The end of the war in Afghanistan and, essentially, the entire US misadventure in the Middle East marks the conclusion of a clearly defined period in global history. While it might take several generations before the real impact of the debacle can be fully assessed, the defeat says a great deal about the state of the American elite and political class. Historian Dmitry Shlapentokh of Indiana University South Bend argues that, with the drums of war beating again over Ukraine, it is worth recognizing that the motivations and interests of leaders and their revered advisors and experts do not often coincide with those of the country or society.
The elite at work – US president Barack Obama and his cabinet, January 31, 2012: Advisers and experts sit along the walls (Credit: Lawrence Jackson/The White House)
The defeat in Afghanistan and implicitly the collapse of the American escapade in the Middle East meant the end of unipolarity. The American elite came to realize that it could not maintain a global presence and that retreat from some endeavors is essential. This seems an obvious conclusion. But there is another less apparent but no less important implication of the withdrawal. The disaster of the mission and the pitiable response speak to the very degeneration of that establishment, which is very different from those who governed the United States generations ago.
One of the elements of a healthy polity and trustworthy elite is the sense of social responsibility of individuals for the state and the citizenry. Success is not defined by personal triumph but by the achievement of the group or the cause. As the Ancient Roman poet Horace, whose heyday coincided with the reign of the first Roman emperor Augustus (who ruled from 27 BCE until 14 CE), put it, “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” – “Sweet and honorable it is to die for one’s country.” One should not take this lyrical declaration at face value. There was certainly enough individualism, cynicism and corruption at that pivotal time, as republic gave way to empire.
Still, there is no doubt that a considerable number of citizens of Rome shared the sentiment – how else could a village have transformed itself into a global hegemon? When Roman legions suffered major defeats such as in the third century BCE at the hands of the Carthaginian military mastermind Hannibal, these were tragedies for all the people of Rome and not just its leaders. This underscored how the sense of citizenship and social cohesion, the deep socialization of people, and the valuing of the common good are signs of the strength and resilience of a stable and enduring society.
In the past, the US exhibited these characteristics. The defeat in the Vietnam War was considered a catastrophe not just for those who died in the conflict but also for the entire nation. The American elite was not excluded. Following student demonstrations, considerable casualties and the blow to the nation’s prestige, president Lyndon Johnson decided not to seek re-election in 1968. Cynics reckoned that he would have lost anyway. But a defeat was not certain, and if he had been so concerned with his political survival and reputation and did not care about what was good for the country, he could have employed the tools of narrative control and spin to turn perceptions around and convince voters that victory was imminent. He might well have been returned to office.
But Johnson chose to bow out. He could not seek a personal victory in the midst of a national disaster. The principle of noblesse oblige seemed to have been something of a creed for him and the American elite of the time. While not all public figures emulated LBJ and fell on their swords in the wake of the debacle in Vietnam, the sense of duty to country, not just to party, interest group or self, prevailed. Elites were trusted to make decisions or offer advice for the greater good of the nation and its people.
Since the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, however, this code among the healthy elite has eroded quickly and markedly.
From healthy to anomic elite
In assessing the American elite’s response to Afghanistan with a haphazard withdrawal that punctuated the US debacle in the Middle East, it is important to remember the ideological context after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The commentariat buzzed with talk of the “end of history”, Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation of an everlasting triumph of Western democracy. Political scientist Samuel Huntington had predicted a “clash of civilizations” between the West and the East. One “doctrine” attributed to neo-conservative analyst Michael Ledeen posited that every 10 years the US needed to find some “crappy little country and throw it against a wall, just to show the world we mean business.” The “neo-con” line, possibly best articulated by Robert Kagan, cast Europe as feeble and naïve “Venus” that believed in such trifles as international law, with the US as “Mars”, firm in the belief that all matters in foreign policy could be decided by force.
After the US retreat from Afghanistan, it might have been reasonable to expect the purveyors of this ideology of imperial expansionism in both Democratic Party and Republican Party administrations to have delivered mea culpas, acknowledging that their approach was wrong and that they regretted the deaths of thousands of Americans and the waste of trillions of dollars. They might have owned up to the fact that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had led to incredible destruction in the Middle East and the death of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of civilians. They might not have sincerely felt this way, but they could have made such statements of contrition, out of humility and a sense of responsibility and the need for healing.
That did not happen. Key figures such as Condoleezza Rice, George W Bush’s secretary of state, or Leon Panetta, who was defense secretary and Central Intelligence Agency chief under Barack Obama, have been largely unrepentant, defending the US mission in Afghanistan. They have moved on to consulting positions or sinecures in academe and continue to have careers as experts and analysts. This complete separation of personal professional interests from those of one’s wider community or the state is a mark of what French sociologist Émile Durkheim called the “anomie”, individuals who think and act regardless of what is for the good of society.
Practical implications of an anomic elite
What are the practical implications of the spread of anomic behavior among the elite?
First, it indicates how the elite or, to be precise, those who make decisions receive advice. The anomic ruler is not interested in counsel that outlines how his actions could benefit his class or country in general, if the suggested actions do not benefit him or his narrow interest group (the base). In this context, advisors also become anomic. It is in their interest to present information or guidance which either benefit the leader or confirm decisions already made by him. In their anomic state, these advisors consider how to be useful to their leader and be rewarded by him, even if the recommendations they make could harm society or even the leader’s career, interests or legacy in the long run. The anomic advisors become modern courtiers, flattering their liege and shifting their views to suit the master’s wishes.
This behavior has been around since time began. The “Dialogue of Pessimism”, an ancient Mesopotamian text, composed in Akkadian, that presents a conversation between a master and a slave is a good example. The master shares his intention to take certain actions, whether about lovemaking or waging war. He keeps changing his mind and abruptly proposes markedly different plans. In both cases, the slave offers advice that justifies the diametrically opposite decisions. This sort of “postmodernist” flexibility can be explained simply enough: The slave as “expert” wants to be treated well by the master.
Today’s anomic advisors operate the same way. What they advise depends on the needs of the market, that is, the public or the leaders. The elite package their proposed approaches and strategies, which often are not well thought out, to fit the demand. For their part, the leaders, those who are to implement these actions, focused as they are on their own personal, parochial or tribal interests, typically take a very limited time horizon. They do not plan so far ahead.
It would, of course, be an oversimplification to condemn the elite in the US as entirely anomic. But the system has produced a considerable segment of the political, economic and intellectual firmament who are anomic in their approach to the world. Those who study the United States and deal with the country should recognize this.
Lim, Christopher H; and Lim, Diane L. (April 8, 2021) “Clinging to the Conventional: Enduring Presuppositions Can Kill”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Shlapentokh, Dmitry. (June 29, 2021) “The New ‘Cold War’ – and Why the US Cannot Win It”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Yip, Jason. (August 19, 2021) “Afghanistan at a Crossroads: Perspectives on the Ground”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Indiana University South Bend