War Is Politics By Other Means

Scott’s recent post on President Obama’s decision re: Afghanistan is worth the read.  He makes a number of very interesting points, but I’m not quite sure I get this part.

Scott quotes the following from Kevin Drum:

There are two possible reasons for the speech being so unconvincing: either Obama doesn’t know how to deliver a good speech or else Obama isn’t really convinced himself.  But we know the former isn’t true, don’t we?  You can fill in the rest yourself.

Scott then adds:

If Kevin is right, and I think there is reason to believe that he is, then Obama, while not operating in the same cold and calculating fashion as a Karl Rove, has failed in his primary charge as Commander-in-Chief and the implications are potentially as disastrous as Rove, Cheney, and Bush’s soulless calculus was.

Channeling Freddie for a second, it is enragingly infuriating that the idea of actually saying, “This is not winnable, we need to find a responsible way of extricating ourselves,” was simply never an honestly considered option. The myopic sense of options and inability to overcome prideful hubris in American foreign policy is, perhaps, the greatest challenge facing the country if it is to really move into a constructive and proactive frame in the twenty-first century.

Kevin’s second proposal needs some expansion.  Let’s assume it is broadly correct as does Scott.  Why would Obama not have his heart into it?

One possible (counter)explanation is that Obama really couldn’t find any decision that he felt was the right one and he thought this decision was the least worst and he couldn’t hide that in his speech.  That would still fulfill Kevin’s theory as to why the speech fell flat without the need to piggyback a theory of politics over-riding true feelings on the war.

Another (possibly related) counter-argument would be that Obama brought forth a policy that he thought was the best compromise–and inherently therefore in part compromised–between the various members of his advisory panel.  We’ve learned that VP Biden signed on because Obama narrowed the focus to al-Qaeda and put more emphasis (arguably) on Pakistan than he did Afghanistan, as well as setting a date in 2011 for withdrawal from Afghanistan.  Secs. Gates and Clinton seem to have signed on because that date was open to some conditionality.  While National Security Adviser Jones seems to have found the ambiguity of the timeline conducive to getting both sides of this debate together.

A third version would go that Obama has (seriously and sincerely) thought the US should be fighting the war in Afghanistan for awhile now.  That accords with everything he’s said for basically the last 6 years.  But simply it’s too late in the game and Obama has realized he can’t fight it in the way he wished and yet at the same time he knows that if he starts extrication now it will be a bloodbath and he doesn’t want that on his hands.

Obama said during the campaign that on foreign policy he aligned with the realist school of George H.W. Bush.  He has been advised by Colin Powell and kept Bob Gates (a Bush I realist) as Sec. Def.  In fact this decision is a kind of mini-Powell Doctrine refracted through the lens of population-centric COIN popular in the military:  go in hard and heavy and then get out.  In some ways the past President Obama appears to be most emulating in foreign policy (so says Peter Beinart in a very sharp piece) is Richard Nixon, the arch-realist with his own version of an escalation-cum prelude to withdraw.

I don’t have a real way of knowing if any of those hypotheses are valid.  I’m just playing Devil’s Advocate for a moment.  But if any (or any combination) were to be correct, then I think they undermine Scott’s comparison to Rove, et. al.

But let’s examine this comparison Scott makes to the previous administration.  What we do know of Rove was that he believed he was forming a permanent Republican majority and (one way) of looking at what he did is that he subordinated everything to that goal.  So he was willing to politicize the war on terror, the events and aftermath of 9/11, as a means to that end.

Bush (according to Tip Paul O’Neill) wanted a war with Iraq from the beginning.  And Cheney…well Cheney went on the dark side after 9/11.

What we know of Obama is that he supports liberal goals but is a do-er and is willing to cut deals and will do what he is achievable rather than visionary.  He is a serious cold-eyed pragmatist which doesn’t necessarily make him cynical, gutless, and/or derelict in duty though that line can certainly be fuzzy.

Also it is not at all clear (at least to me) what the “liberal” goal vis a vis Afghanistan should be or is.  Many liberals want him to withdraw, but such a choice would undoubtedly lead to much loss of “liberal” values in the country (e.g. human rights, tyranny, etc.).  On the other hand, escalation is escalation and is going to bring about much more violence and death in the short term.

I think Scott should be careful not to fall victim to his own criticism of corrosive over-politicization of the military decision-making process by the President.  Scott may be right, but I advocate at least consideration of an alternative view.

That is, Afghanistan is the end of political goals/dreams.  It is political decision-making after the waking up experience of disillusionment.  If I be allowed some meta-discourse, it might be post-cynical.

Sincerity and cynicism in politics (esp. in the divining of the inner mind of the President) sounds to me too modern.  They sound just like various seeming opposites but in reality just different facets of the same pole.  We live in the post-ideological age.  The end of history and how does one still make decisions in the declining age of one’s empire while at the same time being realistic about what can and can’t be done now in this case, in this moment?  The End of History does not mean the end of conflict.

In the case of Afghanistan, I would put more emphasis on the following.  Obama inherited, in military terms, mission creep.  The earlier decision in his presidency (March of this year) to send more troops was not really his decision.  It was basically in the works since George W. Bush’s later months in office.  So this decision really alone is the first one of Obama’s presidency.

He inherited as I was saying a failed waged peace.  He did not inherit a failed war as the war in Afghanistan was over the second The Taliban were toppled and al-Qaeda fled to Pakistan.  The waged peace conflict (or peace dividend) or stabilization phase failed during the W. Bush years and Obama inherited that mess.  It is too late in the game for that to be changed.

But pace Scott (and Freddie) I don’t think there ever is–and certainly not in this case–a responsible way of extrication.  So I’m not sure about the “infuriatingly enraging enragingly infuriating” non-discussion of withdraw as a serious option. There was Carl Levin’s proposal of no added troops and accelerated Afghan Army/Police training.  There was Biden’s proposal for a counterterrorism option (minus new troops).  Those aren’t rapid withdraw options, of course, but they did suggest there were alternatives to escalation.  But it’s not clear to how those would have staunched the current high casualties of NATO forces.

But back to our timeline.  In the intervening years of a failed stabilization/peace in Afghanistan (roughly 2002-present), an insurgency arose.  An insurgency who has a sanctuary in a neighboring country.  A neighboring country that has nuclear weapons and is (at least formally) an ally of the United States.

–No one can win a counterinsurgency campaign while there is a sanctuary for the insurgents.
–No country will invade/wage major war against a country with nuclear weapons
–Therefore the United States cannot do anything directly (minus some not altogether effective airstrikes) about the sanctuary in Pakistan.

Given the further presupposition that the Pakistanis will not directly attack Afghan-only insurgents, then the goose is cooked on a full-scale COIN in Afghanistan.  Nevermind the corruption of the host government.

On the other hand, the insurgency is a regional enemy to peace and to US allies like India.  The Afghan Taliban in particular has in the past acted as host to the very individuals who attacked the United States.  While there is a clear recognition that The Taliban are going to be dealt back into power in some measure in Afghanistan, that likely can’t occur until after they’ve experienced some setbacks/defeats.  And then maybe (maybe???) can be brought to the bargaining table and a deal might (might???) stick….or at least some elements thereof anyway.

That double bind is the one Obama faces.  And there’s no right answer to it.  There’s no solution.  There’s no good options among the many that have been proposed.  At least none that are acceptable within the framework of the current military brain trust who are all high on COIN syrup.*

If we just get out absent some serious change of momentum/conditions, it will I have to imagine return to warlord-fueled civil chaos in Afghanistan.  That doesn’t mean The Taliban would take back over the country tomorrow (a prospect of which I’m skeptical), but it would leave me as an American with the same gut-wrenching feeling that I felt with regard to Rwanda.

Just because the US can’t engineer democracy, a corruption-free government, and a modern economy in Afghanistan doesn’t mean it can’t (potentially) at least not leave it a total apocalyptic horrific mess.

The main thing with Obama’s strategy relative to Afghanistan–which by the way is third on the list it would seem of al-Qaeda, Pakistan, and Afghanistan–is the training of the Army and Police.

In Iraq, the surge (it was argued by then President Bush) was designed to give room to the Iraqi politicians so they could make political deals–so called national reconciliation.  That never happened which is why the surge in Iraq failed strategically though had some (limited) success tactically.

The Afghan surge doesn’t even have that high of hopes.  This Afghan strategy is really to create space to try and train an Army and Police so that when we leave there is somebody to at least hold off the Taliban, at least in some portion of the country.  The stuff about anti-corruption at the national level in Afghanistan, in my mind, is all smoke and mirrors. My guess is Obama knows this.

As VP Biden said the other day on a morning show interview, it’s to give the Afghan government a fighting chance.  Really we might say a sporting chance.  And even then it’s not really the Afghan government but the Afghan Army/Police (imo).  Though presumably if the government stays as corrupt as it is, it’s not clear anyone will fight/die for them.

But at that point, Obama will have done (I think) the only thing really possible with the mess he’s been given.

The so-called Pottery Barn corollary to the Powell Doctrine is:  “you break it, you own it.” Well that has been over-used and it’s too maximalist in orientation, especially when owning it has come to (stupidly) be interpreted as creating Western style democracies in countries that are not given to such a reality.

But: “you break it, you at least have to glue some of it back together” sounds a little more honest.

*Although it should be said I suppose that buying off some local tribes doesn’t necessarily have to stand opposed to surge and national army training.

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14 thoughts on “War Is Politics By Other Means

    • I was just kinda throwing that out there. I have a not totally thought out position that what we generally call political cynicism is a function of a previous era’s politics (call it say modern for lack of a better term). What’s dominated politics at high levels (imo) post-Cold War are basically celebrity presidents. Politico-entertainment figures. Palin being I suppose the apotheosis of that trend. Obama is definitely in that mold. In fact ran (arguably) the best organized campaign in that mode. But in another way seems to want to get beyond it. But maybe not. Bush and Blair and even Sarkozy all have their “serious” political side. I dunno.

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  1. Great post. Although it was long, I read it all and thought it all very astute. War-fighting has never been separate from domestic and international politics, and those who pretend like it is are often the real cynics.

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  2. great stuff, i think you have git this pretty much on the head. i think the Big O has always been pretty hard nosed and realist in his foreign policy and he has not tried to hide that. I would add that O is , aside from his realism, a believer in old school American Exceptional ism which has a big effect on his foreign policy. policy wise he would fit in reasonably well, skin color aside, in most of admin’s before Bush the Lesser. I don’t think simply withdrawing over a few years wouild be seen as a possible alternative.

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  3. That was an excellent attempt to divine the mind of the President and your take is the first I’ve read that fits completely within what we know about Obama without suppositions that seem at odds with his character. One minor quibble: though it would have been creepy/cool for the truth to be revealed from beyond the grave by the late Speaker of the House, it was Paul O’Neill who let it be know that Bush was just looking for a reason to go into Iraq.

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  4. Very good analysis Chris. I hate to side against pure Canuckistanians on this one but I think you’ve pretty much hit the bullseye on the administrations motivation. My only quibble, and it’s a minor one, is the you break it you buy it mantra. I don’t know that we can really be said to have broken the country on the initial invasion; they were pretty much in rubble when we arrived. Now goodness knows we didn’t improve things much and perhaps our part in the cold war also assigns blame to us historically but this isn’t quite as clear cut a case as Iraq where we toppled a central government that was very much in control of the country.

    One last aside; I think we should be careful flinging the term Rovian about because Turdblossoms’ principles and politics were so vile (and stupid) that calling someone akin to him is damn near blood libel (at least on the left and center).

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    • Certainly the country was already smashed up in all kinds of ways prior to the US invasion–although the US did help fund the mujihadeen and then left, so America is not entirely blameless in that regard either.

      But anyway, yeah. Nevertheless, we did “break” their political system, such (and horrible) as it was. And then we brought essentially nothing in to fill that void.

      I think this Afghan surge really in the end is just going to be about trying to buy off various guys, make some deals, train some dudes. I think that the political endgame is still not in sight and I don’t believe it ever will be a function of a strong central gov’t (which is not native to Afghan history).

      I imagine however we do this there is going to be a political void which will be filled by violence. Hope I’m wrong on that one. Maybe with a surge, an Army & Police, some buy offs, and a promise of withdrawal (for guys like Hekmatyr) you could cobble together some post-jihadi government in Afghanistan. Or at least regional zones of influence that basically don’t mess with each other. But seems pretty tricky to pull that one off.

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  5. “We live in the post-ideological age.”
    Eh? I presume you refer to the (presumably) pragmatic President Obama, but I’m confused about how you chose to define your term. What makes this time period “post-ideological”? Certainly here in the United States ideology is the single greatest driving force behind most of the decisions made in the Halls of Power, and from what I can tell, it is presently much the same in Canada and Great Britain as well. Perhaps in Asia and Europe, ideology has been subordinated to pragmatic lust for national wealth and power, but I’m not sure where you would draw the distinction between nationalism and ideology. Perhaps we define “ideology” in rather different ways.

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    • By post-ideological I mean that no one offers an alternative to capitalism. Communism, fascism, etc. offered not only different political visions but ultimately different (and opposed) economic practices.

      There are certainly ideological (if you like) differences between China, EU, and the US say. Within the framework of global capitalism they have some various differences and obviously different political systems. But in that sense the world becomes increasingly multi-lateral. It’s not like the Cold War.

      And even the various radicalized jihadi terrorist groups really in the end offer an essentially unrealistic utopian vision which shows up as nihilistic action.

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      • Ah! You offer a very narrow definition of “ideology” then. Mine would be “a set of beliefs which must be imposed upon the world in order to correct any flaws in the current social system” (those flaws being summarized as “wealth and power are not being distributed in a manner of which I approve”). Certainly any strictly economic set-of-beliefs (like Capitalism) would qualify, but I would contend that most religions and some other sets-of-beliefs regarding the structure of the state (like any form of Nationalism) would meet the criteria. In that sense, I’d have to disagree with your contention that the world is in a ‘post-ideological’ age. We may be out of the communist/capitalist struggle (maybe), but we’re still wrestling away in the long-running theocratic/[“populist”? what would you call it?] struggle. Not to mention the 3-way Abrahamaic power struggle.

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        • Maybe a more accurate term would be to say the world is less ideological than it has been in the past rather then post ideological? But either way the ideologies have weakened or died out a lot in the past century or so.

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    • “Perhaps in Asia and Europe, ideology has been subordinated to pragmatic lust for national wealth and power, but I’m not sure where you would draw the distinction between nationalism and ideology”

      I’d say the same thing; the elites’ ideology tends to be that which favors their wealth and power (to the best that they can determine).

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