With the withdrawal from Afghanistan complete and the agreement to end “combat” missions in Iraq before the new year, the question of why the US never seems to learn from its past is so obvious and trenchant that it is unlikely to be fully answered. And the question applies more broadly across the US, domestically as well as in terms of its international actions.
Americans and their elected leaders face a series of unambiguous threats and challenges to the nation’s safety, security and prosperity. At home, bad news seems to be overwhelming good news and not because of media preference to focus on the former. The pandemic is worsening. Crime is rising. Increased murder rates and gun violence are among the major symptoms.
Likewise, inflation has become a major issue, notably with the escalating costs of food. The southern border — with massive flows of people trying to enter the country — has not been resolved. The economy may be stalling. And Congress remains deadlocked and probably broken; incapable of passing vital legislation, in this case for infrastructure.
About Afghanistan and Iraq, how could any administration, Republican or Democrat, ignore or reject history? In 2003, when the US had attacked Iraq, the administration never answered, “What next?” In 2021, if the current administration even raised this question about Afghanistan, it obviously did not answer it.
If Afghan interpreters and those who risked life and limb to assist coalition forces are not granted haven, the US morality would be badly tarnished.
Predictably, by removing not just the remaining US and coalition forces but probably worse, the civilian contractors on which Afghan security forces are entirely dependent for everything from bullets and beans to basic maintenance and logistical support, the consequences were self-evident.
Worse, if the Afghan interpreters and those who risked life and limb to assist coalition forces are not granted haven or visas, the morality of the US will be badly tarnished. And, of course, unfriendly states will make full use of that travesty in propaganda to further damage what may be left of America’s image.
The US entered Vietnam for the wrong reasons; believing that if the south fell, so would other dominoes in the region collapse and monolithic communism would win a great victory. Compounding this gross miscalculation, the American military strategy of “search and destroy,” keeping score with the ludicrous notion of a body count, became an instrument of killing as the way to victory. Yet, winning every battle made no difference.
The ignominious retreat from South Vietnam had no strategic impact. Monolithic communism was a delusion. And the real impact was at home in which the war tore America apart and became the predicate for many of the issues and crises affecting us today. What have we learned? Apparently not much.
Regarding Covid-19, the solutions are available: vaccines and masks. Yet, the nation is profoundly divided on both. On the one hand, despite the arguments for personal freedom and choice, society does have many mandates on its citizens for the well-being of all. Seat belts, licenses, and insurance for cars are mandatory. Male registration for selective service and paying taxes likewise are not voluntary.
During the two world wars, ration cards were imposed for most goods and services, especially food. In the First World War, the Espionage and Sedition Acts imposed severe penalties for defying the government and protesting against the war. A small fact: Democratic vice presidential candidate, Eugene V Debs, was on the ticket and in jail for violating speaking against the war.
On the other hand, personal liberties and the potential political backlash from imposing them could prove fatal at the election booth in 2022 given the extreme politicization of the nation. Hence, some number of the about 30 per cent of the public not willing to be vaccinated are using this case supported by several largely Republican governors and members of Congress. Can this resistance be overcome?
There are no easy answers. That said, answers to three why’s can help. The first is why the CDC has not approved full use of the vaccines? Surely, enough time has elapsed for the CDC to determine approval. If not, the second why is why not?
Third, why have cures or means of preventing death in infected patients not been found yet? Prevention is easier than cure. It took only a few days once the Covid DNA was revealed for vaccines to be developed. The much longer process was testing to ensure safety.
Answers to these questions are not a panacea. However, answers will be vital steps in dealing with the Delta variant and containing the pandemic. In this case, remembering the past can help.
The writer is a senior advisor at Washington, DC’s Atlantic Council and a published author.
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