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Afghanistan war neocons like George W. Bush would like you to know this isn't their fault

Neoconservatives are directly responsible for the failures of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But to be fair, America’s imperial overreach was brought to you by bipartisan consensus.
Image: George W. Bush
George W. Bush tours the United States Army National Training Center on April 4, 2007 in Fort Irwin, Calif.Charles Ommanney / Getty Images file

The neoconservatives who launched the war in Afghanistan would very much like you to know the war’s ignominious ending is someone else's fault.

In The Atlantic, Tom Nichols wrote a piece titled, “Afghanistan Is Your Fault,” saying the loss of the war should be blamed on American voters. Former Bush administration speechwriter David Frum said we could have won the war in Afghanistan with this one little trick (namely killing Osama bin Laden in December 2001 instead of May 2011). Eliot A. Cohen — a founder of the infamous neoconservative group Project for the New American Century — said now was a time for “for meticulous soul-searching” that is “without recrimination.”

Very few people in American history are as due for recriminations as the neoconservative cabal in then-President George W. Bush's administration

But very few people in American history are as due for recriminations as the neoconservative cabal in then-President George W. Bush's administration who drove us heedlessly into decadeslong conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sober analysts at the time made clear that remaking Iraq and the “graveyard of empires” into Western-friendly, capitalist, liberal democracies was a fool’s errand.

As we evaluate the failures of those efforts today, we must recognize the problem was not in the execution of the wars, or the withdrawals, but in the very idea of committing American lives and wealth to forcibly “rebuilding” nations across the globe to fit neoconservatives' vision of society. Their hubris and greed cost us trillions of dollars and thousands of lives — and did more to diminish American power than our stated adversaries ever could.

While neoconservatives claim to be motivated by a commitment to promoting liberal democracy abroad, their push for war and empire was justified through lies and deception. And that played a huge part in undermining the stability of liberal democracy here at home.

There is a direct line from the loss of trust in government caused by the Bush administration’s lies about weapons of mass destruction to Donald Trump’s claim as a presidential candidate that “I alone can fix it.” The hatred and fear mobilized to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seamlessly flowed from the Bush era into the tea party and then the white nationalist movement that Trump surfed to the White House. Most importantly, the trillions spent on weapons used to bring foreign populations to heel was money that was not allocated instead to pay for desperately needed health care, education or infrastructure here at home.

The catastrophic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have done as much to enrich the CEOs and large shareholders of Raytheon and Northrop Grumman as they have to destroy the trust and well-being of working class Americans. At least $800 billion in direct war-fighting costs and $2.26 trillion overall has been spent on the war in Afghanistan. But “because of heavy reliance on a complex ecosystem of defense contractors, Washington banditry, and aid contractors, between 80 and 90 percent of outlays actually returned to the U.S. economy,” a Foreign Policy analysis noted. Since the war began in 2001, the value of defense companies has exploded.

While it’s important to recognize neoconservatives are directly responsible for the failures of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, America’s imperial overreach was brought to you by a bipartisan consensus of political, media and corporate elites. In the aftermath of the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, a chorus of commentators and journalists proclaimed the “disastrous” decision to withdraw “could cost Biden dearly.” The Republican National Committee is tweeting out clips of Jake Tapper saying, “It seems shocking that President Biden could’ve been so wrong.”

The unsavory cheerleading of the imperial project by many mainstream journalists is a reminder of the wholesale collaboration of the corporate media and leadership of both major parties in selling the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to the American people. The re-emergence of Bush administration figures like former senior adviser Karl Rove and national security adviser John Bolton — two men who, due to their positions, are directly responsible for launching these disastrous wars — as cable news experts is further evidence that no one has been held responsible for the world-historic failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Republicans, and too many journalists, have criticized President Joe Biden for the necessary, but disorderly and messy, withdrawal from Afghanistan; a fairer account would hold then-Sen. Joe Biden to be minorly responsible for voting for both wars. But to criticize him for his votes in favor of the authorization for use of military force in 2001 and 2002 would also implicate all of the many others in politics and media who led us into these quagmires in the first place.

As we seek to assign blame for the heart-wrenching images we see in Kabul, Afghanistan, today, we must remember that the Taliban could not have come to power if not for our government’s efforts to keep socialism out of Afghanistan and Pakistan — without regard for the wishes of the people of those nations, or ours.

In neighboring Pakistan, the United States applied pressure on socialist Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. After Bhutto refused, the United States turned a blind eye during a coup by a brutal, pro-business military dictator who was trained at a U.S. military base in Kansas. In Afghanistan, Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan armed the mujahideen to overthrow a secular, socialist government that supported women’s rights but was aligned with the Soviet Union. We are still living with the consequences of those unwise and antidemocratic actions — as are tens of millions of Pakistanis and Afghans.

The pursuit of American global military hegemony has always done more to line the pockets of the wealthy than add to the well-being of the average voter. Today, the disconnect between the elite consensus in favor of continuing American military hegemony and the popular revulsion to squandering lives and resources in pursuit of defense-contractor profits is becoming more stark.

Populists on the right and the left have emerged to challenge the foreign policy establishment consensus that commits working- and middle-class people to risk their lives for unnecessary and unjust wars. The images coming out of Kabul this week will only add to the appeal of politicians calling for an end to the empire and a shift of resources toward rebuilding America.

This is a good thing. The neoconservatives and the media that coddles them may have learned nothing from the failures that led to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the American people have.