There is a lot of lacerating rhetoric flying around over the situation in Afghanistan. As the fate of Afghan interpreters and allies appears unclear at this moment, it looks to many like chaos, like miscalculation, like failure to anticipate. Some see an intelligence failure, some a policy mistake, some a leadership debacle. There is worry about the ability to evacuate tens of thousands of Americans still in country who may be unable to make it to Kabul’s airport and there’s fretting about the future for women and girls under harsh Taliban rule.
There is also, to be sure, a large amount of support for Biden’s move among the American people, and in some quarters, not a lot of empathy for Afghans who they perceive were unwilling to fight for themselves. There is the view, articulated by President Biden himself, that such chaos was inevitable given the dynamics in that country. Or, as Fareed Zakaria put it, we lost in Afghanistan long ago, and “There is no elegant way to lose a war.”
On all sides, moreover, there is considerable conflation of the decision to withdraw with the execution of that withdrawal, which means many people are talking past each other in this debate.
I am not an expert on Afghanistan, and I have not pretended to become one in the last nine days. I don’t know with certitude the absolute right answers to a lot of questions raised by the withdrawal. But what I do know, as an engaged citizen who is not utterly beholden to my political tribe, is that there are a lot of questions that need asking and that there is a basis for fair criticism. For example, Secretary of State Tony Blinken flatly stated that the administration “planned for every contingency.” Given the scrambling, the abrupt return of marines, the admission that our leaders didn’t think Afghan forces would collapse so quickly, it’s hard to accept Blinken’s declaration as on the level.
As I posted on Twitter a couple of days ago, “It does not bother me when an administration I support is asked tough questions or is criticized in good faith.”
To me that is the essence of democracy and citizenship, even when it is my side under fire. As many people pointed out in the replies, however, the key phrase in that sentiment is “good faith.” Yes, good faith is doing a lot of work there. It has become increasingly difficult in recent years to have a reasoned and reasonable debate about a politically fraught issue without huge doses of bad faith and without retreat to knee-jerk tribal defensiveness.
Particularly among Trumpists, there has been so much bad faith in recent years, so much gaslighting, so much cynicism, so much lying, so much whataboutism, and so much hypocrisy, that it is understandably galling to hear them crow over the crisis in Kabul. It is natural to recoil at former Secretary Mike Pompeo’s brazen bullshit. It is angering to see former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley say that “[n]egotiating with the Taliban is like dealing with the devil,” when her administration did precisely that. And it is exasperating to see Trump himself on the sidelines now, flip-flopping on his own negotiations with the Taliban and preferred treatment of Afghan allies, all calculated, not to do good for America, but to do harm to Biden. It’s hard to stomach because these are among the most bad faith actors in American politics today.
But their bad faith doesn’t negate a good faith basis to ask tough questions. And disagreements within parties are healthy signs of intelligent life. Those good faith questioners are not traitors for exercising independent judgment. To treat them as such is to edge towards Trumpism.
Democratic Congressman Seth Moulton is a pretty loyal Democrat. He is also a former Marine. He’s not, at least in this instance, a political chameleon like Nikki Haley when he erupts over the current administration’s contention that lots of Afghans didn’t want to leave: “I mean, don’t tell me that Afghans don’t want to leave when there’s been a backlog of Special Immigrant Visa applications for over a decade. Don’t tell me they don’t want to leave when they’re literally clinging to airplanes to try to get out of this country. That was the single part of the president’s speech that I not only disagreed with but I thought was just utter BS.”
This is a worthy debate, and it is a complicated one. And I am proud to be registered with a party that is adult enough to have it. Multiple Democratic Senate committee chairs are asking questions too, as is their right and as is their duty. If Republican chairs had taken their responsibilities a fraction as seriously when their party’s president was running/ruining the country, we would be in far better shape today.
I think, in the end, it is not disagreement that most divides us; it’s bad faith. Bad faith in debates over Afghanistan, over who won the election, over the efficacy of masks and vaccines, over climate change, bad faith in countless other areas also. It’s hard to maintain one’s composure and calm when the other side resorts to bad faith arguments again and again. It’s hard when facts are met with lies, when logic is met with insults, when science is met with slogans. Honest discourse doesn’t always carry the day, but it is the best path to progress and a more perfect union.
In closing, please forgive me this Dr. King paraphrase: The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards good faith.