The only thing worse than the US foreign policy establishment, glossing over 20 years of failure and defeat to blame Joe Biden for the loss in Afghanistan, is the myopia of joining the British and European establishments.
Ever since the Taliban suddenly returned to power weeks ago, we in Europe have been treated with an almost daily diet of indignation by generals, politicians, diplomats and commentators on this side of the Atlantic, condemning the president’s apparent betrayal and fulminating American decline, lack of commitment and selfishness.
Britain’s defense secretary, Ben Wallace, questioned whether a country not prepared to “hold on to anything” was any longer a superpower. Tony Blair accused Biden of basing his foreign policy on “imbecile” campaign slogans. In parliament, Theresa May demanded to know if her successor as prime minister, Boris Johnson, had spoken to NATO Secretary-General about the possibility of forming an alternative coalition capable of continuing the alliance’s presence in Afghanistan without the United States.
On the continent, there was a similar outcry. In Germany, Angela Merkel said the collapse of Afghanistan was a “bitter event”, while the chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee said Biden had made a “serious and far-reaching miscalculation.” The European Union’s High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, wrote in New York Times that Europe should stand on its own two feet, free from its American nanny, whose attention seemed to float.
There is some truth in these complaints: the Obama-Trump-Biden era may come to be seen as a period of American withdrawal, shifting from a world of American supremacy to a world of rivalry with great powers. The bid’s decision will also lead to legitimate concerns across Europe – including the UK – about the need for more independence from the US security umbrella.
Yet many of these complaints are almost indigestible in their fat self-righteousness. For a British Secretary of Defense to complain about US engagement requires something wrong. The United States appears to be some way from agreeing on the extent of its strategic and operational defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Britain seems to be even more misled: Almost completely absent from the debate in Britain is any serious recognition of the country’s own defeats. in the broader history of Western disaster. In both of Britain’s major operations over the past 20 years – in Basra, Iraq and Helmand, Afghanistan – the Americans had to save the country.
These are all, to be fair, not universal views. Although there is frustration over the Biden administration in the British government, some close to Johnson acknowledge that the events in Kabul are the culmination of decades of Western failure – in which Britain played a prominent and disgraceful role. A figure who, like others I spoke to, asked for anonymity to honestly discuss government negotiations, told me that Britain’s failures were not just about whether to join the US-led interventions, but deeper. Iraq, this official said, was a “humiliation” for Britain, only to be followed up by difficult years of fighting in Afghanistan, where British forces made little or no progress.
Yet we still read reports from disillusioned former diplomats who conclude that the disaster in Kabul has revealed Johnson’s “great delusions” rather than the rest of the previous two decades, when Britain tried and failed – twice – to pacify, rule and transform two very poor parts of the world, with the help of the United States
Of all the complaints in London – which include that the UK was not fully informed about the speed of the US withdrawal, that the risk of a Taliban return was not adequately taken into account and that the US could and should have been longer when it became clear the Afghan government could not cope – the most absurd is the idea that Britain could have encapsulated a coalition to continue NATO’s presence in Afghanistan without the United States. Britain did not have the commitment and the means to succeed with its own, smaller interventions within the broader American invasions, let alone the international influence and public support to take over where the Americans had failed. Only Britain and France are serious military players in Europe. And even by working together, they could not overthrow Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi without a US handshake.
Which brings us to grips from the continent. European complaints about American engagement are as hard to swallow as those coming from Britain. French combat troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 2012. For Germany, just being in Afghanistan was a big step, but the country was hardly a key player. Already now, while talking about engagement, the French are withdrawing from their own mission in the Sahel.
To read Borrell’s piece in Times is to understand the lack of ambition that still dominates in Europe. Although the United States has certainly retreated over the past decade, following the failed years of intervention after 2001, Europe remains trapped in a state of Peter Pan-like childhood. Borrell’s stated goal is for the EU to create a pan-European force of 5,000 capable of securing an air base. Implicit in the ambition is the recognition that today there is no coordinated European force capable of achieving such a limited goal.
The truth is that Biden did not quarrel with the British and the Europeans; he just brutally reflected the reality of the world he inherited, one in which 20 years of American commitment had failed. By ending the war, as he did, he is also part of this failure. But it is Europe that is so happy to trumpet its own sophistication, living in a fictional world: locked in the belief in a past that has never been, and a future that it does not have the will to create.