The growing pressure for a ‘big’ decision on Afghanistan is misguided. The neo-cons and other hawkish elements are raising the temperature on this unnecessarily by suggesting that Obama must go all in soon, or the Democrats will be responsible for losing another war. Slow down there, Tom Clancy. There is a case for muddling through also, not just leaving or going all in.
There is growing evidence that a big rush to judgment and commitment on Afghanistan is unnecessary. (Read Fred Kaplan’s last few columns.) I found this article by AJ Rossmiller most persuasive against the fallacy that Obama has to make One BIG Momentous Decision that will determine his whole first term. Rossmiller wisely suggests that there is actually no big need to ramp up huge forces there right now, with all the costs and commitments that come with a build-up. Muddling through is working pretty well.
It seems to me that the push to have one big decision is really a rhetorical strategy by Afghan surge supporters. By talking this way, they seek to create the view that if O doesn’t make a huge choice RIGHT NOW, all could be lost. This framing of the decision is designed to push him into the surge, by making it look like he is giving up if he doesn’t pile in. Better to lock in Obama on Afghanistan now, early, before he learns too much and starts to hedge.
The model for such a decision-making approach is Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, and LBJ on Vietnam after Pleiku. A new, unsure president gets pushed into a big war-making effort by a collection of advisors with deep stakes in the military-industrial approach to conflict. As a Salon blogger put it, LBJ probably should have listened to Norman Mailer (!) instead of Bundy or McNamara. I wouldn’t go that far, but the point is that these ‘strategic reviews’ recycle the usual suspects. Even better is Greenwald’s powerful column that the ‘foreign policy community’ as an industry has a vested interest in imperial overstretch and war as a tool of conflict resolution. I particularly like Greenwald’s identification that whenever you ring up Rand or the Kagans, the answer is more military action. Hah! Money quote:
“The ‘strategic review’ brought together a dozen smart (mostly) think-tankers with little expertise in Afghanistan but a general track record of supporting calls for more troops and a new counter-insurgency strategy. They set up shop in Afghanistan for a month working in close coordination with Gen. McChrystal, and emerged with a well-written, closely argued warning that the situation is dire and a call for more troops and a new counter-insurgency strategy. Shocking.”
The link he provides is to this list of think tank ’experts’ who worked on McChrystal’s review, including the standard group of America’s war-justifying theorists: the Kagans, a Brookings representative, Anthony Cordesman, someone from Rand, etc. etc. 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.
The model for going ‘all in’ of course is the Bush surge in Iraq. But there was hardly a decision-making ‘process’ with W, understood as a careful weighing of options and competing views. You knew W would not leave, but double-down instead: Iraq was the signature issue of his presidency in by 2007; he was obsessed with machismo and mistook bulheadedness for toughness; and no arguments were going to dissuade Bush, because the ‘decider’ was a ‘gut player,’ not a listener. There was no real debate; W blew off the Iraq Study Group and rolled the dice. Nor do we know if it was the surge that helped stabilize Iraq. A lot suggests it was the change in strategy from warfighting to COIN, as well as the the shady and mundane pay-off of Sunni insurgents. In short, it may not have been Bush’s heroic insight into the war, but simply handing bags of $100 bills to Sunni gunmen that helped quiet Iraq.
Six weeks ago, I argued to give McChrystal a chance on COIN in Afghanistan. I am not arguing now for the offshore CT approach, but rather for a little more muddling through. I still think we should stay in Afghanistan with a heavier footprint than VP Biden would like. But my concern here is to avoid pushing Obama into one great, over-heated ‘ALL OR NOTHING!’ decision. Framing the decision that way basically blackmails him into making the choice those framing the debate this way want him to make, ie, the big build-up.