The Ugly American is, despite its deficiencies in literary depth, a classic of American foreign policy. Its depictions of bumbling, ignorant, parochial American diplomats influenced Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy and even helped inspire the creation of the Peace Corps. Published in 1958, the message of the novel was clear: Americans were too provincial, too insulated in their North American backwater, too ignorant of the wider world to be a global power—especially one capable of competing with and defeating the Soviet Union.
There’s plenty of wisdom to learn from William Lederer and Eugene Burdick, the book’s authors, about the American failure in Afghanistan, even though they died in 2009 and 1965, respectively. Despite 20 years of effort, the military, diplomatic corps, aid workers, and other bureaucrats failed to learn so much about the country they were attempting to rebuild. Carter Malkasian, a senior diplomat and the author of a recently published and timely book, The American War in Afghanistan: A History, detailed some of these shortfalls in a July essay in Politico.
But The Ugly American also needs updating. Though America has become a world power, and though it defeated the Soviet Union and watched as Marxism-Leninism crashed with a thud on the ash heap of history, the debacle of the Afghanistan withdrawal has revealed another—possibly a new—American ugliness.
The war in Afghanistan was not an American operation, but a NATO one. Out of the 3,500 non-Afghans killed, about one-third came from non-American nations, almost exclusively NATO members. (Other non-NATO countries—some treaty allies of the United States, some not, also deployed to Afghanistan—and their contributions are no less significant.)
Although NATO has been in existence since 1949, it didn’t invoke its mutual defense clause until after 9/11, at the behest of the United States. The unanimous vote by the member-states to join the American invasion of Afghanistan belies the objections some of them raised at the time. Two days after the attacks, member-state ambassadors attended a meeting to discuss triggering the mutual defense clause. The British secretary general of NATO, Lord Robertson, twisted the allies’ arms on behalf of the United States. According to someone present at the meeting, Robertson told the assembled diplomats, “If you ever want the Americans to come to your aid, you better fucking vote for this.” It did the trick, and every NATO member-state fought by our side, bled with us, and died with us for 20 years.
That was noble. But while we insisted on going in together, we insisted on getting out alone. This was ugly Americanism. President Barack Obama released Taliban leaders from prison so he and Secretary of State John Kerry could negotiate a peace agreement with them. They ran out of time, but their successors, Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo, eagerly carried on their work—though with even less competence.
Pompeo’s hand-picked negotiator, Zal Khalilzad, excluded the Afghan government, whose people had bled far more than any other partner in the war, from the peace talks. He also excluded the other dozens of states who joined us, including NATO members. Once a deal was reached, America’s attitude was not consulting with the partners about it but informing them—take it or take it—these are your choices. That the deal was shameful and amounted to a surrender made the Trump administration’s arrogance all the more grotesque. But it wasn’t a mere American surrender; it was a NATO defeat.
President Joe Biden had an opportunity to nix the deal (of which the Taliban were already in violation when he took office). But more than that, he had a responsibility to do so: He campaigned on the promise that enlightened statesmen would once again be at the helm. He spoke forcefully of the importance of alliances. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin went on a charm offensive to apologize for the previous four years—as they should have.
But apologies are hollow words without a change in behavior.
The allies and partners who had been promised that they would be consulted with over every decision found out from their televisions that the decision had been made. Even President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan was only allowed half an hour’s notice before Biden’s announcement of total American withdrawal by September 11.
The arrogance and ignorance Lederer and Burdick described was conceived in dismissal. The ugly American of the book dismissed his host’s knowledge and agency. Today’s ugly American is dismissing allies’ interests and sacrifices. Obama, Trump, and Biden knew (or at least had every reason to know) what our allies had endured in our behalf, of the loyalty and brotherhood they had demonstrated, and of the trust and confidence they had earned. And each, in succession, spurned them anyway.
The most-damaged alliance is the “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom. The mood was captured by Tom Tugendhat, a Conservate member of Parliament, an Afghanistan War veteran, and the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee:
The mission in Afghanistan . . . was a NATO mission. . . . The phone calls that I’m still receiving, the text messages that I’ve been answering, as I’ve been waiting, putting people in touch with our people in Afghanistan, reminds us that we are connected. We are connected still today. . . .
That connection links us all to our European partners, to our European neighbors, and to our international friends. It is with great sadness that I now criticize one of them. Because I was never prouder than when I was decorated by the 82nd Airborne after the capture of Musa Qala. It was a huge privilege, a huge privilege, to be recognized by such an extraordinary unit in combat. To see their commander-in-chief call into question the courage of men I fought with, to claim that they ran, is shameful.
The parliament burst into the shouts of “Hear! Hear!”
In retrospect, it was not arrogant to drag them with us into this war. America had been attacked. It was right and just and legal to convince them to come to our aid. And it was good for them, not only because they were also targets of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, as the Spanish learned on March 11, 2004, and British discovered on July 7, 2005—but also because, if attacked, they could remind American politicians and the American people that it was our turn to repay the debt.
American hegemony was built on a simple, radical idea: It’s more effective, more humane, and more stable—not to mention cheaper—to win allies rather than subjugating satellites. We seem lately to have forgotten the difference. It was readily apparent why Trump was an ugly American. It’s incomprehensible why Biden would choose to be one.