Guest Column: We Never Seem to Learn

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Burt Ross

The philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Yet, as we look at the footage coming out of Kabul, Afghanistan, it looks eerily similar to the climatic scene in Rory Kennedy’s brilliant documentary, “Last Days in Vietnam.” We do not seem capable of remembering even the recent past.

There are pundits who are already trying to make the decision to leave Afghanistan into a partisan matter, but presidents from Johnson and Nixon to Bush Jr., Obama and Trump all engaged in prolonged entanglements with the same disastrous results. They all had ample opportunity to extricate our troops but refused to do so despite the horrific costs in human life and treasure. Biden might be correct in extracting us from this endless quagmire, but there is no doubt the execution of our exit has been nothing less than a calamity.

Over the years, our government has spent an untold fortune on so-called intelligence, but we continue to get misinformation at best. The belief that the Afghan troops would fight hard to battle the Taliban was as offtarget as the cherry picked faulty intelligence given to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell that told us there were nuclear weapons hidden in Iraq. It seems like a local cab driver could have provided us with more accurate and reliable information than what our intelligence people sometimes come up with using advanced technology.

Former Powell stands out as the rare public official who knew when and how to engage the enemy. His “Pottery Barn” rule stands the test of time: “If you break it, you fix it. Now, if you break it, you made a mistake. It’s the wrong thing to do. But you own it.” George Herbert Walker Bush listened to Powell but, unfortunately, his son did not. The father liberated Kuwait and quickly left. The son invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq and never left either country.

Powell’s doctrine delineates a list of questions, all of which have to be answered affirmatively before military action should be taken by the United States:

1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?

2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?

3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?

4. Have all other nonviolent policy means been fully exhausted?

5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?

6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?

7. Is the action supported by the American people?

8. Do we have genuine broad international support?

The Powell Doctrine should be required reading for all future presidents before we once again use military force and end up with those we intended to protect dropping from our aircraft in an attempt to escape the mess we helped create.