Eisenhower’s famous “military-industrial complex,” which has grown beyond imagination since he coined that phrase, has provided the means for the Vietnam War, the Iraq Wars, the Afghanistan War, and numerous other U.S. foreign policy boondoggles of lesser consequence. The motive for these tragic misadventures, however, comes from a hubristic ideology of American moral superiority, and of its military, economic, and political invincibility.
After the final debacle of the Vietnam War in 1975, the lesson of that conflict should have been clear: intervention in a foreign country to create and prop up a corrupt, unpopular government is a grave error bound to end badly. (To hope that the U.S. foreign policy establishment should also have learned that such interventions are grossly immoral—a point understood perfectly well by millions of Americans who protested against the war—is probably too much to hope.) In 1954 the CIA told Eisenhower that, should the referendum promised to the Vietnamese people be carried out, Ho Chi Minh’s communists would win. The referendum was scuttled, and instead the U.S. entered on the long path leading to April, 1975.
In the years immediately following the war there was grumbling from the military and its supporters that the soldiers had been betrayed by gutless politicians in Washington, but the country as a whole was eager to leave Vietnam behind, and no national “autopsy” of the war took place. Two decades later, however, a group of Washington insiders who favoured the “stab-in-the-back” theory of Vietnam came to power. These were the “neo-conservatives” or “neo-cons,” men like Paul Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams, Richard Perle, and Paul Bremer. These men held powerful positions, officially and unofficially, in the administration of George W. Bush, who took office in 2001, and they had the ear of Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
When the 9/11 attacks occurred in the fall of 2001 the neo-cons seized upon them as a golden opportunity to expunge the memory of Vietnam forever and prove both the superiority of American arms and the invincibility of her economic and political power. This is why the invasion of Afghanistan, which began as a short-term project to punish the terrorists who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and their supporters, evolved into a fruitless 20-year attempt to build a modern democracy in that country. That is why Iraq, which had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, was invaded on the flimsiest of lies and manufactured pretexts, and why Saudi Arabia, from whom most of the 9/11 terrorists originated, was left alone. The neo-cons really believed that Americans would be welcomed in the streets of Baghdad and throughout the region by cheering crowds strewing flowers, and that the United States could re-form the entire Middle East into a series of pro-Western democratic (or at least quasi-democratic) states that, along with Saudi Arabia, other Gulf Arab states would provide the U.S. with a copious supply of oil while, with Israel’s help, suppressing the Islamist insurgencies that threatened the U.S., its Arab allies, and Israel.
It was all a stupid fantasy.
The fantasy was powered by the neo-cons’ ideology, to which they clung with religious fervour, impervious to all evidence and reasoned argument to the contrary. (Notice the religious implications of the language used by the U.S. military, for whom a campaign is a “mission.”) The obvious corruption of the local officials put into power by the U.S. invaders, and of the local elites who pocketed the billions and billions of dollars that the U.S. poured into Afghanistan and Iraq, made no impression whatsoever on the neo-cons. (The profiteering of the neo-cons’ supporters back home in the arms industry, the construction industry, etc., leeches sucking their sustenance from the bloated military-industrial complex, no doubt made an impression, but of a different sort.)
And now, after Joe Biden has taken the difficult and courageous step of removing U.S. troops from Afghanistan after two decades, the cycle begins again. Already today’s neo-cons are repeating the old arguments: the military was not properly supported, we could have stayed more or less permanently at little cost, a bit more time would have made all the difference. The innocent victims of the Taliban, especially the girls and women, are pushed continually to the front as the new neo-cons say, “See? See what injustice we perpetrate by leaving?” (Meanwhile the corrupt Afghan elites with their bulging Swiss bank accounts go unmentioned.)
How many years must pass before the foreign policy establishment in Washington and their military-industrial allies are ready to promote yet another ill-fated project in their religious campaign to defend the purity and superiority of America?