Barry Eisler

Friday, October 23, 2009

Afghanistan and the Death of Common Sense

I've been reading The Economist for decades and have always admired the magazine for its coverage, insights, and eclectic politics (who else in the media has called for Bill Clinton's resignation, gay marriage, war in Iraq, and drug decriminalization?). I've respected the magazine's opinions even when I disagreed with its conclusions. But lately, I find myself wondering about its common sense. Two pieces from the October 17 issue, Obama's War and To Surge or Not to Surge, both calling for escalation in Afghanistan, are useful to study not just to expose the flaws in escalation theory specifically, but to illuminate various species of weak critical thinking in general. Let's take the magazine's arguments for escalation one by one.

1. "A less intensive, more surgical 'counter-terrorism,' relying on unmanned air raids and assassination... is more likely to kill civilians and create new enemies than to decapitate and disable al-Qaeda."

Certainly killing civilians and creating new enemies would be counterproductive for any policy. It's reasonable, therefore, to ask whether sending tens of thousands of additional foreign troops into the country eight years into the war might have a similar effect, or even a worse one. Yet The Economist doesn't consider the costs of its favored policy. It's as though those costs don't exist.

The general flaw here is the assessment of costs only of one course of action, not of its proposed alternative. If your house and belongings were being ruined by a leaky roof and someone told you repairs would cost a thousand dollars, would you reflexively say, "Forget it, too costly?" Or would you also consider the costs of ongoing water damage caused by an unrepaired roof, and measure one against the other?

2. "Anarchy in Afghanistan, or a Taliban restoration, would leave it prey to permanent cross-border instability."

The specific problem here is that the argument ignores not just theoretical alternatives, but also actual history. If cross-border stability is a goal, it's important to ask whether there was more of it before or after the current war began. If the answer is "before," we can reasonably infer that the presence of foreign troops in the country is part of the cause of the current instability, and that more troops would make things worse.

The more general problem here is unexamined assumptions. Afghanistan has a whole history of instability. Why ignore that history when asserting withdrawal would worsen things? Why leave a critical assumption untested when you have so much data to test it with?

Note too the related assumption: stability in Afghanistan is so vital a western interest that no one even has to explain what the interest is. Stability is one of those words that just gets intoned, thought-free, by serious-sounding people who rarely bother to explain why the stability is important enough to warrant a war to maintain it -- and who even more rarely pause to consider how war might foster stability's opposite.

3. "Defeat for the West in Afghanistan would embolden its opponents not just in Pakistan, but all around the world, leaving it open to more attacks."

The argument is that we shouldn't do something to embolden our opponents, yes? Then why does The Economist not also discuss the way war -- particularly escalation -- emboldens our opponents? Or can only withdrawal embolden opponents, while escalation can't?

Again, it seems the only costs are those associated with the course of action The Economist seeks to dismiss. The magazine's preferred alternative is free of such costs, and apparently of other costs, as well. Wouldn't it be nice if life were really like this?

4. "Withdrawal would amount to a terrible betrayal of the Afghan people, some of whose troubles are the result of Western intervention."

I don't know how you measure something like this, especially after the kind of rigged election Karzai just pulled off. Regardless, will this always be true? Afghanistan seems historically a hard place to pacify. How long does The Economist propose staying to avoid betraying the Afghan people? How many lives is it willing to spend for this avoidance? How much money? It doesn't say.

Starting to see a pattern here? If a salesman were trying to sell you a car this one-sidedly -- "no costs, unless you don't buy the car!" -- would you get out your checkbook?

5. "The Afghan conflict, it is often said, has been not an eight-year war, but eight one-year wars. NATO comes off worse each time. And so the most important reason for persisting in Afghanistan: the coalition can do much better."

If you knew someone who had been married and divorced eight times, would you recommend he give it another go because he can do better? If, as you lay down on the operating table, you learned that your surgeon had killed her previous eight patients, would you take this as a sign your operation will be a success?

They say past performance isn't an indication of future results. Maybe not. But the notion that eight years of failure means ipso facto next year will be better is contradicted by history, everyday experience, and common sense. As an argument, it is, simply, delusional.

6. "The coalition’s leaders, at least, seem to have grasped that it must behave not as an occupying army but as a partner, whose aim is to build up the local forces that will ultimately ensure Afghanistan’s security. And soldiers and civilians are beginning to understand that development aid can benefit local people rather than foreign consultants and contractors."

If it took eight years for our leaders to figure these things out, is that cause for encouragement? Or despair? If you knew someone who'd been driving for eight years and only just figured out the importance of using the turn signal and rear view mirror and putting on the headlights at night, would you then confidently hand him the keys to your vehicle? Or would you instead sense that someone who learns this slowly will never manage to safely drive a car?

7. "The coalition, however, lacks three essential components of a successful strategy. It needs a credible, legitimate government to work with, the resources to do the job and the belief that America’s president is behind this war."

I think Rory Stewart said it best: "This is not a plan: it is a description of what we have not got."

8. "As for resources, it is worth remembering that in 2006, before the American surge, prospects in Iraq looked far bleaker than they do now in Afghanistan."

It's odd to tout Iraq as the kind of success we might emulate in Afghanistan. Andrew Bacevich:

Six-plus years after it began, Operation Iraqi Freedom has consumed something like a trillion dollars—with the meter still running—and has taken the lives of more than forty-three hundred American soldiers. Meanwhile, in Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities, car bombs continue to detonate at regular intervals, killing and maiming dozens. Anyone inclined to put Iraq in the nation’s rearview mirror is simply deluded. Not long ago General Raymond Odierno, Petraeus’s successor and the fifth U.S. commander in Baghdad, expressed the view that the insurgency in Iraq is likely to drag on for an-other five, ten, or fifteen years. Events may well show that Odierno is an optimist.

Given the embarrassing yet indisputable fact that this was an utterly needless war—no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction found, no ties between Saddam Hussein and the jihadists established, no democratic transformation of the Islamic world set in motion, no road to peace in Jerusalem discovered in downtown Baghdad—to describe Iraq as a success, and as a model for application elsewhere, is nothing short of obscene. The great unacknowledged lesson of Iraq is the one that the writer Norman Mailer identified decades ago: “Fighting a war to fix something works about as good as going to a whorehouse to get rid of a clap.”

For those who, despite all this, still hanker to have a go at nation building, why start with Afghanistan? Why not first fix, say, Mexico? In terms of its importance to the United States, our southern neighbor—a major supplier of oil and drugs among other commodities deemed vital to the American way of life—outranks Afghanistan by several orders of magnitude.


9. "Mr Obama... might well reflect on a line from a British counter-insurgency specialist, quoted in Lewis Sorley’s book 'A Better War,' which White House staff are said to be busily reading. South Vietnam, he says, could have been saved if America had not cut off military aid to its government. 'Perhaps the major lesson of the Vietnam war,' said Sir Robert Thompson, 'is: do not rely on the United States as an ally.'

Perhaps so. Perhaps the point would be more relevant if Sir Thompson and The Economist could point to the country whom South Vietnam could have relied on instead. Otherwise, you could as well argue that Bill is useless to have your back in a fight because he lacks mutant invisibility powers and titanium-coated skin.

10. "Most of all, Mr Obama needs to fight this war with conviction. His wobbles over the last month have done more to comfort his enemies and worry his allies than any recent losses on the ground. Only if he persuades his troops, his countrymen and the Taliban that America is there for the long haul does he have a chance of turning this war around."

This sounded familiar to me. So I looked up William Westmoreland on Wikipedia and found this in his 1967 address to a joint session of Congress:

In evaluating the enemy strategy, it is evident to me that he believes our Achilles heel is our resolve ... Your continued strong support is vital to the success of our mission ... Backed at home by resolve, confidence, patience, determination and continued support, we will prevail in Vietnam over the Communist aggressor!


Indeed, the oddest thing about reading The Economist's articles this week was my sense that, had the word Vietnam been substituted for the word Afghanistan, they could have been written anytime during that earlier war (and I'm sure they were). Well, those who don't learn the lessons of history and all that.

Measure the costs of all proposed courses of action, not just one. Identify and test your assumptions. Recognize that multiple failures and extraordinarily slow learning are not cause for optimism for success. Don't confuse a description of what you lack with a strategy for achieving it. Spot and learn from historical parallels. Common sense, you would think. But not, apparently, when such common sense is most urgent.

P.S. On the subject of weak critical thinking, conservative NYT columnist Ross Douthat claims the secular arguments against gay marriage can be summed up as "institutional support for reproduction."

Reproduction needs institutional support? I actually can't think of something that needs less institutional support. Breathing, maybe. And the guy calling for this institutional support for reproduction also calls himself a conservative, presumably in favor of small government and all that? Bonus points, Ross, for irony.
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Monday, October 12, 2009

More Signs of the Creeping Militarization of US Society

Hi everyone, forgive my long hiatus. If anyone here is considering moving back from Tokyo, living in a house while it's being renovated, and finishing a manuscript all at the same time, I would advise... don't. But the worst of the storm is past, thank God, and it's good to be back at blogging. Lots to catch up on; here are three recent items that strike me as all being evidence (along with, say, the bizarre and unconstitutional reverence for "our" Commander-in-Chief) of the creeping militarization of American society.

1. On Fox News Sunday, Liz Cheney offered these thoughts on Obama's Nobel:

Well, I think what the committee believes is they'd like to live in a world in which America is not dominant. And I think if you look at the language of the citation, you can see that they talk about, you know, President Obama ruling in a way that makes sense to the majority of the people of the world. You know, Americans don't elect a president to do that. We elect a president to defend our national interests. And so I think that, you know, they may believe that President Obama also doesn't agree with American dominance, and they may have been trying to affirm that belief with the prize. I think, unfortunately, they may be right, and I think it's a concern.


Here are the main premises in the paragraph above:

A. America should dominate the world.
B. The president "rules" America.
C. Americans elect a president exclusively, or at least primarily, to "defend" our national interests.
D. The defense of America's national interests should not, and indeed cannot, make sense to the majority of the people of the world.

Let's examine the premises Cheney regards as axiomatic.

A. Is it necessary, desirable, or even possible for America to dominate the world? What are America's national interests, and is world dominance necessary for their defense? Do all countries require world dominance to defend their national interests, or is America unique in this regard?

B. Does the president "rule" America? (Hint: the president's job description is helpfully laid out right in the Constitution. Very handy document.)

C. Is it true that Americans exclusively or primarily elect a president to "defend" our national interests? What else do we want a president to do? What does it suggest when someone mentions "defense" as the only, or even the primary, role Americans expect in a president (as opposed to, say, advancing interests, or continuing to form a more perfect union... that kind of thing)? Especially when the same person suggests the president "rules" America?

D. Is it true that when the president defends America's national interests, his actions cannot and should not make sense to the majority of the world? Is a decent respect for the opinions of mankind incommensurate with the defense of our national interests, or a part of that defense?

2. Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) supports a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, which is good. But the senator also says, "It has to be done in the right way, which is to get a buy-in from the (U.S.) military (that) I think is now possible."

Huge majorities of Americans, including majorities of Americans with family members in the military, favor a repeal of DADT (it seems the military itself seems about evenly divided). Regardless: what, specifically, would the required military "buy-in" consist of? Was the military's "buy-in" also required when President Truman ordered desegregation? Are there other issues for which the civilian government and civilian population require the military's "buy-in?" Are there other institutions from which the President and Congress require buy-in, or is it just the military? What does Levin's notion suggest about current notions regarding military subordination to civilian leadership?

3. In a September 11 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Fouad Adjami, who writes like Peggy Noonan (this is not a compliment), claimed, "Wars are great clarifiers." Adjami was so certain of the truth of his statement that he didn't even bother to support it, and instead offered it up as an axiom.

Is it true wars really are great at clarifying things? Or do they tend instead to enflame and obscure? What does it say about a person's worldview when he believes it virtually goes without saying that wars greatly clarify things?

Against the creeping authoritarianism that today thoroughly infests the GOP but that shows increasing virulence outside it, as well, awareness, outspokenness, and familiarity with the Constitution are the best defense.

P.S. Glenn Greenwald has a terrific related interview with Jonathan Weiler, co-author of "Authoritarianism & Polarization in American Politics."
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