Michael KreponThe Unipolar Moment Crashes and Burns in Kabul

Lyric of the week:

“I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was younger
I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was stronger” – “Ooh La La” by Rod Stewart and the Faces (with Ronnie Wood)

Charles Krauthammer, the tribune of American power after the Soviet Union’s dissolution, wrote two important essays on “the unipolar moment.” Krauthammer disparaged what he characterized as the tepid multilateralism of the Clinton administration. The world’s sole superpower didn’t need to respect weakness, limit NATO expansion, or pay allegiance to international norms. Washington could and should throw its weight around. The sole superpower could play by its own rules.

The George W. Bush administration sang from this hymnal. Before 9/11, Bush and his advisory team of Vulcans planned to discard the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty even though Vladimir Putin was willing to accommodate revisions. Putin telegraphed that his rejoinder was to ditch the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, completed in 1993 as Bush’s father was leaving office – and with it START II’s prohibition on land-based missiles carrying multiple warheads. Bush expressed no need or interest in maintaining this prohibition.

And so, with zero regret, Bush dispensed with two central tenets of nuclear stabilization and strategic stability – limitations on national missile defenses and the abolition of land-based missiles carrying multiple warheads. The 9/11 attacks facilitated Bush’s planned withdrawal from the ABM Treaty.

Bush reacted to the strikes against the Twin Towers and the Pentagon with a fierceness driven by grievous national injury. Bush wouldn’t be human if he didn’t feel guilt at not doing more to connect the dots indicating how the attacks would happen – data points husbanded by siloed domestic and foreign intelligence collection agencies. As if anger and guilt weren’t sufficiently high octane, the administration’s “never again” impulse was also fueled by the hubris of the unipolar moment.

Twenty years later, in this current moment of pain, sorrow, and humiliation about events in Afghanistan, it is worth taking the time to re-read the Bush administration’s 2002 and 2006 National Security Strategies. The former declared that “We must deter and defend against the threat before it is unleashed.” The latter avowed that “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

These sentiments fueled the ill-fated war and institution building project in Afghanistan as well as the preventive war and institution building project in Iraq, another fiasco whose primary beneficiary was Iran. The end of the unipolar moment was hastened by these wars, and by much else. For those harboring any doubt, the unipolar moment definitively crashed and burned with the fall of Kabul.

The finest hours of U.S. expeditionary forces in Afghanistan came at the front and back ends of this two-decade-long saga. The routing of al-Qaeda was essential, but soon after this first act, tragedy, miscalculation, and dissimulation followed. There was no way to succeed in changing fundamental realities in Afghanistan, and therefore no good way or time to leave once al-Qaeda’s leadership was scattered and hounded.

The final act of leaving Afghanistan was suffused with grace even in the midst of chaos and terror. Evacuation efforts at Kabul airport were truly heroic, reflecting a nobility of purpose that had previously been buried by U.S. counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies.

The second Bush war against Saddam Hussein continues to limp along.  Unlike the first, it was unnecessary, deeply unwise and, like 9/11, abetted by the U.S. intelligence community’s failings. Saddam was unable to reconstitute his nuclear weapon program, the ostensible reason for launching a preventive war. While the Bush administration was bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, North Korea obtained nuclear weapons.

The Obama administration inherited both wars and other messes. Obama ordered the premature departure of U.S. troops from Iraq only to have them return as ISIS filled in the resulting vacuum with a mock Caliphate. This cautionary experience probably helped convince Obama to stay in Afghanistan.

John Kerry began his career in public life as a young veteran, returning from the Vietnam War and testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He asked the assembled notables a question that he, himself, could not answer as Obama’s second Secretary of State: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

Then came the Trump administration, with the Pentagon calling for a conditions-based withdrawal while Trump set an early date for leaving and forced the Afghan government to release Taliban fighters to “facilitate” the U.S. withdrawal. Good Lord.

To argue that Biden screwed up the endgame in Afghanistan is yet another exercise in hubris and political point scoring. There was no graceful exit from this mess, no way to prevent all acts of terror during the evacuation, or the soul-piercing scenes on the tarmac. This is what happens when Presidents ask the last man and woman to die for a mistake.

We are now left to grieve for those lost in war, those with serious injuries, seen and unseen, and those left behind, most susceptible to harm by Taliban rule and by the next iterations of internal strife that has become Afghanistan’s sorry burden.

And yet, despite so many missteps, the United States of America can recover. Resiliency is in my country’s gene pool; regrettably, division is, too. Recovery requires less domestic division. The healing process might be advanced if some of those who got us into these messes express humility and contrition for their decisions.

A rebound is also possible if good decisions follow excruciatingly bad ones. Three decades after the last helicopter left that roof in Saigon, Vietnam has become an unrecognizable and unforeseen partner. It’s too early to pronounce doom after the U.S. exit from Afghanistan.

The United States of America has a fine habit of picking itself up after stumbling and falling. My favorite quote of Henry L. Stimson applies: “The man who tries to work for the good may suffer setback and even disaster, but will never know defeat. The only deadly sin I know is cynicism.”

So, where do we go from here? U.S. air strikes won’t end with the exit from Afghanistan. I hold out the hope, however, emblazoned on one of the Stimson Center’s old softball team T-shirts, of “More Think, Less Tank.” I’ll leave the alternatives to preventive war and nation building to others.

In this space, let’s consider our collective preoccupation with the future of nuclear threat reduction — a future that regrettably does not include the ABM Treaty and the abolition of land-based missiles carrying multiple warheads.

The stunning and long belated expansion of China’s strategic modernization programs accelerates the need to plan wisely for Beijing’s inclusion in nuclear threat reduction talks. More on this later in conjunction with the mid-October release of my door stop/magnum opus, Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control. 

Numbers remain all important, but until we get a better handle on the numbers, it’s crucial to reinforce and extend the three crucial norms of no use and no testing of nuclear weapons, as well as nonproliferation. Suggestions to follow.

A renewed focus on avoiding dangerous military practices is also clearly warranted.  A chastened Washington would be so inclined, but it’s not clear that Beijing and Moscow are on the same page.

Note to readers: A shorter form of this essay was published by Forbes.com on August 30th.


  1. Patrick Ogle (History)

    I hope the country has learned a lesson but I am not overly optimistic.

  2. Joseph (History)

    So in summary:

    Clinton (D) = works well with others
    Bush (R) = fierce aggressor
    Obama (D) = unfortunate victim
    Kerry (D) = wise patriot philosopher
    Trump (R) = Good Lord, what a mess
    Biden (D) = victim of unkind hubris

    Mr. Krepon, one of your most biased write-ups.

  3. Don (History)

    As predicted by realists, Krauthammer’s Unipolar Moment unsurprisingly morphed into the Unipolar Nanosecond once the Bush administration fell for his abysmal idea. When will we learn?

Pin It on Pinterest