The horrific scenes of the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan are now burned into the American conscience. Extremists are parading the streets in American tanks and cutting down civilians with American rifles. U.S. citizens clamored outside the gates of the airport for evacuation unsuccessfully. Terrified Afghan citizens clung to planes departing the country then fell to their deaths. American servicemen and women returned home in caskets. The Taliban hung a body from an American helicopter in flight.
These scenes are not the product of a particular American military failure but a poor decision from the top compounded with an inability to take responsibility for it. Thus, one poor decision became an obstinate need to push forward with a withdrawal plan bungled from the start. The president has yet to admit, in public, that anything could have gone better.
Sometimes, the toughest thing to do in leadership is to admit that you were wrong.
What happened in Afghanistan will have enormous consequences for U.S. foreign policy. We sent the wrong signal to our enemies, and even worse, to our allies. Taliban fighters photographed with abandoned American weaponry will become the poster child of victory to other radical non-state actors deciding whether to persist in their violence against the world order.
Toughness is projected from the top. Americans don’t often enamor with their leaders, and rightly so. But the general attitude about our country exhibited by the White House will set an important tone among the American people, and in turn, the world.
Border countries to Afghanistan, like Pakistan, enjoyed “American ally” status and even continued to enjoy American foreign aid while they simultaneously harbored Taliban and ISIS-K cells waiting for America to leave the region. No one was tough enough to call Pakistan to the mat—and they’re our ally. How, then, can we go toe to toe with China or Iran?
Former President Donald Trump had to get enormously tough on NATO allies just to get them to meet their previous defense commitments. Global entities exhibiting alarming mission creep are constantly chipping away at national sovereignty. A tough America will be necessary to draw the line against an expansionist UN, Bruges, and Davos.
That same toughness missing in our foreign policy is glaringly absent on domestic issues.
America faces an impending financial crisis that will likely end in one of three outcomes: massive inflation, an enormously increased tax burden on American citizens, or a sovereign debt crisis. It’s not impossible that all three will occur. Interest payments on our $29 trillion in debt will cost 50-80 percent of all tax revenues from the American people in fewer than twenty years. We find ourselves in this enormous hole because Washington is at the mercy of short-term political victories with no one willing to acknowledge the trend. Our combined $6 trillion COVID-19 response is indicative of the new, instinctive normal in Congress: spending our way out of every problem we face as a society.
Toughness is not mutually exclusive to compassion or charity. In fact, in many cases, it is a necessary prerequisite for those virtues.
We will need extensive, dire, and tough fiscal reform to reverse course from financial ruin. It will require entitlement reform and a thorough examination of federal incentives.
Our government has been reckless with poorly structured incentives and market-disruptive moratoriums. Everyone has seen short-staffing notices posted on the doors of restaurants and businesses across the nation. Rent controls and eviction moratoriums are the easiest way to destroy a city short of bombing it. These economic failures are being willfully inflicted on the American people for political accolades at the cost of the welfare and long-term sustainability of the country. They don’t help people in the long run.
A President needs to be tough enough, to be honest about the state of the American consumer. The Biden White House has published rosy consumer index reports that largely gloss over what is currently hurting Americans the most – fuel costs, construction materials, and food prices. Honesty is tough – but necessary. We need leaders who recognize this, own this, and act to improve the lives of the average American.
Leadership also needs a vision and the will to act upon it. On the other hand, Joe Biden’s administration appears motivated primarily by the actions of former President Trump – to undo everything he did at all costs. This results in administrative thoughtlessness. A prime example is the loss of 11,000 jobs on day one when the Keystone Pipeline met Biden’s pen. Likewise, the Abrahamic Accords – likely the greatest hope for peace in the Middle East in our lifetime – were largely abandoned. Meanwhile, lopsided agreements like the Paris Climate Accord or the Iranian Nuclear Deal are back on the table.
Securing American energy independence will be incredibly tough – but necessary. For the moment, our world is still dependent on fossil fuels. We can strive to be greener, but we must do so within the context of the world we live in. By abandoning fossil fuel production, we aren’t making the world greener. Instead, we are allowing China, Russia, and the Middle East to control the energy market, make us dependent, and act without any accountability to their own environmental impact in the process of extraction.
Likewise, the crisis at America’s southern border will metastasize until our leadership gets tough. We must have a border, and there must be an organized process for entry. Without these fundamental elements of sovereignty, we have no nation. The Biden Administration has sent the exact opposite signal to the world, drawing tens of thousands to make a dangerous trek to the border. Biden’s soft immigration stance has drawn horrific but expected consequences: inundated border facilities, family separations, and immigrant detentions. Immigration can be measured, legal, diverse, and meritorious, but only if we acknowledge the tough but fundamental realities of national sovereignty.
Perhaps the toughest obstacle we face as a nation is the spirit of self-loathing that consumes American academia, culture, and entertainment. It constitutes the greatest threat to our republic. And because leaders in the Democratic party have largely accepted the critique that America is fundamentally flawed, racial division in our country has grown enormously.
The greatest enemy of civilization is tribalism. We have been warned of this from Thucydides to Aristotle to George Washington. We’ve got to get tough.
Post COVID-19, America finds itself in need of making some tough choices about freedom. Without major dissent, the American public largely accepted incredible expansions of authority from the federal and state governments. Lockdowns destroyed businesses and livelihoods nationwide. Children have been deprived of critical social development from the lack of school and other human interaction. A quarter of 18–24-year-olds in America contemplated suicide last June.
Now we must decide if we will accept this new normal. Will an America predicated on free markets, and individual sovereignty outlast competing ideologies of central control?
China is eagerly watching. They have directly challenged the west on the primacy of freedom through their Belt and Road initiative.
If America doesn’t challenge unchecked authority and stand for freedom, no one else will. This must come from the top, and it will require resolute toughness.
We need to get tough, now more than ever.
• Bryan Griffin is a distinguished fellow at the London Center for Policy Research and a co-founder of the Emergency Committee for America.
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