Friday, October 30, 2009

The David Brooks "consensus": Bring back George W. Bush

Reporters are often excoriated for relying on anonymous sources. I can understand why they often have to. But David Brooks takes this to another level. He's hiding behind an anonymous consensus.

Brooks tells us "I’ve called around to several of the smartest military experts I know" to get their take on Obama's deliberations over Afghan policy. These "several" have a mysteriously unified persona. They're very, very smart and experienced. And lo, they all have the same worry. And lo, it looks an awful lot like Brooks's:
They are not worried about his policy choices. Their concerns are more fundamental. They are worried about his determination.
In fact, this Brooks shadow cabinet longs for the return of George W. Bush:
But they do not know if he possesses the trait that is more important than intellectual sophistication and, in fact, stands in tension with it. They do not know if he possesses tenacity, the ability to fixate on a simple conviction and grip it, viscerally and unflinchingly, through complexity and confusion. They do not know if he possesses the obstinacy that guided Lincoln and Churchill, and which must guide all war presidents to some degree.
The unanimous chorus is mysteriously sanguine about the odds of defeating the Taliban:
Most of them, like most people who have spent a lot of time in Afghanistan, believe this war is winnable. They do not think it will be easy or quick. But they do have a bedrock conviction that the Taliban can be stymied and that the governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan can be strengthened.
"Most" of "several" believe this? Right, there's consensus among the informed about staying the course. Funny that Andrew Exum -- who helped prepare General McChrystal's report, who does support the counterinsurgency effort, and who could in fact be one of Brook's sources, writes
I know about 50 really smart people on Afghanistan with lots of time on the ground there, and no two have the same opinion about what U.S. policy should be.
Brooks does voice a set of concerns worth considering:
...if these experts do not know the state of President Obama’s resolve, neither do the Afghan villagers. They are now hedging their bets, refusing to inform on Taliban force movements because they are aware that these Taliban fighters would be their masters if the U.S. withdraws. Nor does President Hamid Karzai know. He’s cutting deals with the Afghan warlords he would need if NATO leaves his country.
On the other hand, as several informed parties, e.g. Matthew Hoh and Rory Stewart, have noted, there's considerable evidence that ramped-up U.S. military presence, far more than presidential deliberations, drives Afghan villagers to support the Taliban. And as Joe Klein has noted, Obama's very public pause is in part calibrated to pressure Karzai, who's been "cutting deals with Afghan warlords" since he was first elected/installed. Indeed, going forward, Exum suggests (in a piece aptly titled Take Your Sweet Time, Obama):
The Obama adminstration has, I believe, some leverage at the moment, which it could use to affect the composition and behavior of the next Afghan government. As long as Afghanistan’s ruling politicians—Hamid Karzai especially—think the United States might reduce its commitment to Afghanistan, they could be willing to accede to U.S. demands on key ministerial and provincial-level appointments....

while countless memoranda and manuals exist instructing U.S. servicemen on how to wage counterinsurgency campaigns at the operational and tactical levels, there is currently little guidance for how U.S. policymakers should use leverage over its Afghan partners. The Obama administration, if it's clever, will try to figure out the best way to use its leverage over Karzai and other Afghan politicians. And in that effort, they deserve time to succeed.
David Brooks purports not to trust the President. I do not trust David Brooks. I think the opinions he "reports" represent 57% of seven people he selectively elected to represent consensus, their musings massaged into unison by Brooks's authoritative editorial "they."

I do not fear that Obama will prove ultimately to lack "conviction" in his search for a policy that works in Afghanistan. I do fear that the powerful institutional forces of U.S. post World War II foreign policy consensus -- forces that shaped the policy of every President from Truman through Clinton, more for good than not -- will work with our latter-day polarized political shriekfest to constrain Obama into a full-blown counterinsurgency effort.

That effort might be the right choice. But politically -- and paradoxically, since public opinion is turning agains the war -- it's hard to see any President really putting on the brakes in mid-course.

Related posts:
Steve Coll vs. Rory Stewart
Obama to Karzai: No marriage no dowry?
David Brooks' lazy free market fantasy

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