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Just like in Vietnam, US Afghanistan mission has ended in ignominy

By Macharia Munene | August 22nd 2021

Macharia Munene. [File, Standard]

The US has big attractions, including mistakes. It blunders in formulating and executing foreign policy in part because its self-appointed mission to reshape the world collides with the visions of other peoples.

Its big economy and enviable constitution, which many countries use for bench-marking, are strengthened through cultural imperialism that runs deep into every corner of the globe. Mostly the youth, Kenyans included, try to emulate the good and the bad in America.

There are, however, times when cultural imperialism antagonises inherent nationalisms which then leads to geopolitical disasters for the US. Afghanistan is currently the most visible; it reminds people of Vietnam as a period of shame for the global giant.

The empire emerged on the global stage, beyond North America, in the cooked up Spanish-American War that produced an imperialistic hero in Theodore Roosevelt whose achievement included grabbing the Philippines from the Spaniards in the Pacific.

In colonising the Philippines, the US reneged on the freedom deal with Emilio Aguinaldo, claimed it wanted to Christianise Philippines that was already Catholic, and inspired imperialist Rudyard Kipling to write his ‘White Man’s Burden’ urging the Americans to become imperialistic. There followed a four-year campaign of atrocities to subdue the Filipinos.

The ‘White Man’s Burden’ mentality stuck in the American mind such that Franklin Roosevelt, after his tenure at the White House, came to Kenya to urge white settlers and missionaries to turn this region into ‘White Man’s Country’. Failure to do so, he told cheering white settlers at the Norfolk Hotel, would offend humanity.

The same confused messianic streak was evident in Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to reshape the world in competition with Vladmir Lenin’s Bolshevik reformism. That streak continued to be dominant in subsequent decades and rained havoc on American foreign policy. Although Roosevelt’s realism on the evil of colonialism moderated that messiah self-importance, it disastrously resurfaced in Vietnam and Afghanistan in which major powers suffered humiliation.

In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, the Cold War became the excuse for the US to throw its weight around. It overthrew elected reformist governments in Iran and Guatemala before turning attention to Vietnam where anti-colonialists had given the French a beating at Dien Bien Phu. France paved the way for Americans to try and prove they were better. Americans lost in Vietnam because they could not win.

US President Joe Biden had argued that the Vietnam War was ‘stupid’ and ‘based on a flawed premise’ and the Saigon images of desperate pro-American ‘natives’ hanging on departing American planes seemingly proved it. Unfortunately for Biden, those images reappeared in Afghanistan where, as in Vietnam, the US had ‘crusaded’ to reshape the Afghans in the American image.

After roughly two decades, as in Vietnam, the experiment flopped as people running from the Taliban, hang on to every part of the giant US Airforce plane. The US seemed like what Senator William Fulbright called a ‘pitiful, helpless giant’ only that it looked more pitiful and helpless in 2021 than it was in 1975.

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