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US foreign policy as a perpetual sunk cost fallacy


“The foreign policy establishment just can’t admit when it got things wrong” strikes me as a nicely parsimonious explanation for why the war in Afghanistan continues to pointlessly grind on:

As his two predecessors did, President Biden has pledged to end the war in Afghanistan. But also as his two predecessors did, he could end up tragically perpetuating it. Outnumbered by a national security establishment fixated on continuing this misadventure, the Biden team will need courage and clarity if it is to finally disentangle America from what has become a futile struggle.


As vice president, Mr. Biden opposed the surge of troops in Afghanistan in 2010. Last year, he wisely recognized “it is past time to end the forever wars.” His secretary of state, Antony Blinken, asserted two years ago that it was “time to cut the cord” in Afghanistan. This month, Mr. Blinken insisted military action would be taken “only when the objectives and mission are clear and achievable” and “with the informed consent of the American people.” According to polling my colleagues and I have conducted, the American people support the details of the U.S.-Taliban agreement by six to one.

Why, then, is leaving Afghanistan so “tough”?


The bigger barrier confronting the Biden administration may be closer to home. Despite promises to make foreign policy serve the interests of everyday Americans, many of Washington’s decisions are circumscribed by a professional culture among policymakers that normalizes war and idealizes military might. It’s not as if Mr. Biden is being pressured to stay in Afghanistan with a cogent argument; most analysts freely admit that the United States has no plausible path to victory, that the military isn’t trained to midwife democracy and that the Afghan government is grievously corrupt.

Rather, the national security community cannot bear to display its failure. That’s why many who advocate continuing the war are left grasping for illogical or far-fetched justifications. In a meeting of National Security Council principals, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, reportedly made an emotional plea to stay in Afghanistan, after “all the blood and treasure spent” there.


Staying the course in Afghanistan accomplishes none of this — and Mr. Sullivan seems to know it. He admits as much in a report he co-authored last year, plainly stating the war has “proven costly to middle-class economic interests.” But it’s not easy to construct a foreign policy that prioritizes the interests of ordinary Americans once you’re back among the Beltway herd. If the Biden administration wants to match its policies to its precepts, it will have to buck Washington’s culture of inertia.

There was a widespread view among foreign polcy elites in the 90s and 2000s that the U.S. had “over-learned” the lessons of Vietnam. My view is that they’re still under-learned. Biden needs to overcome the blob on this.

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