Washington does not have a more canny lobbying cabinet than the Pentagon. As such, war games that predict an American rout by China should be taken with more salt than is currently available in any mines around the world. Every grim simulation of defeat is an unspoken argument for more funding.
This caveat applied, even a successful war in the Pacific could cost the United States more lives than the 2,352 lost in two decades in Afghanistan. Raw scale isn’t the only sense in which China is a more intimidating test than Eternal Wars. Neither al-Qaeda nor the Taliban challenged the United States as a world power. Their mode of government has never appealed to third countries as a formula for growth and order. In moving from the “greater Middle East” to China, the United States is moving from a vicious but controllable adversary to a historically impressive adversary.
It is fair, all the same, to savor the change. There is something pro forma about the Republican attacks on President Joe Biden over his exit from Afghanistan. As both sides know, the United States is entering an era that plays much more on its technical strengths and psychic needs than on one that it is timidly ending.
America’s talent for great power politics is as constant as its groping against insurgencies. The fledgling republic repelled British threats, kept Europe out of its civil war, defeated imperial Japan and Nazi Germany before feeding on both pacifist democracy and waging a cold war of a immense art and patience against the Soviet Union. American failures, whether in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, or the Horn of Africa, have mostly collided with non-sovereign enemies in irregular conflicts.
In part, this is due to the inherent difficulty of counterinsurgency. The rest is the weird story of America as a superpower. Having had few settlements in the formal sense – Cuba and the Philippines are among the exceptions – the nation’s political, military and even journalistic elites tend to view the conflict as one that takes place between states. (Blaming the Iraq occupation fiasco on Iranian interference stems from this mindset.)
And so an era of non-state enemies was always going to be awkward for the United States. A superpower fight is a seductive return to the familiar. Washington’s enthusiasm for the Chinese contest is not just a lucid recognition of a real adversary. It is the relief of a ruling class which is regaining its profession.
The change goes beyond the conceptual to the guts and grease of American power. For a generation, the Pentagon planned two regional (i.e., Afghan-sized) wars at the same time. In 2018, his doctrine changed to wage a war at the highest stakes.
The new posture should get better, that is, it can’t get any worse. Heroic financial and intellectual resources have been devoted to rearranging the most powerful armed forces in history for the more agile work of the Age of Terror. To laugh at all of this is frivolous: we cannot know how much worse the war in Afghanistan could have been without the reforms. Yet after a generation in this country, the reality is a Taliban ascendant. Biden himself despaired of war as early as 2009, when he opposed the increase in Barack Obama’s troops.
The occupation has forced the United States to live in a half-world of ambiguous goals and shifting enemies, some of whom are easier to co-opt than to explicitly defeat. The strategy of the great powers will be a kind of liberation.
If it was just China’s technical challenge that the United States would prefer, it would only be comfort to the admirals and generals. What really sets the new era apart from the old one is its potential for a semblance of domestic unity.
The entry into World War II helped tie the grumpy America of the interwar years together. Soviet Russia did the same: when it fell, the bipartisanship that existed in Washington did the same. (The last unanimous confirmation from a Supreme Court judge dates back to 1988.) The era of terror is far from a national sticker.
What emerges from the American ordeal in Afghanistan is not the death toll, which roughly equates to the attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s not even the duration. The Korean War never ended legally, remember, and the United States is still lining this peninsula by the tens of thousands.
No, the sad distinction of the past 20 years is the collapse of national cohesion after September 11. For all its heinous violence, terrorism was too diffuse a threat to give Americans that sense of beleaguered unity that eras past conferred. A conventional superpower, with four times its population, might just do it. A nation that often defined its identity against an Other would never find it in Afghanistan.