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Afghanistan Withdrawal Highlights Americans’ Withdrawal of Trust in Government

Summer 2021 will be remembered for many things, but perhaps most vividly for the end of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. The rapid withdrawal of American personnel (along with tens of thousands of Afghans vulnerable to Taliban retaliation for cooperating with Western allies) provided highly compelling storylines and dramatic video images that will remain seared into our retinas for decades. 

Regardless of the merits of the policy decision, the dominant narrative at present is that the U.S. government utterly bungled the withdrawal from Afghanistan, just as it had botched the two-decade-long attempt at nation-building in a land nicknamed “the graveyard of empires.” In the face of over a dozen last-minute U.S. military casualties (in the August 26 terrorist attack in Kabul) and ample news footage of chaotic scenes at the Kabul airport, there has been little public appetite to consider any more nuanced views of what transpired in the summer months. The finer points of analysis President Biden laid out upon the withdrawal’s completion [1] were largely lost in the crossfire of the commentariat and the inexorable “blame game” played out in the blogosphere. 

There are of course many victims of this less-than-glorious episode in U.S. military and diplomatic history. Some are literal victims: soldiers and civilians (a majority surely women) who tragically lost their lives, livelihoods or freedoms during the fighting or the Taliban takeover. An indirect and metaphorical casualty is the legitimacy of future American interventions abroad, no matter how meritorious and necessary. For better or worse, the costs of the U.S. attempt to project power in Afghanistan—measured in trillions of dollars and thousands of lives—will surely reaffirm the “Vietnam syndrome” that discourages foreign interventions even for such urgent reasons as halting genocides and protecting the human rights of endangered minorities abroad. 

Another type of “collateral damage” from this summer’s featured news story presents ethicists with an even more profound set of concerns—one that involves the very prospect of the democratic experiment itself. The Afghanistan imbroglio is far from the only pivotal development in recent months that shakes our confidence in government’s operations in general, not just in military or foreign affairs. Consider this necessarily partial list of perceived recent failures of American governance: 

1) The cumbersome and uneven rollout of vaccines, even after they were developed with unusual speed 

2) The painfully delayed availability of pandemic-related economic relief measures for businesses, local governments, renters and families, long after funding bills became law and expenditures were allocated [2]  

3) The inability to forge a stable working compromise on badly needed infrastructure funding 

4) The lack of Congressional action to address climate change. 

This list could be multiplied many times over, and supplemented with more general and perduring concerns about the waste, corruption, inefficiency and mismanagement with which government agencies are perceived to function. Of course, each of the intractable problems that public authorities are charged to address has its own dynamics and sources of potential frustration, but the picture of government performance in the aggregate is not an encouraging one. Regardless of the objective facts (goals are indeed often accomplished, and occasionally on time and under budget), collective perceptions of government mismanagement and failures cast a long shadow of distrust and even scorn, particularly in our age of political polarization and deliberate spreading of misinformation. 

The erosion of confidence in government efficacy is compounded by the pronounced libertarian streak in a nation that was founded upon a tax revolt. Americans seem particularly allergic to bureaucracy and impatient with red tape, skeptical of any ambitious program that might smack of socialism or social engineering. In the “market society” that we have become, we often presume that if government cannot achieve social objectives quickly and well, then it should not be trusted to undertake them at all; our taxpayer money is better spent in the private sector, through the functioning of markets and via voluntary action. 

The most extreme expressions of anti-government sentiment are clearly incoherent (even most libertarians are able to identify some set of public goods worth pursuing through a modest level of taxation to support public finance), but we still do well to ponder the dangers of the precipitous decline in trust in the mechanisms of government. Public opinion polling consistently detects a decades-long decrease in trust in the major institutions of American public life; but especially disheartening is the erosion of confidence in all branches of government. The incompetence of public authorities has become reliable fodder for comedians and satirists. Feckless government officials, our dominant cultural narrative tells us, rarely spend their energies on socially beneficial goals, and even when they do stumble upon something worth doing, their efforts are doomed by mismanagement, costly overhead and unintended consequences. 

The easy thing to do is to find further examples of perceived policy failures that add grist to this mill of anti-government sentiment; because our federal system demands cooperation of governmental entities on several levels, American government’s functioning is generally slow, cumbersome and indirect—only rarely is it quick, nimble and direct. The hard things to do are to calculate how negative the perception has grown and of course how to reverse the trend line. Is democratic government as we know it in an absolute death spiral, experiencing a “death by 1000 cuts” from this growing forfeiture of public confidence and the resulting impatience and utter cynicism? Is there any room at all for optimism? 

If a reversal is to come, it will surely involve an effort to tap our collective ideals regarding laudable social objectives upon which we may readily agree, even in our sharply polarized era. Ethicists might be inclined to propose broad goals such as reducing poverty, or defending human rights at home and abroad; if these still turn out to be divisive, perhaps more modest aspirations such as transparency and basic honesty in government might provide a rallying point. 

Toward the end of this trying summer, one sign of potential renewal dawned in the leadership of one of our largest states. New York’s 57th (and first female) governor was sworn into office on August 24 at the State Capitol in Albany. Kathy Hochul’s brief inaugural address that day shared her priority of reshaping the culture of politics in a scandal-weary Empire State. Hochul promised “a fresh, collaborative approach” in state government, one that includes “open, ethical governing.” The new governor was clearly signaling her intention to make a clean break from her predecessor Andrew Cuomo who reigned in disgrace amidst multiple credible accusations of sexual harassment. 

But in the broader sense, as the citizenry ponders the ethical possibilities of the enterprise of governance itself, such a call for political renewal is especially poignant. It is not just a matter of avoiding scandals or shaking up entrenched political establishment or even abstaining from the bullying behavior that characterizes so much of what passes for politics these days, but rather of rekindling the basis for trust that is an essential precondition for successful governance. “I want people to believe in their government again,” Hochul declared, “It’s important to me that people have faith.” [3]  

Note the call (not incidentally by a public figure who openly embraces her Catholic faith and even quoted the bible in her inaugural address) for a renewal that is grounded in something greater than merely technocratic expertise or quantifiable measures of policy success—as hungry as we might rightly be for those. Hochul’s commitment to a new approach extends further than reshaping Albany politics and recovering from the turbulent reign of the disgraced and combative Cuomo—ultimately, it holds the promise of reversing perceptions of all facets of government operations. 

By reminding us that government and public service is “a sacred trust” and fundamentally about “our hopes and dreams” (to cite two further phrases from Hochul’s inaugural speech), the new governor is echoing Pope Francis’s insights in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti regarding the nobility of governmental action in support of the common good, as well as the laudable vocation of public officials who serve with honesty and integrity. 

Against cynics and libertarians, Catholic social teaching has long defended the legitimate role of government (constrained by the principle of subsidiarity) to undertake crucial social functions that no other actor possesses the resources or incentives to perform. While our highest aspirations for such collective action will inevitably experience a measure of frustration, citizens make a grave mistake when they yield to the temptation to despair and withhold their support for government entirely. Granted that nobody is likely to administer a flawless public health program, much less guarantee a perfectly successful withdrawal from an ill-conceived foreign entanglement or chart a comprehensive path to addressing climate change. But withholding all confidence in government becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, accelerating a downward spiral that threatens our liberal democratic system’s  stability.. 

The events of summer 2021 may have further shaken our collective level of confidence in our public authorities, but let us hope for a healing of the wounds and an overdue renewal of the unwritten social contract that undergirds our experiment in democracy. 

 —

[1] See Biden’s August 31 speech, at “Full Transcript of Biden’s Remarks on Afghanistan,” New York Times, 1 Sept. 2021, A9. 

[2] Evidence is emerging of startlingly low rates of actual delivery of promised assistance, often in the range of 10 to 20% of those fully eligible and already notified of an intended award or benefit such as emergency rental assistance, even after the passage of many months of precious time while poverty and evictions loomed. See Glenn Thrush and Alan Rappeport, “Rental Aid Funds Remain Unused Ahead of Court Decision,” New York Times, 26 Aug. 2021, B4.  

[3] All citations in this paragraph are taken from “Transcript of Kathy Hochul’s Inaugural Address,” which appears at: https://www.c-span.org/video/?514260-1/york-governor-hochul-inaugural-address (accessed 25 Aug. 2021). 

 

Works Cited  

“Full Transcript of Biden’s Remarks on Afghanistan,” New York Times, 1 Sept. 2021, A9. 

Glenn Thrush and Alan Rappeport, “Rental Aid Funds Remain Unused Ahead of Court Decision,” New York Times, 26 Aug. 2021, B4. 

“Transcript of Kathy Hochul’s Inaugural Address,” C-span.org, August 24, 2021, https://www.c-span.org/video/?514260-1/york-governor-hochul-inaugural-address (accessed 25 Aug. 2021).