Joe Biden’s slogan that it was time “to end the forever war” in Afghanistan was called imbecilic by former Prime Minister Tony Blair. But while the slogan might indeed be simplistic, it has proved remarkably effective and points to a deep truth: forever is a very short time in democratic politics, writes Philip Collins.
There is a lot of fog out there on the battlefield, said Clausewitz. There is a lot in here too, shrouding the arguments about war. It is never easy to make a case for combat but, since the Iraq conflict, it has become especially difficult. With the announcement that American troops will withdraw from Afghanistan by 31 August, the idea of the “forever war” has done a lot of the work in explaining why. The “forever war” is a claim that there is no viable exit. The war cannot be won, it can only be fought, endlessly, as neither side is either strong enough to win or weak enough to lose. In an uncharacteristically vituperative outburst, the former British Prime Minister called the idea of the forever war “an imbecilic slogan”. It is certainly an unexamined slogan and behind it lies further fog.
The immediate question posed by the idea of the forever war is this: How long is forever? In truth, forever is not a long time. The eternal, in politics lasts about an electoral cycle. Under the terms of the deal that President Trump cut with the Taliban, American soldiers had been briefly spared enemy fire. Should President Biden renege on that deal, there would once again be a toll of American casualties, lasting forever, or until the President is seeking a second term in office.
So, the forever war is a dispute about time scales, which are short in democratic politics. It is a common observation that democracies struggle to deal with issues – pensions policy, infrastructure, climate change – whose consequences are a long time arriving. The problem is especially acute in foreign policy. Mr Blair poses the question when he asks, in the essay he published deploring the withdrawal, “is long term a concept we are still capable of grasping?”
How long is forever? In truth, forever is not a long time. The eternal, in politics lasts about an electoral cycle.
The answer is that in the long-run we are all dead. Tyrannies have a lot of time. Fidel Castro was well known for speeches that ran overs six hours. So was Mao. Nobody had the authority to tell them to shut up. Democracies, especially in nations with vibrant media scrutiny, are much faster. There are two types of political candidate in a contemporary democracy: the quick and the dead. The diplomatic operation of a democracy, by contrast, takes its time and cultural change in Afghanistan operates on a geological standard. The forever war is, in these circumstances, an effective rhetorical label. Who has the patience for war that lasts 20 years without definitive success, let alone forever?
But there is also more to this than the playing out of the different time signatures. In his plea for forbearance in Afghanistan, Mr Blair compares what he describes as the ideology of radical Islamism to post-war Communism. A process which began with the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution, he argues, has culminated in Boko Haram, al-Shabab, al-Qaeda and ISIS. Radical Islam is, on this account, both a system and an ideology incommensurate with tolerance and secular government. Just as the West did not simply give up in its conflict with Communism so, Mr Blair urges, it should have the patience to see the conflict with radical Islam to its conclusion.
Yet the comparison with Communism is not so easy. There is always less of a popular appetite for a hot war than a cold war. The battle of capitalism and communism was a war that was in part philosophical and in part material. Those were grounds on which Western nations were happy to fight. There is a thesis to be written on the contribution of Coco Chanel handbags in the glittering windows of the West in inducing a sense of envy that helped to bring down a communist system that couldn’t produce the goods.
But whenever the heat turned up on the cold war, as it did in Vietnam for example, popular neglect quickly curdled into opposition. In 1974 a military science fiction novel by the Vietnam veteran Joe Haldeman was a great success. At the level of its ludicrous plot it was the tale of an interstellar war against an alien civilisation. At the level of painfully obvious allegory, it was a description of the futility of the American presence in Vietnam. The interstellar conflict was eternal and the name of the book was The Forever War.