Zhou Enlai’s supposed judgment on the French Revolution has always looked unbeatable for magisterial long-termism. “Too soon to tell,” the Chinese premier is meant to have said, with an unelected leader’s freedom to wait.
How striking, then, to see a chamber as democratic as the US Senate better his epigram at last. In a motion about Syria and Afghanistan, a bipartisan supermajority of 68 senators has warned against the "precipitous withdrawal of United States forces from either country".
The US has been in Afghanistan for 17 years. Both world wars and the Korean war put end-to-end do not equal this epic. Americans who were not yet born when the first tanks poured in are now eligible to serve. Thousands of their compatriots have been killed or wounded in the violence, and there is a kind of savage deadlock to show for it.
Withdrawal might still, on balance, be foolish. The proposed accommodation with the Taliban is hideous to digest. But to characterise exit as precipitous, or “cutting and running”, as though the US only showed up last month and never leaned in to the work of nation-building, is to drain language of all meaning.
It also corroborates one of Donald Trump’s paranoias about Washington. There is such a thing as the foreign policy “blob”. Members of an otherwise riven governing class have at least one thing in common: a stamina for overseas intervention that, as well as bucking voter opinion, is amazingly unreflective about the past two decades.
The president's slander is to cast this as a deep state plot. It is just the aggregated biases of thousands of well-meaning politicians, diplomats and scholars working in plain sight. It is not the elite's eternal default either. As recently as the 1980s, an establishment jaded by the Vietnam war felt bone-deep pessimism about deployments. The mystery is why, post-Iraq, bar congressional dissent against the Libya war in 2011, the same has not happened.
In a capital that could split 50-50 on the colour of the sky, senators as conservative as Tom Cotton and as liberal as Dianne Feinstein voted for the recent Senate motion. Republicans who have gone along with the president's every ethical lapse and ideological apostasy fight his bring-them-home instincts.
The resistance extends far inside Trump's administration. In Cairo last month, secretary of state Mike Pompeo suggested an almost open-ended commitment of US forces to the Middle East, the better to counter Iran.
In December, defence secretary Jim Mattis, who might reasonably have quit at any point over anything, resigned after the president's tweeted pledge to leave Syria, which, you will notice, has diluted a tad between announcement and execution.
Another way of making the point is to wonder, were Trump to appoint a stone-cold realist of a secretary of state, a narrow construer of the national interest, who would he choose? Which think-tank or faculty could he plunder? Who is the Henry Kissinger or Brent Scowcroft of the 21st century? It was to preserve a vein of American realism that Richard Nixon made one of his last living acts the creation of what is now the Center for the National Interest. A generation on, its voice is as exotic as its opposite, neoconservatism, once was.
Blobs are not always and everywhere wrong. Were a president minded to evacuate the Middle East and central Asia forever, we should be glad of the establishment's blocking power. There was no viable response to the 9/11 attacks that spared the al-Qaeda-succouring regime in Afghanistan, and there is no defensible policy now that cedes the field to Islamic State.
But no one is suggesting that America lose all interest in the region, or that forces would not return if needed. It is just that there is a record from which to draw some empirical judgment. The US, it is not “too soon to tell”, lacks the resources, knowledge or domestic public backing to direct the destinies of nations in other hemispheres with minimal democratic pedigree. That there will never be a good time to leave is not a reason to stay.
Not since Dwight Eisenhower’s final speech in 1961 (about the influence of defence interests) has a US president been so clear about the existence of an entrenched foreign policy establishment. By smearing it in the most lurid and conspiratorial terms, Trump freed sensible people to deride the idea altogether.
But a lesser charge – reflex interventionism, horror of “retreat” – is hard for Washington to deny. One reason for this persistent bias is the undeniable awfulness of the alternatives. Another is two decades of habit and muscle memory, which is no reason at all. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019