George W. Bush refuses to learn the lesson of Afghanistan

George W. Bush.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

It is sometimes tempting to imagine where the Republican Party would be today if the following scenario had unfolded: After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Osama bin Laden was captured before he escaped from Afghanistan; the U.S. limited that war to the achievable aims of routing al-Qaeda cells and punishing the Taliban for its noncooperation; we never invaded Iraq at all.

Maybe, given the 2007-08 financial crisis, history would not have changed that much even in that alternate universe. But it's not hard to believe that George W. Bush might have been re-elected in 2004 with something closer to 56 percent of the vote rather than 51 percent, ushering in an even bigger Republican Senate majority than the 55 seats the GOP won in that election. John Kerry would have gone the way of Michael Dukakis, if not Walter Mondale, rather than coming within a whisker in Ohio of winning the White House.

One man who seemingly has not contemplated these counterfactuals: George W. Bush. In a rare public break with one of his successors, Bush told a German broadcaster that the planned withdrawal from Afghanistan was a mistake. "I'm afraid Afghan women and girls are going to suffer unspeakable harm," he said. He added that "the consequences are going to be unbelievably bad."

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

"They're just going to be left behind to be slaughtered by these very brutal people, and it breaks my heart," Bush said. The U.S. should not wash its hands of Afghanistan post-withdrawal and must evacuate as many Afghan collaborators as is feasible. But the compassionate conservative has learned nothing from the folly of America's longest war.

The war itself created the moral hazard Bush now decries. If we could not change the facts on the ground in Afghanistan with the world's most powerful military there for 20 years and without any plans to do so in the next 20 years, the war cannot go on forever. "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one," Bush proclaimed in his second inaugural address, promising to spread liberty around the globe. But an unrealistic foreign policy can never be a moral one. A just war must be able to accomplish its objectives. Otherwise it leaves nothing but death, destruction, and misery in its wake.

Bush is a well-meaning man, but he is wrong. Donald Trump and Joe Biden are right.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.