“Consider the source.” That implicit warning against mis- or dis-information is supposed to be inscribed on every reporter’s heart.
Thus, when Leon Panetta tells reporters, after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, ““We can leave a battlefield, but we can’t leave the war on terrorism,” consider this source’s record with regard to the Afghanistan theater of that war.
Panetta was the director of the CIA from 2009 to 2011, which means he supervised the assassination of Osama bid Laden. But, it also means he went along with President Obama’s decision not, then, to declare victory in our original mission in Afghanistan, to punish and destroy Al Qaeda, and go home.
Instead, Panetta, as CIA Director and — from 2011 to 2013 as Obama’s Secretary of Defense — supervised the continuation of the American war against the Taliban and the larger American mission to build an American-style democracy in Afghanistan.
Consider how Panetta presents Afghanistan: as “a battlefield.” And America’s exit as nothing like a failure, a defeat, a surrender. No, it’s just “leav[ing] a battlefield,” a tactical retreat. What do you learn from this? Better tactics? We should have backed different warlords. We should have — instead of futilely trying to suppress it, bought up all the opium produced in Afghanistan and removed it from the global heroin market? But — coulda, woulda, shoulda; blah, blah, blah.
It’s in his very next phrase that Panetta reveals how much he hasn’t learned — from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen. “We can’t leave the war on terrorism,” he says, ignoring one of the strategic lessons to be learned from all those countries that Panetta probably sees as first and foremost as battlefields — that war is the worst tool for combating terrorism.
The American strategy of war against terrorism has only made the enemy stronger. Anywhere an American military force showed up, radical Islamist terrorists with followings both poor and few, suddenly were empowered to recruit fighting forces of their own to resist the invaders. And they not only got more power from becoming warriors, they got rich. And the American war didn’t prevent this; it predicated it.
And in the battle for hearts and minds, net-net, the much larger share of the population, the ones who do not support “the resistance,” the ones caught in the middle of the war, rarely want to thank the foreigners who turned their country into a battlefield.
And when Bernard-Henri Lévy offers his take on the Afghanistan endgame: “The image of the liberal democracies, epitomized by the greatest among them,” he says, “is tragically tarnished,” consider this. This is the guy who sold the idea that war against Qaddafi would make Libya a better place. Consider the source.
David Bromwich is a columnist for The Nation and teaches literature at Yale University. His latest books are American Breakdown: The Trump Years and How They Befell Us (Verso Books), and How Words Make Things Happen (Oxford), both published in 2019. Bromwich is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has published widely on Romantic criticism and poetry, and on eighteenth-century politics and moral philosophy. His book Politics by Other Means concerns the role of critical thinking and tradition in higher education, and defends the practice of liberal education against political encroachments from both Left and Right. Bromwich’s collection of essays Skeptical Music was awarded the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay in 2002.