IN THE first volume of his autobiography A Promised Land, Barack Obama describes inheriting the problems of Afghanistan from his predecessor, George W. Bush. President Obama had been elected on a peace ticket — his stump speech had included the line “I don’t oppose all wars. What I am opposed to are dumb wars” — yet he ended up increasing the US military presence in Afghanistan, describing the exercise as a bad deal with worse alternatives. A nation-rebuilding approach might have worked, but by the time the military came to see this as the best way to keep the Taliban out of power, the Iraq War had drained away any enthusiasm that the American public had for intervening in other countries’ affairs, however beneficial to those countries and to global security. In the end, the Americans were left, Obama writes, “administrators of inhospitable terrain” breeding “more enemies than we killed”.
The strategic failures of successive US administrations have been chewed over during this past week, and will continue to be so. Of greater concern, however, is the ever narrower answer given to the question put to Jesus: “Who is my neighbour?” While tales and images of immediate disasters, such as the earthquake in Haiti, can tug at the consciences of the public in developed countries, the patience, wisdom, commitment, unity, and generosity needed to protect human rights over a long period in poorly governed countries is largely absent from Western electorates. Populist politicians have neither the interest nor the desire to encourage an altruistic use of funds that they could employ more effectively to buy votes. Thus beneficial acts both of charity and polity occur increasingly as subterfuge: either glossed as of benefit for the donor country — “soft power”, protection from extremists — or simply not communicated to the electorate at all. It is all very well for the left hand not to know what the right hand is doing, but it can be disastrous when it finds out, as with the UK’s international aid budget.
If there is a positive to be had, it is that the West in general, and the US in particular, might start to see the world as the rest of the international community sees it: independent nation states of many different complexions, not necessarily to be measured against a faultless (and non-existent) model of Western democracy, and many requiring not intervention, but collaboration. Under the Trump administration, the United Nations was consistently undermined; yet multilateral peacekeeping efforts have a good track record, despite funding difficulties. Earlier this year, the US’s contribution was $776 million in arrears; and yet a UN peacekeeping operation is calculated to be eight times cheaper than putting US troops on the ground. If, by some chance, the US and its allies recognise that an empowered United Nations is the best hope for a peaceful world, this could be good news not only in future conflict zones, but in Afghanistan also.