The president said that “we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live, or how to govern their own complex society” and added, “We are not asking others to change their way of life, but to pursue common goals that allow our children to live better and safer lives.” The straw man here is obvious: We must stop trying to make Afghanistan look like, say, Connecticut! I would have thought that Gens. Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster might have disabused the president of the notion that this was ever the American goal in the Middle East or South Asia, any more than it was our goal in postwar Europe. Our goal has been far more pragmatic: to promote domestic political arrangements that will be stable and will be successful in controlling territory and preventing the rise of violent groups that can threaten the United States and our allies.
Anyone, including the president and his advisers, who thinks all of that can be achieved without the slightest concern for the domestic political arrangements—vicious tyranny or benign rule, brutal repression or a decent respect for human rights, regimes that rule only by force or governments that are legitimate in the eyes of their population—is repeating a formula that failed us repeatedly in the Middle East, helped lead to the current crisis, and will eventually produce more terrorism.