Welcome To Hegemonic Decline — It Ain't Pretty

Maybe this isn’t the Afghanistan-related content that my largely-American audience is most eager to consume, but having been in London for the past two weeks and followed the coverage of the Afghanistan withdrawal here, I can’t help but be grimly fascinated by the steady stream of overwrought fury bellowing from UK political and media elites. It’s worth paying attention to as an American, even if you don’t have any particular reason to care about what goes on in the UK. Because what’s most grimly fascinating is that a furor which has dominated UK political debate for weeks arose not due to any decision taken by UK policy-makers, but rather due to a unilateral policy decision taken by Joe Biden. And yet, debate in the UK proceeds with hardly any acknowledgement of the willfully subservient military arrangement its elected officials have acceded to for decades. Instead, UK politicians and pundits lash out at Biden like he’s their own de facto chief executive or something; few seem aware of how fundamentally strange this is.

Put another way, the UK has been embroiled in its own miniature version of a recriminatory frenzy ever since the Taliban seized Kabul. But the contours of this frenzy would be almost entirely alien to Americans. Can you even conceive of a scenario where the US would resign itself to subordinating its military planning to the whims of a foreign leader? And be forced to meekly accept the strategic commands imposed on them by that leader? The fracas in the UK is in some ways more an American affair than a British one, because it’s principally US policy — not any policy enacted by their own government — that is being so furiously debated and (largely) condemned here.

While minor operational critiques have been raised in relation to the UK’s own smaller-scale evacuation effort, ultimately the UK Government did not choose to withdraw from Afghanistan. Another country autonomously dictated that “choice” on their behalf. One struggles to imagine the US, so aggressively defensive of its military hegemony, ever tolerating such a lopsided dynamic. But in decades past, the UK likely would’ve struggled to imagine it too. 

For a variety of reasons — including residual fantasies of Post-WWII glory, the exigencies of short-term party politics, among others — UK elected officials and pundits have studiously avoided any frontal acknowledgement of this submissive arrangement, and what it signifies about the limits of their own agency. In a collective act of deflection, they end up fixating unrelentingly on the person of Biden — to the point that you’d almost think Westminster has votes in the Electoral College or something.

Why take any interest in this, as an American who otherwise ignores or is apathetic toward the UK? Perhaps because the shambolic uproar here is a preview of what’s to come “on this side of the Atlantic” (an annoyingly ubiquitous cliche). As US hegemony inevitably and ineluctably recedes, just like UK hegemony did in an earlier era, our own elites are unlikely to fare any better in the process of reconciling themselves to their newfound impotence. At least the British occasionally evince some dry humor on the subject. In the US, it’s sure to be a whole lot uglier — and nuttier. A few relatively unremarkable affirmations of foreign policy “realism” by Biden was already enough to drive US media and politicians into blithering paroxysms: 

What about some not-so-farfetched future hypothetical scenario where, like the UK in Afghanistan, the US one day finds it doesn’t have control anymore over its own military decision-making? That it gradually sleep-walked into a balance-of-power dynamic whereby its autonomy had been effectively forfeited? There’d probably be a whole lot of comically overblown theatrics, and convoluted mental gymnastics, performed in service of avoiding any real facing up to this fact. It won’t happen overnight; the US still has time left to retain some measure of military and economic supremacy. But it’s coming. A subset of “national security” elites are at least self-aware enough to admit being “filled with deep angst” over what the alleged “catastrophe” in Afghanistan portends for the future of US hegemony. This also explains much of their prior angst about Donald Trump, who was viewed by these same elites as an unacceptably crass and embarrassing steward of US global power. 

And while such “angst” often manifests in the most outlandishly self-discrediting ways, these elites aren’t wrong that the US is a power in steep decline. It has engaged in multiple military conflicts over the past 20 years that could not be described as anything but colossal failures. It has squandered trillions of dollars on these efforts, which range from full-scale invasions and occupations (Afghanistan, Iraq) to protracted regime change operations (Syria) to proxy wars (Yemen) to one-off aerial attacks (Libya) that just happen to result in mass emigration crises. Multiple presidents from both parties campaigned in opposition to these failed military adventures, but through a combination of bureaucratic capture, deliberate intra-governmental undermining, and lack of will, ended up perpetuating them. Eventually the “allies” who view the US as a reliable guarantor of global stability will come to detect a pattern, wouldn’t you think?

After the Taliban seized Kabul, and British MPs were summoned back from their summer holidays, “The Telegraph” dramatically reported that Parliament had “held Biden in contempt.” Wow — “contempt.” Sounds very bracing and startling. But what does it mean in practice? Turns out that the UK Parliament holding a US President “in contempt” entails no tangible policy action at all. Not even a vote, or a letter, or anything. (What are they going to do, impeach?) What this apparently entails is just a bunch of politicians standing up to complain — it bears repeating — about a policy decision taken by the head of another country. To give just one tedious example among many, Labour MP Chris Bryant rose to denounce Biden’s remarks about the situation in Afghanistan as “some of the most shameful comments ever from an American president.” 

For the past several weeks, Bryant and his fellowmen have been consumed by controversy over an action — sorry to keep repeating this — over which they had no direct control, and which the country’s top leadership actually opposed, but had no option other than to begrudgingly accept. Last Sunday’s edition of the “The Times” reported that Boris Johnson (allegedly the Prime Minister of a sovereign government) had desperately “lobbied President Biden by phone to extend the August 31 deadline for the airlift,” but Biden “refused on security grounds.” In the UK military command structure, the “buck” doesn’t “stop” with their own government’s top official. It stops with Joe Biden.

Tom Tugendhat, another performatively aggrieved MP, has spoken for many colleagues in his repeated condemnations of the Afghanistan withdrawal as “the single biggest foreign policy disaster since Suez.” There are multiple layers of irony here, because the UK’s 1956 invasion of the Suez Canal is generally regarded as so “disastrous” and “humiliating” not for any strictly military reason, but because it was seen a symbolic turning point in the decline of UK international influence. President Dwight Eisenhower rebuked the UK’s gambit to retake control of the Canal from Egyptian nationalist leader Gamal Nasser, and UK forces therefore had to retreat in ignominy — unable to carry out the mission without the backing of the ascendant US hegemon.

In 2014, journalist Peter Hitchens even uncovered archival evidence showing that a top-ranking US Admiral, Arleigh Burke, discussed with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles whether it would be feasible to “blast the hell out of” UK forces seeking to re-capture the Canal, so determined as Eisenhower was to thwart UK (and French) plans. And while the US Navy never opened fire on any Britons, they did try to impede the UK’s advance. Hitchens relayed a quote from a UK Admiral who reported that his fleet had been “continually menaced during past eight hours by US aircraft,” as well as an after-action report from a UK General who lamented that “it was the action of the US which really defeated us in attaining our object.” You have to wonder — if this 65-year-old episode is still such a painful memory — why the UK nonetheless chose to join itself at the hip with the foreign power blamed as most responsible for their greatest “humiliation.”

The “disaster” of Suez parallels why US elites were driven totally apoplectic by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. It wasn’t so much the logistical details of the withdrawal operation itself, although many flamboyantly insist that’s what they’re really so worked up about. The war is now over after 122,000 people were successfully evacuated, and there were no direct hostilities between the US military and the Taliban. (Can anyone figure out if Republicans think too many people were evacuated, or too few? Hard to keep track of what the criticism is supposed to be.) Yes, 13 US military personnel were tragically killed in a suicide bombing, but that’s 31 fewer US fatalities than occurred between 2017 and 2020 — casualties that no one even seemed to notice. Odd that prior escalations of the failed war engendered exponentially less outrage than the belated termination of it. And at least those 13 were conducting the only defensible US military operation in Afghanistan since 2002 — getting out.

Underneath all the partisan sniping and cheap talking points, though, is a deep-seated reason this withdrawal has provoked such a catastrophizing outburst of “Suez-like” magnitude: because the embarrassing symbolism (or “optics”) portends that the US is on a similar trajectory of decline as the UK, although a couple of decades removed. Much the same intangibles that animated UK elites’ feeling of “humiliation” pursuant to Suez — loss of “credibility,” diminution of status, relinquishment of territorial assets — very much also animate the “angst” of US elites who just watched trillions of dollars go down the drain in a failed Central Asia boondoggle. In time, this could well mean the US will be forced to accommodate itself to a similar kind of enfeebled, subservient global role that the UK has so awkwardly accommodated itself to. And it won’t be pretty.

I’ll be doing a Rokfin livestream today at 8pm EST on this and related subjects. As always, if you can’t watch live, the full video will be available afterwards at the same link.