David Brooks in 2019. (TED Conference /Flickr/Creative Commons)
What does David Brooks see when he looks in the mirror?

The War on Terror-era neocon is at it again, scolding America for withdrawing from Afghanistan and advocating we stay in the game.

If you were politically aware during the buildup to the 2003 Iraq War, David Brooks’s recent column calling for America to stay in Afghanistan and take a more aggressive role overseas might feel uncomfortably familiar. 

Once again, as he did when promoting the Iraq invasion, he calls for America to be the “indispensable nation” and “democracy’s champion.” Once again, there is the obliviousness to the human costs of a supposedly humanitarian U.S. intervention. That was already strange in 2003, but it’s now grotesque after the death of more than 1.3 million human beings in just the first ten years of the War on Terror that Brooks had championed.  

The studied turning away from the costs of our wars to those who live in the places where they are fought turns almost surreal in the part of his column devoted to Afghanistan. Brooks cheerfully informs us that “in 1999, no Afghan girls attended secondary school…and as of 2017 the figure had climbed to nearly 40 percent,” all at the cost of “relatively few” American casualties. The cost of a quarter of a million Afghan dead, over 70,000 of them civilians, in a country with a smaller population than California gets zero mention in his column. Neither does the widespread human rights violations associated with the foreign military presence, ranging from torture and detentions to ignoring the return of institutionalized child rape by U.S.-aligned Afghan security forces, something that even the Taliban never tolerated.

After Iraq and Afghanistan, Brooks observes, America “lost faith in itself and its global role, like a pitcher who has been shelled and lost confidence in his own stuff.” Apparently the U.S. is losing its mojo in the democracy-championing business. With the upcoming 20th anniversary of 9/11 the champions of the War on Terror seem to think we are reaching some kind of statute of limitations for the relevance of our past actions. One might have more confidence in this assertion if there had been real accountability and reckoning in Washington for the individuals and ideology that drove the catastrophic decisions made after 9/11.

But this article underscores that there has been no such reckoning. What it instead illustrates is the through-line that links the ideology of global dominance that drove our decisions then, and the way we still look at the world today. The invasion of Iraq was justified by commentators like Bill Kristol using a Manichean distinction between “a world order conducive to our liberal democratic principles and our safety, or… one where brutal, well-armed tyrants are allowed to hold democracy and international security hostage.”  Twenty years later, Brooks, a champion of that invasion, still depicts the world as “enmeshed in a vast contest between democracy and different forms of autocracy…a struggle between the forces of progressive modernity and reaction.” And it’s true, as Brooks claims, that this view is close to that espoused by some in the Biden administration.

The problem here is not the belief that American values differ from those held by rulers of other countries, or that we can and should advocate for those values on the global stage. It’s the black- and-white, all-or-nothing vision that divides the world into two hostile camps and abstracts from historical complexity. That complexity includes both the complex origins of cultural and values diversity between sovereign nations and the difficult history of America’s own repeated and systemic violations of the values we claim to uphold. By raising moral condemnation of our rivals to a fever pitch and blurring the distinction between nations as diverse as a Communist dictatorship like China and an Islamic theocracy like the Taliban, it turns difficult and situation-specific challenges around the world into a single global crusade that only America can lead.

But the lesson of the last 20 years is the way in which trying to impose American dominance  in the name of our own moral superiority can betray the democratic and humanitarian goals it claims to pursue. Saddam Hussein was a more brutal and arbitrary dictator than the leaders of China and Russia today, and one might have thought that no intervention would have made the situation in Iraq worse. Yet American intervention did just that, and dramatically so. Likewise, Brooks’s call to remain in Afghanistan relies purely on condemnation of the Taliban as evil, without tallying the costs of continued American intervention in sustaining a bloody and stalemated civil war.

Of course, many things have changed since 2001, and Brooks’ article does reflect those changes. He now appeals not to center-right values of democratic capitalism, but to the left values of “feminism, multiculturalism, human rights, egalitarianism, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and the dream of racial justice.” He tries to tap domestic partisan energies by claiming that foreign rivals are united with Donald Trump domestically in leading a reactionary “21st century kulturkampf” against these progressive values. It takes a certain chutzpah to appeal to the dream of racial justice to support continued bombing of brown villagers in Afghanistan, or the values of multiculturalism to claim America’s cultural and moral authority to impose its values on the rest of the world. But Brooks has never lacked for chutzpah.

The more subtle difference, acknowledged by Brooks in a brief statement that “we’re never going back to the Bush doctrine,” is a belief we can avoid the overreach of boots-on-the-ground invasions of foreign countries while still pursuing claims to unilateral U.S. global leadership. This recasts the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as driven not by ideological overreach but by a short-sighted failure to anticipate the practical difficulties of invasion and occupation. Calls for new hot wars are out; a sweeping, ill-defined global cold war with the forces of reaction domestically and abroad is in. But cold wars carry their own dangers — including igniting a hot war in any of the numerous simmering low-level conflicts with our ideological enemies around the world, from Ukraine to the Persian Gulf to the Taiwan Strait.

Brooks closes by saying that without aggressively fighting this new global conflict between authoritarianism and progressive values we won’t be able to “look at ourselves in the mirror without a twinge of shame.” It’s an odd moral calculus that tries to ignore shameful acts facilitated by the United States itself and instead calls on us to be ashamed of the actions of foreign governments based on the vague hypothetical claim that U.S. intervention could prevent them. But it’s at the heart of the humanitarian interventionism Brooks sold 20 years ago and is still selling today. We should hope that this time there won’t be buyers in Washington.    

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