Saturday, September 18, 2021

Musings on Religion, Freedom and Pluralism as a Toxic Mix in Democracy

    By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

Religion, freedom and pluralism are hallowed concepts in American democracy, but without altruistic values to define the common good, pluralism can become a toxic form of tribalism.  The altruistic common values needed to prevent that toxic mix have been dissipated by the polarized partisan politics that now threaten American democracy.

The Founding Fathers who shaped our Constitution were deists inspired by the reason of the Enlightenment and the universal moral teachings of Jesus.  Most Americans claim to be Christians, but the church has caused more division than reconciliation with exclusivist forms of Christianity.  The  Civil War split the church, and toxic divisions over racism have never healed.

The greatest commandment of Jesus was to love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves, including those of other races and religions; but that altruistic moral imperative has been subordinated to worshiping Jesus rather than following him, and increasingly disparate forms of Christianity indicate little prospect for reconciliation in American Christianity.

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 was a reminder that a toxic mix of religion, freedom and partisan polarization is a continuing threat to democracy.  The election of 2020 indicated that even without the church a moral reformation is possible, but the future remains uncertain with continued partisan polarization and the lack of any unifying altruistic values.

Republican demands for the unrestricted freedom to ignore masking requirements and COVID vaccinations during the pandemic conflict with the requirements of public health; and Republican opposition to immigration and refugee resettlement have created toxic political issues that have escalated partisan divisions to dangerous levels.   

Democrats have countered the radical right demands of Republicans with radical left demands for massive social spending on top of a budget deficit of $3 Trillion and a national debt that exceeds $28 Trillion.  The American economy is at risk, and even more rancorous partisan polarization can be expected when campaigning for the 2022 elections begins.

Only existential threats like World War II or 9/11 have ever produced unity in America, and that unity never survived a diminished threat.  From WWII until 1989 the threat was Soviet communism, and after 9/11 it was Islamist terrorism, and both threats waned over time.  Islamist terrorism has been revived with the return of the Taliban, but not to the level of 9/11.

The return of the Taliban to power has increased the threat of Islamist terrorism, but the greatest threat to American democracy is from within.  Religion, unrestricted freedom and pluralism can become a toxic mix that undermines American democracy with tribalism, unless partisan polarization can be reconciled with altruistic values that promote the common good.


Max Boot has blamed the Founders for America’s toxic politics.  I agree with Boot’s concern for our political ills, but disagree with his view that the Founders are to blame.  That’s a copout; it’s the voters who are to blame.  The Constitution properly allows the states to retain limited sovereignty and limited powers with the electoral college and two senators from each state, no matter what their population; and the Constitution left all powers not delegated to the federal government to the states.  The US is not a pure democracy.  If it were, US politics would be controlled by New York, California, and Texas, and we would still be polarized by partisan politics.  Max Boot is wrong to blame America’s problems on the Constitution.  America fought a terrible Civil War to preserve its democracy as described in the Constitution, and voters are responsible for maintaining it, or amending it as the Founders provided in the Constitution.   See   


Saturday, September 11, 2021

Musings on America's Exit from Afghanistan as an "Extraordinary Success"

     By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

President Biden described America’s exit from Afghanistan on August 30 as an extraordinary success.  That accolade may come back to haunt him, as did President Bush’s declaration of mission accomplished a few days after the invasion of Iraq in October 2003--and President Trump described American bombing raids in Syria the same way in April 2018.

America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan cost the lives of 13 American soldiers and left behind and at the mercy of the Taliban over 100 Americans and many Afghans who supported the American cause.  Only time will tell whether Biden’s exit from Afghanistan was an extraordinary success or a strategic failure.

What criteria should be used to judge the withdrawal?  Was America’s strategic objective in Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban from returning to power and providing a haven for Islamist  terrorists, or was it to promote democracy and human rights--or both?  And were there alternative exit strategies that could have come closer to accomplishing those objectives?

Mark Twain once described his premature obituary as greatly exaggerated.  Biden’s description of his exit from Afghanistan as an extraordinary success was, at the very least, premature; and it was political hubris for him to ignore its many flaws.  Biden sounded like Donald Trump in praising his own policies, and that will likely detract from his legacy.

Another contingency that will shape Biden’s legacy is what happens to the Americans who remain in Afghanistan and the many Afghans who wanted to escape a Taliban regime, but were left behind.  Even so, 124,000 Afghan refugees did escape the Taliban as part of the massive airlift out of Afghanistan, and they are now seeking a place to settle.

With the return of the Taliban to power, it’s obvious that America failed to transform Afghanistan into a democracy that respects human rights.  As to whether Afghanistan again becomes a haven for Islamist terrorism, Talban assertions that it will prevent al-Qaeda and ISIS from exporting terrorism mean little if the past is an indication of the future.

Andrew Bacevich has observed that “The American war in Afghanistan has ended in bitter humiliation.  The age of American privilege is gone for good.”  It represents the end of the age of a distorted American exceptionalism that motivated abortive military interventions in Vietnam and Iraq.  It’s time for America to accept its loss of world hegemony.             

Just as history embarrassed President Bush for his premature praise of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as a mission accomplished, it will likely remember President Biden’s hasty exit from Afghanistan as underscoring the failure of America to clean up the mess it made there.  Leaving Afghanistan after 20 years was the right thing for America to do; but its exit strategy was flawed.


“In May 2003 President Bush stood under a Mission Accomplished banner just six weeks after the invasion of Iraq and asserted that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.  But the war dragged on for many years after that and the banner became a symbol of U.S. misjudgments and mistakes in the long and costly conflict. Bush was heavily criticized for the move.”  Trump used the same ‘mission accomplished’ language to describe airstrikes in Syria in 2018”.  See

Commenting on Biden’s speech on August 31, Aaron David Miller said, ”Biden is done with Afghanistan, but is Afghanistan done with Biden?  Thousands of American University of Afghanistan students and graduates were left behind. Paradoxically the one issue that required more detailed comments from the President and will be treated most harshly by his critics was the issue Biden himself identified as the only vital national interest America has in Afghanistan: How to protect the homeland from terror attacks.  ...Biden’s speech was for America.  If US allies were looking for apologies ,they surely weren’t going to find it in Biden’s speech.”  See  

Andrew Bacevich has noted that “...throughout the decades-long Cold War, the United States was the envy of the world — free, democratic and prosperous. The end of the Cold War served to affirm such convictions. Hence, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of communism prompted few second thoughts regarding the now well-entrenched power projection paradigm. Nor did 9/11. Indeed, in response to the terrorist attack on New York and Washington, George W. Bush doubled down, describing the nation’s new enemy as “heirs of all the murderous ideologies” of the prior century. The United States would deal with them precisely as it had dealt with ‘fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism.’ The recent past would define America’s future. So at Bush’s behest, the nation embarked upon a Global War on Terrorism.   …The postwar formula for sustaining a position of global privilege is no longer working. The paradigm of power projection, with its emphasis on military intervention abroad, no longer provides a relevant response to these threats. The American war in Afghanistan ended in bitter humiliation, but it should serve as a wake-up call. The age of American privilege is gone for good.  The most pressing task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships that will refurbish and renew the prevailing conception of American freedom.” See     See also, Andrew J. Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, Metropolitan Books, 2008.   


According to Lindsey Graham (R, SC), the US will be going back to Afghanistan.  Graham said “Afghanistan will be a cauldron for radical Islamic behavior, presenting the US with only two options: You can say that’s no longer my problem...or hit them before they hit us.” See

The Editorial Board of the Washington Post has advocated a different path for US policy in Afghanistan, advocating, “the US should pursue its remaining goals in Afghanistan, which must include advocating the human rights of its people. There has been too much wishful thinking already.”  But promoting human rights in Afghanistan may itself be wishful thinking. See


In the aftermath of America’s exit from Afghanistan Michael Gerson visualizes President Biden embracing a redefinition of war--but not an alternative to war.  It’s a strategic shift from counterinsurgency with US troop deployments in hostile Islamic cultural environments overseas to over the horizon counterterrorism relying on hit and run tactics from distant bases.  Gerson seems to recognize that such a change in military strategies will not change the outcome, which is increased cultural resentment to the U.S. that will foster more rather than less terrorism.  See


On the conflict between Islam and libertarian human rights, and why advocating human rights in Afghanistan would be difficult, see Religion, Law and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy at

For other commentary on the challenge of promoting human rights in Islamic regimes, see Human Rights, Freedom and National Security (April 4, 2017) at

See also, What the Afghanistan Fiasco Teaches Us About Religion, Legitimacy and Politics (Aug 21, 2021), at


On the conflict between Islam and libertarian human rights, and why advocating human rights in Afghanistan would be difficult, see Religion, Law and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy at

For other commentary on the challenge of promoting human rights in Islamic regimes, see Human Rights, Freedom and National Security (April 4, 2017) at

See also, What the Afghanistan Fiasco Teaches Us About Religion, Legitimacy and Politics (Aug 21, 2021), at


Saturday, September 4, 2021

Musings on How Religion and Culture Caused the Afghanistan Debacle

      By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

The Afghanistan Army was trained and supplied by the U.S. and supposedly motivated to fight for democracy and human rights against an oppressive Taliban.  But the Afghan army dissolved in the face of a Taliban offensive.  It abandoned its fight for libertarian democracy and women’s rights to maintain the oppressive cultural values of a patriarchal Islamist culture.

It was another painful lesson in legitimacy for America.  Overwhelming American military power cannot change the religious and cultural norms that shape the standards of legitimacy.  The Afghanistan army was never motivated to replace Islamist standards of legitimacy with libertarian values.  It forfeited the battle for the hearts and minds of Afghans to the Taliban.

Americans should understand that.  It took 150 years for women to gain the right to vote in America, and Christian morality continues to shape our standards of political legitimacy.  It’s little wonder that the Afghanistan army supported Islamist values that preserved their male dominance, and were not willing to fight and die for conflicting Western libertarian values.  

Promoting democracy and human rights is a laudable strategic objective, but American national security policy must accept cultural realities.  For American trainers and advisors to  promote libertarian values in Islamist cultures can be a mission impossible when it’s a mission imperative to maintain a close working relationship with their indigenous counterparts.

Peaceful persuasion is a better approach than coercion for promoting democracy and human rights in Islamist cultures.  With Islam expected to supersede Christianity as the world’s largest religion by 2070, increasing religious and cultural diversity makes peaceful persuasion preferential to coercion for reconciling conflicting religious and cultural values.

The reconciliation of Islamist regimes and Western libertarian democracies requires that they find common ground on their values with advances in knowledge and reason.  That can begin with the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors of other races and religions as we love ourselves.  It’s a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims.

When those of contentious religions become neighbors in pluralistic cultures, the fundamental freedoms of religion, speech and equal rights for women are essential for peaceful coexistence.  When Muslims embrace human rights as a matter of faith and politics, oppressive forms of Islamism lose their legitimacy, and Muslims can share those fundamental freedoms.

For America to successfully promote democracy and human rights overseas depends on its powers of persuasion rather than military coercion.  America should have learned that lesson in legitimacy in Vietnam, but its military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were painful reminders of how religion and culture can trump overwhelming military force.


A US bombing raid in Afghanistan that targeted a suspected ISIS-K bomber reportedly killed ten civilians, including children.  It illustrates how the collateral damage from the excessive use of military force can disparage American efforts to promote democracy and human rights.  See

tan-kabul-evacuation-intl/index.html, and

The Washington Post Editorial Board bemoaned that It’s been a bleak summer for democracy and civil society worldwide. It’s time to turn it around.  “This has been a horrible summer for the causes of democracy and civil society. The bleakest news has been the triumph of a despotic, fundamentalist movement in Afghanistan. But around the world, dictators have been aggressively destroying the elements of any open and free society: the news media, unions, political parties, movements and their leaders. They are bottling up the rights to free speech and assembly and straitjacketing competition. Welcome to the summer of freedom lost.” See

The rights of women illustrate the correlation of religion with the cultural values that shape political legitimacy.  Jill Lawrence has observed that changes in cultural values must come from within: We can’t make a country care about its own women.  Only Afghanistan can do that.  See

E. J. Dionne, Jr. has asked, Can religion strengthen democracy?  Dionne noted that “Most of us would regard a faith that promotes love, compassion and justice differently from a belief system that encourages violence, intolerance and hatred.”  But then acknowledged that “in recent years large sections of the Christian right embraced Donald Trump, the antithesis of Christian values.

...The use of religion by a hard, often authoritarian right suggests that religion is not always democracy’s friend.  And the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan reminds us that certain fervent forms of theism are implacably opposed to tolerance and openness.” See

A commentary from 2015 advocating persuasion over coercion anticipated a disastrous end to America’s misplaced Afghanistan crusade.  It remains as relevant today as it was then.  See 

American Exceptionalism: The Power of Persuasion or Coercion? (November 15, 2015)


Saturday, August 28, 2021

After Leaving Afghanistan to the Taliban, Where Do We Go from Here?

     By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

The wreckage the U.S. is leaving in Afghanistan should be a reminder of the dangers of promoting American exceptionalism with military power.  We should have learned that painful lesson of legitimacy in Vietnam, but we have a short memory.  America had no exit strategy in Vietnam or Afghanistan, making those withdrawals a fiasco and jeopardizing U.S. foreign policy.

Where do we go from here?  After evacuating over 100,000 Americans and Afghan asylum seekers in the largest airlift in history, America must now reshape its national security strategy.  Radical Islamist terrorism continues to be the greatest threat to America and its allies, but massive interventions with U.S. combat forces have proven to be an unsuitable deterrent.

During the Cold War, with the exception of Vietnam, the U.S. had a containment strategy to deter communism in low intensity conflict (LIC) with the training and advisory missions of Special Operations Forces (SOF).  After 9/11, U.S. strategy shifted from containment to intervention, but SOF continued their training and advisory missions around the world.

America must now shift its strategic priorities from large deployments of conventional combat forces in military interventions to smaller and more specialized military forces that work closely with U.S. and foreign civilian and military personnel.  SOF provide that capability, along with a separate and better known capability for attack and raid capabilities.

Most Americans are familiar with the attacks and raids of Delta Force and Seals, but not with low-profile SOF advisory and training missions that enable local forces to counter terrorist threats around the world.  SOF advisors and trainers are quiet professionals who are language qualified and culturally oriented to enable them to achieve mission success through their indigenous counterparts.

Unlike the quick and dirty missions of direct action SOF forces, SOF trainers and advisors must remain in the area of operations for extended periods to develop the trust and confidence of their indigenous counterparts.  The direct and indirect missions of SOF are quite different; and while they require different skill sets, they complement each other.

SOF trainers and advisors serve on the country teams of U.S. embassies as well as under military commanders in potentially hostile cultural environments.  They are a unique military capability that can bridge the formidable gap between diplomacy and military operations, and should be considered diplomat-warriors.  


The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are over.  The U.S. should reorient the priorities of its military strategies from intervention to containment.  If it does, then it’s back to the future for SOF advisory and training missions. That would avoid the pitfalls of large deployments of U.S. combat forces that compromised the legitimacy of U.S. military interventions in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.  But have Americans learned that lesson of legitimacy?     



Phil Klay described the initial exuberance of Americans to strike back at the Taliban after 9/11.  As a Marine who served in Afghanistan, he experienced the frustration of soldiers who were told that they were champions of the rights of mankind, and then left by three presidents to flounder in a hopeless war.  The U.S. military has long known the importance of exit strategies from such entanglements, but in Afghanistan our national leader forgot the painful lessons learned in Vietnam.  See

Brian Klaas has asserted that America should support democracy--but we have to be smarter about it. See

On Back to the Future: Human Rights and Legitimacy in the Training and Advisory Mission, see Special Warfare (May 2013), posted in Resources at and

On A containment strategy and military legitimacy (August 27, 2016}, see

On The Legitimacy of Engagement and Containment National Security Strategies (September 2, 2017), see


On The Diplomat-Warrior: A Military Capability for Reconciliation and Peace (September 3, 2016), see

On Religion, Law and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy (November 11, 2014 and April 4,2016), see and PDF, Google Docs) 

On the relationship between Human Rights, Freedom and National Security (April 4, 2017), see

Saturday, August 21, 2021

What the Afghanistan Fiasco Teaches Us about Religion, Legitimacy and Politics

      By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

The Afghanistan fiasco was another painful lesson in legitimacy that America should have learned after Viet Nam, but obviously did not.  Military power and idealistic illusions of democracy cannot overcome deeply ingrained cultural and religious values.  It should remind us that promoting American exceptionalism in a culturally hostile environment is destined to fail.  

Military legitimacy is a derivative of political legitimacy, and the military interventions in Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan all shared a failure of legitimacy.  Political legitimacy requires public support, and despite overwhelming U.S. military superiority the American interventions in those nations failed.  Cultural norms prevailed, and libertarian democracy was stillborn.

Oppressive forms of Islam incompatible with libertarian democracy shaped the cultural norms in Afganistan.  Those norms, coupled with the pervasive presence of infidel American combat forces, prevented the public support needed for democracy and human rights in Afghanistan.  It should have reminded America that it cannot remake the world in its own image.


Political corruption in the Afghan government, like that in Vietnam, denied it the legitimacy it needed to govern and created a foreign policy fiasco.  It was also a domestic failure of legitimacy, since American officials made public misrepresentations that U.S. policies in Afghanistan were succeeding rather than failing--much as they had done in Vietnam.  

Dishonesty in politics should never be tolerated--especially when it relates to the use of military force.  The deplorable dishonesty of U.S. public officials prolonged the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.  The invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 was justified, but remaining there for 20 years to build a U.S. style democracy was not. That was a gross strategic error.   

Military interventions may be needed in the future to protect vital U.S. security interests.  If and when the U.S. invades a nation and prevents its government from functioning, it has an obligation under international law to provide essential public services until they can be resumed; but that does not justify remaining to shape a successor political regime in an ongoing civil war.

The U.S. military has a civil affairs capability that can provide essential public services until resumed by a local government, as it did in Europe after World War II.  In Afghanistan, U.S combat forces could have left before 2005 if they did not have the mission to build a libertarian democracy in a hostile cultural environment.  It was a misplaced mission of nation-building.

Promoting democracy and human rights are laudable foreign policy objectives, but they require public support in hostile cultural environments, and they never justify a military intervention.  America’s experiment in democracy began with overwhelming public support, but it soon gave way to division and a terrible Civil War.  Once again, divisive cultural and religious values threaten the fabric of American democracy, and the jury remains out on its future.


The Editors at Commonweal observed that over 20 years America’s mission in Afghanistan “morphed and expanded. First it was about uprooting Al Qaeda and capturing or killing the mastermind behind 9/11, Osama bin Laden; then it was also about removing the ruling Taliban that had harbored the terrorists; and finally it was about establishing a liberal democracy in Afghanistan and training the Afghan military to fight like ours. Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan became the longest foreign war in U.S. history.  But our politicians whistled through the graveyard and let the war grind on. Only a few months ago, Biden insisted that the Afghan security forces, which have received twenty years of training and $88.3 billion in aid and materiel from the United States, would be able to defend themselves against the Taliban. As the analyst Andrew Watkins told Foreign Affairs, ‘“Many of the country’s drivers of conflict could never plausibly be resolved as long as American troops were present. Afghanistan’s war will not be over just because U.S. forces leave, but it was never going to end as long as they stayed.’” See

Fareed Zakaria summed up the Afghanistan fiasco, saying We lost the war in Afghanistan long ago.  See

The USA Today Editorial Board described Biden’s Afghanistan horror as a well intentioned miscalculation with disastrous, predictable results.  See

On how misrepresentations by American officials undermined the legitimacy of the Afghanistan war, see  See also, Biden said U.S. officials lied about Afghanistan. It’s not clear whether they’ll be held to account, at

Karen Tumulty holds the Biden administration accountable for the chaos in the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan: “The execution of the U.S. troop withdrawal is something for which Biden alone will be held responsible.  Figuring out the why behind his administration’s missteps is crucial to instilling confidence in its judgment going forward. Otherwise, why should Americans, or the United States’ international allies, accept the president’s assurances that he has “over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region, and act quickly and decisively if needed”?  ...What is at question now and going forward is not Biden’s experience, but his judgment. ”  See


On America’s strategic blunder to promote democracy and human rights with massive military deployments in hostile cultural environments in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and a viable strategic alternative with Special Operations Forces, See Back to the Future: Human Rights and Legitimacy in the Training and Advisory Mission, Special Warfare, (March 2013), posted in Resources at Religion, Legitimacy and Politics at and at

On The Diplomat-Warrior: A Military Capability for Reconciliation and Peace (9/3/2016), see

On the relationship between Human Rights, Freedom and National Security (4/1/2017), see

On The Legitimacy of Engagement and Containment National Security Strategies (9/2/2017), see

Generally, on military legitimacy see Barnes, Military Legitimacy: Might and Right in the New Millennium.  (Frank Cass, 1996)  A revised transcript is posted in Resources at Religion, Legitimacy and Politics at and at  The original is available at Amazon in hardback or paperback. 


For related commentary on military legitimacy posted at Religion, Legitimacy and Politics, see 

(12/29/14): Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacy

(11/1/15): A Containment Strategy to Defeat Islamist Terrorism

(11/8/15): Tough Love and the Duty to Protect Life and Liberty

(11/15/15): American Exceptionalism: The Power of Persuasion or Coercion?

(8/27/16): A Containment Strategy and Military Legitimacy (see also #49, 11/1/15 above)

(11/5/16): Religion, Liberty and Justice at Home and Abroad

(3/25/17): National Security and Military Legitimacy: When Might must Be Right

(5/6/17): Loyalty and Duty in Politics, the Military and Religion

(4/14/18): Musings of a Maverick on Military Legitimacy

(4/21/18): The Legitimacy of an Authoritarian Military in a Libertarian Democracy

(6/1/19): Musings on Military Legitimacy and Murder in Wartime 

(10/19/19): Musings on the Meltdown of Military Legitimacy in the Middle East

(11/30/19): Musings on Trump’s Corruption of Military and Political Legitimacy

(1/18/20):: Musings on Military Legitimacy, and Why Military Might Must be Right

(4/4/20): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Resurrection of America’s Values