There’s no war so badly lost, it seems, that someone can’t be found to say that it was all a good idea and the problem was not that the war was fought but that it wasn’t fought hard enough. This was once perhaps the purview of conservatively-minded national security types. But since the end of the Cold War it’s been increasingly the opinion of the keyboard warriors in the democracy-promoting intelligentsia who want nothing more than the bomb the world into oblivion for the sake of liberalism and human rights.
So we should hardly be surprised that the debacle in Afghanistan has brought the liberal interventionists out of their closets to argue that America’s never ending wars aren’t the problem – the real problem is that Westerners are lilly-livered softies who are too decadent to stand up and fight against the forces of evil that surround them, and that if we don’t step up the bombing then democracy, liberalism and all the rest of it will collapse in a tsunami of assaults from the liberty-hating Russians, Chinese and Islamists, who together have formed common front designed to destroy us all.
And so it is that Anne Applebaum (who else?) has stepped up to the plate with a little piece in The Atlantic with the catchy title “Liberal Democracy is Worth a Fight.” Of course, the rotten regime that just fell in Afghanistan was hardly a “liberal democracy,” but I guess it was more liberal and more democratic than the Taliban are likely to be, so we’ll let that one slip. The point is clear: liberal democracy is in peril, and Applebaum wants to issue a call to arms: We must fight. Fight, fight, fight. If not, we’re doomed!
And indeed, her article gets off to a fighting start with the following words:
Of all the empty, pointless statements that are periodically repeated by Western politicians, none is more empty and pointless than this one: “There can be no military solution to this conflict.”
Because, you see, as the Taliban have just shown, there are military solutions. As Applebaum says, “In many conflicts, probably Syria and certainly Afghanistan, there is a military solution: The war ends because one side wins.”
The problem is that it’s the wrong side that keeps on winning. And that bugs Applebaum. She tells us:
The need to prevent this from happening in other places—to prevent violent extremists from invading places where people would prefer to live in peace and in accordance with the rule of law—is precisely why we have armies, weapons, intelligence agencies, and spies of various kinds, despite all of the mistakes they make and the ugly things they sometimes do. The need to prevent violent extremists from creating structures like al-Qaeda or rogue, nuclear-armed regimes is precisely why North Americans and Europeans get involved in distant and difficult conflicts.
That’s also why the phenomenon of liberal internationalism—or “neocon internationalism” if you don’t like it—exists: Because sometimes only guns can prevent violent extremists from taking power. Yet many people in the liberal democratic world, perhaps most people, don’t want to believe this. … They pretend that … that “solidarity” with the women of Afghanistan, without a physical presence to back it up, is a meaningful idea.
Whoa, there, Anne. That’s not actually “why we have armies, weapons,” and all the rest of it. At least, not historically speaking. Historically, we had them to defend our homelands from attack, or, in the more aggressive periods of our past, so that we could attack other peoples’ homelands and take them from them. Armies aren’t social workers whose aim is “to spread solidarity with the women of Afghanistan.” They’re not suited for that sort of thing. What they’re good for is killing people and blowing stuff up. So if there’s a physical threat out there that can be dealt with by killing people and blowing stuff up, then there’s a role for the military. But “building democracy,” “showing solidarity,” and all that guff – not suitable.
Anyway, Applebaum believes that we are in danger. Now Kabul has fallen, our enemies will have others in their sights: South Korea, Germany, Poland, Estonia, Japan, Taiwan – they are all in peril. Applebaum tells us:
Afghanistan provides a useful reminder that while we and our European allies might be tired of “forever wars,” the Taliban are not tired of wars at all. The Pakistanis who helped them are not tired of wars, either. Nor are the Russian, Chinese, and Iranian regimes that hope to benefit from the change of power in Afghanistan; nor are al-Qaeda and the other groups who may make Afghanistan their home again in future. More to the point, even if we are not interested in any of these nations and their brutal politics, they are interested in us. They see the wealthy societies of America and Europe as obstacles to be cleared out of their way. To them, liberal democracy is not an abstraction; it is a potent, dangerous ideology that threatens their power and needs to be defeated wherever it exists, and they will deploy corruption, propaganda, and even violence to do so. They will do it in Syria and Ukraine, and they will do it within the borders of the U.S., the U.K., and the EU.
Let’s unravel this a bit, as it’s kind of silly.
First, it makes no sense to lump Russia, China, and Iran together as if they are all one thing, and even less sense to put them all together with non-state actors like al-Qaeda.
Second, it just isn’t true that the Russians, Chinese, and Iranians see liberal democracy as “A potent, dangerous ideology that … needs to be defeated,” if necessary through violence. I’m no expert on China and Iran, so I’ll leave that to others, though I suspect that their attitude is not dissimilar to that of the Russians. But as far as Russia is concerned, there is precisely no evidence to suggest that the country’s leadership gives a damn about what form of government or political/social/economic system other nations have. What it cares about is that those nations are prepared to be friendly. If they are, then Russia is friendly back. Thus, the Russian Federation has very good relations with a number of liberal democracies. Armenia is a notional liberal democracy; its recent enemy, Azerbaijan, is not. But Russia is an ally of Armenia, not of Azerbaijan.
Simply put, Applebaum is talking out of her hat.
But on she goes. For she’s keen to persuade us that liberal interventionists are just not wooly-eyed idealists. They’re hard-headed realists. It’s their opponents who are naïve and don’t understand the harsh truths of the real world. She tells us:
In the real world, the battle to defend liberal democracy is sometimes a real battle, a military battle, not merely an ideological battle. It cannot always be fought with language, arguments, conferences, or diplomacy, or by deploying human-rights organizations, UN declarations, and fierce EU statements of concern. Or rather, you can try to fight it that way, but you will lose.
Well, here’s the thing, Ms Applebaum my friend, for the past 20 years, Western states, led by the USA, have not been fighting just by using language, arguments, conferences, and all the rest of it, but by invading countries and blasting them from the sky with real hard ordnance. And guess what, they’ve lost that way too!
And here is where the Applebaumian thesis falls down even according to its own internal logic. For even if Applebaum is right that liberal democracy is under threat from extremists, hard experience shows that military power is not an effective way of dealing with the problem. Our militaries are built to fight other militaries. We’re really good at destroying tanks and planes and all the rest of it. But fighting “extremism” – that’s ultimately an ideological problem and bullets and bombs don’t help a lot; indeed, they often make things worse. The proposed solution doesn’t actually solve the alleged problem.
In Applebaum’s world, our repeated failures in the past 20 years are just a matter of a lack of will and insufficient firepower. If only it were so easy. Would another 20 years and double the firepower have made Afghanistan more secure? What reason do we have to imagine that it would? None at all. Did an all-out invasion of Iraq – and let’s admit it, you can’t have a more in-your-face use of massive military power – solve the problem of extremism in Iraq? Or did it sow the seeds that made the rise of ISIS possible? (You know the answer).
So it’s not like Applebaum’s methods haven’t been tried. They have been, and found repeatedly wanting. So why does she think that it will work next time around? And why do the likes of The Atlantic keep giving people such as Applebaum space to write this nonsense? Now, there’s an interesting question. If we could solve that one, we’d all be a lot better off.