Afghanistan and the Anti-Liberal Right

They hate us for our freedoms

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Few would dispute the basic truth that the project of converting Afghanistan into a “mini-me of Jeffersonian democracy,” as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd put it the other day, was destined to fail. Actually, the truth is that there was no such project. I’m not sure if Dowd is aware of this, but Afghanistan, under its pro-U.S. government, was known as “the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.” Its 2004 Constitution says, right at the start (Article 2), that “the sacred religion of Islam is the religion of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” and that “no law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam in Afghanistan” (Article 3). Not very Jeffersonian if you ask me. (True, Article 2 also says, “Followers of other faiths shall be free within the bounds of law in the exercise and performance of their religious rituals.”)

Our “nation-building” in Afghanistan, while bumbling and misguided in many ways, certainly wasn’t intended to remake Afghanistan in our image. It was intended to help build the foundations of civil society and human rights, including some very basic rights for women and religious minorities, and to develop some pockets of liberal society. Not “liberal” in the American sense of political liberalism, but in the classical sense of rule of law, respect for human dignity and individual freedom, and at least some sense of equality for all.

You could say that these efforts were badly executed, or fatally tainted by corruption and alliances with local bad guys (e.g., child-raping warlords), or not an appropriate exercise of American military power.

You can certainly say that they failed (though whether they will have a long-term impact remains to be seen).

But some people on the right are currently sneering at these efforts in ways that suggest outright gloating at the failure of liberalism.

The Twitter account of Yoram Hazony—author of the 2018 book The Virtue of Nationalism and of the anti-liberal manifesto “Conservative Democracy,” published on the “theocon” website First Things—has been especially telling in this respect.

Some of Hazony’s most sneering remarks are reserved for the idea of importing feminism into Afghanistan—for instance:

Given Hazony’s frank hostility to feminism elsewhere, you are not mistaken if you think that it sounds like his sympathy in this tweet lies with “Muslim nations,” not with “U.S.-style feminism.”

Now, I myself have been plenty critical of feminism in its current American (and, often, European) iteration. But it’s highly doubtful that the U.S. was trying to “import” anything of the sort into Afghanistan. International relations scholar Richard Hanania has cited documents showing that the focus on gender in U.S. programs in Afghanistan often caused backlash and diverted attention from more essential needs. But even if these programs tried, as some have argued, to push for too much, too soon (e.g., quotas for female representation in political bodies), they were not about “U.S.-style feminism” but about very basic human rights for women: education, the ability to hold jobs and public office, health care access, safety from violence, etc.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson, a major voice of the illiberal right, has also pushed the idea that American failure in Afghanistan was due in large part to the attempt to impose feminism on the Afghan population—and has been quite explicit about his view that Afghans rightly rejected this attempt:

It turns out that the people of Afghanistan don’t actually want gender studies symposiums. They didn’t actually buy the idea that men can become pregnant. They thought that was ridiculous. They don’t hate their own masculinity. They don’t think it’s toxic. They like the patriarchy. Some of their women like it too. … So maybe it’s possible that we failed in Afghanistan because the entire neoliberal program is grotesque. It’s a joke. It’s contrary to human nature. … It’s ridiculous. And ideas that ridiculous can only be imposed by force, only by armed men at gunpoint. The moment those ideas are not mandatory—the second troops withdraw, in fact—people tend to revert to the lives that they prefer to live.

There is, of course, no indication that any American program in Afghanistan included any discussion of pregnant men. What Carlson doing here is a bait-and-switch: “men can become pregnant” symbolizes the absurdity of modern gender studies, and that absurdity is then projected onto a broad concept of “feminism” that refers simply to women’s essential rights. (Gender quotas for legislatures and other political bodies are certainly not something I’d support in the U.S., but I can understand why such measures would be seen as necessary in a country like Afghanistan. They’re also not particularly “woke”: Saudi Arabia has them, for instance.) Carlson’s rant—which, by the way, disregards the fact that the Taliban can definitely impose its ideas only at gunpoint!—comes awfully close to suggesting that Afghan-style patriarchy is “human nature” and the way things should be.

No less troubling is the almost glowing tone in which anti-liberal conservatives often write about the Taliban. Take Hazony’s August 19 tweet linking to a Tablet article by Lee Smith which argues that it was the Taliban’s “group solidarity”—and America’s lack of same—that led to America’s failure. “Cohesion is what the Taliban have. Cohesion is what America has lost. That’s why the Taliban won the war,” Hazony’s wrote.

Smith’s essay has some valid criticisms of the American progressive “elites’” embrace of divisive ideologies. But let’s face it: authoritarian/totalitarian movements based on religious or ideological fanaticism are always going to have more “cohesion” or “group solidarity” than liberal democracies, if only because they have no compunction about terrorizing solidarity-deficient members of the group into submission or killing them if they still refuse to get back in line. When you start to sound like a fanboy about the Taliban’s “cohesion,” perhaps it’s time to step back and reassess your position. (Here, the famous @dril tweet comes to mind about “issuing [a] correction” on a post about ISIS: “you do not, under any circumstances, ‘gotta hand it to them.’”)

Hazony is hardly alone. Here, for instance, is liberalism’s foremost critic Sohrab Amari sounding positively euphoric about the defeat of “liberal aspiration” in Afghanistan and about its presumed helplessness in Iran:

A few days earlier, Ahmari had tweeted a valentine to the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, General Ali Shamkhani, who, he wrote,

Isn’t confused about his gender
Doesn’t believe there are 157 genders
Doesn’t suffer an anxiety disorder
Isn’t ashamed of his national heritage.
Couldn’t give a shit about your pronouns.

Sure, you could say Ahmari is simply pointing out that Gen. Shamkhani is a formidable adversary who doesn’t waste his time on trivia while we do, but the “Here is a MAN!” subtext is unmissable. (Gen. Shamkhani probably also doesn’t believe in freedom of religion or women’s rights and isn’t ashamed of the national practice of hanging people from cranes for being gay. But that is left outside of Ahmari’s framework.)

And then there’s this, from social conservative writer Rod Dreher:

Dreher is far more nuanced and fair-minded than the general run of the anti-liberal right, and he had a far more thoughtful piece in Newsweek about the Afghanistan debacle (despite lapsing into clichés about America trying to “remake [Afghanistan] in our own image”). But the knee-jerk rush to disparage secular liberal democracy as “the empire of nothing” in contrast to the true believers—whom, it should be said, Dreher calls “barbaric” in his Newsweek piece—is telling.

The conflict between secular individualist liberalism and patriarchal, tribal peasant culture steeped in authoritarian tradition and religion is hardly new, even within the West itself. Liberalization in countries where a large portion of the population belongs to such a culture is a difficult and delicate task, ideally accomplished via incremental and non-coercive change (e.g., policies that offer alternative ways of life and opportunities to people from villages who seek change, or schooling that opens up new possibilities for children). But the rhetoric of the anti-liberal right suggests that many conservatives in this camp don’t see liberalization as particularly desirable. And in fact, from Hazony to Liel Leibovitz in Tablet magazine, they have turned openly against Enlightenment liberalism. It’s not that they prefer the Taliban or the Islamic Republic of Iran, obviously. It’s more that they don’t see the liberal society, based on individual rights, freedom of choice, and freedom of opinions, as a worthy goal to pursue. They see it as something that leads to Drag Queen Story Hour, deserted churches, rainbow-haired kids who worship trees instead of God, childless career women, and Christian bakers forced to bake gay wedding cakes.

To “tradcons” like Ahmari and Hazony, liberalization is cultural imperialism—something these conservatives have in common with “woke” leftists who think that negativity about the burka is “imperialist feminism” or celebrate the defeat of “liberal-neocon imperialism” in Afghanistan.

When you couple the hostility to liberalization with the nativist backlash against the resettlement of Afghan refugees in America, this is a very inglorious moment for the illiberal right.