August 18, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Afghan democracy was a ‘grand illusion.’ So is the Republicans’ concern about terrorism

The president should lean into bringing Afghans to America.


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The more I think about it, the more I think the Washington press corps is misrepresenting what happened over the weekend in Afghanistan. They report that it was a lightning-fast “takeover” by the Taliban. But it was more like the country was handed over to them. I don’t mean by the United States. I mean by the Afghan government. It wasn’t until its so-called “president” fled that the Kabul airport erupted in panic. (He and his family are now reportedly “safe” in the United Arab Emirates.) 

To put a finer point on it, the press corps is balling up the planned exit by US armed forces with terrible video-recorded scenes from the Kabul airport during which desperate Afghans are seen clinging to the side of a US aircraft as it’s taking off before falling to their deaths. The effect is a picture of America botching its exit. Yeah, I guess so. If you completely ignore actions by the Afghan government. (Last night, Reuters reported that “order has been restored” at the Kabul airport.)

The GOP’s media allies are just coming out and saying they don’t want brown people here.

The more I think about it, the more I think the Washington press corps is doing less fact-gathering and more spokesmanship, giving voice to the opinions of political elites in the United States. Our “humiliation” wasn’t so much that we were leaving after a 20-years occupation. The elites knew that. The elites knew the choice was leave or restart war. Our “humiliation” wasn’t so much desperate Afghans falling to their deaths. The press corps barely paid attention to Afghanistan even when US troops died. The more I think about it, the more America’s purported “humiliation” is one of appearances. When they say Joe Biden “failed,” what they mean is he failed to keep all this quiet.

So take the conservative reaction with salt. That idiot Jonah Goldberg asked, “Does anyone truly believe that this self-inflicted blow to our national honor will improve our standing in the world?” That idiot Jonah Goldberg isn’t talking about honor. That idiot Jonah Goldberg is talking about the “shame” of everyone suddenly talking about what the elites knew was going to happen. It’s “national honor” premised on the preference of American political elites for secrecy and dishonesty.

The more I think about it, the more it seems to me this preference for secrecy and dishonesty is what’s kept the US in Afghanistan for so long. We killed Osama bin Laden a decade ago. After that, normal people stopped paying attention to that country. Because they did, the Washington press corps stopped paying attention, too. Yet the Obama administration, which did the right thing by killing Bin Laden, did the wrong thing. It fooled us into thinking our presence there was part of some noble effort to bring democracy to the Afghan people. In fact, it was a gambit to avoid the public and, therefore, “humiliating” spectacle of defeat. The Post’s Craig Whitlock revealed Barack Obama’s “grand illusion.” What we saw over the weekend proved him right. It wasn’t a takeover by the Taliban. It was a grand illusion melted into the air. 

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Illusions are necessary for elites. They obscure their real intentions, good and bad, and real interests, good and bad. They insulate against democratic accountability. Presidents tend to be sensitive to that need. That’s why Biden is the fourth to oversee the “forever war.” That tendency, however, is the proper context for fully appreciating his decision. He not only decided against keeping the war going. He decided against (for the time being) respecting the elite preference for secrecy and dishonesty. These “grand illusions” are now running against our national interest. I hope our interest is in exposing them. (The president is also siding with the popular will. Polls show most Americans want an end to the war, whether we have “won” or not.)

But as I said, “for the time being.” Already Biden is showing signs of squishiness when he should be showing more of the same resolve he showed during his speech Tuesday. Reuters’ Ted Hesson, after posting a piece last night about what it’s going to take to get Afghan refugees out, said this: “Two US officials told Reuters that Biden was concerned about the political impact of large number of Afghan refugees flowing into the United States and preferred they be sent to third countries.”

No, no. No, no, no.

I have no doubt some refugees want to be as close to their homeland as possible. The Biden administration should honor that desire. But there’s no reason to honor the opinions of Republicans who are ready to exploit images of “Afghan refugees flowing into the United States.” It would be different if the Republicans, but especially their right-wing media allies, were raising doubts about “national security”–if they were linking rhetorically Muslim-ness with terrorism. But they aren’t doing even that. They aren’t bothering with the dog-whistles. They are just coming out and saying they don’t want brown people here. (And even if the GOP did express worry about terrorism, there’s the whole palling-around-with-white-domestic-terrorists thing to explain.)

The president should lean into bringing to America any Afghan who wants to. At the very least, the US owes it to them. At the very most, the US should facilitate the unalienable right of anyone in the world to be an American if they wish to be. By leaning in, I think Biden can burst the Republicans’ grand illusion about “national security” (an illusion they are already in the middle of bursting on their own) like the “grand illusion” about Afghanistan burst before our eyes over the weekend.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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