The Closet Moderate: November 2009

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Essential Reading

I write a lot about war, but every now and then someone writes something that makes me feel bad for even trying to talk about that subject. On particularly bad days, I find two examples of that sort of writing:

Paul Staniland on COIN doctrine

Prof. Stephen Walt on the hazards of occupation

Paul and Prof. Walt lay out, in stark detail, the problems with our approach to the AfPak muddle. Even if you don't read anything else on this topic, and that includes my blog posts, read these articles.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

100 jobs saved in East Dakota's 10th district!, your clearing house for made up statistics, has been listing thousands of jobs saved in places that do not exist. I know the conspiracy-minded among you will instantly leap to the facile conclusion that the government has secret Congressional districts it is hiding from us. Some others of you may believe the government was just making up jobs data and wasn't even smart enough to consult Wikipedia when fabricating their data. The truth is more subtle, but still disappointing.

To start with, let's consider the explanation for this balls-up. As the ABC News article says,
"We report what the recipients submit to us," said Ed Pound, Communications Director for the Board. Pound told ABC News the board receives declarations from the recipients - state governments, federal agencies and universities - of stimulus money about what program is being funded.
Pound, who also serves as Tsar of Irrational and Transcendental Numbers, gives us a hint at the rigorous methodology behind the administration's ciphering. They ask people how many jobs they've "saved," add up the total, and pass it on to us as being straight from the hand of God Obama.

Consider what other government agency is so trusting. Does the IRS take your word for it at tax time? Does airport security let you through unsearched if you promise you're no terrorist? Does the EPA let you go on your merry way if you pinky swear that pollution isn't from your factory? Of course not. Leviathan doesn't take your word for shit.

All of these "saved" jobs numbers (a dubious prospect in itself) are based on the say-so of people who have just been handed a big sack of government money. What do you expect they will say, that it didn't work? They're not likely to get more Sacajaweas that way.

The flaw in this methodology cannot have been hidden from the administration's senses. Obama may be a naïf in foreign policy, but the people who run his domestic bureaucracies know a whopper when they hear one. And when they heard that we've spent $1.5 million to create 1/3 of a job in the 69th district of the northern Mariana Islands, they should've smelled a rat. Passing on information you know to be false may not be as bad as making it up, but it's not the Hope sandwich we were told to expect.


Monday, November 09, 2009

This Week in Stupid

I usually stick to political idiocy for this section, but today's winner is a Joe Posnanski article about the New York Yankees.

Mr. Posnanski is a Kansas City Royals fan and Zach Greinke booster. He's a fabulous writer and his eloquent case for Greinke as Cy Young recipient sold me completely. That said, he nurses a peculiar resentment toward the Bronx Bombers.


The New York Yankees enjoy a tremendous financial advantage over almost every other team in Major League Baseball. This year, their payroll came in a solid $50,000,000 higher than the runner-up New York Mets, whose W-L record this year made them strong contenders for the 2009 "Rudy Giuliani Money For Nothing" award (est. 2008). Posnanski correctly points out that this grants the Yankees a tremendous inherent advantage. Granted.

Then he undermines that very point by admitting that the nature of baseball obscures dominance. If the Yankees spend lots of money but don't crowd out other teams, then I'd like to be reminded what the problem is. The Yankees dropped a series to the Washington Natinals, lost the first 8 games of the season series to the Boston Red Sox, and otherwise lost games they ought to have won. Of course, they also won a whole lot of games and eventually the World Series. Or, as Joe puts it:
That team will roll through the playoffs without facing an elimination game or anything resembling real drama — though there will be constant efforts to make it SEEM like there’s drama.
Sure, I'm a Yankees fan, but I think Joe was watching another ALCS. Games 2 and 3 went to the 11th and 13th inning, respectively. Game 5 was decided by a single run, and the Angels had a chance to even the series and force #7 until Kazmir lost them #6. Additionally, the Angels made a number of decisive baserunning errors that erased runners in scoring position--errors that very well might have changed the outcomes of those games.

Also, even if we accept everything about Joe's argument, it still doesn't follow that the Yankees are bad for baseball. On the contrary, the amount of hate the Yankees attract is good for baseball. In addition to sold out stadia and comfortable underdog narratives, hating the Yankees is an easy point of entry into baseball for casual fans. The Red Sox Nation may not have any idea who Alex Gonzales--their starting SS--is, but they know (and hate) Alex Rodriguez.

If the Yankees won every World Series every year, Posnanski might have a point. While I enjoyed the run from 1996-2000, that had more to do with my early Yankees fandom, watching the hopeless teams of the late 80's and early 90's as they stunk up the joint. After that legacy of futility, four World Series titles felt like justice, not dominance. As it stands, the Yankees don't win every year. Instead, they're crucible in which romantic notions about the Great American Game are tested. For those who cling to such things, victory over the Yankees isn't some trivial statistical inevitability, it's a validation of their hope and faith.

Finally, fandom is not so much a choice as a habit or instinct, one that we then invent justifications for. He doesn't like the Yankees. I do, and while I'm probably being unfair, I think many of Posnanski's cavils stem from the fact that he is a Kansas City Royals fan. The Yankees, to him, are a team with 27 World Series titles and 40 American League pennants. They are emblematic of a system that places enormous obstacles between his team and the World Series. As a 27-year-old Yankees fan, I have to say that 22 of those titles mean almost nothing to me. For me, watching the Yankees is about watching Pettitte, Jeter, Posada and Rivera play baseball. It's about a thread that connects me to memories of hot summers as a 13-year-old kid in New Jersey, watching Mariano set up Wetteland. That sense of continuity is more important to me than the World Series.

The trophy is nice, though.

This Week in Stupid Archives:

Michael Gerson

Eliott Abrams
Leon Wieseltier
Max Boot


Friday, November 06, 2009

Insert Additional COIN(s)

On a fundamental level, what bothers me about the wars we're embroiled in are the echoes of the "civilizing mission" that surround them. In Iraq, that tone was explicit. We were attempting to transform the country into a modern democracy by force of arms. That idea was rank hubris, but at the time it sounded appealing to a country habituated to the idea of a global crusade a bereft of one for a whole decade.

In Afghanistan, it's more of an undertone. But the objectives and metrics the Obama administration has developed to measure success in Afghanistan and Pakistan are ambitious:
Objective 3b. Promote a more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan that serves the Afghan people and can eventually function, especially regarding internal security, with limited international support.
Objective 2a. Assist efforts to enhance civilian control and stable constitutional government in Pakistan.
And some sample metrics from Objective 2a:
1. Progress towards Pakistan's civilian government and judicial system becoming stable and free of military involvement
2. Pakistan's actions to take necessary steps to ensure economic and financial stability, job creation, and growth
3. Support for human rights
The regional transformation strategy pursued by Bush was explicitly missionary: they hate us for who we are, so let's make them like us. With bombs. And while I've highlighted what I consider to be the most ambitious objectives and metrics, they do constitute an attempt to define (no thanks to Holbrooke) what success would look like in the region.

In other words, the Bush administration followed an underpants gnomes strategy of regional transformation:

1. Chaos.
2. …
3. Democracy!

The main difference under Obama seems to be that we think we’ve figured out step 2: counterinsurgency. More after the jump.


I’m just not sure how feasible it is to draw a line between the methods of counterinsurgency and the goals we’re trying to achieve in Afghanistan. If we leave and the Taliban comes back (probable) AND they decide renew their lease with Al-Qaeda (possible) that would be a problem. That said, I tend to think that one of the factors that helped move 9/11 from Bruckheimer plot to terrorist plot was our decision to ignore Afghanistan for a decade after providing the mujahideen with weapons and purpose. Regardless of what particular decision we arrive at, I doubt we’re going to dismiss the threats emanating from that part of world.

I also think the structural realities of the situation have outpaced the strategy. I want to focus on three main problems:
  • Incentives
  • Inertia
  • Integrity
I don’t see what incentives we, as an occupying power, can offer to the regional players. For one thing, our occupation isn’t really of the indefinite variety. We’re not going to be in Afghanistan forever. Someday the Americans will be gone, and I doubt we’ll be offering our Afghan friends the ability to start over in the United States if things go south. Put another way, the downside risk inherent in cooperation is huge and there’s relatively little upside. You get to be a big man while we’re there and hope that after we’re gone, we’ve built a state that can keep the Taliban from coming for your thumbs.

Of course, if we defeat the Taliban that won’t be a problem. Unfortunately, the Taliban is not just an Afghan problem. Because the Taliban has a network of support in Pakistan, we have to add another layer of complexity. In addition to defeating the Afghan Taliban, we have to convince Pakistan to help us root them out on their side of the border. The Pakistani military and ISI both have an established strategic orientation (towards India), and both are extremely powerful institutions in Pakistan. They’re probably not all that thrilled about Objective 2a, either. Beyond that, it’s not clear to me that a strong Afghan state is in Pakistan’s interests. The Afghan War costs the US a lot of money and requires the expenditure of significant amounts of political capital. If you’re a regional player who’s not sold on US war aims, isn’t waiting us out the right call?

But let’s be optimistic for a moment and assume we can generate Pakistani buy-in and defeat the Taliban on both sides of the border. We then have to confront the issue of state building in Afghanistan. Essentially, if those gains are going to stick we’ll need a Afghan state that can co-opt the factions within Afghanistan. That’s why the corruption surrounding Karzai’s re-election is so problematic for COIN in Afghanistan. Without legitimacy, there’s reason to doubt the idea of a cohesive Afghan state taking shape around Karzai. Without effective security forces, there’s no way for Karzai to punish defection. We could witness an effective COIN campaign that stabilizes the country, only to see that situation rolled back after we leave.

Of course, adherence to those metrics necessarily includes the possibility that our efforts in Afghanistan may not measure up. That could be the foundation for “withdrawal with honor,” or however it is we're dressing up failure these days.


COIN-Operated War(s)

Post-WWII, the US military has been, by and large, an organization built to deter and defeat potential "peer competitors." That's a fancy term IR/FoPo folks throw around that means, basically, "nations that think they might be able to take us." Specifically, it refers to nations that are both wealthy and populous enough to sustain a war effort against a great power.

And from 1941 to 1991, that--the peer competitors thing--was the fundamental premise underlying US grand strategy. Most other needs were subordinated to the overriding strategic imperatives of defeating the Third Reich, and, post-1945, containing the USSR. While the collapse of the USSR fundamentally altered the structure of international relations and the strategic environment, a certain amount of institutional inertia ensured that the Cold War order persisted.

Below the jump I'll talk about ways in which that changed as a result of the Iraq War and the implications it has for American national security debate moving forward.


So, with all the standard caveats about the Iraq War, it did place our armed forces, specifically the US Army, in a situation where fundamental assumptions about the utility and application of military force had to be re-examined. In 2005-06, the war was taking a sharp turn for the worse, and it became clear that we needed a new approach. Spencer Ackerman's series, Rise of the Counterinsurgents is required reading here. Long story short, the tremendous boondoggle of Iraq elevated a group of military thinkers to prominence. They implemented a counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq that helped contain* the tide of violence, and their success legitimized the theory.

Now the debate centers around whether or not that sort of strategy can be modified to suit our strategic goals in Afghanistan. Gen. McChrystal wants 40,000 more troops to wage a counterinsurgency, while Vice-President Biden favors a counterterrorism approach involving fewer troops. Both of these arguments take for granted the idea, pronounced by Obama on the campaign trail, that Afghanistan is a "war of necessity." The idea runs like this: we have to win in Afghanistan or the Taliban comes back. If the Taliban comes back, Al-Qaeda comes back. If Al-Qaeda comes back, sooner or later we get another 9/11. The McChrystal/Biden disagreement is about whether it's better to address the underlying conditions that create terrorism or just murder terrorists.

The problem that I have with both sides of the debate is that, at the moment, they seem agnostic to costs and probabilities.

Let's take the area of universal agreement: we don't want another 9/11. At the time, 9/11 seemed like something completely impossible. I was listening to reports on the radio and just couldn't believe it was happening. The assumption shared by me, the Bush administration, and American security community at large--that this couldn't fucking happen--is no longer operative. As hard as it is to believe in 2009, "grand terrorism" was a major blind spot in '00-'01. I have to believe that our inability to take the threat seriously was a major enabler of 9/11.

But neither side of the current debate admits much of a possibility that "taking the threat seriously" involves anything other than a protracted commitment in Afghanistan. I've already talked about this issue, but I'll get into in more depth in the next couple posts.

*Obviously, there were other factors involved. The de facto segregation of religious groups that had occurred as a result of the flareups of '05-'06 reduced the opportunities for and gains from intergroup violence.


Thursday, November 05, 2009

Wanna Hear My Master Plan / Here Is My Master Plan

I'm a big nerd, and, as a result many of my childhood friends are nerds. Actually, I think the causation flows the other way, but you get the point. My co-bloggard, Waldorf, famously pioneered an expression that he uses whenever he's in the process of fucking you over in some nerdy contest: I'm doing you a favor.

Of course, it's enraging. When confronting a major setback in any endeavor, the last thing you want to hear from the guy who inflicted it is that it's actually a blessing in disguise.

I'm mentioning this because I want to recap the essential strategic incoherence of the Iraq War. In 2003 I was still an undergraduate, nose buried in Waltz, Clausewitz, Mearsheimer, Wendt, you name it. There were a number of theories circulating on campus about why we were invading Iraq, from the geostrategic (control of oil reserves) to the downright nutty (the 9/11 truthers). Six years later, the most baffling aspect of the Iraq War is that none of the explanations really make sense in light of our actions. We didn't behave like a resource-seeking imperial power, nor did we find the WMDs that formed the foundation of the preventive case for war. (See also: The Terminator Teaches Just War Theory for more on the difference between preventive and preemptive war.)

I've settled on the idea that maybe, just maybe, the Bush folks actually believed their own bullshit about regional transformation. More after the jump.


On the most basic level, there was a case to be made for Iraq as a proving ground for a regional transformation strategy. Saddam Hussein was an oppressive dictator who maintained himself in power by servicing an ethnic minority within Iraq (Sunnis). If they did take this idea seriously, I imagine the bet was something like, "we knock off Saddam, earn the gratitude of--and are greeted as liberators by--the Shi'ite majority, and use them as the building blocks of a new Iraq."


The problem is that there are a lot of complicating factors. First of all, war is an ugly undertaking that destroys lives and livelihoods. When you blow up someone's house or kill their child, even if it's accidental, "I'm doing you a favor" is not going to cut it. In fact, asking someone to see anything beyond "you blew up my house, you fuckmook" is ridiculous. (I'm looking at you Elliott Abrams.) Perhaps the RMA and the promise of Future Combat Systems had seduced us into believing that we could fight a war with so little collateral damage that it wouldn't provoke that sort of response, but even if that were true, there are other problems.

History, for one. You can have the best of intentions, and still fail at regional transformation because, let's face it, you're a bunch of white guys running the show and this region in particular has had a number of bad experiences with white guys running the show. Asking people to give you the benefit of the doubt--no, really, we're not the British and the British we brought with us are here for your own good--is a tall order when the entirety of their modern history involves grappling with the problems caused by people who look a whole lot like us.

On the plus side, Iraqi nationalism has never been strong. After WWI, Faisal was made King of Syria and Iraq as repayment for his father's (Sharif Hussein of Mecca) decision to lead an Arab revolt against the Ottomans (in other words, the plot of Lawrence of Arabia). In 1920, Faisal was kicked out of Syria by the French, who had taken over the mandate of Syria after the Conference of San Remo. In 1921, the British appointed Faisal King of Iraq, a place where he was almost completely unknown. They played "God Save the Queen" at his coronation, because there wasn't an Iraqi anthem.

As a result, there wasn't an Iraqi nation per se. Instead, there were three tribes: Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurd. The Iraqi Ba'ath Party, of which Saddam Hussein was an excrescence, was nationalist and pan-Arabist in ideology but tribalist in practice. That tribalism and the way it became entwined with government resources would prove to be a major stumbling block for the US. When we toppled Saddam and purged the Iraqi army, we ruined the lives of a whole bunch of people who had guns, connections, and grudges. Also, once ejected from power, the intra-tribal security arrangements became an important check on the ambitions of an aggrieved majority. Thus, it was very hard for individuals to defect from the greater tribal alignment as they'd forfeit their security guarantees.

All of these factors militated against a regional transformation strategy. It's not rocket science, nor is the idea that all of this is 20/20 hindsight at work persuasive. A quick examination of other ethnically-divided countries in chaos (the former Yugoslavia, which was still in our rearview mirror, for one) would've revealed similar patterns of inter-tribal violence. That alone* should've led to a reassessment of our "I'm doing you a favor" approach to the invasion of Iraq.

*Or, whatever, they could've read a little of the work done by Stathis Kalyvas.


It's Something Wrong With The Way I Think

There's an infuriating tendency in American politics to read ourselves into the national narratives of other countries. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Georgia, Sen. McCain told us that "we are all Georgians." The entire fucking Vietnam War owes its sorry history to the fact that we wrote ourselves into a struggle for national unification. Yeah, Ho Chi Minh was a ferocious pinko, but he grafted communism onto a nationalist platform. Back in the day, that sort of strategy wasn't all that unusual. No less a conservative than Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini appropriated the rhetoric of the Iranian socialists to stoke the fires of the Iranian Revolution (he later had them all locked up, exiled, or killed because he was that kind a motherfucker).

The most egregious example of this is the consensus view of American involvement in the fall of the USSR. Let me be clear, we did make life hard for the Soviets. However, we didn't cause the USSR to fall because we spent a metric fuckton of taxpayer dollars on an unworkable missile defense system. Sure, it was a factor. But you know what mattered more? The internal social, economic and political state of the USSR. Without getting too granular, the combination of glasnost and perestroika, Yeltsin, the Afghan War, falling oil prices and a truly defunct industrial base all played a rather more significant role in the Soviet collapse.

In other words, we didn't win the Cold War, and our belief to the contrary is part of the reason for our present troubles. More after the jump.


I'll admit up front that it's an oversimplification, but I think it's an illuminating one. There are a couple of trends that flowed from the end of the Cold War that did lead us into our current ratfuck:

1. The belief that the Star Wars program brought down the USSR entrenched the idea that military force (and defense spending) was the only tool we needed to solve major security problems. Defense contractors were, of course, only too happy to encourage this idea. Anyway, from that belief stems the neoconservative idea that "throwing a dinky country up against the wall to show the world we mean business" is a useful way to interact with the world. As we learned to our chagrin, this isn't true. War is a tremendously complex and uncertain undertaking, there are a whole lot of countries in the world, and many of them are willing to play the odds. A decade on, we're slowly finding our way back to equilibrium, hampered by the fact that we're involved in all these wars now.

2. When you win a war, the expectation is that you reap some reward from it--the spoils of war. Unfortunately, we didn't win the Cold War, in the same way that the guy who doesn't suffer alcohol poisoning in a drinking contest doesn't so much win as "not lose." Since the Cold War had been framed as a contest for dominance and the US was the only superpower left standing, it was understood that we were in charge now. And that's true, as far as it goes. While unipolarity ensured that nobody was going to fuck with us, it didn't mean we could dictate to other sovereign nations. Quite the contrary. Without the threat of the USSR, many of the countries that had once been in the US camp were happy to go their own way.

At the same time, the threat environment shifted drastically. To draw an inexact parallel, when we finally shot Pablo Escobar, we didn't end the drug problem, we just fractured it into a million tiny pieces. Many national security issues that had been overshadowed by Soviet Menace (love that term) moved to the fore. Having built our diplomatic corps and armed forces to counter a superpower threat, we were sort of unprepared for asymmetric conflict. I have my doubts about the utility of counterinsurgency in our current conflicts, but no doubts that it's going to become an increasingly important part of our national security toobox if it's not discredited and discarded due to failures in Afghanistan.


How We Do

“You can call us anything you want,” Cashman said. “You also have to call us world champions."