After Imperial Britain and the Soviet Union, Afghanistan has now seen off America, supposedly the world’s mightiest military.
It has prompted President Biden to say that the end of the United States’ longest war was also the end to the idea of nation building.
Once the Shining City on a hill touting its democratic values across the world, has the stars and stripes now folded in on itself, as America comes to terms with the limits of its power?
Speaking after the last US soldier left Afghanistan, President Biden said: “This decision about Afghanistan, it’s not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.
“We saw a mission of counterterrorism in Afghanistan, getting the terrorists and stopping attacks, morph into a counterinsurgency. Nation building, trying to create a democratic, cohesive and united Afghanistan, something that has never been done over many centuries of Afghan history.”
Ironically, this is exactly what his predecessor Donald Trump, barricaded in the White House not so long ago, thought – although he would have used rather different language. But what a contrast to Biden’s old boss Barack Obama, who used nation building to reluctantly justify sending an extra 100,000 troops to Afghanistan. The then Vice-President Biden was the only cabinet member to vote against the deployment.
President Obama said in 2011: “We will ensure that Afghanistan is never a safe haven for terror, but is instead a country that is strong, sovereign and able to stand on its own two feet.”
Then there was his predecessor, George W. Bush, who used nation building after 9/11 to justify going after Saddam Hussein.
He said of the people of Iraq in 2005: “They’re building a strong democracy that can handle these challenges and that will be a model for the Middle East. Freedom in Iraq will inspire reformers, from Damascus to Tehran.”
Freedom without the institutions and laws led to anarchy. Perhaps the most notorious example of nation building gone wrong was in the jungles of Vietnam, immortalised by the phrase of one American commander who said we “need to destroy this town in order to save it”.
So why and how does Uncle Sam keep getting it wrong? The didactic monuments of Washington hold one answer: their American exceptionalism in granite and marble, a democracy with imperial clout, power diluted by guilt, the innocence of missionary zeal. But when Lady Liberty is paraded at the head of a marching army, her appeal fades.
History holds the other answer to America’s nation building urges. President Truman used a flattened Nazi Germany after the Second World War like a blank canvas on which to graft an American style constitution with a federal system and an independent judiciary. The mission was backed up by huge amounts of money, courtesy of the Secretary of State, George C. Marshall. There was a method behind the money. A rebuilt and democratic Western Europe would form part of a solid Iron Curtain against communism. Europe is America’s most successful experiment in nation building, but also today, it’s only one. And it’s not to be tried again anywhere as long as President Biden is in charge.