Analysis & Opinions - TRENDS Research & Advisory

An Unassailable Position of Total Weakness — U.S. Foreign Policy Since 9/11

| Sep. 11, 2021

Among historians of the Vietnam War, there is a well-known story about a meeting between U.S. Army Colonel, Harry Summers Jr., and a North Vietnamese officer some years after the war ended in 1975. Summers pointed out that the United States had never lost a battle during the war to which the North Vietnamese officer replied, "that may be true, but it is also irrelevant."[1] Over twenty years since the Global War on Terror began after 9/11, and now after the defeat of the United States and NATO's mission in Afghanistan, there will undoubtedly exist many advocates of military operations around the world who share Colonel Summers' frustration and perspective. Such military-oriented proponents, and especially civilian policymakers who turn to military power because they are unable to craft better solutions to serious problems, should think more along the lines of the North Vietnamese officer. Ultimately, US defeat in Afghanistan and the likely re-emergence of terrorism across the globe, along with other security concerns and costs, have multiplied because of an over-reliance on military power to solve core political problems in Afghanistan, self-made ones in Iraq, and elsewhere.

While the United States and its NATO partners are militarily and economically powerful, and while these capabilities are unassailable in a military sense, the U.S. and its NATO partners are also politically unable to achieve the unachievable in places, such as Afghanistan. As the historical record indicates, they also often fail to achieve sustainable policies or implement effective changes on which initial policy rationales for intervention were based. Events in Afghanistan since July 2021 serve as a gut wrenching reminder as to how quickly gains from the last twenty years may be lost and how genuine progress was a mirage.

Indeed, war in Afghanistan was not lost in a military sense. Political elites, and undoubtedly many military personnel, will invoke the confounding fact that it is almost always nearly impossible for the United States to lose on the battlefield. The Taliban, after all, did not possess an air force, resources, or logistics remotely comparable to the United States and its NATO allies. What political elites in the west are often unable to admit is that the Taliban had far more political legitimacy than their political competitors in the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan which the United States helped establish and to which it committed itself almost twenty years ago. While aircraft carriers, F-35s and F-22s all may conduct operational and tactical missions successfully, in the end they achieved little strategically and that is why military power is often irrelevant. It is a simple lesson that history teaches that is difficult to put into practice.

Unfortunately, there are many historical cases in which a U.S. tendency to over-rely on military capabilities and American economic strength proved unwise and how such power eventually proved to be irrelevant. In addition to the Vietnam War as an example, the rapid collapse of the Republic of China and its large military forces in late 1948 and 1949 offers some parallels with the collapse of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan Government, despite the United States investment of trillions of U.S. dollars....

Footnotes

  • Harry G. Summers, Jr., On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (Washington D.C.: Presidio Press, 1982).

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Moir, Nathaniel L.“An Unassailable Position of Total Weakness — U.S. Foreign Policy Since 9/11.” TRENDS Research & Advisory, September 11, 2021.

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