Writing in today’s WSJ, Council on Foreign Relations president emeritus Leslie Gelb pronounces himself “lost on President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan policy” and offers up a middle ground solution for Afghanization of the conflict.
Not quite eight months ago, Mr. Obama pledged to “defeat” al Qaeda in Afghanistan by transforming that country’s political and economic infrastructure, training Afghan forces and adding 21,000 U.S. forces for starters. He proclaimed Afghanistan’s strategic centrality to prevent Muslim extremism from taking over Pakistan—an even more vital nation because of its nuclear weapons. And a mere three weeks ago, he punctuated his commitments by proclaiming that Afghanistan is a “war of necessity,” not one of choice. White House spokesmen reinforced this by promising that the president would “fully resource” the war.
Yet less than one week ago, Mr. Obama said the following about troop increases: “I’m going to take a very deliberate process in making those decisions. There is no immediate decision pending on resources, because one of the things that I’m absolutely clear about is you have to get the strategy right and then make a determination about resources.” He repeated that on Sunday’s talk shows.
Are we now to understand that he made all those previous declarations and decisions without a strategy he was committed to? Prior to his recent statements, it seemed clear that the president and his advisers had adopted a strategy already—the counterinsurgency one—and that Gen. Stanley McChrystal was tapped precisely because he would implement that plan. The idea, to repeat, was to deploy forces sufficient to clear territory of Taliban threats, hold that territory, and build up the sinews of the country behind that.
Nothing significant has changed to account for the shift from Mr. Obama’s confident policy proclamations to his temporizing statements of recent days. The president certainly understood before last week that the situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating. And he knew when he was inaugurated and when he first uttered his colorful “war of necessity” phrase that his party, and the public generally, were increasingly opposed to the war.
Yet, Gelb himself is conflicted on what to do now: “Even though I strongly believe that the United States does not have vital interests in Afghanistan, I also believe that Mr. Obama can’t simply walk away from the war.” At the same time, however, “Republicans and others who advocate an open-ended U.S. commitment can’t simply ignore the fact that political time is running out at home.”
So, what then? Gelb outlines a six-step approach that includes another mini-surge, more training and support for Afghan forces, regional alliances, dividing the Taliban, and so forth. He figures this will “take two to three years.”
While that strikes me as off by a factor of ten, he hits on most of the issues around which a loose consensus exists among foreign policy wonks who are not regional specialists or strategists. But Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald sees this as yet more proof that “Our war-loving Foreign Policy Community hasn’t gone anywhere.” Building off of Marc Lynch‘s blog post yesterday pointing out that General McCrystal’s strategic review calling for more troops in Afghanistan was written by “a dozen smart (mostly) think-tankers,” Greenwald writes,”What would a group of people like that ever recommend other than continued and escalated war? It’s what they do. You wind them up and they spout theories to justify war. That’s the function of America’s Foreign Policy Community.”
Buttressing this case, he quotes previous statements from Gelb that,
My initial support for the war [in Iraq] was symptomatic of unfortunate tendencies within the foreign policy community, namely the disposition and incentives to support wars to retain political and professional credibility. We ‘experts’ have a lot to fix about ourselves, even as we ‘perfect’ the media. We must redouble our commitment to independent thought, and embrace, rather than cast aside, opinions and facts that blow the common—often wrong—wisdom apart. Our democracy requires nothing less.
This is a long-held view of Greenwald, who proclaimed two years ago that,
The Foreign Policy Community — a term which excludes those in primarily academic positions — is not some apolitical pool of dispassionate experts examining objective evidence and engaging in academic debates. Rather, it is a highly ideological and politicized establishment, and its dominant bipartisan ideology is defined by extreme hawkishness, the casual use of military force as a foreign policy tool, the belief that war is justified not only in self-defense but for any “good result,” and most of all, the view that the U.S. is inherently good and therefore ought to rule the world through superior military force.
He cites the litany of pro-Iraq War pieces generated by think tankers and others that were published in the respectable foreign affairs journals or unveiled at prestige think tanks. The problem, as I outlined out in an August 2007 piece for TCS Daily, there was nothing like an expert consensus on the Iraq War. Indeed, until 2004 the war was treated as an ancillary issue in most of the premier policy journals and there were as many pieces against as for. And by 2004 the consensus was decidedly against the war.
As to Afghanistan, there’s little doubt that it was viewed almost universally as a “necessary war.” But, after all, its government housed and supported Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda terrorists that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. And, once the Taliban was toppled, there were good reasons for liberal interventionists, neoconservatives, and Realists alike to support staying. Ironically, that consensus started to unravel precisely because President Obama decided to ramp up the war effort, which necessarily meant a steep escalation in American casualties. Only then did the broader foreign policy community suddenly start a serious conversation — long underway among COINdinistas and South Asia experts — about what we really hoped to achieve in Afghanistan and start to consider whether it was achievable at a price we were willing to pay.
Even here, though, serious Establishment figures were speaking out earlier. No less an eminence than Henry Kissinger, speaking at the Makins lecture in January, warned that we “need to examine whether [a democratic state in the fullest sense of the term] is a conceivable objective” for Afghanistan. Arguing that it was not doable in the politically possible timeframe, Kissinger suggested “need a different strategy” — one “designed to prevent what we fear most: the return of a terrorist state.”
The idea that there is enormous pressure within the foreign policy expert community to support war is dubious and the idea that who dare to speak in opposition to wars are ostracized is just nonsense. As I noted in the TCS piece mentioned previously, our sin is different:
Despite the overwhelming view of security scholars I encountered in academic conferences and at think tank presentations, the foreign policy Establishment treated the war with dispassion, seemingly afraid to take a strong stand. More importantly, it treated the march to war as a mere curiosity no more worthy of attention than presidential elections in Brazil, whether World Trade Organization judges had too much power, or economic reform in Japan.
That, more than being wrong in their predictions about the future, is the real failure of the foreign policy community. None of us has a crystal ball and our analyses of prospective events are frequently going to fall short. Public policy experts merely owe the public their best reasoning and to engage in a vigorous debate when no consensus exists.
The nature of expertise is such that it’s easy to fall into this trap. First, because our peers are all reading the same things, we do tend to come to a ready agreement on the basic facts, usually leading to a realization that the problem is much more difficult than it’s portrayed by the op-ed columnists and TV talking heads. But this leads to a sense that “everybody knows this” and therefore a reluctance to be banal. Second, because things are indeed more complicated than understood by the pundits, there’s a reluctance to weigh in before the facts are known. But the nature of the debate is such that it has already moved on to another topic by the time all the evidence is in. So, the handful of experts willing to jump right in without fear are going to dominate the discussion. Typically, these are the ones employed by ideological think tanks who exist to advance a set agenda.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.