanistan has shaken my confidence as a United States citizen. I am both outraged and deeply troubled by what it reveals: how to fail at failure.