Why European criticism of the US Afghanistan pullout is so refreshing

23 August 2021

6:19 AM

23 August 2021

6:19 AM

You actually can spell ‘North Atlantic Treaty Organization’ without ‘America’, as it turns out. You can also, however, spell ‘North Atlantic Treaty Organization’ without, say, ‘European Union commissioner Ursula von der Leyen’. And right now, that seems like the more pressing of these two anagrammatical bombshells.

Both the United States and Europe have spent the last week reprising what by now ought to be played-to-death roles. America made another clumsy move in the Middle East without cluing in our Nato allies, and the Europeans complain about it into the roar of a C-130 engine.

The international Sturm und Drang over America’s Afghanistan withdrawal — so bad as to make you reach for the codeine, which, thanks to us, is now Afghanistan’s number one export — began with German foreign affairs committee chairman Norbert Rottgen. He called the pullout ‘a serious and far-reaching miscalculation by the current administration’. French politician Nathalie Louseau then weighed in: ‘We thought America was back, while in fact, America withdraws.’

Not to be outdone, Czech president Miloš` Zeman piled on: ‘by withdrawing from Afghanistan, the Americans have lost their status of global leader’. That mantle now undoubtedly passes to the Czech Republic, whose fierce warrior spirit derives from their being the top beer drinking nation in Europe. And former UK prime minister Tony Blair, who first ordered British troops into Afghanistan after 9/11, sneered that America had acted ‘in obedience to an imbecilic political slogan about ending “the forever wars”.’

The fire from Blair hinted at an awkward truth: the sharpest European criticism has come from our good friends across the Pond (a phrase Americans still do use unironically). During a session of Parliament last week, British MPs lit into Joe Biden, rebuking him both for leaving Afghanistan and for failing to properly coordinate with London. Labour party leader Keir Starmer called the withdrawal a ‘catastrophic error of judgment’, while Tom Tugendhat, an Afghan war veteran, called Biden shameful.

To which the rest of Parliament responded — and I quote — yeh yeh yeh yeh yeh. If nothing else, this brutal British upbraiding left Americans like me wondering once again how a US president would fare during the UK’s famously rowdy Prime Minister’s Questions. (Bush would have collapsed. Obama would have condescended. Trump probably would have held up best: ‘My right honorable friend from Shropshire, I hate to tell him, is a total disaster.’) As for Biden, the old leaden-tongued devil, I’d give him three minutes tops before he punches out a minister, storms away and pulls for the ceiling sprinklers.

British parliamentary brawls appeal to Americans not only because they’re amusing, but because that kind of scathing accountability is utterly lacking in our politics. Save for election years (and usually not even then), no one in our government is ever held responsible for anything. And rarely has that been on such vivid display as over the past week.

Forget resignations; it would be nice just to hear an architect of the Afghanistan occupation called a ‘stupid, sanctimonious dwarf’, as a British MP once yelled at the vertically-restricted Speaker of the Commons (he later apologized — to dwarves). Instead our own Mark Milley has the look of a man who could shoot a kitten, and after the little ‘BANG’ flag came out of the gun, gaze into the camera and say, ‘What are you gonna do about it?’

This is why some of the European criticism has actually been refreshing. It’s nice to hear from countries that on occasion bother to return the favor when their leaders humiliate them in front of the world. But then the guilt sets in and you remember that we went and did the Brits dirty yet again. Not only did we fail to communicate our Afghanistan withdrawal, Biden apparently took a good 36 hours to return a call from British prime minister Boris Johnson. News of this promptly cued up a montage set to David Guetta’s ‘Without You’ of all the other times Biden has left a jilted Boris sitting by the phone, starting with just after his inauguration, when he decided to ring the hot girl from Canada first.

The Special Relationship’s Mugsy can’t seem to stop accidentally blowing up its Rocky. Yet so far as Europe writ large goes, the problem cuts both ways. If the Europeans want to check our power — rather than just complain about it — they need to show that they can. And it’s here that we arrive back at Nato. Because it is wrong to say the alliance is just America. The alliance is also Turkey, which fields the second-largest military in the bloc. Most of the European members don’t even meet the 2 percent of GDP they’re supposed to be spending on defense. In Germany, it’s a paltry 1.3 percent.

It isn’t that Europeans are wrong to gainsay America’s control-alt-delete foreign policy. They are sometimes wrong, as with Libya in 2011, but then they’re also sometimes right, as France and Germany were over Iraq in 2003. Personally I’m a committed multilateralist. I don’t like to so much as go to the grocery store without a Brit, a Frenchman and a German in tow, if only so I can flaunt America’s cultural superiority by way of Double Chocolate Fudge Pop Tarts. Nationalism or internationalism? Both, please. Having good friends is in our national interest.

But then those pals, if they want to have equal say, need to start helping out more with our collective defense burden. Looking at you, Germany, which is where our troops ought to come home from next, 75 years after World War Two ended. Because he who detonates the most MOABs gets to call the shots, as Sun Tzu once put it. And right now, the American whim is to be sick of wars we can never seem to win.

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