Joe Biden’s Pox Americana
Quadrant. Antony Carr. 10 September 2021
I was wondering how long it would take for American commentators to come up with semi-plausible reasons for continuing to support a President who has overseen the most comprehensive and humiliating defeat in US history. Until recently we’ve had to be content with the usual blather from the palace eunuchs of main-stream media anxious to protect a cognitively challenged Joe Biden, supported by ridiculous utterances from Washington’s swamp creatures, such as a call from the State Department for the Taliban to include women in its government.
Well, what may charitably be interpreted as a plausible justification has now emerged in an article by Kevin Baker published by the American political news site Politico on August 28. It’s entitled, The Old Cliché About Afghanistan That Won’t Die and it characterises Biden’s decision to “move on” as “a gutsy decision, however chaotic its execution has been,” which necessarily implies that Biden broadly agreed with Trump’s Doha agreement, but as Orange Man must be blamed for everything, perhaps that’s not something to be emphasised.
As an aside, the article comments on nineteenth century European imperial fantasies, the popular but supposedly racist concept of “a gallant band of doomed, white warriors fighting to the last while helplessly outnumbered by ‘savages’.” Of course, we now know that in accordance with the doctrines of multiculturalism, savages don’t exist and any publicity glorifying those who resisted deadly attacks by people so misclassified is always racist.
The article notes that the British got their revenge for the debacle of 1842, in which the Afghans wiped out Major General Sir William Elphinstone’s withdrawing army, when they invaded Afghanistan a few months later, crushed all Afghan forces pitted against them and sacked Kabul. After yet another war, the situation was stabilised during Lord Curzon’s time as Viceroy of India through patronage and multiple agreements with tribal leaders and obtaining supporting fatwas from relevant authorities.
The Russian intervention that commenced in 1979 ultimately failed, forcing a withdrawal that began in 1988. International media were invited to observe it with its accompanying ceremonies and parades. As units withdrew, the media accompanied them through Kabul, up to Mazar-e-Sharif and across the Oxus or Amu Darya River into Uzbekistan, where there were more ceremonies and parades. On 15 February 1989, international media watched as the last remaining Soviet soldier, supreme commander General Boris Gromov, walked alone across the Oxus River Bridge back into the USSR. The regime they supported and left behind managed to survive for another couple of years.
So the British got their revenge, the Russians left with dignity, while the Americans fled in chaos, defeated and humiliated, abandoning vast quantities of military equipment.
Along with the rest of the world, we have observed American incompetence and incoherence at all levels — military, bureaucratic and political. But are we surprised? The Washington establishment may have portrayed themselves as the adults in the room but they had already proved incapable of securing the nation’s southern border, let alone demonstrating an ability to handle more difficult challenges. The counter insurgency expert David Kilcullen was moved to give this mea culpa:
I mistakenly believed our major ally possessed a modicum of moral fibre and basic competence, and would muster the will to fight rather than see decades of effort down the drain.
Just over a century ago, on July 22, 1921, the Spanish general Manuel Fernández Silvestre watched in horror the consequences of his folly as his army was destroyed by Berber tribesmen during the Rif wars, before deciding what he had to do as a matter of honour: he went to his tent, drew his pistol and shot himself. While a little less drastic, it may be noted that when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in April 1982, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, resigned a few days later, taking full responsibility for the failure of the Foreign Office to foresee what had happened.
But don’t expect anyone in Washington to accept responsibility. Suppose Biden actually decided to accept responsibility and resign – the presidency would then pass to the Vice-President, Kamala Harris, which would hardly be satisfactory as she is implicated in all the decisions that led to the disaster. The next in line is Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, followed by the President pro tempore of the Senate, Patrick Leahy, both 81 and too old for the role. Next in order of succession is Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is also compromised. And on it goes, an order of precedence as rigid as any found in a royal court.
All this demonstrates the superiority of the Westminster system, which we are fortunate to have inherited. Under this system, a leader who proves inadequate can be replaced at a moment’s notice by a new leader being any member of parliament who can obtain the confidence of the lower house. Under the US system, government just staggers on with death coming only after a thousand cuts.
Who can forget the picture of the American President at his press conference on August 26, a pathetic figure, head bowed, clutching his brief like a security blanket, making statements that everyone knew were totally disconnected from reality?
Afghanistan had for many years been a buffer state between empires, populated by men acclimatised to shooting anyone, a society with values that require, indeed necessitate, siding with whoever is considered the “strong horse” at the time. As the British found in India, success in any attempt to modernise a society requires a deep understanding of it, not heads filled only with political theories detached from on-the-ground reality. National leadership must have legitimacy and here it may be said that the Washington establishment made a fundamental mistake by rejecting the desire of a majority of delegates to the loya jirga or “grand assembly” of tribal leaders held in Kabul in June 2002 to restore Mohammed Zahir Shah, the king deposed by the coup d’etat in 1973, as head of state. Sahir Shah, the last king in a royal line that dated back to 1747, had reigned from 1933 until he was deposed, a period of over 39 years now perceived to be one of peace and some modernisation. But the very concept of monarchy ran against the American grain. A further lack of understanding was demonstrated soon afterwards by the de-Ba’athification policy adopted in Iraq, a policy that while virtuous in intent, removed key structures of government and destabilised the country.
The Americans along with their NATO allies continued to make errors. The major error, of course, was mission creep – the role expanded from just getting rid of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan to reforming the whole of society along American lines, a task that appealed to American idealism but was far beyond their capacity or anyone else’s for that matter. The administration they sponsored was top-down, corrupt and failed to connect with social structures its people could understand and accept and the military was set up to depend on ongoing American involvement. As David Kilcullen put it:
“The Afghan forces – which the coalition built to our own specifications – were like a stack of Jenga blocks in which certain critical pieces, by design, could be provided only by the US. Principal among these were air support, intelligence, logistics and maintenance. Suddenly in early May, with no warning, we whipped away these pieces, having promised Afghans for a decade that this was exactly what we would never do.
Of course the Afghan army collapsed – it was designed by us to function only with the parts we provided. To quote British explorer and author Rory Stewart, blaming Afghans now is like removing the wheels from your car, then complaining that it can’t drive.”
The Politico article downplays the seriousness of situation by noting that the British defeat in 1842 was in effect a mere road-bump in the British Empire’s journey and that the costs of the Soviet Union’s failed intervention were tiny compared with Stalingrad. But these are not valid comparisons. A better comparison may be the Suez Crisis in 1956, a turning point after which a shrunken Britain could no longer claim to be a great power. This was an incredible transformation for many alive at that time who remembered the First World War.
Many alive in 1956 could recall that with the Russians out of the way with the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, General Erich Ludendorff was able to concentrate German forces and launch what he hoped would be great climatic battles that would break the Allied lines and win the war before the arrival of major American reinforcements. The hated British would be driven from the field and Germany would grab their prize colonial possessions. The enormous German attacks did achieve some gains, but overall, despite terrifying artillery bombardment and massive casualties, Allied lines rallied, regained lost ground and advanced. On August 8, 1918, the Germans were completely surprised at Amiens when British tanks broke through the defences and whole German formations surrendered. To Ludendorff this was the “black day in the history of the German Army.” It was the beginning of the end. The British had mastered the rolling barrage and now knew how to use their tanks. The Allies also had the logistics in place to support their forces – rail lines had been constructed and some 500 locomotives brought over from England as well as thousands of trucks. They were now unstoppable. To add to Germany’s woes, the Royal Navy’s blockade was leading to food shortages. Social unrest was erupting, including mutinies in the German navy. The German high command, which had been so eager for war in 1914, now in despair sought an armistice.
In accordance with the provisions of the Armistice, in November 1918 a German high seas fleet of nine battleships, twelve cruisers and forty-nine destroyers crossed the North Sea to be met by the Grand Fleet under the command of Admiral Sir David Beatty from his flagship, the Queen Elizabeth, and escorted for internment to the Firth of Forth. The Grand Fleet, which included more than 30 battleships, more than 40 cruisers and 120 destroyers, was the most powerful naval force ever assembled in the history of the world and Beatty was determined to display to the Germans and to everyone else Britain’s total dominance at sea.
With the acquisition of former German colonies, the Empire now reached its greatest extent. Only a few years were to pass for all that power and prestige to be no more. After the Second World War, the choice became one between guns and butter and the latter was the only choice generally acceptable to the voters. The age of entitlements had arrived.
The age of empire was now over and decolonisation was both popular and cheap. Britain gave up having bases all around the world, with many voters only too relieved to be able to shed this burden. Is it now America’s turn?
From the Second World War to the present day, the United States has been the premier world power. Like the British in their heyday, the US has bases all over the world and a navy that dominates the oceans. In 1960, the US accounted for an amazing 40 per cent of the world’s GDP. As Henry Ergas has noted, when the US left Vietnam in the 1970s, Vietnam’s principal supporter, the USSR, was an economic basket case with a leader, Leonid Brezhnev, in physical decline. As for China, Mao Zedong was reaching the end of his life in a nation weakened first by the Great Leap Forward and then by the Cultural Revolution and which had yet to be rescued from total ruin by Deng Xiaoping.
By contrast, America today faces a rising power that if current trends continue will soon have a larger economy overall, if not in per capita terms. America is also running massive fiscal deficits that are leading to unsustainable government debt. When, finally, the choice must be made between guns and butter, the voters will choose butter and put an end to foreign ventures which the popular memory will recall always seemed to end badly. This choice is made easier by a perception that the political elite and the establishment generally have feet of clay, lack integrity, do not know what they are doing and have failed. With financial pressures mounting, the voters will increasingly ask why American money must be spent for what is perceived to be only for the benefit of non-Americans.
For all these reasons, I believe that America’s recent defeat is of greater consequence than its defeat in Vietnam.
For many non-Americans, the US may now be portrayed as being, as Bernard Lewis feared, harmless as an enemy but treacherous as a friend. Trump was erratic and unpredictable, but he frightened people, which could be useful, bearing in mind Machiavelli’s nostrum that it is better to be feared than loved. Biden’s America is no longer feared. No one expects the Americans to extract retribution from the victors or any pushback to nations that decide to accommodate themselves to the new reality. The Western desire for a liberal world order no longer counts for much. The big winners from the debacle are China and Russia.
The Indians appear to have already determined on what side their bread is buttered and Prime Minister Narendra Modi didn’t waste his time talking to the Americans or to Boris Johnson but did have a conversation with Putin on 24 August. Here’s the Indian version of that conversation.
“Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi spoke on telephone today with the President of the Russian Federation H.E. Mr. Vladimir Putin.
The leaders discussed the unfolding situation in Afghanistan and its implications for the region and the world. They expressed the view that it was important for the two strategic partners to work together and instructed their senior officials to remain in touch.
The two leaders expressed satisfaction at the progress in the ‘Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership’ between both countries despite the challenges posed by the Covid pandemic. They appreciated the ongoing bilateral cooperation in the fight against the Covid pandemic, especially in the supply and production of ‘Sputnik V’ vaccine.
The leaders also touched upon the forthcoming multilateral engagements, including the BRICS Summit, meeting of the Council of SCO Heads of State, and India’s participation in the Eastern Economic Forum.
Prime Minister Modi said that he looked forward to President Putin’s visit to India for the next Bilateral Summit. The two leaders agreed to remain in touch on bilateral and global issues, in particular, the situation in Afghanistan.”
Here’s the Russian version of that conversation.
“While exchanging opinions on Afghanistan, the parties noted the importance of concerted efforts, which would help establish peace and stability in the country and ensure security in the region in general. They expressed their determination to increase cooperation in opposing the spread of terrorist ideology and the drugs threat emanating from Afghan territory. They agreed to establish a two-way channel for permanent consultations on this issue.
The parties also touched on a number of aspects concerning the further development of Russian-Indian special privileged partnership relations, in trade and the economy among other areas.
Narendra Modi conveyed his gratitude to Vladimir Putin for the assistance provided in combatting the spread of the coronavirus, including supplies of Russian vaccines and their production in India as well as the delivery of necessary medicines and medical equipment.”
Vice-President Kamala Harris recently visited Singapore and Vietnam to seek support for containing China.
Few people in Australia would know that Singapore had in previous years provided military assistance to the Coalition in both Afghanistan and Iraq and that its leaders are now concerned at the impact of the defeat on future terrorism that could affect Singapore. It offered and has now sent an air force tanker aircraft to help US evacuation efforts.
However, in real-politic terms, one should note the approach of the Vietnamese, as shown in the Communist Party of Vietnam’s Online Newspaper:
“During a reception Hanoi on August 24 for Chinese Ambassador to Vietnam Xiong Bo, the PM stressed that Vietnam consistently pursues the foreign policy of independence, self-reliance, multi-lateralisation and diversification of ties, proactive and active international integration, and being a responsible member of the international community. Vietnam does not ally with one country to fight the other.”
One should also take into account the views conveyed by the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, who, it should be noted, is fluent in both English and Japanese and having been a visiting scholar at the Institute of Foreign Relations of Georgetown University from August 1997 to February 1998 would likely understand the Americans rather better than the other way round.
The State Department reported very briefly on a conversation between Wang Yi and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the August 29, noting merely Blinken’s concern about “the importance of the international community holding the Taliban accountable for the public commitments they have made regarding the safe passage and freedom to travel for Afghans and foreign nationals.”
However, for their part, the Chinese gave a detailed and comprehensive account of their version of the conversation. From the beginning, the Americans were treated as supplicants. To rub this in, the Chinese account commences by noting that the conversation was at Blinken’s request. The Chinese reported Blinken as saying the UN Security Council should takes steps to ensure safe evacuation, access to humanitarian assistance and for Afghanistan not to become a terrorist safe haven. Wang Yi is then recorded as giving a lecture to the Americans as follows:
“Wang Yi said that the situation in Afghanistan has undergone fundamental changes, and it is necessary for all parties to make contact with the Taliban and guide it actively. The United States, in particular, needs to work with the international community to provide Afghanistan with urgently-needed economic, livelihood and humanitarian assistance, help the new Afghan political structure maintain normal operation of government institutions, maintain social security and stability, curb currency devaluation and inflation, and embark on the path of peaceful reconstruction at an early date. Facts have proved again that the Afghanistan war never achieved the goal of eliminating terrorist forces in Afghanistan. The hasty withdrawal of the U.S. and NATO troops is likely to offer an opportunity to various terrorist groups in Afghanistan to resurge. The United States, on the premise of respecting Afghanistan’s sovereignty and independence, should take concrete actions to help Afghanistan combat terrorism and violence, rather than practicing double standards or selectively fighting terrorism.
Wang Yi said the U.S. side clearly knows the causes of the current chaotic situation in Afghanistan. Any action to be taken by the UNSC should contribute to easing tensions instead of exacerbating them, and contribute to a smooth transition of the situation in Afghanistan rather than a return to turmoil.”
Blinken is then recorded as understanding and respecting China’s concerns. Wang Yi’s lecture continued:
“On China-U.S. relations, Wang Yi noted that the two countries have recently conducted communication on such issues as the situation in Afghanistan and climate change. Dialogue is better than confrontation, and cooperation is better than conflict. The Chinese side will consider how to engage with the United States based on its attitude towards China. If the U.S. side also hopes to bring bilateral relations back on the right track, it should stop blindly smearing and attacking China, and stop undermining China’s sovereignty, security and development interests. The U.S. side should take seriously the two lists China has put forward to the United States, as well as the three basic demands as bottom lines that China firmly upholds.”
The two lists for action were presented to U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman during her visit in July and include revoking sanctions on Communist Party officials, lifting visa bans for students, making life easier for state-affiliated journalists and reopening the door for Confucius Institutes. The three basic demands require the United States to not challenge, slander or subvert Chinese socialism (so control the press), not obstruct or interrupt China’s development (so remove sanctions, tariffs and technology transfer blockages) and not infringe on China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity (so don’t criticise China’s actions in Xinjiang, Tibet or Hong Kong).
Wang Yi finally called on the US to cease investigating the origins of COVID-19.
“Wang Yi noted that China resolutely opposes the so-called investigation report on COVID-19 origins tracing produced by the U.S. intelligence community recently. Politicizing origins tracing is a political burden left by the former U.S. government. The sooner the U.S. side unloads this burden, the easier it will be to get out of the current predicament. China once again urges the United States to stop politicizing the COVID-19 origins tracing, stop putting pressure on the World Health Organization, and stop interfering with and undermining the international community’s solidarity against the pandemic and the global scientific cooperation on origins tracing.”
According to the Chinese, Blinken responded that the US wasn’t seeking to blame any country but sought only to investigate the origins of the virus to avoid the recurrence of a pandemic and is willing to stay in touch in this regard.
Overall, one can observe the Middle Kingdom now asserting itself as the superior party. The West has no head and Beijing knows it. Welcome to the new world order!
What next? The CCP’s mouthpiece, the Xinhua News Agency, whose president is a member of the CCP’s Central Committee, has given us a clue. Xinhua is the largest newsagency in the world in terms of world-wide correspondents and whatever it promotes has the official imprimatur of the top leadership.
On August 29 the agency published an article by Maoist supporter Li Guangman with the title, Everyone can feel that a profound change is underway. This article appeared in the People’s Daily and would now have been read and believed by vast numbers of people right across China. It talks about a need to rectify chaos in the cultural arena, of celebrities found guilty of crimes including tax evasion, problems with wayward technology companies and with schools and housing. It speaks about enforcing propriety in the media, returning to socialism and bringing down the income gap. Using Google Translate:
“The series of rectification actions by the People’s Republic of China are telling us that China is undergoing major changes, from the economic, financial, cultural, and political fields to a profound change, or it can be said to be a profound revolution. This is a return from the capital group to the masses of the people, and this is a transformation from capital-centered to people-centered. Therefore, this is a political change, the people are becoming the main body of this change again, and all those who block this people-centered change will be discarded. This profound change is also a return, a return to the original intention of the Chinese Communist Party, a return to the people-centered nature, and a return to the essence of socialism.
This change will wash away all the dust. The capital market will no longer become a paradise for capitalists to get rich overnight, the cultural market will no longer be a paradise for nymphomaniac stars, and news and public opinion will no longer be a position for worshipping Western culture. The return of red, the return of heroes, and the return of blood.”
As to the primary source of these problems, the article is clear: it’s the United States.
“China is currently facing an increasingly severe and complex international environment. The United States is implementing increasingly severe military threats, economic and technological blockades, financial strikes, political and diplomatic siege against China, and is launching biological warfare, cyber warfare, and public opinion against China. Wars and space wars have increasingly launched a color revolution against China through the fifth column within China. If at this time, we have to rely on those big capitalists as the main force of anti-imperialist and anti-hegemony, and are still catering to the American nipple strategy, so that our young generation loses their strong and masculine vibes, then we don’t need enemies to fight. I fell first, just like the Soviet Union back then, letting the country collapse, letting the country’s wealth be looted, and letting the people fall into serious disaster. Therefore, the profound changes currently taking place in China are precisely in response to the current grim and complicated international situation, precisely in response to the barbaric and ferocious attacks that the United States has begun to launch against China.”
This is from the State’s mouthpiece. This is what the Party want the people to believe.
The lines have been drawn. Controls are coming down, barriers are going up, the state is closing in. The CCP is laying the groundwork for a conflict and the enemy is the United States. And in reacting to this, the West’s current proclivity to educate its youth in subjects such as critical race theory and gender studies won’t cut the mustard.