Will We Never Learn?

afghanistan and america

I’m no foreign policy expert but here are some thoughts about Afghanistan and US foreign engagement that I think can be extrapolated to other cross cultural interactions or interpersonal relationships locally.

For a more helpful perspective and information on how to help refugees and refugee agencies, check out Jessica Goudeau on Instagram. She is also the author of After the Last Border, an important book about the refugee experience in the USA.

When it comes to foreign policy, military engagement, humanitarian development, mission, cross cultural anything, we need humility, need to move beyond good intention, need to recognize our own complicity, need to consider motives and impact, and need to pray.

Time for a little humility

Journalist Robert Wright, who reports on foreign policy, said this, “Like most people, we assume that we’re good people. We see our intentions as good, and that’s not always the widely shared perception. We are not always perceived as liberators, and the people in the countries that come into play in our contests with great powers do not always share the aspirations that we attribute to them. And I think, if there’s one thing I would propose is a miracle cure for the ills of US foreign policy, it would be for Americans to get much better at trying to see the world from the perspective of other people around the world.

There are no miracle cures for what ails US foreign policy but I submit these bolded words as an excellent place to start. And yet, I feel despondent about its likelihood. Americans have an increasingly difficult time recognizing that how we view the world is not how everyone views the world. Americans have cultural lenses on and refuse to admit it. And not just when it comes to foreign policy but to other differences. Ideas about social values, religion, economics, family structure, work life…everything. We are almost unable (or is it unwilling?) to see the world from another perspective, and even more unable to value that perspective as valid. We are so proud and stubborn and insistent on our rightness. A little humility is required.

Also, in the above quote, Wright says we think our intentions are good.

Who cares? Good intention doesn’t trump bad planning or problematic implementation. Good intention needs to come with humility, research on best practices, willingness to change course. Let’s say I have the best possible intention of helping you learn French. My intention has no ill-will, I am devoted to the effort, I expend money and time all for you(!) to learn French. The problem is that you live in Russia and need to learn Russian. My good intention is irrelevant and even harmful if, in insisting on teaching you French I keep you from getting what you actually need.

We are often a significant part of the problem.

By “we”, I mean Americans. We arm groups so they can fight for what we want them to fight for and then they (or another group) use those weapons against us or against our allies and we act surprised. We pump money and resources into a place with little accountability and pay no attention to our own corruption. I have heard politicians blame Afghan politicians and people who benefitted economically throughout the past 20 years for being corrupt, for living in big houses and driving fancy cars, for not taking care of their own country, and thus losing support of the people. Does the American public have any inkling of how money is spent in our diplomatic, military, or humanitarian missions? Do we keep an accounting of contractors? The waste and excess I have seen in just our small context are appalling. Do we know how the money is actually used that is marked for “aid” or “development”? Do we have a clue how much American contractors make in places like Kabul, or how that money is made? Before we point fingers elsewhere, we need to do serious housekeeping ourselves.

Somehow Afghanistan turned into a nation building exercise, modeled on a sort of compassionate war(?) in which the rights of women, access to education, healthcare, and general development could advance (through military might and conquest?). If we are really a nation guided by compassion and a desire to see development, why do we fail to invest sufficiently in things far less expensive and dangerous than war like malaria vaccine development or access to antiretroviral therapy or Covid-19 vaccines? Why are we afraid to welcome refugees even from countries where our policies are what contributed to their plight? (here is a good article about why Christians need to welcome Muslim refugees).

And we need prayer. I just finished a beautiful book called Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep by Tish Harrison Warren. She writes through the compline prayer and that is how I will end.

Keep watch, dear Lord,

with those who work, or watch, or weep this night,

and give your angels charge over those who sleep.

Tend the sick, Lord Christ;

give rest to the weary,

bless the dying,

soothe the suffering,

pity the afflicted,

shield the joyous;

and all for your love’s sake.


The Lord grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.