In 1957, the supposedly backward Soviet Union launched a satellite into orbit and the threat of Soviet rockets became real for millions of Americans. Fortunately, the Sputnik moment galvanized a massive American response and we soon caught up and overtook the Soviets.
Conceivably, the current collapse of our Afghanistan adventure might be a similar “Sputnik moment,” sounding an alarm bell to the nation, particularly helpful in killing wokeness. Much depends, of course, on how the mainstream media spins events in Afghanistan. Clearly, the biggest takeaway is that brute force and trillions of dollars cannot transform a culture. All the King’s men and all the King’s horses could not make the Afghan people accept our vision of sexual equality, our definition of rule of law, and our admiration for the virtues of democracy. Nor did our intelligence services know what was occurring there. It is more than a little ironic that a nation that prides itself on being so multicultural and attuned to satisfying popular preferences failed to respect the culture of the Afghan people.
There are clear parallels here with transforming segments of American society. We have spent hundreds of billions, perhaps trillions, to transform black-dominated inner cities, and the failure of this project is patently obvious, no matter how many civil rights laws we passed and how hard we punished those who resisted. Yet, as in Afghanistan, there is not much to show for the effort. One need only drive through downtown Baltimore, Jackson, MS, Newark, NJ, and many other majority black cities to see disappointing outcomes. The same geniuses who insisted that empowerment zones with generous tax incentives could bring well-paying jobs to these slums might be equally guilty of convincing the U.S. that a few billion for minor projects could quickly modernize the Afghan economy. Meanwhile, what has happened to all the 1960s-era public housing guaranteed to uplift residents? Alas, the “projects” which encouraged violent gangs and drug dealers and are now being demolished.
Worse has been the sad effort to fix the “root causes” of black poverty. Billions have been invested in schools, but test scores remain stagnant. In fact, the futility of this ill-advised experiment is demonstrated by today’s embrace of cosmetic solutions—as if social promotions will improve learning. Equally ineffectual have been the attempts to reduce crime via fixing the underlying conditions supposedly breeding criminality. Again, billions spent on social engineering to no avail, as the recent crime epidemic demonstrates.
Common to both the Afghanistan debacle and our domestic fiascos is weapons-grade incompetence. Neither the Ivy League-credentialed “poverty warriors” of the 1960s, nor the medal-bedecked generals of the early 21st century could do their jobs. Their optimistic pronouncements were merely a triumph of cheerful PR and a tool for opening the government’s money spigot. Only the optics—not success and failures—of foreign and domestic interventions differ.
Absent in both instances is any admission that the problem is intractable. Nobody would admit that the U.S. could never transform Afghan poppy-growers into Iowa-esqe soybean farmers, just as few admit that the government cannot pacify crime-plagued, inner city schools. Blame for repeated failure will instead be put on a few unlucky flunkies. State department functionaries who funded programs to build democracy among nomadic goat herders will move on to the next project, perhaps helping Saudi women chose their personal pronouns.
Hopefully, however, deeper questions may soon be raised about America’s bumblers. Specifically, has America’s obsession with race and gender created a governing class of incompetents? Particularly important is how woke ideology shapes those in charge. Now, aspiring system functionaries compete with rivals based on wokeness, not personal and professional qualities—for example, generals who define their mission as rooting out white supremacy, not winning wars, or school administrators who ignore what teachers know in favor of hiring teachers “who look like their students” and know little about the 3R’s.
If this Sputnik moment arrives and wokeness goes into history’s dustbin, let’s give a tip of the hat to the Taliban for opening our eyes. Let these government bunglers flee to their office building rooftops, where helicopters will evacuate them to a land where they will never be heard from again.
Robert Weissberg is a retired professor (emeritus) of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He writes from New York.