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Back to School Wrap
A time of transitions, at home and in the world at large
My son’s farewell dinner before returning to college
There was no wrap last week, because I spent the entire week in New Mexico, mostly on a writers’ retreat organized by the Austin Film Festival. We had virtually no internet or cellular service, so I really had no idea what happened that week. And I didn’t miss it at all, so I mostly haven’t tried to catch up since. So even though it’s been two weeks since the last wrap, today’s will only cover the past week in my writing life.
Afghanistan Banana Split
Did anyone use that as a headline for the past week’s events? I’m disappointed if not. Maybe nobody remembers the movie anymore.
In any event, you may have heard that America finally and truly ended its war in Afghanistan, that the result was the seemingly instantaneous collapse of the Afghan army and government, and that the press has been in full freak-out mode since then. I don’t know why I can still be surprised, but I am.
The surprise is reflected in the piece I wrote about Afghanistan for The Week, which mostly skipped past the most recent events to think about the future. I’m frankly dismayed by my own naïveté in assuming that our fourth estate would be similarly inclined. So before getting to that piece, I’ll give a very brief summary of my understanding of those recent events.
In February of last year, President Trump negotiated a deal with the Taliban that promised a complete American withdrawal in exchange for a complete cease-fire. After that, a cease-fire went into effect. Both the Taliban and the major regional warlord types expected the United States to honor its commitment to withdraw, an expectation that was reinforced when the Biden administration confirmed their intention to withdraw, albeit on a slightly later timetable than had been previously negotiated. The quiet that has prevailed in Afghanistan since then, in other words, reflected the determination by the Taliban to wait until we left to take over, and the determination by other powerful actors to switch sides as soon as the Taliban made their move to take over.
That’s why everything collapsed so quickly: because everyone was simply waiting for the signal to let it go. It defies twenty years’ experience and all logic to second-guess the decision to withdraw on the assumption either that we could have stayed indefinitely at low cost, or that minor tweaks to the way the withdrawal was conducted could have resulted in a substantially different outcome. We gave up a year and a half ago. All that is happening now is realizing what that meant.
Based on the haste with which key members of the Afghan government departed the country, it is possible that they believed on some level that they could effectively blackmail the United States into staying by demonstrating a manifest inability to continue on without us. The same might well be true of our own military leadership, who seem to have made only limited preparations for our departure. I understand their respective surprise to discover that just this once, we meant what we said. I am reminded of the collapse of Lehman Brothers at the start of the financial crisis. Only months earlier, the government had responded to the collapse of Bear Stearns by arranging for the bankrupt brokerage to be bought by JPMorgan Chase, thereby limiting the financial fallout that might have followed its failure. Their expectation in so doing was that other vulnerable banks would use the time bought thereby to put their houses in order, but Lehman did precisely the opposite and carried on as if they had a guarantee from the government to stay in business. So when they were allowed to fail, then, it was a considerable shock, and the financial fallout was substantial.
At the time, the decision to let Lehman go was criticized harshly for precipitating the crisis. But saving Lehman would have been a catastrophic decision that only delayed the final collapse further, with the possible consequence that the collapse, when it came, would have been even worse (if that can be imagined). If the government’s behavior during that phase of the financial crisis is to be criticized, the criticism should be that it did not force a more comprehensive reckoning on the financial system as a whole, but tried to make an example of one firm. Not to strain the analogy, but I do worry whether, in the wake of so much rehabilitation by the press of the worst deceivers about our war in Afghanistan, the same dismally fate to repeat our recent mistakes will befall American foreign policy.
Which brings me back to my column, which is about our possible future relationship with a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. There’s been a lot of teeth-gnashing on Twitter about how America is relying on Taliban goodwill to complete the process of evacuating Americans and others. To some degree this reflects the fact that so many simply cannot accept the possibility that we have to coexist with other countries, and that this means making peace with former enemies rather than cherishing enmity forever:
But it’s also possible that we’re also looking to the future, a future where we have a far closer relationship with the Taliban, which is what my column somewhat cheekily speculates about.
The timetable of our willingness to reconcile with the Taliban . . . will not be driven by their progress on human rights, but by their potential usefulness to our aims. That, in turn, will depend on two factors: whether they succeed in unifying and ruling the country, and whether we share a common enemy.
On the first front, it's far too soon to prognosticate. The extraordinary speed with which the Taliban have retaken the country as America pulled out makes it abundantly clear that there is no center of power in Afghanistan prepared to offer material resistance. That suggests the Taliban will also be able to consolidate their control with similar rapidity. Their first period in power put an end to bloody civil war and warlordism; for its second outing, it can claim the additional mantle of having defeated a foreign occupier. Those are not inconsiderable bases on which to claim political legitimacy. Now we have to see whether they have learned anything from their time in exile, and are prepared to govern effectively, however oppressively.
On the second front, it's all too easy to imagine who a common enemy might be:It’s gonna be really funny in 5 years when the forever war contingent favor arming a Taliban-backed insurgency in Xinjiang.The US is abandoning all the girls going to school, all the women in the workforce, all the brave soldiers fighting the Taliban, all the young entrepreneurs starting businesses, all the government officials trying to build a fragile democracy. https://t.co/GWRXBpIG0XMax Boot @MaxBoot
Before our 20-year war, America's prior intervention in Afghanistan involved supporting the Pakistan-backed mujahideen resistance against the Soviet Union and its puppet government of the country. It would be completely in keeping with American foreign policy for us to try to run that script again against the People's Republic of China, our new geopolitical rival whose oppression of the Muslim Uyghurs has been reasonably characterized as a genocide.
Read the whole thing, as they say, and weep.
The Domestic Forever War
My colleague at The Week, Damon Linker, speculated recently about how an endless war on Covid-19 will continue to toxify our politics. I share many of his worries in that regard, but I wonder if he has the arrow of causality backwards—whether it’s Covid that is making our politics so awful, or whether it’s our awful politics that is making the effort to deal with Covid so much worse than it needed to have been. The obvious talking point here is the American right’s collective decision to embrace lunatic anti-vaccine propaganda. But there are plenty of examples on the other side of the ledger as well, the most egregious of which I think was the willingness of many purportedly left-wing leaders to sabotage the future of public education last year, a decision that at least some appear to be considering repeating thanks to the rise of the Delta variant.
In any event, I’m determined to fight this particular trend by refusing to pick sides and saying what I actually think. To that end, my latest column at The Week is about how we have to learn to live with endemic Covid, and the sooner the better:
The Delta strain of COVID is vastly more infectious than prior strains — more than twice as infectious as the original strain — and as with the original strain, those infected shed the most virus before they become symptomatic, if they even get sick at all. This appears to be true for vaccinated individuals as well, at least some of the time. In fact, a major factor in transmission is likely vaccinated individuals with asymptomatic breakthrough cases they never know about. Again, Iceland is important proof case in this regard; with their high vaccination rate, how could they have become a hot spot unless vaccinated people can spread the disease?
That's why, in jurisdictions that are more COVID-cautious, there's been increased pressure to restore the non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) like mandatory mask-wearing and social-distancing that predominated in the pre-vaccine era of the pandemic. Ironically, though, the very fact that the Delta variant is so much more infectious makes the case for those interventions in some ways weaker, not stronger.
The argument in the piece is multi-faceted, so once again, I encourage you to read the whole thing. Indeed, I encourage you to read it in conjunction with this piece by David Wallace-Wells, which some have been interpreting (headline notwithstanding) as a reason to panic about the Delta variant, but which I think has a very different underlying message that is quite consonant with my own views about how we need to live with the virus going forward.
I wrote two posts On Here this week.
The second was the latest in a series of arguments with Ross Douthat about religion (earlier instances are here, here and here), in this case responding to his case in The New York Times for the experience of the supernatural as a basis for traditional religious belief.
On the latter, I meant to take a bit of a detour into Hamlet’s encounter with the Ghost, which was on my mind because of a forthcoming essay of mine about Hamlet and the Book of Ecclesiastes that will appear in the next issue of the Jewish Review of Books. We moderns tend to psychologize the Ghost, but Hamlet didn’t, and we have no particular reason to believe that Shakespeare did. In the world of the play, we have every reason to believe that the Ghost is real. But that doesn’t mean that we know what to make of the Ghost—indeed, that uncertainty is at the heart of Hamlet’s crisis within the play. The command the Ghost gives him is extremely clear, and very much in accord with Hamlet’s own emotional desires. But the Ghost intimates in so many words that he comes from Purgatory, which, in Protestant England, had been declared not to exist. So does the Ghost’s appearance prove that, in fact, the Old Religion was right about the afterlife? Or does it undermine the Ghost’s claim to be his father’s spirit, and suggest instead that he is a demonic force sent to tempt Hamlet into the sin of regicide?
Hamlet himself perseverates on precisely that question by way of explaining why he has not taken action yet, and why he plans to stage the play-within-a-play to furnish him with better proof of his uncle Claudius’s culpability in the old king’s death:
The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me . . .
It is precisely the fact that the shape is pleasing—that the Ghost is telling Hamlet what he wants to hear—that makes Hamlet rightly suspicious of it. In my view, that’s a principle that can be more broadly generalized.
Thanks to the kind invitation from host Titus Techera, I had the opportunity to join his podcast to discuss my essay in Modern Age about Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels. I encourage you both to read the essay and to listen to the podcast—and if you have a podcast yourself, invite me on to talk about this or other subjects. I had a delightful time and would love to repeat the experience.
My son went back up to school this weekend, where I hope he will have the chance to experience a more normal college year. For his sendoff, I made him a reverse-seared cowboy steak with chimichurri sauce, French-fried potatoes, and gochujang-glazed eggplant with fried scallions. I miss him already. I hope he misses my cooking.