Bloggers Chasten Washington Know-It-Alls

by , September 21, 2010

When the elite meet – and speak – we listen, especially in Washington, where every word uttered by the chosen few is like a breadcrumb tossed out for a starving man.

Washington’s national security elite gathered itself up to deliver a full feast this month, collectively declaring that the Afghanistan policy is a disaster and in need of a “New Way Forward,” which of course, it aimed to generously provide.

“America’s armed forces have fought bravely and well, and their dedication is unquestioned. But we should not ask them to make sacrifices unnecessary to our core national interests, particularly when doing so threatens long-term needs and priorities both at home and abroad,” revealed the Afghanistan Study Group (ASG), an assemblage of “public policy practitioners, former U.S. government officials, academics, business representatives, policy-concerned activists and association leaders” concerned with the Afghanistan war policy and “to a more limited degree,” Pakistan.

Sadly it took an untold number of these think tankers, egg heads and corporate suits to tell us what we already know – in fact, what less anointed observers have been screaming from the trees for nearly two years now. But just as the media rushes in to capture every non-committal, milquetoast utterance by sacred cows like Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass, it pressed into the momentary Center of the Universe, the New America Foundation’s Connecticut Avenue offices, on Sept. 8 to get the word as it came down from on-high.

It all recalled Bette Davis’ Margo Channing, settling in at one of the theater’s favorite watering holes in All About Eve: “The Cub Room. What a lovely, clever name. Where the elite meet. Never have I seen so much elite.”

Here the Cub Room was merely an auditorium that, captured on C-SPAN, could have been any think tank in D.C, the audience stocked with sycophants and parasites, students and earnest thinkers and writers hoping to hear something new. In his email invitation, New America senior fellow Steve Clemons, a sort of shepherd of the city’s foreign policy courtier class, implied just that when he declared that the contributors to the study group had been meeting for “the better part of a year … thinking through what a ‘Team B’ group might and should say  –  and whether there was the possibility of a ‘New Way Forward.'”

But that New Way Forward [.pdf] turned out to be a lot of old ideas. Normally, this wouldn’t have mattered a bit. In Washington, it isn’t what is being said, but who is saying it. And it all seemed to fit the narrative for the week – that all the Very Important People were now souring on the war. Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times launched it all with a helpful preview for Clemons and the others. In a piece called “High Level Doubts on Afghanistan,” he pointed to a certain trifecta of important “doubters” – Haass, former CFR president Leslie Gelb, and Robert Blackwill, a former Bush aide who is running around calling for Afghanistan to be partitioned.

From McManus:

“Why do the views of these mandarins matter? Not because they are ‘opinion leaders,’ as they are sometimes called; their opinions are lagging behind most of the public, which has already gone sour on the war.

“Where the foreign policy intellectuals make a difference is when they offer not mere opinions but full-blown policy proposals – in this case, to explain how a different, less ambitious strategy in Afghanistan might work. That gives proponents of change something to work with.

“Advance copies of the 12-page report of the Afghanistan Study Group, for example, went to the White House earlier last week, where they were being read by at least some of the officials who will be running President Barack Obama’s official review of his Afghan strategy in December.”

Let us hope that “the officials” running the president’s review of the war strategy are way beyond the ASG’s introductory-level sketch of the war’s failures and policy prescriptions, which are really a cribbed version of recommendations that have been floating around in the public forum for over a year (some of which have already been tried, in theory, by the administration, to disappointing effect).

The “five point approach” crafted by the ASG includes, “emphasizing power-sharing and political reconciliation,” which offers no-brainers like “the ethnic base of the Afghan army should be broadened. More generally, governance should depend more heavily on local, traditional, and community-based structures.”

Next, “political outreach” to tribal leaders and “decentralized power” should be encouraged. Again, not a novel idea, since it’s been widely accepted for over a year that President Hamid Karzai, i.e., centralized power, is a major bust. The same goes for negotiations with the Taliban – isn’t this already happening to some extent, albeit without the U.S.?

Other bullet points include “Promote Economic Development,” which we supposedly have been doing for eight years. Why isn’t it already working? Maybe because all of our aid is being stolen? And then there’s “Engage Global and Regional Stakeholders.” This, too, has been tried (at least, with the ‘regional stakeholders’ the U.S. approves of), but it’s clear they’re all giving as much as they’re willing to right now.

Perhaps the most grating of the “approaches” are the military ones, where the ASG suggests we “scale back and eventually suspend combat operations in the South and reduce the military footprint.”

In other words, stick to Obama’s wildly interpreted pledge to start withdrawing U.S. forces next year. The ASG further suggests reducing to an eventual 30,000 troops by 2012, beginning the drawdown in the violent Pashtun south, home of the Taliban and currently where most of our forces are (futilely) concentrated. While the report’s signatories are correct in observing that the foreign presence there only emboldens the insurgency, it’s interesting to note that in 2009, all the “opinion leaders” were convinced that was exactly where our forces should be concentrated, in the Pashtun south.

Meanwhile, the report insists there “is no significant al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan today, and the risk of a new ‘safe haven’ there under more ‘friendly’ Taliban rule is overstated,” so the fifth “approach” calls for shifting U.S. resources towards “improved counter-terrorism efforts and protecting U.S. citizens from terrorists attacks.” In other words, utilizing Special Forces, intelligence assets and other U.S. “capabilities” to go after al-Qaeda “in the region.” Sounds like the Biden plan, which has been around for some time. The ASG also asserts that the use of “air power,” (read: drone attacks) can also be used in lieu of ground forces in Afghanistan if needed, yet elsewhere the group concedes that the war’s “collateral damage” (which we know is often the result of drone strikes, residential raids and targeting killings by Special Forces) has in part turned the population against us.

So the often-contradictory, too easy-breezy accounts and conclusions of the ASG sound more like today’s modern Hollywood movie – constructed by committee, ultimately confused and unsatisfying – than a serious policy game-changer. But the mainstream media dutifully saw the group’s underwhelming product as a critical moment for the war’s momentum.

Not everybody. Thanks to the oft-maligned “blogosphere,” which is fostering the growth of a razor sharp class of policy analysts, many who have regional and anthropological expertise but have been shut out of Washington’s “Cub Room,” the ASG’s weak attempt to hoodwink the media and make a Big Impact on the war debate quickly fell apart.

The broadest evisceration came from Joshua Foust, who publishes the widely read Central Asia focused Registan.net. Foust has been an ardent skeptic of the current counterinsurgency fad and the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, but one wouldn’t call him an anti-war activist either. He eschews the superficiality of mainstream reporting of the war, and the Washington punditocracy that drives the narrative. Thus his brutal post on Sept. 11:

“I finally finished reviewing the Afghanistan Study Group report. It wasn’t easy – the group itself mysteriously neglected to include any experts on Afghanistan or the military – and is riddled with questionable interpretations of history, logical fallacies, and inconsistency of argument. … In other words, the Afghanistan Study Group Report is a hot tranny mess. …

“It is meaningful that such a broad cross-section of Washington insiders have soured on the war… but the way they’ve chosen to express that turnabout is steeped in ignorance and sloppy reasoning.”

Then from Michael Cohen, a former New America scholar who now hangs his hat at the National Security Network:

“To be honest, the conclusions drawn in this report would have been more helpful in 2009 and not 2010 (and they were certainly identifiable then). And am I the only person who finds it odd that the report signatories do not include a single Af/Pak regional specialist or even actual military analysts….”

Christian Bleuer, another regional expert and blogger, noted that the group advanced a quite agreeable conclusion – that the current war strategy is a mess – but it blew the chance to make a powerful argument as to why and what to do about it.

“They are like the person who gets on TV or stands up in the crowd and speaks for a cause you believe in – but who totally screws up the opportunity by voicing mostly gibberish to support their viewpoint. …

“Wanting desperately to have an informed opinion on Afghanistan and actually having one are not the same. And certainly, if you are incapable of supporting your arguments you should not be nominating yourself to speak.”

Then of course came bandwagon-jumping bloggers like Andrew Exum, the once eager COIN pitchman from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Exum has spent the last few months largely in a defensive crouch, as the counterinsurgency all the non-elite experts (read: Andrew Bacevich, Gian Gentile) said wouldn’t work, is predictably going down in flames. He found the perfect opportunity in Foust’s critique to draw attention away from the ASG’s real point: that COIN was accelerating our failure in Afghanistan.

“Reading Josh’s post, I actually found myself embarassed [sic] for the authors of the ASG, many of whom are terribly intelligent and considerate scholars, such is the cold-blooded ferocity of Josh’s criticism,” Exum wrote on his own blog. He then goes on for the big suck up, insisting that if he had to fill positions on an ideal Afghanistan Study Group, Foust and Bleuer would be on it.

Call it all the beginning of the end of the ASG’s “Big Impact.”

Several of the report’s 46 “signatories” came back at its critics with an immediate blast, quite sensitive to the bloggers’ suggestion their work was superfluous, stale and sloppy. Bernard Finel and Stephen Walt quickly engaged Foust on his blog, attempting to suggest that he had mistaken the mission and objectives of the group, while Justin Logan and Matthew Hoh suggested Foust just didn’t read it carefully enough. It’s clear the New Media is getting under their collective skin, or they wouldn’t have replied at all.

While Finel and Walt seemed jovial enough, there was an implicit peevishness in other responses, hinting within the condescension a level of insecurity, like this passive-aggressive outreach from Clemons, who actually left two comments on Foust’s blog, starting out with, “Thanks for the note, Josh. To tell you the truth, I certainly wish now in retrospect that we had had you as part of the study group process,” and then moving over to:

“A more useful exercise in my view would sideline the ad hominem attacks … (the report) has past muster with enough of the establishment that it matters and will be part of the policy discussion. You are a giant in this arena  –  and rather than just slamming those who have tried to weigh in to a key debate about U.S. national interests in the region, I would think it would be valuable for you and perhaps some of those who follow you to advise us on where the key errors are.”

To which Foust replied, “I know you’re right that the number of famous people whose names are on here means it will be influential – that’s why I attacked it with such vitriol. The way this paper develops its ideas is dangerous, Steve – it relies on magical thinking, assumption, and a glib indifference to consequences in arguing its point.”

If this all sounds terribly “in the weeds,” consider Foust’s point: if this galaxy of stars and their “feeble” report was supposed to give Obama the cover and credibility to change the discourse and to stand up to the military, which is hell-bent on doing things its way for as long as it likes (read Gareth Porter’s latest), the administration better start looking elsewhere.

The Internet has made it possible for scholars and writers unwelcome in the Washington “Cub Room” to cut through the nonsense and call a spade a spade. Maybe next time, the mainstream media won’t waste our time on promotional events designed around such self-ratifying trifle.

Remember how All About Eve ends – there is always a usurper in the wings. Washington needs more of them now, more than ever.

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos