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Anti-Interventionism Isn’t Enough for Left Foreign Policy

Afghanistan shows that the American left is in danger of losing the moral plot.

By , a Ph.D. student at Yale University.
Afghan refugees arrive in Virginia
Refugees arrive at Dulles International Airport in Virginia on Aug. 27 after being evacuated from Kabul following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

The speed with which the United States withdrew from Afghanistan was matched only by the speed of the Taliban’s accession to power. Images of Kabul’s swift fall, rife with scenes of desperate Afghans attempting to flee, left the world scrambling to make sense of what happened—and what to do now. What comes at the end of forever?

This chaotic uncertainty reflects the failure of the United States’ Afghanistan policy across multiple decades and administrations—Republican and Democrat. But it is more than that. It is a warning against the confused shortsightedness that plagues the foreign policy of the left.

Broadly, the mainstream U.S. left is of two schools of thought when it comes to the country’s role in the world. A generation of centrist liberal internationalists welcome the responsibility and power associated with the United States’ global might. They argue for interdependence and intervention on humanitarian grounds, and champion capitalism’s power to bring global peace and prosperity. They are challenged by a newer group of left-wingers eager to end America’s seemingly endless foreign wars, exorbitant military spending, and the eerie dystopia of drone warfare.

The speed with which the United States withdrew from Afghanistan was matched only by the speed of the Taliban’s accession to power. Images of Kabul’s swift fall, rife with scenes of desperate Afghans attempting to flee, left the world scrambling to make sense of what happened—and what to do now. What comes at the end of forever?

This chaotic uncertainty reflects the failure of the United States’ Afghanistan policy across multiple decades and administrations—Republican and Democrat. But it is more than that. It is a warning against the confused shortsightedness that plagues the foreign policy of the left.

Broadly, the mainstream U.S. left is of two schools of thought when it comes to the country’s role in the world. A generation of centrist liberal internationalists welcome the responsibility and power associated with the United States’ global might. They argue for interdependence and intervention on humanitarian grounds, and champion capitalism’s power to bring global peace and prosperity. They are challenged by a newer group of left-wingers eager to end America’s seemingly endless foreign wars, exorbitant military spending, and the eerie dystopia of drone warfare.

Neither school has adequately confronted the policy dilemmas highlighted by U.S. failure in Afghanistan.

Clearly, blame for Afghanistan does not chiefly fall on the left—many of whom opposed the conflict to begin with. The war, begun in 2001 by President George W. Bush, was plagued by corruption, ineptitude, and dereliction of duty from the start. But the American public should be less interested in blame and more interested in lessons learned.

One such lesson for the left—from the war in general, as well as from the chaotic withdrawal—is that military intervention is not the only U.S. foreign policy that can prompt disastrous consequences. The anti-interventionist left is an important reaction to the hubris of liberal internationalism, but that does not mean it can avoid responding to the world liberal interventionism created. Afghanistan shows the need for a foreign-policy outlook that is more than just a negative reaction to previous failures. Anti-interventionism is not enough.

U.S. military interventions are a lightning rod for debates between the anti-interventionist left and liberal internationalists. The anti-interventionist left argues that liberal internationalists’ misguided support for interventions is at best problematic and at worst imperialist. Meanwhile, liberal internationalists argue that the other side too often fails to engage with the moral quandaries inherent in its anti-interventionism.

Both sides misunderstand the complexity and purpose of military intervention. Military intervention, like other policy options, is designed to combat threats—including the threat of fascism, as in World War II, and genocide, as in the Balkans in the 1990s. In the case of World War II, the United States underwent a massive military campaign in Europe and around the globe to stop the spread of fascism and the rise of Adolf Hitler and imperial Japan. In the Balkans, a targeted, air-power-driven coalition stopped a genocide in its tracks. No foreign policy is without unintended consequences, but in these cases, military intervention did well in addressing specific dangers.

This is not to say that intervention is always (or even often) the correct foreign-policy decision. To insist on intervention’s general efficacy is to promote irresponsible statecraft and ignore recent failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Liberal internationalism remains characterized by overconfidence in U.S. power and benign acceptance of its exploitative underpinnings. However, many leftists criticize these recent catastrophic interventions without suggesting a compelling alternative. The universal dismissal of U.S. intervention falsely equivocates between many different global disasters, each of which deserves independent consideration in light of what went wrong, what role the United States played in it, and what the United States can do about it. In many cases, the answer may be nothing.

Many victims of American foreign policy die not as a result of military intervention but from diseases in refugee camps or starvation behind a blockade. Brutal conflict, crimes against humanity, and moral subjugation take place all around the world, both where the United States has intervened and where it has not. The philosopher Hannah Arendt draws a distinction between “guilt”—set aside for individuals who directly perpetrate a wrong—and “responsibility”— applicable to all those who collectively, through action or inaction, contribute to injustice.

The left must reconcile its desire to avoid guilt with the inevitable responsibility that follows in a world still principally shaped by overwhelming U.S. power, both historically and in the present. A negative politics is not enough to save U.S. foreign policy. The left must think seriously about what positive options are available and how to balance the possible harms of each.

The Afghanistan withdrawal is a prime example. Avoiding responsibility might have been an option in 2002; it is not an option now. In a world fundamentally shaped by American decisions, even nonmilitary ones, Washington bears responsibility, even if not guilt, for many situations where solutions are at best partial and painful. The Biden administration is scrambling to sell alternatives to boots on the ground. Plans are underway to increase the number of Afghan refugees admitted to the United States—doubtless a moral imperative. However, it is a mitigating measure in the disaster that unfolds. Only a fraction of the Afghans in danger will escape; only a fraction of those who seek asylum will receive it.

U.S. officials are likely also considering increased sanctions on a Taliban-led government. These sanctions have long prompted criticism due to their downstream harm, inefficiency, and ineffectiveness. Sanctions often have horrifying effects on civilians. They are also almost impossible to impose against armed groups who operate in the informal market and remain difficult to trace.

Foreign aid is also fraught with moral dilemmas. Aid is often refused by controlling authorities (as in the current conflict in Ethiopia), especially when these authorities use humanitarian disasters as a tactic of war. Evidence suggests that U.S. food aid may even increase conflict.

A revised left foreign policy must reflect the values the left champions domestically and recognize the structural problems inherent in almost any foreign policy the United States pursues. Moreover, it must vigorously voice these quandaries—and avoid simplistic equivalencies between contexts that fail to share much more than surface similarities. It must prioritize the voices of those its foreign policy aims to help and insist that Afghan lives matter as much as American lives. It is only then that it can avoid the twin pitfalls of liberal internationalism and the crude isolationism many are now turning to in response.

Whatever Afghanistan policy the United States pursues next—sanctions, covert operations, nothing—will have severe consequences for Afghans. The left must grapple with this ethical dilemma, openly and honestly.

Mel Pavlik is a Ph.D. student at Yale University. She writes on political violence, repression, and international security. Twitter: @mel_pavlik

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