Conrad Black: Can the US Recover from Its Botched Afghanistan Withdrawal?
As doubts about America’s leadership grow among its allies, can the United States recover from its botched withdrawal from Afghanistan?
We sit down with Conrad Black, once one of the world’s leading newspaper publishers and author of several presidential biographies.
Jan Jekielek: Conrad Black, such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
Conrad Black: Very glad to be with you.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s been a lot of criticism of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. You’re looking at all this through a very interesting vantage point, and it’s partially like mine, from the perspective of being Canadian and also from the perspective of the UK and other allies. How do does this look and what are the impacts of this on U.S. alliances around the world?
Lord Black: Well it, it looks like a botched job. I think the view both in Britain and in Canada, and in many other places, is not that this is a demonstration that the United States is finished as a serious power or anything like that. Claims like that are exaggerated. But [the view is] that it was an inexplicably poorly conceived operation.
The chief grievances are—leaving aside the basic argument of whether it was better to keep a small NATO force there and maintain some sort of a stasis with the Taliban who were active in the countryside, but didn’t control any of the cities. This presence effectively prevented a renewal of comprehensive terrorist activity, which is what attracted the NATO alliance to Afghanistan in the first place 20 years ago.
Leaving that out of this, if you accept that the idea was to leave, the traditional method of doing it is you take all the most vulnerable people out first. The military covers the retirement of all those who are going to have the most difficulty, and then the military retires in the sequence that they organized themselves so that everyone’s retreat is covered, is conducted in an orderly manner, and then the more mobile forces leave right at the end.
Although there was a land border and it was an easier thing to do for the Russians when they retired under quite different circumstances, after an unsuccessful occupation of 10 years, they did leave in that way. They took their collaborators out first, and then they withdrew the armed forces from the South towards the North and then across into what was then the USSR, Uzbekistan.
That is the way you do things, and the Americans didn’t do that. Secondly they did not consult adequately at all with the allies, and third, despite the claims that are being uttered in official circles in Washington now, they did not advise people to leave. They claim now they gave 12 different advisories to Americans and friends of American Afghanistan to leave, but not with enough emphasis that anyone, or very few people anyway, paid much attention to it or took it seriously.
And at the same time, they did absolutely nothing to expedite the departure of Afghan allies of the United States. They subjected them to a terribly irritating, bureaucratic application process that was not expedited or accelerated in any way. Then when they suddenly started to leave, these people were effectively just abandoned. And it appears that of the more than 100,000 apparent Afghans who were evacuated in the last days, very few of them had rendered any assistance to the United States, and most of those who had, translators and so on, were left behind. So people feel, I think it’s fair to say everywhere, that it was a botched operation.
That doesn’t mean the United States is no longer a great power. Of course it is a great power and no less a great power now than it was a year ago. But this is not good for a country’s reputation and credibility. They set out to do something for which is a general background for how you do it. And to completely botch it and then lie about it and have the different high officials blaming each other and contradicting the president and so on, it’s a spectacle of absurdity and tragedy.
That’s very unbecoming, but you know, the world will get over it, and presumably whether it acknowledges that or not, the United States will learn some lessons on how to go forward.
I mean, I wouldn’t say it is worse than the Bay of Pigs 60 years ago. But it hasn’t been handled as well as that was, when President Kennedy said, “It was a mistake. It was my mistake, and we’ll learn the lessons of it, and it will never happen again.” And people accept that. Of course he performed very well in the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later, a year and a half later.
The United States hadn’t been defeated in Cuba, but just sponsored a force that was completely inadequate to the task of overthrowing the Castro regime. This is more serious, but it can be handled in a similar way, but so far Biden is not handling it with anything like the forthrightness and credibility that President Kennedy handled that error at the Bay of Pigs.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s really interesting because as you mentioned, the Bay of Pigs was followed not too long after by the Cuban Missile Crisis. Does this sort of situation make the dictators more eager or more interested or feeling like they can aggress more?
Lord Black: Well I think there is the fear, and it’s been quite widely expressed in the last couple of weeks, that this will embolden the Taliban and their allies—if it’s correct to call them allies, to some extent they’re rivals, I suppose—the terrorist groups, ISIS and Al Qaeda and so on.
I’m not the best qualified person to judge how people like that think, but there can’t be any doubt that [this will have an effect,] the spectacle of the United States making such a shambles of this in Afghanistan, the original terrorism-exporting country, though largely because of the negligence or inability of the regime in Kabul to exercise sovereignty over its whole territory.
To see them back, fully able to revert to that kind of thing if they choose to do it, and no doubt they would be supplied well by countries desiring a resumption of terrorism. I think it’s quite likely that they will now become more aggressive than they have been. A greater potential to train terrorists and insert them into the world than they had when Afghanistan from a terrorist standpoint had been substantially neutralized, which it has been for the last 20 years.
Mr. Jekielek: And so what about NATO? You mentioned NATO earlier. What is the impact on this alliance of how this has all transpired?
Lord Black: Well, here I think we do have some problems. The majority of NATO—and in particular, those countries that are in NATO that are relatively recently emancipated from the yoke of being in the Soviet Union or being effectively dominated by the Soviet Union—the memory is so fresh in their minds of what that relationship with the Russians was like that whatever their fears, they will carry on as if they had no fears because they placed all their bets on the military guarantee of the NATO alliance, which is effectively of the United States.
But in other parts of NATO, that alliance has become quite shaggy anyway. I mean, very few of the member countries have been coming anything close to their 2 percent of GDP defense commitment, and a number of countries have been highly critical of American leadership.
And we’re having an election in the next month, I believe, in Germany. And if the coalition of the SPD and the Greens wins, I think there’ll be some question about whether Germany is really any more a member of the Western alliance.
Under Chancellor Merkel, it had effectively made itself an energy satellite of Russia, and it has shut down its own nuclear program and developed a dependence on Russian natural gas. Germany of course, a famous state in military terms is now almost a disarmed state. And, I think it has to be said that there’ll be some question about what Germany is trying to do.
For the French and the British, despite the considerable attention given in the British parliament two weeks ago to the idea of seeking an alliance not actually led by the Americans, there is no practical alternative to an American-led Western alliance. The French and the British, with whatever misgivings, and the other countries in NATO will attempt to encourage the Americans to be a little more coherent and consistent and try to be supportive and try to reinforce the alliance as best they can.
But, enlarged and accelerated by this fiasco in Afghanistan, there is a question about whither NATO? Where is going and how is it trying to get there? It needs leadership, and I regret to say, I don’t think we’re going to get much leadership out of the Americans in the next three years.
Mr. Jekielek: In this situation, there’s also been all sorts of voices or activity that I’ve been noticing basically from Asia. You have the Chinese regime basically saying to Hong Kong and Taiwan, from an information perspective, it appears to be very, very serious.
Lord Black: In the first place, no sane person would make any comparison between Afghanistan and Taiwan. I mean, Afghanistan is a landlocked country. Taiwan is an island. Afghanistan’s one of the most primitive countries in the world. Taiwan, one of the most advanced in the world. And where the Afghan army was well-equipped, it disintegrated under internal pressure.
The armed forces of Taiwan are extremely well equipped and extremely well-trained and very numerous, and they would defend their island with great courage and ingenuity I’m sure. And we can also count on the unquantifiable and invisible ally of the obnoxious diplomatic personality, the People’s Republic of China, that they are very overbearing with their neighbors.
They are detested by the Vietnamese, ostensibly their glorious allies in the Vietnam War. They are detested by the South Koreans. They are not liked at all by the Japanese, where there’s an ancient rivalry, the two leading parties of the Far East. They are not liked at all by the Indians, in whose territory they’ve made incursions, and they have to some extent actually invaded India.
These countries will not be easily intimidated, and they will not hastily cast off possibilities provided by an association with the United States. The United States, let us face the fact, is responsible for Taiwan becoming a serious country. And the United States rescued South Korea—with allies, but the allies playing a secondary role. The United States designed the present government of Japan and put Japan back on its feet.
Now, you never expect gratitude from other countries for things you do, but those countries and others are aware that the United States is capable of [being], and most of the time is, a very effective, powerful ally. They’re not going to show them the door anytime soon.
The Chinese have shown—and we must remember, China historically never took any interest in the world beyond its borders. This is a first for them. There’ve been periods in the past, several, when China was a mighty power, but even at those times, it only demanded exaggerated respect from its immediate neighbors, and wasn’t much interested in the world.
That has changed, but they haven’t picked up the lessons that quickly. And then they were so overbearing, even the Colonels in Myanmar threw them out. They couldn’t stand it anymore.
They are technically on the edge of a state of skirmishing, i.e. the lowest form of war, but skirmishing all the same, with India and with Vietnam. And the Chinese have not demonstrated any great aptitude for using diplomacy to make themselves more popular or sought after in the world. At that they’re amateurs; they’re just starting out.
China itself of course must never be underestimated. This has been a bad embarrassment for the United States, but it does not destroy the fact that in three lifetimes, just three lifetimes, since the Battle of Yorktown, the United States has in that time for the last 80 years or so, been the preeminent country in the world.
It was an important player in the allied victory in World War I. It was a decisive and indispensable player in the allied victory in World War II, and it was the undisputed overwhelming leader in the Western victory in the Cold War, and it is the greatest power in the world. All countries make mistakes. This was a bad one, but it can be recovered from.
Mr. Jekielek: I can’t help but think as we’re talking about this, I don’t usually go here, but there’s the Thucydides trap. There’s been this idea in circles of foreign policy and history that the U.S. is the declining power, and China is the rising power. Does this provide the propaganda coup to truly demonstrate that?
Lord Black: Well no, it provides a propaganda coup. It is certainly a propaganda coup that will reinforce the Chinese side of the argument you just set out. But it need not be true, and I personally don’t think it is true. I don’t think the United States is in decline.
I think it is in an unusually confused internal condition, assimilating the decisive positive turning point in the racial relations problem that has always been there. Since shortly after the arrival of the Europeans, it was a slave holding country for 250 years, what Mr. Lincoln called, “the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil.” And there was a terrible war, and then there was a hundred years of segregation.
And I think we are now at the point where radical African American groups are completely overplaying their hand, and yet they have attracted a certain amount of adherence from non-black groups, saying that the United States had this original sin of slavery and hasn’t adequately atoned for it, but that’s not where the majority is.
And because of the unusual personality of Donald Trump, and the peculiar nature of the Biden phenomenon, the Democrats are now an informal and almost incoherent coalition of different elements.
[They include] outright socialists, this somewhat violent and in any case, very refractory group, still purporting to relive and assert vengeance for the moral shame of slavery and its aftermath. And [they include] the traditional Democratic party, which is essentially a reasonable, more rather moderate group contesting with the Republicans to run the government.
It’s all at the same time, but it’ll all disentangle quite quickly. And the United States will revert to being a rationally governed, reasonably competently governed, great power exercising and defending its national interests with its allies.
But I think this rather painful period of working out the internal complexities of the United States and getting the right personnel in place opposite the world, and serving legitimately, neither belligerently nor with too much laxity, the legitimate interests of the United States. I think we’ve got this presidential term and congressional term to go through to get there, but they’ll get there.
I think the United States is more or less at its plateau. I don’t think it will get markedly more important, vis-a-vis all the rest of the world than it is now, but there is no real evidence it’s in decline.
Americans are, almost all of them as you know, patriotic people; they love their country. And it is fundamentally an extremely powerful country. I mean, China is a poor country. There’s a lot of people that have very little resources, and it has no institutions that enjoy or deserve the slightest respect, except up to a point the army, the military.
You can’t believe a word the Chinese government says or a statistic they publish. It’s a substantially more corrupt country than the United States, which by the standards of Britain or Canada or Sweden or Germany is really quite a corrupt country.
The United States is all right; it’s just having a bad period, but a brief one. It could go into an inexorable Spenglerian decline, it could, but there’s no need to believe that it will. It is certainly not inevitable, and I do not think it will.
I think there’ll be a reaction against what’s happening now and a powerful sentiment over the next few years to say in the United States, “Let’s stop this nonsense, let’s stop horrible fiascos like Afghanistan from having that happening again. Let’s define our national interests in the world, provide the resources to protect it in consultation with serious allies, work it all out,” and continue the fundamentally highly successful history of the United States. It’s an interruption like the Civil War but not as severe, and unfortunately not one in which the country is guided by so outstanding and brilliant a leader as Abraham Lincoln.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about the 20 years of U.S. presence in Afghanistan. What was achieved with that actually, in your mind?
Lord Black: Well, I think the initial goal of ending the conditions in which Afghanistan was a breeding ground for terrorists, that was achieved. It was achieved very quickly and very effectively by President George W. Bush with the NATO allies. And the North Atlantic Council was unanimous in invoking for the first time the most successful alliance in the history of the world.
One of the member states had been attacked; the United States had been attacked, and the alliance was unanimous in supporting the United States. President Bush, the then Secretary of State James Baker, and the Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, all of them, Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, they handled it very well, and that first objective was achieved. It was quickly achieved.
Then we got into this Bush theory of turning non-democratic countries into democracy, managing them into democracy on the theory that democracies never engaged in aggressive war. The second part of the theory is substantially true—they don’t. It’s not to say they never have: if Britain and France were democracies in the 19th century, which to a substantial degree they were, they did get a bit aggressive at times.
But in modern terms, that was a correct assumption. Democracies don’t engage in aggressive war unless they’re provoked. But this idea that we had any ability or license to try and transform undemocratic societies into democracies was an insane proposition.
You could do it where you were rebuilding a fundamentally sophisticated country like Germany and Japan after the war. They didn’t have a great history of democracy, either of them, but they were sophisticated countries and they could develop very quickly and accept institutions if they weren’t seen as just institutions of defeat, the way the Weimar Republic was after World War I.
That you can do. You can bring countries along politically if their economies come along at the same time, as in South Korea. At the end of the Korean War, South Korea had a lower standard of living than Egypt. But gradually, with an American presence there, the institutions took form, the country prospered. It’s now a rich, prosperous country and a well-functioning democracy.
Spain’s the same. You can do it with countries that have the instances of an advanced society that can support democracy and be well governed by it.
But in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, it can’t be done unless they’re absolutely on life support. That gets terribly expensive and countries who are providing the support get tired of it. And that’s what happened. But the way to cut off the life support is not what the Americans did to the Afghans.
Apart from everything else, three-quarters of the forces in Afghanistan were NATO forces; they weren’t Americans. So the Americans pulled the plug on everybody. Here in Canada, we have hundreds of Canadians stranded there. We’re in the middle of an election campaign right now, and it is an issue, but the focus here is on how the Canadian government handled it, not what the Americans did.
Mr. Jekielek: So three quarters of the forces there, as you say, were NATO, non-U.S. NATO forces. How did the UK and Canada actually react to this? These are the two that you would be most familiar with.
Lord Black: Well, as you know, I’m a member of the British Parliament. I didn’t happen to be there, but I’m in the Upper House there, the House of Lords. The British Parliament expressed its contempt for the conduct of the President of the United States.
Now the Americans shouldn’t ignore that, as most of their media have. Even in the Revolutionary War, the British Parliament did not state that they were contemptuous of George Washington. They accused him of treason, but they certainly didn’t express contempt for him. And they’ve never expressed contempt, of course he wasn’t the President then, he was just the Commander of the Continental Army. But he was, as everyone knew, the leader of the Americans.
And no president prior to Biden, 44 different individuals, has attracted such opprobrium in so eminent a place as the Parliament of the United Kingdom. And for that to be visited upon this president is a very serious warning that the alliance is not gonna take much more of this.
The Americans have to pull up their socks. In fairness, they were essentially the founders of the Western Alliance and they led it with great distinction, occasional problems, but great distinction over a long period 10 or 12 presidents of both parties. Some were more capable than others, but essentially it’s been strong leadership leading as it led to the greatest, most bloodless strategic victory in the history of the nation states. The Soviet Union simply disintegrated, fell like a souffle without firing a shot, and the rivalry was over, and the alliance had completely succeeded.
So we mustn’t forget or fail to be grateful to the Americans for that. And in light of that, you can get over a shambles like Afghanistan, but they can’t have too many of them or there really won’t be a Western alliance anymore. That I think is the view in Britain, France, Canada, and as far as I know anything about it, most of the NATO countries.
I think Germany’s a special case. The Poles and the Baltic countries, Romania, Hungary, they’re just going to pretend it didn’t happen. They placed all the bets on the Americans preventing any more impositions by the Germans or the Russians upon them. And so they simply are not gonna entertain the thought that the United States can’t do it anymore.
But the other allies, like the ones you mentioned, Britain, France, Canada, they were shocked. They’re all shocked, but on the other hand, they’re experienced countries. We all make mistakes. These things happen.
It’s still the great United States of America, and presumably, whatever the political backbiting in the United States, both parties will know not to do this kind of thing again. Not to fail to consult properly, not to fail to plan properly and not to sort of slam the door and tell everyone it’s none of their business.
They warned the Afghans; the Afghan army were cowards. They told everyone to leave, they didn’t leave, and the hell with them: that’s essentially what Biden and his colleagues are doing, and it won’t fly. There’s no doubt it’s been a disaster, but it’s eminently recoverable, or at least a disaster that can be made up for and got over—curable, a curable disaster.
Mr. Jekielek: So let’s talk about that, and I think, you know, you alluded to it perhaps earlier, when you were talking about the way JFK responded to the Bay of Pigs, but so what do you see as a, you know, way forward here that would, that would be constructive in light of, you know, these international alliances and so forth?
Lord Black: Well, I myself have advocated for some years that NATO be repurposed. I mean, “North Atlantic,” it was started with seven or eight countries and they were North Atlantic countries. Now they go out to as far as Greece and Turkey, which is a fair distance from the North Atlantic.
I think it should be reconstituted as an alliance of democratic states. Whether, for example, Turkey fits into that, I don’t know. I mean, in the early days, you know, we had to tolerate Franco’s Spain, and Salazar’s Portugal and the Greek colonels, and various regimes that were not democratic in Turkey. But now I think we call it the “Alliance of Democratic States” and stretch through the Middle East and into the Far East.
Then I think we could modify the original containment strategy and put it not as the containment of other countries, most conspicuously China, but as the defense and legitimate non-belligerent promotion of all of the member states as a group. This would in effect be in the Far East and in South Asia, a containment strategy for China.
Anyone who wanted to rally to it, to resist the Chinese aggrandizement—let’s not call it imperialism or aggression, but aggrandizement or some slightly less pejorative word—would be welcome if they were acceptable regimes, you see.
Like anything, any institution, … after 72 years, it’s apt to need a bit of renovation, and I think that’s what we should do.The Americans having made their point that they can act unilaterally if they want to, as they did when they essentially unilaterally got rid of Saddam Hussein. The British were there, but the others were sort of token participants. They’ve made their point.
The United States is a strong country; we know that. But they should go back to being what they’ve been very good at. Their leading statesmen, like Eisenhower, Dean Acheson, Truman, Nixon, Reagan, were all very good at this multi-lateral game, even though they held the chair.
They were considerate of their allies and liked and respected by their allies. And they can go back to that. We can make it a bigger alliance, but no one could claim it was an imperialist organization at all. It was merely trying to defend what it had and be positive in the world. That’s the way to go.
Just for argument’s sake, which I do not for one minute believe or have any reason to believe, say the Biden administration actually came to the well-considered and thoroughly discussed intention of bringing back somewhat towards the United States the outer perimeter of defined American interests. They had decided the hell with Afghanistan; we don’t care about it. The hell with Pakistan; we don’t care about that. We’re just going to entrench a bit so that we can defend more capably what is really a value to us, relationships that are values such as South Korea or Japan or India, whatever.
If they’d done that, I might disagree with how they did it, or even that they did it at all, but at least you’d have to respect it as intelligent, comprehensive policymaking. They’d examined it carefully, come to a plan of action to make the change and made the change. Incompetently as it turned out, but at least it was part of a plan.
But there’s no evidence they’ve done anything like that. I don’t see any evidence of anyone who’s doing any strategic thinking around there, or has done really since—I don’t wanna be unkind here, but I think George Bush Sr. knew a lot about foreign policy. And I think Clinton was effectively coasting in foreign affairs terms on what Reagan did. Reagan won them the Cold War, this overwhelming victory. Their only rival just disintegrated and they didn’t need much more foreign policy.
I think they’d better get back into the habit of having serious foreign policy specialists preparing serious plans and presenting them to the president and ultimately the country for the determination. Jimmy Carter was no expert in foreign policy, but Zbigniew Brzezinski was. And Gerald Ford wasn’t, but Henry Kissinger was.
There is a great postwar tradition of very, very astute foreign policy experts generally being in charge of American foreign policy, under the overall determination of the president of course. Some presidents, particularly Mr. Nixon, have been real foreign policy experts. They should go back to that. They’ve developed a few bad habits since they became briefly, the only superpower. They should recognize there’s another one.
Mr. Jekielek: Recently the Taliban spokespeople have been saying that they’re going to be basically relying on China or the Chinese Communist Party for funding, and fueling a kind of economic comeback.
Lord Black: The Chinese are welcome to it. Every cent that they spend in Afghanistan will be wasted. If they wanna spend, put their Belt and Road through there, I think we should rejoice in that. It’s not a graveyard of empires; it’s just a waste of great powers’ attention.
And I’m not one of those who’s concerned about the money they’re pouring into Africa. In the end, they’re going to lose all of that too. In the end, the Africans will take over all the assets the Chinese have built for them.
The whole Chinese expansionist influence-building plan is nonsense. I feel about it the way I did when they said they were going to build a catamaran aircraft carrier. It was an insane concept. If they’d done it, when it got into heavy weather out in the far Pacific, it would have disintegrated. You can’t build aircraft carriers as catamarans.
Well, I think the Chinese are embarking in areas where they’re not familiar, and they don’t realize how easily local nationalist sentiment can arise, gain support from rivals to the country they were then objecting to, namely China in this scenario, and sort of scorch the fingers of outreaching China.
As a plan of expansion of Chinese influence, I think the whole thing is nonsense. Let them get on with it. I think they would principally, ultimately—if the West and especially the Americans play their cards right—promote what we want, which is for the Russians to determine that they are a Western and not an Eastern facing country.
With that in mind, there’s a key in this whole thing. The only danger to us from Russia is if, as the Democrats would be apt to do, we rebuffed them so contemptuously, we the west, that we drove them into the arms of the Chinese. That would be a strategic misstep of very serious implications.
But as long as we’re reasonably respectful of the traditional Russian nationalism that’s been either part of the West or coexisted with the West really since Peter the Great’s time, except for part of the communist era, then that’s what we should be playing for.
China obviously has to be treated with respect, but if they start to become overbearing, seriously overbearing with other countries, we should support those countries. China is not strong enough to challenge the world. It’s not really strong enough to challenge the United States if the United States plays its diplomatic cards properly.
Mr. Jekielek: At this moment, given the current reality, what would your suggestions be for the U.S. going forward?
Lord Black: Well, I’m one of the last people that this administration would ask advice from. But look, I thought that apart from the stylistic infelicities, Trump was playing it well. He was right to call the world’s attention to the Chinese threat, but in a responsible way, not a McCarthyite demagogic way, and certainly not a racist way, although he was sometimes accused of that, falsely.
I thought he was he was right to build up the military, though he should have been quicker to. It was the admirals who failed him here, but he was the Commander in Chief. To make sure that the aircraft carrier groups were better defended. Now they and some of the bases like Guam are better defended against potential attacks from China. But that can be made up; it’s just a question of money.
But he was right in trying to kick NATO into shape and telling everyone to pay up more. But I think just a return to essentially Trump’s policy but with a much more diplomatic presentation, a much more sophisticated and conciliatory presentation, that’s what should be done.
Your core is strengthen the alliance. I would say broaden it. I mean, pump up the alliances in the Far East and in the North Atlantic and across the Mediterranean. Put them all together, making one mighty alliance of democratic states.
It becomes a force and could have a very revitalizing impact on world affairs. Obviously avoid jingoism, unnecessary belligerence from them, but leave no one in any doubt that the defined interest of the democratic world will be defended, will be effectively and forcefully defended. Goodwill to everyone, malice to no one, but we’ll hold our own.
Mr. Jekielek: Well Conrad Black, it’s such a pleasure to have you on.
Lord Black: Well thank you so much for having me. Always, always my pleasure.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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