Daniel Larison

Iraq And Afghanistan

So for politically correct reasons, we’re moving the focus of the war on terrorism to a very bad place for us. The Russians couldn’t win there. Peter the Great couldn’t win there [bold mine-DL]. Oh, but maybe the messiah can win there, ok. ~Ann Coulter

Yes, there is a comparison with Vietnam, too. Of course, Peter the Great was otherwise occupied with Swedes, and never had the opportunity to get anywhere near Afghanistan. The Central Asian khanates had not yet been acquired by the Russian empire, and the Great Game was almost two hundred years away, but don’t let that stop you. Not that it needed to be said, but Coulter doesn’t have a clue what she’s talking about. Yes, I know this is just oppositional posturing–increasing troop levels under Gen. Petraeus was Holy Writ two years ago and last year when it concerned Iraq, but this year in Afghanistan it is crazy, hopeless escalation and Vietnam redux. In itself, increasing troop levels in Afghanistan will not necessarily do very much, but if it is combined with some effort to buy off or negotiate with reconcilable Taliban units there is some chance that it could improve matters.

One wonders what there is in the history of Iraq, which has been a frequent battleground between different polities and resistant to every Western power that has ever set foot there, that makes it a preferable location. Depending on how ambitious our objectives are, the war in Afghanistan not only needs more soldiers in the near term, but it will almost definitely fail without them. It could be that there is not much more that we can realistically accomplish in Afghanistan without undermining Pakistan, but then defenders of the war in Iraq have never had much interest in questions of regional stability; stability has always been a curse word for them. Besides, Coulter is not actually saying that we should end the war in Afghanistan, but merely that any tactical change in that war is a mistake because Obama is the one making the decision.

Support for Taliban attacks on NATO forces is vastly higher in areas where air raids have been used to make up for lack of manpower, as these raids invariably cause civilian casualties, and these raids make it harder to reduce the numbers of so-called “accidental insurgents” (i.e., armed locals who sporadically join battles against our forces when their territory becomes a war zone). Obviously, there are some goals that are out of reach (e.g., eradication of the poppy trade) and should be scrapped right now, and some tactics that are positively harmful to the stability of neighboring Pakistan, and therefore directly advantageous to Pakitani Taliban forces, such as the drone strikes. The war in Iraq is still far from over, regardless of the withdrawal timelines announced this week, and we will still be bearing its costs for years to come while we maintain tens of thousands of “residual” forces there. It may be that the war in Afghanistan will become unsustainable, and Pakistan could very well collapse thanks in part to years of neglect and lack of support, but the longer we remain in Iraq and the more resources we continue to waste there the more likely both of those outcomes are. It may make sense to scale back our involvement in Afghanistan for many reasons, but there is no argument for doing so that also permits us to perpetuate the war in Iraq.


The Freeman Controversy

One reason that I have not had anything to say about the Chas Freeman appointment as chairman of the National Intelligence Council, which has stirred up such controversy among the usual suspects, is that I am having difficulty understanding how the chairman of the NIC suddenly became such a critical position that merits so much discussion. Freeman certainly has all the right enemies, but that is not necessarily enough to give him a full-throated defense. However, his appointment does appear to deserve a qualified defense, because in the end the main criticisms of the appointment do not amount to very much.

From what I can tell, there are legitimate reasons to have some problems with this appointment. It is not the “disaster” that critics are making it out to be, and of course the appointment would scarcely have received any attention at all if Freeman had not written critical things about Israel or favorable things about The Israel Lobby. That is so painfully obvious that it hardly needs to be mentioned. It appears to be true that Freeman’s organization, the Middle East Policy Council, has received funding from both the Saudi government and Saudi individuals, and it seems that he did write that Beijing responded too slowly to the protests in Tiananmen Square. One need not be pushing for confrontation with China or desire the overthrow of the House of Saud to see how these things are less than desirable in and of themselves.

That said, it seems to be the case that Freeman is actually a very good intelligence analyst, as many well-informed professionals are claiming, in which case his past ties and opinions are of secondary importance. He will not be setting policy concerning Saudi Arabia, China or any other country, but will be reviewing and interpreting intelligence for the DNI, Adm. Blair, who specifically recruited Freeman for this post. It seems to me that if there were something seriously wrong with the Freeman appointment, the critics would be attacking Blair directly for his horrible judgement, which so far I have yet to see a single one of them do. For all of the huffing and puffing Chait does about Freeman’s alleged fanaticism, he does not even mention Blair, who is directly responsible for recommending Freeman for the job.

That tells me that the critics are opportunistically making hay out of these elements of Freeman’s record for other reasons. This puts him in a different relationship to the policymaking process as compared to, say, certain former Deputy and Assistant Secretaries of Defense. This is a difference that Freeman’s critics, such as Chait, deliberately elide to make people fear the influence of “fanatical” realists (leaving aside that “fanatical foreign policy realist” is almost a contradiction in terms) comparable to the influence of neoconservatives in the last administration. If I understand Chait’s argument against them, it is that realists are too focused on American interests and are not misled by cant about “values.” Remember, this is supposed to make us dislike Freeman!

The controversy prompted me to look into who chaired the NIC during the Bush administration. Of course, this required a little digging, because I am fairly sure that, like me, most of you had never heard of any of them. Between 2005 and 2008, it was someone named Thomas Fingar, and before that for two years it was Robert Hutchings. The outgoing occupant of the office is Peter Lavoy, who has served since early December of last year and who is now Blair’s Deputy DNI. In all of the extensive back-and-forth about various National Intelligence Estimates released over the course of the last six years, I cannot recall their names coming up, and I certainly cannot recall their prior political views and ties ever having been the subject of discussion by anyone.

P.S. Here is The Cable’s copy of the press release from the DNI’s office announcing Freeman’s appointment.


Foreign Policy At CPAC

In a post lamenting a dearth of ideas at CPAC, John Tabin noted that there was a foreign policy panel Friday evening, and for all of my criticism of the conference I have to say that the panel’s line-up appears unusually promising and refreshing: Doug Bandow and former Rep. Hostettler of Indiana (one of the six antiwar Republican members, who lost in the ’06 blowout) were speaking alongside Frank Gaffney, and the panel is moderated by Suhail Khan (!). If I were a pro-war conservative or interventionist, I would be very annoyed by this line-up, since it pits two very credible antiwar figures against someone who trafficks in genuinely looney, Keyes-esque conspiracy theories about Obama’s citizenship, and the moderator has been a target of Gaffney’s in the past. Technically, it’s true, the zany conspiracy theorizing doesn’t necessarily reflect on Gaffney’s foreign policy views, which are more or less garden-variety jingoistic foolishness, but he is hardly the spokesman that interventionists should want to have making their case.

Update: Mark Krikorian remarks on the panel and asks at the end:

But how can a three-day conference on conservativism [sic] have only one session devoted to the entirety of foreign affairs?

Mr. Krikorian is asking this question seriously, so I will try to give an appropriate answer. I cannot know the minds of the organizers, but my guess is that the conference organizers were more concerned with the state of conservatism and reacting to the administration’s domestic agenda, both real and imagined, and that the limited attention given to foreign policy may be a function of fatigue after constant Bush Era warnings about the “existential threat” of “Islamofascism.” That kind of hysteria can be exhausting, and now that administration policies no longer need to be defended there is more time to talk about other topics. As we have seen, individual speakers have been more than willing to make up for the shortage of formal foreign policy sessions. However, I also think that the lack of intra-conservative discussions of foreign policy at the conference is partly the result of conflicting impulses. On one side, I think there is probably broad acceptance of the Republican election-year critique of Obama as insufficiently hawkish, prone to cut the military’s budget, etc., and on the other there is a growing recognition that Obama’s policies are not going to diverge that wildly from the policies of the last administration and that this is undesirable. To the extent that CPAC this year has been an exercise in anti-Obama speech-making, there is no widely-shared line of attack against administration policies, and so there are not many sessions dedicated to the subject.

If one acknowledges continuity with the past administration, most pro-war attendees will find little to criticize and will actually believe that Obama has vindicated their own positions as the “realistic” ones, and non-interventionists and antiwar realists will continue to see the same flaws with Obama’s policies that they saw in Bush’s, which makes it harder to identify those policies as solely the product of a liberal Democratic administration. As Bolton showed, that won’t stop some from criticizing the administration in conventional “weakness invites aggression” terms, so these matters are being discussed here and there. There is also the small problem that mainstream conservatives embraced an administration that was, with a couple of notable exceptions, a remarkable failure in foreign policy, so it may not be a subject that many want to revisit just now. It also may be that the organizers understand that during a global recession there is not much reason to obsess about the “threat” from Venezuela or wherever.

Of course, if CPAC were a gathering mainly dedicated to formulating and debating policy ideas, that wouldn’t matter and we would see discussions of a number of issues pertaining to foreign affairs, but I think we know that this is mostly not what CPAC is most years and definitely not this year. This year, perhaps more than most, it seems to me that it is an occasion to rally activists and affirm a shared identity rather than hash out policy arguments.

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Everywhere In Chains

One of the difficulties conservatives will have in assessing where they have gone wrong is the sometimes bizarre ideas they have of what conservatism means. For example, here is Rick Moran in an otherwise spmewhat sensible post decrying ideology and calling for self-criticism:

Classic conservative principles are timeless; immutable tenets that have inspired great changes in government over the last 400 years and spoken passionately and plainly to the needs and hopes of ordinary people. Since the end of World War II, those classical principles have informed a devastating critique of the welfare state, presenting a reasoned and logical alternative to statism and dependency. Conservatism has stood for human liberty based on the fundamental idea of natural law; that from his first breath, man is born free.

But conservatism has gone off the rails, becoming in some respects a parody of itself.

The notion that man is born free is an idea that is well-suited for parody, because it is plainly not true. I’m not sure how repeating a false idea as one’s core principle is going to do any good. Moran’s passage is as concise a statement of the view that conservatism=classical liberalism as I have seen in a while, and if this is what movement conservatives are trying to get back to I am not sure why they are bothering.

400 years? With respect to cultural and religious patrimony, that is far too recent, and with respect to political philosophy it is entirely anachronistic to speak of conservatism 400 years ago. Liberty is an artifact of civilization, as even one famous non-conservative of the right knew, and it is not something that comes naturally. Men were not born with liberty, but had to earn it, work for it and struggle to retain it. It can be lost or diminished, and it is so far from the natural state of man that it is difficult to state strongly enough how wrong it is to say that “man is born free.”

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It’s gratifying to be considered relevant, but Rod is correct that it is the marginal and basically politically irrelevant status of almost all dissident and heterodox conservatives that permits us a greater degree of freedom to criticize and propose alternatives as we see fit. As Ross has observed, some of us are not necessarily aspiring to conventional political relevance or influence after already having seen the apparent futility of that path in the absence of cultural revival, which makes it even harder to insist that we are relevant. Discussing the right problems and getting at many of the right answers, yes, I think so, but to be blunt that is exactly why we are not relevant to the debate going on inside the movement, much less inside the GOP, to the extent that there is actually a debate and not just a marketing brainstorming meeting or a collective therapy session.

I happen to think the two main creative forces on the right at the moment are paleos/populists and reformists, and obviously I prefer the answers of the former, and I also think that the reformists have done the most work articulating an alternative domestic policy agenda, but neither “group” (a word that attributes more unity and cohesion to them than is the case) is in much of a position as a matter of institutional or political strength to prevail on movement conservatives to follow their suggestions. There are also structural barriers inside the GOP to many of the reforms proposed by both camps in the form of interest groups and donors, and there is admittedly limited electoral support for candidates representing either one.

There is some reason to think that non-interventionist arguments may gain ground with more people on the right during the Obama years as there will no longer be the same temptation to defend Bush’s policies, but as I have said before I worry that there will be a tendency to default to maximal hawkishness as a way to attack Obama as “soft” and “weak.” Most reported remarks by CPAC speakers that I have seen indicate that this is the sort of thing that movement activists crave and will reward.


Follow The Follower

Dave Weigel reminds us that delusional Palinites are still around:

Conference attendees were far kinder to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, represented at CPAC by the pro-life group Team Sarah (founded by the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List after Palin was nominated as McCain’s running mate) and Draft Sarah Palin 2012. “I think that if she had been the candidate, if John McCain had stepped aside, she would have clearly won the election,” said Paul Streitz, the national chairman of the Palin draft group. “She did not have the weaknesses on the immigration issue and the free trade issue that McCain did. She was stronger against the bailout than McCain was. She’s shown leadership. People are willing to follow her. People believe what she says. [bold mine-DL]”

No wonder so many conservatives like Palin. It makes no difference what positions she actually took during the election, and it makes no difference what is in her record, and they “believe what she says” by pretending that she has said things that she never said. As we know from her statements during the campaign, she has exactly the same weaknesses on immigration McCain did, she has to my knowledge never made a public statement about free trade agreements one way or the other, and just like McCain she was entirely on board with the bailout. There is no way of knowing whether she would have taken different positions had she not been McCain’s running mate, but there is also no reason to think that she would have. She has never taken a distinctive or noteworthy position on any national issue, nor has she accomplished much of anything on any comparable state issue. That is the opposite of leadership. But apparently some people will still follow her.

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For the infighting to really become significant in a policy sense, you’d need some members of the House and Senate to try to put what Crist and Huntsman are talking about into practice. ~Yglesias

Yes and no. This brings us back to Huntsman’s point in his Washington Times interview, which is that the Congressional GOP is so completely irrelevant to developing and/or advancing a new policy agenda that it will be left to Republican governors to lead the party away from the abyss. If Huntsman intends to enter a future presidential race as a moderate reforming Western governor (where have we heard this before?), the Congressional GOP’s embrace of McCain’s losing campaign themes is ideal, because it keeps Congressional leaders from getting credit for ideas he has been working on and makes his agenda seem much newer and possibly more interesting than it would otherwise be. He could try to repeat Bush’s 2000 triangulation against the Congressional GOP.

Of course, this is all a moot point, because the combination of policy reformer/relative social moderate/Mormon is probably a triple loser in any future primary competition, which distinctly limits the reach of Huntsman’s reform agenda unless one of the other relatively moderate governors takes up his arguments.

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Russia And Kyrgyzstan

My new Week column on the U.S., Russia and Kyrgyzstan is up here.


Slums Are For Lovers?

What on earth is this? Well, it is an interview between Michael Steele and ABC Radio’s Curtis Sliwa, but beyond that I don’t know how else to describe it:

SLIWA: Now, using a little bit of that street terminology, are you giving him [Jindal] any Slum love, Michael?

STEELE: (laughter)

SLIWA: Because he is — when guys look at him and young women look at him — they say oh, that’s the slumdog millionaire, governor. So, give me some slum love.

STEELE: I love it. (inaudible) … some slum love out to my buddy. Gov. Bobby Jindal is doing a friggin’ awesome job in his state. He’s really turned around on some core principles — like hey, government ought not be corrupt. The good stuff … the easy stuff.

Steele elaborates elsewhere on his efforts to make the GOP more hip-hop-friendly:

Curtis Sliwa: When you used the hip-hop vernacular, man, Barack Obama has bling bling in this stimulus package, you got people’s attention.

Michael Steele: Absolutely. There’s a lot of bling bling — the bling bling’s got bling bling in this package. That’s how bad it is.

There are no words sufficient to express my bewilderment.

In case you think Steele is just kidding around, here is more:

Curtis Sliwa: You ain’t ever gonna get Mitt Romney in a room with Ludacris high fiving over the RNC.

Michael Steele: Watch him, watch me. Look, I’ll never forget when I got Russell Simmons and former chairman Ed Gillespie in the same room in 2004. It can happen and it will happen. This party has got to take it’s head out of it’s you know what and recognize that America doesn’t look like America in 1952. That America now is something very different, very beautiful — that has a lot of strips and strains to it. But, it’s real and we’ve got to get in the real.

Of course, that calls to mind Romney’s, um, memorable moment when he asked a crowd of black kids in his well-meaning, ridiculous way, “Who let the dogs out?”

Update: Ta-Nehisi Coates asks Michael Steele to stop the madness. This brings up something else that I should have mentioned in the original post: what is Steele’s target audience when he talks like this? It can’t be American desis, that much is certain. I mean, Jindal’s mother is a Punjabi nuclear physicist, and he was a Rhodes scholar who studied at Oxford. No one would confuse him for someone who grew up in the slums of Mumbai. The success of Jindal’s parents and Jindal’s own success have nothing to do with the sort of random luck of Slumdog Millionaire‘s main character, but when presented with a chance to say that Steele opts to endorse this “slum love” nonsense. It’s bad enough when Republicans practice the phony populism of pretending to be a down-home country boy when they are, in fact, well-heeled lawyers and lobbyists who live at the Watergate, or when they valorize politicians for knowing less than they should, but are they so out of it that one of their leaders talks about one of their smartest, best-educated elected officials like this?

Second Update: More predictably, here is Coulter:

Wasn’t Bobby great in “Slumdog Millionaire”?

Kya bakwas!


The Spending Freeze

Dave Weigel makes the point I have been trying to get across for at least the last month:

The problem is that spending austerity is not — as it was in the early months of 1993, for example — very high on voters’ minds, or even high on the list of reasons why voters remain cool on Republicans. In his response to the president’s State of the Union speech, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) argued that voters had “rightly” rejected the GOP because the party “got away from its principles” and “went along with earmarks and big government spending in Washington,” repeating an argument that Sen. John McCain made during the presidential campaign.

There is little polling to bolster this argument. Voters did not list government spending, or earmarks, or deficits, in their top concerns in the 2006 or 2008 national exit polls.

Indeed, the idea that the GOP lost these elections because of “wasteful spending” is most popular among activists and radio hosts, and for the last two years it has gained ground among the politicians who mistake these newly-satisfied activists and radio hosts for representatives of public opinion. The reduced numbers of the GOP in the House make it harder to recognize that their position as a losing one, because in the remaining safe Republican districts, where almost all of the anti-spending sentiment is concentrated, there probably is some strong, vocal opposition to these measures. It is the predicament of the GOP, which they brought upon themselves, that they have acquired a new responsiveness to constituents of these safe districts in response to their defeats on the one issue–spending–that is not even that important to these constituents, much less to the rest of the country.

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