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American Culture

by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

The debacle in Afghanistan has proved how difficult it is to change another country’s culture. The USA tried it in Vietnam and Iraq and failed. What arrogance to think it might succeed in Afghanistan. All the more so since every other power that tried to tame Afghanistan over a thousand years, failed. Not one American President comes out of the sorry narrative of the past twenty years in Afghanistan with any credit.

If you have Netflix, I recommend you watch the series Turning Point to see how after 9/11 unhinged American policies became in reaction to the horror

Through its actions, mixed messages, and missteps in Afghanistan, it simply reinforced the Taliban narrative that the USA itself was morally bankrupt. It failed to present a moral or administrative alternative to its version of Islam. Why would anyone want to follow its example? When Islamic fundamentalists around the world look at the United States, they see what Christianity once called the “Whore of Babylon.” It is a country riven by the inadequacies of its supposedly superior system, the social failures of its inner cities, the corruption of its politicians, and a culture of compulsion where one section of the community tries to impose its values on the other with no moderation. A culture dominated by dogma and intolerance.

To be fair I cannot think anyone else doing a much better job nowadays of running a country according to its ideals. But what arrogance or stupidity led the United States to think it had the right to try to impose its way of looking at the world, on others? Of course, the rest of the world envies American wealth and opportunities, but not its values. Not one of its previous examples of occupation around the world (except perhaps post-war Germany) has done it credit.

In the latest New York Review of Books, the Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole excoriates the behavior of America in Afghanistan, its hypocrisy, and its lies. It is a powerful, no holds barred analysis. After the defeat of the Taliban, in response to 9/11 in 2001, Donald Rumsfeld said that “Our job is about killing bad guys. We are not going to get involved in nation-building.” That was the overwhelming view of the American polity at that time. If only his successors had followed that rule. Yet nation-changing was precisely what the USA started to do. Under Obama, the name of the mission was changed from “ Operation Enduring Freedom” to “Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.”

The top brass of the military and the political establishment of both parties trumpeted the myth that the war was not just to get rid of the bad guys, but it was to turn Afghanistan into an enlightened ethical, democratic, tolerant culture, just like Uncle Sam. The American public was told they were doing a great job despite the mounting casualties and evidence to the contrary. Anyone who dared to suggest otherwise was fired whether in Washington or the Armed Forces.

When the Taliban first rose to power in 1994, they were successful because they brought a measure of order to corrupt countries caught up in civil warfare between gangs and tribes. If its religion was barbaric and crude, at least it addressed corruption. But when America invaded, it restored corruption. As in Vietnam and Iraq, everything became arbitrary. The Afghani elite that America supported in the hope they could establish an honest society, had no such intention. The army, the police, the bureaucracy were all mired in corruption as America kept pouring money into the country and to local fixers. As if money was the solution to all the problems.

In 2010 the United States estimated that Afghans were paying $2.5 billion every year in bribes. Meanwhile, the corrupt leadership was salting away billions in foreign accounts courtesy of the American taxpayer. Just as Obama thought that handing huge sums of cash to the Iranians would persuade them to be good responsible human beings and friends with America, a similar mindset of appeasement infected all of America’s foreign policies in Afghanistan ( and elsewhere).

This has been American policy for years even at home. Billions and now trillions have been and will be poured into legitimate social causes. But much of it will be siphoned off for vanity projects, vested interests, relatives, and corrupt politicians in return for favors. Sadly, the record so far, of money solving all social issues is not a good one.

O’Toole is merciless. He attacks the American commitment to the principle of equal dignity and opportunity for Afghan women. It came up against an embedded culture where women were oppressed and pedophilia common. In 2015 Joseph Goldstein of the New York Times revealed that US soldiers were told not to intervene in the kidnapping and rape of young boys even when it happened on American bases. The Americans were told not to alienate their allies and when officers acted against abuse, they were disciplined. Meanwhile, the Pashtun saw the amount of pornography, sexual permissiveness, and a culture of notoriety and self-gratification that had come to define American popular culture. Why wouldn’t they want something else? Even if in western eyes their Islam is morally inferior, in theirs it is not. That is why Jihadism attracts so many followers.

We rightly condemn the abuses of colonialism, its arrogance, and its crimes. However, we have been seduced into thinking it was only a white, western sin. At the same time, we ignored the fact that every culture and civilization over history has been guilty of colonialism when the opportunity presented itself. The Taliban is colonial, as was ISIS. And so is the USA. I am not making equivalence here, just pointing out similarities. I have always believed that the occupation of Afghanistan was a terrible mistake. Perhaps colored by reading, as a youth, of the failure of the British at the Khyber Pass. I am glad the USA has finally withdrawn. But the disastrous debacle of Biden’s incompetent, and chaotic escape will remain a stain on the USA.

Having said all this, and despite its failures, most human beings would rather live in the USA if only to take advantage of all it has to offer, even the corruption! As illustrated by the millions coming illegally through the Southern border. Capisolism, Capitalism with a Socialist bureaucracy, may not be ideal, but it is still a better and freer regime to live under than either almost every other system. And China may now be the up-and-coming dominant colonialist power, but how many people are lining up to leave the USA to go to live there? As if they would be let in.

States should focus on their affairs and their security. As indeed Israel does. It is under no illusion that being nice to Iran, the Taliban and the kleptocracies around them will make its life any safer. Thank goodness it can survive against overwhelming odds. And the Afghanistan withdrawal teaches Israel that while the present support in the USA is very important, it should never think it can completely rely on the USA as an ally.

In my youth in Europe we used to joke (out of envy of the USA) that every great civilization goes through three stages; from barbarism to civilization to decadence. But the USA is the only one to go from barbarism to decadence without any intervening period of civilization. Of course, that was neither fair nor accurate then. Let us pray it remains so.

PS. My latest collection of blogs and essays is out on Amazon in print and kindle.

Commitment and Controversy Volume 4 by Jeremy Rosen


Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.


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