It was the generosity and idealism of the Americans, especially in the post-Cold War euphoria, that led them astray in both Iraq and Afghanistan. They tried, with genuine idealism, to establish something better for the Afghans and Iraqis.
In the old days of the Cold War, the CIA would find a local group it could work with and help them stage a coup. After that, so long as they avoided the grossest human rights violations, the locals could basically run their own show. That meant, then as now, the US had some unsavoury allies.
But Washington would always urge those allies in a vaguely more liberal direction. The two best examples of post-war US nation building were not Germany and Japan, both modern nations that suffered catastrophic defeat in the war and were overwhelmingly motivated to go in a different direction. The two best examples instead are South Korea and Taiwan.
In the 1950s these two were both rank dictatorships. But the US stuck with them and gradually urged democratic reform. Seoul and Taipei saw US power as overwhelming and necessary for their national survival. They regarded democracy as an element of modernisation. But their political evolution was homegrown. And it took place over decades. They also both started off as societies that esteemed education. Culturally, they were much closer to democracy than were the Afghan people who, not considering the Taliban at all, still overwhelmingly support highly regressive social policies.
No more counterinsurgency.
The bottom line of all this is that the US is virtually certain now to be extremely reluctant ever again to engage in counterinsurgency in someone else’s nation. All the COIN doctrine is junk. And it never worked anyway. The few successes claimed for it in Iraq were not COIN successes at all but came from paying tribal groups hard money to fight for the coalition rather than against it.
So COIN is dead, just at a time when we’ve structured the Australian Army to support the US in COIN contingencies, which will likely never arise again.
No more liberalist US foreign policy:
The death of liberalism as a US foreign policy objective is even more important. I remember a decade ago, when I was a visiting fellow at a US strategic think tank, sitting in on a debrief of a group of US researchers who had spent months in the Middle East trying to assess the effectiveness of US policy. Their message, even then, was that liberalism had failed in the Middle East. It got no traction. It had a tiny cohort of supporters who were, if anything, further discredited by their American connections.
Promoting liberalism positively disabled US policy. The Islamists make great strides in Middle East universities, one of the researchers said, while we insist on co-ed sports programs.
Liberalism has lately been going backwards in Latin America, in countries such as El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. More important for us, liberalism is in retreat in Southeast Asia. It’s completely dead in Indo-China and in the past decade or more has gone backwards in big Southeast Asian nations such as Thailand and The Philippines. Indonesia has heroically and magnificently hung on to democracy, in substance as well as form, but it is an illiberal democracy where the former governor of Jakarta could go to jail for alleged blasphemy.
Liberalism did well in the developing world when it was associated with the success of the West, but the West is doing poorly now. The West’s own liberalism, shorn of its transcendent purpose, is consuming itself in identity politics obsessions that look both mad and repellent to virtually the whole world.
Talk about learning the wrong lesson because of bad assumptions. People are not blank slates, and nations tend to develop cultures suitable for their people. Yes, the average IQ, and the level of individual aggressiveness and other intrinsic factors, are different in different nations. And yes, it matters. Trying to introduce western European political culture in Germany, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan was always going to work, but not so in Muslim Iraq or in El Salvador.