America’s humiliation is more American hubris
As the American military pulled out of Afghanistan, Kabul fell with stunning speed to determined fighters with medieval desires about everything but the accoutrements of war.
Taleban fighters with their long beards and long guns drove through the city in pick-up trucks and hoisted their flag in victory. Women — fearful of a return to an oppressive society in which they were more property than persons — disappeared into their homes, into secret locations and behind all-encompassing burkas.
And the talk on these shores was of America’s humiliation.
Residents of Afghanistan flooded the tarmac and clung to the belly of an aircraft as it rolled towards take-off down the runway at the airport in Kabul. People were so desperate to escape their spiralling circumstances that they were ready to risk death in the wheel-well of a jet.
And voices on social media declared the scene evidence of America’s global humiliation.
“In Afghanistan, President Biden said he was putting his ‛trust’ in ‛the capacity of the Afghan military’, and the result has been, again, an embarrassing spectacle, a diplomatic humiliation, and a national security catastrophe,” Ted Cruz, the Texas senator, said in a statement.
There is something not quite right in assigning “humiliation” to America; something selfish and ultimately self-aggrandising.
To call it humiliation is to make America the centre of this story — not the sweeping war saga that has lasted for decades, but the tragic humanitarian chapter that began to unfold in the past weeks. In their race to escape their own country, the Afghan people are making their sense of fear, despair and betrayal plain. They are hurting in every still image, in every piece of video, in every written word. There is more than enough anguish to go around.
Each time someone describes the logistics of the withdrawal as America’s humiliation, it places the country’s pride and self-image at the centre of this heartbreaking story in a way that seems more distracting than constructive. Humiliation and hubris are siblings. They are the conjoined twins of self-regard.
Shame can be a powerful motivator to do better. It can be the necessary fuel to propel a country to rectify an immoral situation. But humiliation rings with fragile egotism and wounded feelings. It places this country’s ego at the heart of a story in which one could argue that American ego has been a dismally complicating factor.
America is humiliated only if America is infallible, and this country is certainly not that.
“We were clear-eyed about the risks. We planned for every contingency,” the President said on Monday afternoon in a speech from the White House. “But I always promised the American people that I will be straight with you. The truth is: this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.
“I will not mislead the American people by claiming that just a little more time in Afghanistan will make all the difference. Nor will I shrink from my share of responsibility for where we are today and how we must move forward from here,” he said. “I am President of the United States of America, and the buck stops with me.”
He added: “I am deeply saddened by the facts we now face. But I do not regret my decision to end America’s war fighting in Afghanistan.”
America wasn’t humiliated; America screwed up. And America has to fix its screw-up before it is too late.
Personal humiliation has long been the goal of the Taleban in its treatment of women. Humiliation is being silenced and brutalised because of your gender. It’s being told that your very presence is an affront to morality and righteousness. It’s being denied education and liberty.
Afghanistan’s president fled his own country. Members of its military surrendered to the Taleban without a fight. And hundreds of dazed citizens were left to crowd shoulder to shoulder on the floor of a US Air Force cargo aircraft bound for Qatar, desperate to leave their home, their country. They were resigned to saying goodbye to a piece of themselves and leaving a bit of their heart behind.
“The scenes we’re seeing in Afghanistan, they’re gut-wrenching, particularly for our veterans, our diplomats, humanitarian workers, for anyone who has spent time on the ground working to support the Afghan people,” Biden said. “For those who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan and for Americans who have fought and served in the country — serve our country in Afghanistan — this is deeply, deeply personal. It is for me as well.”
Biden managed to acknowledge the dreadful spectacle at hand, as well as the emotional connection that so many members of the military, diplomatic corps and others have to Afghanistan and its people. But he refrained from indulging in a therapy session for bruised American might. Some would argue he didn’t take enough responsibility for this mess. Others have issues with his decision to leave at all. That’s politics and policy debates. Neither will get people on planes and out of harm’s way in the coming days. Both deserve later attention.
Withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan is a confounding mess. It is shockingly disorganised, grossly chaotic and devastatingly heartbreaking. America should be angry with itself for its failures. Yet it is impossible to know in this moment how things will look at the end of August, which is the expiration date that Biden has set for this decades-long war. Will the military be able to safely fly out tens of thousands of Americans and their Afghan allies by then? And afterward, what will the future hold?
When one looks at the images of sorrow and hears the voices full of devastation, they are not American. They are Afghan. America surely has a multitude of sins to answer for. And this chapter in history may turn out to be one of this country’s greatest shames. But compared with what the Afghan people already have lost and what they may lose in the future, calling this nightmare an American humiliation is a reminder of our troubling hubris.
• Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press