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Maybe the withdrawal from Afghanistan could have been better, but the U.S. is far from a ‘pitiful, helpless giant’

Critics of Biden’s exit from Afghanistan are reviving a phrase from a Nixon speech used to justify sending U.S. troops to Cambodia — which didn’t end well.

Handover ceremony at Camp Anthonic, from the U.S. Army, to Afghan Defense Forces in Helmand province on May 2, 2021.
Handover ceremony at Camp Anthonic, from the U.S. Army, to Afghan Defense Forces in Helmand province on May 2, 2021.
Ministry of Defense Press Office/Handout via REUTERS

I’m totally fine with President Biden’s decision to remove the U.S. military from Afghanistan, where a 20 years of U.S. military presence had failed to establish the U.S. client government as stable rulers of a stable country.

It was a long, long war followed by a long, long occupation. I accept and support Biden’s decision based on an unwillingness to stay and bleed and kill forever.

I’m not much invested in the blame game over whether the withdrawal could have been done more smoothly. Of course, it would have been better if every American who wanted to leave, and more of the Afghans who had helped the U.S. mission and wanted to leave, had been safely removed. The overwhelming majority were. I don’t feel competent to judge what might have been required to do better on that score.

Not everyone gives Biden such a positive rating for the withdrawal, though. In an editorial last month, the Wall Street Journal decried Biden’s actions and likened the U.S. to a “pitiful, helpless giant” in Afghanistan. (Here, in a blog called “In the News–Simply Put” is a writer invoking the same language.)

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The anguished we’re-a-pitiful-helpless-giant rhetoric should remind us that that pitiful-helpless-giant phrase came from President Nixon in 1970, justifying the decision to send troops to Cambodia to prove that we weren’t a pitiful-helpless giant.

But, of course, five years after Nixon warned of the consequences and coined the “pitiful giant” phrase, the U.S. pulled the troops out and let the Communist Khmer Rouge have Cambodia.

U.S. prestige took a significant hit, but blundered on and, as far as I know, we retained the leadership of the “free world,” without Cambodia, however helplessly, pitifully or un-gigantically.

I suspect we will do so now, minus Afghanistan, although neither Afghanistan nor Cambodia has ever held a real status as members of that “free world,” except as American rhetoric defines that term to describe all members of our worldwide coalition of allies.

In the big picture, I’m not an isolationist. I think U.S. engagement does some good in the world, but also some harm. We should pick our spots, cautiously and probably less frequently, for sending troops, knowing that we can never totally guarantee success and that “the enemy gets a vote,” an old saying that former Defense Secretary James Mattis liked to quote.

The richest and most powerful country on earth perhaps gets more than a vote, but still no guarantee that things will go its way, even if we stay 20 years.