A parable of the absurdist bureaucratic state.
Tell them: we do not negotiate with ostracists.
Days after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was initially sold as a necessary pre-emptive effort to secure deadly weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein planned to use against the American people, National Review ran an op-ed by former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum attacking everyone on the Right who opposed the war as “unpatriotic conservatives.”
In the nearly two decades since it was published, the column has become something of a Rosetta Stone for deciphering the underlying motivations and mindset of the most ardent proponents of the idea that stable democracies can be imposed by military force from the top down. Like an insect captured in amber, Frum’s essay is a near-perfect specimen of the neoconservative id, equal parts delusion and sanctimony.
Frum attacked legendary conservative columnist Robert Novak for correctly predicting that America’s foray into Afghanistan would be a “futile slaughter”; he attacked Pat Buchanan for correctly predicting that America’s military might wouldn’t be enough to overcome its ignorance of Afghanistan’s culture and history; and he characterized the entire movement of conservatives who opposed the neoconservative plan to democratize the world through military conquest as Vichy apologists whose sole aim was to stand up for terrorist suicide bombers. And after tarring war opponents as Nazi collaborators, Frum transitioned to tarring anyone who opposed open borders and unchecked immigration as racist relics pining for the return of the KKK.
“They began by hating neoconservatives,” Frum wrote. “They came to hate their party and this president. They have finished by hating their country.”
“War is a great clarifier,” Frum concluded. “The paleoconservatives have chosen—and the rest of us must choose too. In a time of danger, they have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them.”
Frum, who was sent packing from his perch at the American Enterprise Institute for his refusal to do much of anything in exchange for his six-figure sinecure there, was right about one thing: war is a great clarifier.
Take Afghanistan, for example. Although the post-9/11 invasion of the country was presented to the American public as necessary to take down al Qaeda and its then-leader Osama bin Laden for their roles in perpetrating the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, the mission quickly shifted to nation-building and democracy-exporting. By December of 2001, the Taliban–which had harbored al Qaeda in Afghanistan—had been routed, and bin Laden had escaped through the mountains into Pakistan.
In his State of the Union address in 2002, then-president George W. Bush all but claimed total military victory in Afghanistan.
“In four short months, our nation has comforted the victims, begun to rebuild New York and the Pentagon, rallied a great coalition, captured, arrested, and rid the world of thousands of terrorists, destroyed Afghanistan’s terrorist training camps, saved a people from starvation, and freed a country from brutal oppression,” Bush stated.
At that point, the military mission in Afghanistan should have concluded. But by 2004, the mission to destroy the terrorists responsible for 9/11 had morphed into a mission to export and establish Western-style liberal democracy not just in Afghanistan, but in Iraq, too.
“As long as the Middle East remains a place of tyranny, despair, and anger, it will continue to produce men and movements that threaten the safety of America and our friends. So America is pursuing a forward strategy of freedom in the greater Middle East,” Bush told Congress in 2004. “We also hear doubts that democracy is a realistic goal for the greater Middle East, where freedom is rare. Yet it is mistaken, and condescending, to assume that whole cultures and great religions are incompatible with liberty and self-government.”
The subtext of Bush’s address was no different than the overt charge leveled by Frum: if you opposed the bait-and-switch from defeating terrorists to nation-building all over the Middle East, either because you believed it be contrary to the purpose of the military or you believed it was futile and doomed to failure, you were racist and xenophobic.
Bush’s sentiments were echoed more eloquently by the late Charles Krauthammer in a speech delivered to the American Enterprise Institute in February of 2004. Krauthammer’s remarks, entitled “Democratic Realism,” extolled the virtues of democracy promotion by force and scoffed at the idea that a liberal Western democracy in a tribal nation like Afghanistan with no history whatsoever of secular, representative government would do anything but flourish.
“Realists have been warning against the hubris of thinking we can transform an alien culture because of some postulated natural and universal human will to freedom,” Krauthammer acknowledged. “And they may yet be right. But how do they know in advance?”
When he then asked during his speech where it is written that tribal Islamic societies with no sense of national identity akin to the American esprit de corps that unites all people within its borders regardless of color or creed, let alone a tradition of Western rule of law and civic order, are incapable of peaceful, secular democracy, an attendee at the dinner yelled out “the Koran!” Unfazed and apparently oblivious to the possibility that the vacuum created by forcibly deposing Saddam Hussein and other Middle Eastern leaders would lead to Islamists throughout the Middle East deposing their own governments, slaughtering Christians and apostate Muslims, over-running American diplomatic outposts and murdering American ambassadors, and eventually reestablishing the Islamic caliphate, Krauthammer soldiered on.
Spreading democracy around the globe, Krauthammer argued, was the only way to stop terrorism, and to argue otherwise was idiotic. To oppose the grandiose plans of the neoconservatives and liberal internationalists was, in Krauthammer’s words, “intellectually obsolete” and “politically bankrupt.”
As we all now know, having witnessed the post-invasion debacle in Iraq, the disastrous Arab Spring, the pre-meditated murder of four Americans in Libya, the rise and spread of ISIS, and the ignominious fall of Kabul in Afghanistan, the utopian vision of Frum, Bush, and Krauthammer was a lie. It was a lie that cost two decades, trillions of dollars, and tens of thousands of American lives and limbs, and it was an incalculably destructive lie that was sold by smearing its realist opponents as condescending, racist know-nothings who lacked both the brain and the heart to understand how the new world truly worked.
The fall of Afghanistan should have shocked the architects of its failure back into reality. Instead, they’ve moved on as if nothing much happened at all and are now arguing that America should, nay must, allow tens or even hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees into America immediately. Being wrong means never having to say you’re sorry and being wrong about every failed foreign policy endeavor of this century apparently means you get to blather your way past America’s worst defeat since Vietnam so you can instead talk about the need for open borders. The solution for failing to export American democracy to Afghanistan, you see, is to import Afghanistan into America. And wouldn’t you know it, the same arguments and epithets deployed against opponents of America’s failed wars are now being deployed against opponents of unchecked immigration. Moral blackmail is the stock-in-trade of the failed internationalist.
Their Mistakes, Your Punishment
Are you concerned that people posing as refugees might be terrorists intent on killing Americans on U.S. soil? You’re a racist. Are you worried that the same government and immigration system that allowed the 19 9/11 hijackers entry to the U.S. might not be competent to judge who is and who is not a security threat? You’re a xenophobe. Do you think maybe it is time for the U.S. government to focus on what is best for American citizens rather than what is best for Afghans, or Syrians, or Libyans, or Iraqis? You’re probably a Jim Crow fanatic who wants segregated water fountains. Do you think the family of the current president, via their shady business deals with corrupt oligarchs beholden to America’s enemies across the globe, might be getting rich by manipulating the president’s foreign policy to enrich themselves? Well, you’re obviously a Russian stooge.
The same people who tried to morally blackmail you into supporting a failed Forever War in Afghanistan—the ones who declared that you were either on board with the new international interventionist imperative or you were with the terrorists—are now trying to morally blackmail you into supporting open borders with Afghanistan and every other country that America’s incompetent elites thought they could turn into Stepford if only they invaded it hard enough. In truth, the entire foundation of the Washington establishment’s failed foreign policy is its members’ own feelings of guilt.
They felt guilty that Afghanistan looked like an awful place to live, so they set about rebuilding the country in their own image, complete with gender equity courses and lectures on how the predominantly Muslim citizens of the country need to be more like their secular Western counterparts. They felt guilty about what they spent 20 years doing in Afghanistan—falsely offering hope of an eternal American safety net, constructed and maintained not with their own blood, sweat, and tears, but with those of enlisted American military men and women scoffed at and mocked by the smart set—so you must accept the risk posed by a terrorist who pretended to be a refugee to get across the nation’s increasingly non-existent southern border. They feel guilty about their wealth and privilege (not guilty enough to give that wealth or privilege to anyone else, of course), so you must accept the lower wages that are the obvious result of inflating the labor supply while depressing demand through job-crushing progressive economic policy.
These concerns about the runaway costs of interventionism, however, are based firmly in reality. Take the story of an Afghan interpreter told in Outlaw Platoon, the spectacular war memoir by Sean Parnell, who served as a combat platoon leader in one of the most violent parts of Afghanistan. In his book, Parnell details how one of the Afghan interpreters in his platoon, a man who had been thoroughly “vetted” and given access to some of the Army’s closest held secrets, helped engineer an improvised explosive attack that killed one of Parnell’s troops, Cpl. Jeremiah S. Cole, and seriously injured four others. That interpreter, who went by the name Yusef, had also arranged for the murder of his counterpart Abdul so that Yusef would have total access to all sensitive information, such as troop movements and attack plans, which he would then pass along to America’s enemies.
“Knowing where Abdul had been going and the road he had used to get there, Yusef’s tip had allowed the insurgents to establish an ambush in time to catch Abdul on his way back to Bermel from his family’s house,” Parnell writes. “With Abdul dead, Yusef knew he would be promoted to head interpreter.”
“We’d gone through our year in country, judging these Afghans through the prism of our own value systems, never fully grasping what we were up against,” Parnell concluded.
Earlier this week, Parnell shared that story on Tucker Carlson’s primetime show on Fox News.
Media Matters immediately responded to Parnell’s story by slicing and dicing the transcript of Parnell’s appearance to smear him as a racist for believing, based on his own personal experience with a vetted Afghan who murdered one of his brothers in arms, that America could not properly vet the thousands of Afghans wishing to immigrate to America.
Like one of those old magic eye posters that contained images hidden among visual white noise, once you see the American ruling elite’s reflex to resort to moral blackmail to win an argument, you can never unsee it. Every policy, every argument, every talking point asserts that you are a racist and a bad person if you believe America’s government should first and foremost protect American citizens. This is a fun game for the failed foreign policy establishment, because they reap all the benefits of using Americans’ blood and money to pump up their own self-esteem while bearing precisely none of the costs.
One of the primary reasons this cadre of credentialed incompetents loathed former president Donald Trump is because, as a secular, thrice-married New York billionaire, he was impervious to the moral blackmail that had worked like a charm on everyone else for over a decade. He didn’t much care if they called him racist for wanting to secure the border and put an end to open borders. He didn’t care if they called him heartless for wanting to shut down immigration from “shithole countries” to preserve the wages of American workers. And he didn’t care if they called him stupid for refusing to go along with their plans for forever wars all around the globe. For a time, America had a president who wouldn’t be bullied into doing things that weren’t in America’s national security interests. They hated him for it, and it’s why they spent every waking moment for four years, including two impeachments, desperately trying to throw him out of office.
Moral blackmail only works when the target cares what the blackmailer thinks about him. America’s interventionist elites have publicly failed in the most spectacular way possible, with the evidence of their failures playing on repeat on television for all the world to see. Breaking their hold on power from here on out is simple: stop caring what they think and stop caring what they say about you. Their ideas are disastrous and their rhetoric—that anyone who disagrees with them is a racist traitor—is toxic in a society built on free expression. The architects of the nation-building policies from Afghanistan to Iraq are failures and should be treated with the same disdain reserved for flat earthers or bloodletters.
Do you want to prevent the next Iraq or Afghanistan or Libya or Syria from being foisted on the American public at the cost of who knows how many decades, lives, or trillions of dollars? Stop giving them an inch. Stop kowtowing to their moral blackmail. Start telling them no.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.
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