Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

America Isn’t Exceptional Anymore

The United States can no longer claim to be the leader of the free world if it abandons strategic allies and vulnerable civilians.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the editor in chief of the National.
Taliban special force fighters stand guard next to a plane.
Taliban special force fighters stand guard next to an Afghan Air Force aircraft at the airport in Kabul on Aug. 31. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

As the last U.S. soldier pulled out of Afghanistan in the dead of night on Aug. 30 and the Taliban walked into Hamid Karzai International Airport, many in the Arab world were looking on and wondering if similar scenes could one day be seen at Baghdad International Airport or elsewhere in the region.

Since then-U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama ran on a platform of “ending the war in Iraq” in 2008, popular domestic support for ending overseas military engagement has been a driving force for U.S. politicians. Although Obama was able to declare an end to the Iraq War in 2011, he was also the commander in chief who ordered a U.S. military intervention, named Operation Inherent Resolve, to defeat the Islamic State there in 2014.

It appears that resolve is now lacking.

As the last U.S. soldier pulled out of Afghanistan in the dead of night on Aug. 30 and the Taliban walked into Hamid Karzai International Airport, many in the Arab world were looking on and wondering if similar scenes could one day be seen at Baghdad International Airport or elsewhere in the region.

Since then-U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama ran on a platform of “ending the war in Iraq” in 2008, popular domestic support for ending overseas military engagement has been a driving force for U.S. politicians. Although Obama was able to declare an end to the Iraq War in 2011, he was also the commander in chief who ordered a U.S. military intervention, named Operation Inherent Resolve, to defeat the Islamic State there in 2014.

It appears that resolve is now lacking.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump and his successor, Joe Biden, decided maintaining a military presence of approximately 2,500 soldiers in Afghanistan, providing essential air cover and intelligence to the Afghan army, and supporting the Afghan government is no longer necessary to meet U.S. national security interests. Therefore, both their administrations worked on withdrawing from the country. On Aug. 26, the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan mounted one of its most potent attacks, killing more than 170 people, including 13 U.S. service personnel.

The Arab world has witnessed the catastrophic fallout from the way the U.S. withdrawal was dismally implemented. A number of Arab countries were directly involved in evacuation efforts. The United Arab Emirates is temporarily hosting nearly 9,000 Afghans until they are resettled in third countries. Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar were all important transit points for evacuees while Iraq received a small number of Afghan students.

Among policymakers in the Middle East, there is now an understanding the United States is no longer invested in maintaining stability abroad—unless its narrowly defined national interests are directly impacted.


Biden has publicly addressed the humanitarian crisis that followed in Afghanistan with a determination that his decision—and how it was implemented—was right. In remarks on Aug. 16, Biden said “our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland. I’ve argued for many years that our mission should be narrowly focused on counterterrorism, not counterinsurgency or nation-building.” That message was heard loud and clear in the Arab world. In countries like Libya and Yemen, where conflicts continue and nation-building is crucial, Washington has been disengaged for a number of years. However, that disengagement is now official policy.

Yet, counterterrorism cannot be confined to targeting terrorists through drone strikes. For decades, counterterrorism officials and experts have argued terrorist organizations flourish in areas that are devoid of governance or in societies where a greater sense of injustice prevails. Syria and Iraq are prime examples of how the Islamic State was able to establish itself due to internal governance failures and an U.S. disinterest in tackling core issues in both countries. This was seen after the United States’ initial involvement in the Iraqi regime’s setup post-2003 and support of Syria’s opposition after 2011.

Washington’s allies and foes in the Middle East are taking note. From the threat of terrorist groups like the Islamic State to emboldened militias like Hezbollah, U.S. allies can no longer rely on Washington. As U.S. officials question some countries’ choices—like Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia increasing ties with China—they must understand Beijing comes across as a more reliable partner in the same way Russia proved a more reliable partner to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, ensuring his survival.

The U.S. absence from Baghdad’s summit on international cooperation on Aug. 28, that had everyone from UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to French President Emmanuel Macron, further highlighted Washington’s political absence.

The establishment of systems of government in the shape of Western liberal democracies no longer makes sense.

With a disengaged United States and a lack of European consensus on filling that void, the establishment of systems of government in the shape of Western liberal democracies no longer makes sense. After two decades of promoting democracy as the leading system of government, the view from the Middle East is the United States has abdicated that rhetorical position.

And that may not be a bad thing. Effective government should be the goal rather than governments formed simply through the ballot box that don’t deliver for their people. As the fall of Afghanistan captures the world’s attention, another major change of government is taking place in Tunisia. After months of a failed COVID-19 response and years of corruption and weak governance complaints, Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed the government and suspended parliament.

Although there is wide popular support for Saied, who was voted in with more than 70 percent of the popular vote, U.S. officials have been making demands of Saied to reinstate parliament, without much accountability for the legislative body’s actions. It is jarring to see that as the U.S. government holds talks with the Taliban, it has been issuing statements demanding Tunisia’s democratically elected president adhere to Washington’s preferred version of governance.

The juxtaposition may not be obvious from the United States, but it certainly is in the Arab world, where it is perceived as a glaring double standard. U.S. officials cannot claim a moral authority in the Arab world while standing straight-faced and declaring the scenes around Kabul’s airport were justified.

There were already suspicions in the Arab world about the Biden administration because of its officials’ previous track records, such as Biden’s position as a senator championing the partition of Iraq in 2006 and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken playing a role in the Obama administration’s refusal to intervene after Syria used chemical weapons in 2013.

A number of officials in the Biden administration—including Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, CIA Director William Burns, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power, and Biden himself—were all at the forefront of making decisions during the Obama administration that contributed to mayhem in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. It was current Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman who was the Obama administration’s main contact point with Arab ambassadors and senior officials, assuring them they would be consulted on any deal with Iran while Sullivan and Burns were holding secret meetings with the Iranians.

During those years, extremists across the region were emboldened. The Islamic State seized up to a third of Iraq and vast territories in Syria, Iranian-backed militias were formalized in Iraq based on an agreement with Washington, and Libya disintegrated into civil war after Washington decided to “lead from behind” in the wake of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi’s fall. All this happened under their watch.


Abandoning strategic allies and vulnerable civilians is deciding to give up any pretense of being an exceptional nation. Political leaders in the Middle East are learning that lesson as are civic activists.

“American influence around the world is not a function of military force alone,” Obama said in 2010 after ending combat missions in Iraq. “We must use all elements of our power—including our diplomacy, our economic strength, and the power of America’s example—to secure our interests and stand by our allies. And we must project a vision of the future that’s based not just on our fears but also on our hopes—a vision that recognizes the real dangers that exist around the world but also the limitless possibilities of our time.”

“As the leader of the free world, America will do more than just defeat on the battlefield those who offer hatred and destruction,” he continued. “We will also lead among those who are willing to work together to expand freedom and opportunity for all people.”

More than a decade later, that promise to “expand freedom and opportunity for all people” rings hollow. The United States can claim to be the largest economy in the world and a great hub of innovation, but it can no longer claim to be the “leader of the free world.”

The promise of helping the Afghan people have a better and more secure future is one promise too many broken by the United States. The trauma of what is unfolding in Afghanistan will be felt for years by Afghans and all those who have been involved in the country.

For liberals in Afghanistan and the Middle East who were unashamedly pro-American, there is shame today in being so naïve. Ultimately, the U.S. declaration of the end of the war in Afghanistan means the war is ending with no peace—and protracted wars often are made longer with unilateral withdrawals. The Arab world fears its lands will be the host of renewed violence as a consequence.

Mina Al-Oraibi is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the editor in chief of the National. Twitter: @AlOraibi

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.