A New Award for Misleading National Security Op-Eds
With the assistance of The American Conservative and its readers, I am proposing to institute an annual literary award of sorts. Modeled after the Sidneys that David Brooks announces in his New York Times column at the end of each year, this award will provide recipients with recognition (of a sort), but not much else—no money, no plaque, no certificate, no fancy dinner.
Brooks uses the Sidneys, named after the deceased philosopher and polemicist Sidney Hook, to call attention to long-form essays of particular merit. My award, the Ohpet, named after Michael O’Hanlon and David Petraeus, will cite conspicuously fatuous commentary on matters related to U.S. national security policy.
O’Hanlon and Petraeus may seem like a bit of an odd couple. The one is a seasoned pundit and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, well-known in Washington circles but perhaps not beyond. The other, a retired four-star general and former CIA director now on Wall Street, is a full-fledged celebrity, known just about everywhere. But on occasion the two collaborate on op-eds that appear in some national newspaper and make a suitable splash. Imagine if back in the 1950s, by way rendering advice on how to conduct the Cold War, the columnist Joseph Alsop had periodically shared a byline with General of the Army Douglas MacArthur. O’Hanlon plus “Peaches” equals Alsop plus “Dugout Doug.”
The most recent O’Hanlon-Petraeus offering, published in the Wall Street Journal on June 22, inspired me to create the Ohpet. That essay also establishes a standard to which future honorees will be expected to sink in order to earn Ohpet laurels.
Entitled “Getting an Edge in the Long Afghan Struggle,” the op-ed functions, in effect, as a Pentagon press release. As with any such document, its credibility correlates directly with the reader’s willingness to believe a) that those currently wielding power in Washington know what they are doing; and b) that in describing what they are doing they tell the truth.
On both counts, O’Hanlon and Petraeus invite their fan base to respond, “Hell, yes! Let’s get it on!”
Here is a three-point summary of the argument that O’Hanlon and Petraeus offer to Journal readers. First, succeeding in Afghanistan, easily the longest war in all of American history, will entail “a sustained, and sustainable, commitment” on the part of the United States. Second, demonstrating that commitment will require “several thousand more U.S. troops” plus “greater leeway in the use of U.S. and NATO air power.” Third, even as more foreign troops arrive and more bombs fall, unnamed “officials”—U.S.? Afghan?—would do well to “remain open to the possibility of reconciliation with some insurgents.”
On at least the first two points, their recommendations mirror what the Trump administration has already indicated it intends to do. As for the third point, barring a bomb-them-into-the-Stone-Age campaign to eradicate the Taliban entirely, some form of reconciliation offers the only plausible way to end this endless war. Yet as to specifics, O’Hanlon and Petraeus offer none. It’s the equivalent of suggesting that for the good of their country Democrats and Republicans should learn to get along.
So while O’Hanlon and Petraeus may pay lip service to politics, their real emphasis is on trying harder militarily. An “intensified military effort” in Afghanistan, they believe, “could [sic] arrest the gradual loss of territory held by the government in recent years.” On that score, O’Hanlon and Petraeus make no promises. Even so, that fingers-crossed possibility, in their view, justifies the appropriation of “the $5 billion or so [sic] a year above current levels that such a strategy [sic] will require.”
Absent from the O’Hanlon and Petraeus essay is any mention of how much the ongoing war in Afghanistan currently costs the United States—roughly $30 billion per year. They are similarly silent on how much it has cost since U.S. forces entered that country in 2001, a sum now exceeding $900 billion.
How will further U.S. military exertions be rewarded? Again, no promises. The actions they are promoting, the authors write, “will not achieve ‘victory’ in Afghanistan, after which all troops can be withdrawn.” The disparaging quotation marks inserted around the word victory are meant to signal their own sophisticated grasp of the situation. Only rubes think that U.S. forces are in Afghanistan because someday they may actually win.
Yet as recently as 2003, members of the chattering class to which O’Hanlon belongs and senior officers of the military establishment in which Petraeus served considered victory (unadorned by ironic symbols) the sole criteria by which to judge any combat action undertaken by U.S. forces. People in the know and ordinary citizens counted on the United States military to win, quickly and handily. No more. Today informed insiders know better. Now the aim is merely to persist.
After all these years, why bother? Because doing so, “can improve the prospects of shoring up our eastern flank in the broader battle against Islamist extremism—a fight that likely is to be a generational struggle.”
One has to wonder how even the Journal’s notoriously bellicose editorial page editors swallow such nonsense.
For starters, in no way does Afghanistan represent “our eastern flank.” If the United States is indeed locked in a “generational struggle”—another stock phrase favored in present-day Washington—the jihadists have already established a foothold in places well beyond Afghanistan, among them Pakistan, India, Indonesia, and the southern reaches of the Philippines. Viewed from a geographic perspective, vast, landlocked Afghanistan is all but devoid of strategic significance for the United States. As a factor likely to affect the future wellbeing of the American people, it trails well behind Venezuela and ranks barely in front of Laos.
To argue, as O’Hanlon and Petraeus do, that the United States must stay in Afghanistan in some approximation of perpetuity because that’s where Osama bin Laden hatched the 9/11 plot, is akin to arguing that all those Americans who loathe our 45th president should occupy Trump Tower because that’s where he announced his candidacy. It confuses the incidental with the essential.
The key question relates to the “generational struggle” to which O’Hanlon and Petraeus blithely refer. What is its precise nature? They don’t say, arguably because they don’t know or because they are intent on diverting attention from what they do know. What they do know but are reluctant to say is that defining that generational struggle—formerly known as the global war on terrorism—as primarily a military enterprise has proven to be monumentally counterproductive. Bearing down in Afghanistan does not constitute a strategy or even some component of a strategy. Rather, it testifies to the absence of strategy.
“Getting an Edge in the Long Afghan Struggle” professes to enlighten. In actuality, it misleads. And that is what makes it such an exemplary model for the Ohpet sweepstakes now underway.
The field is wide open. Submit your nominations at [email protected]. Sometime around Independence Day of next year, we’ll announce the honorees.
One last thing: Since I am the sole judge of this contest, my own essays are not eligible to win. (Whew).
Andrew Bacevich is The American Conservative’s writer-at-large.