Shadow Government

Neo-cons gone wild!

By Christian Brose

Those who have read the recent posts from George Packer, Steve Walt, and Matt Duss on the latest doings of the "neo-con cabal" -- ahem, the Foreign Policy Initiative -- must be eagerly awaiting a report of what happened at today's conference on Afghanistan. Well, I won't leave you hanging.

All that you suspect is true. Bill Kristol, wearing a Viking helmet and a bone through his nose, exhorted the participants to invade Chad, just because. He may have listed other countries, but he was speaking in tongues and war whoops half the time, and my Neo-con-to-English translation kept dropping out. Bob Kagan followed, bare-chested (as usual), in full war paint, banging the Mayflower china with a combat boot, shouting that America needed to put 10 million men under arms to extend its hegemony (benevolent, of course) into the Arctic, shouting something about the road to Moscow leading through the North Pole.

I saw this with my own eyes, people.

If only. It would have been a lot more exciting, that's for sure. As it was, the conference was a pretty staid affair. Some might even call it a love-fest. There were countless expressions of support and admiration for President Obama and his new Af-Pak strategy from Kristol and the brothers Kagan, plus most of the other panelists, who aren't neo-cons. People like CNAS president John Nagl, who probably summed up the conference best when he remarked what an amazing show of bipartisan support it was for Obama's policy.

I say all this, believe it or not, to make a more serious point. The thing that always puzzles me about so much of the frothy commentary about the neo-cons is how it misses that their main antagonist always was, and still is today, as much (or probably more) fellow Republicans as it is Democrats.

When the infamous PNAC was founded, Congressional Republicans were on an anti-government crusade, which often included foreign policy -- especially when opposition to humanitarian intervention, nation-building, democracy promotion, increased spending overseas, and internationalism in general served the added purpose of scoring political points against President Clinton. One could even argue that PNAC was set up not to tar and feather Democrats for being weak-kneed appeasers of evil, but to encourage Clinton's more internationalist tendencies, and to give him political cover from the right to do so against his more nationalist, conservative critics. Judging by the conference today, my sense is that FPI has been founded with much the same purpose vis-a-vis Obama.

It's easy for critics of the neo-cons to cast them as marginal thinkers with out-sized influence, along with all the dark conspiracies that implies. Harder, though more honest, is to recognize that the neo-cons are really championing tendencies in U.S. foreign policy that run much deeper in American life than the pockets of their advocacy shops. Yes, the regular cast of characters signed those PNAC letters that get quoted all the time, but at one point or another, so did folks like Jim Webb, Bob Zoellick, Ivo Daalder, John Bolton, Jim Steinberg, Rich Armitage, Dennis Ross, Michael O'Hanlon, Philip Gordon, Richard Holbrooke, and many others who would sooner take your scalp than be called a neo-con.

Indeed, as was apparent today, the latest "conspiracy" is rather mainstream stuff, like supporting Obama's Af-Pak policy, and it enjoys healthy bipartisan support -- just as Clinton's Balkans wars did, and yes, just as Iraq did initially. Criticizing these policies is fair. But those criticisms should be aimed at a broad swath of the foreign policy establishment, on both sides of the aisle, not just at the neo-cons.

But go back to Iraq. Shouldn't the neo-cons be held accountable for their views? Yes. Them and a whole lot of other people -- Senators, Congressmen, and columnists, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, who seemly want to believe that the votes they cast and the articles they wrote in support of the war had nothing to do with how we found ourselves in it. Iraq was all the neo-cons' fault, and blaming it on them absolves the rest of us. This is a convenient untruth for a lot of people in this town today.

The fact is, Iraq was a long-standing problem over which reasonable people disagreed, and many of those reasonable people came to believe in the aftermath of 9/11 that war was the answer. That they did says less about the neo-cons, I think, than it does about the prevailing mood at the time in America, and especially in Washington -- the willingness of many people, shocked by a national trauma, and seized by the transformational potential of American power, to support a high-risk course of action over the uncertainty of no action at all. Yes, there are serious criticisms to be made of the Bush administration's case for war, but it's worth going back and reading what Bill Clinton and Al Gore said about Iraq back in the 1990s. Most of their statements are indistinguishable from Bush's.

And here we are again. Obama is escalating America's involvement in a distant war, and like Iraq in 2003 or the Balkans before that, he is doing so with considerable bipartisan support, only a small fraction of which comes from the neo-cons. I support this policy. Maybe it will end tragically. Maybe the critics will be proved right. If so, I won't blame the positions I took on the Foreign Policy Initiative.

Shadow Government

What is Obama's Af-Pak policy exactly?

By Christian Brose

A busy work schedule has kept me from commenting on President Obama's Af-Pak speech (and policy White Paper) until now. So at the risk of coming to this a few days late and a whole lot of dollars short, here goes.

I am happy to see many conservatives supporting Obama for making the decision he did, though I am confident they weren't following my call to do so. Obama was right to frame the issue as he did, around the elimination of terrorist threats to America's national security. That is, after all, why we are in Afghanistan in the first place, and it is important to focus on our core interests there -- even if achieving those interests requires a larger effort to strengthen a legitimate, representative government; support sustainable economic development; foster population security; and help Afghans peel the insurgency down to a level they can handle themselves.

This is Obama's policy ... I think. It's what I took away from the White Paper, but if that same policy was contained within Obama's speech, then you could have fooled me. Read side by side, as I have now done more than once, the two documents seem to be describing two different policies -- a narrower counter-terrorism policy in the speech, and a broader counter-insurgency plus state-building policy in the White Paper. What gives? Peter Feaver offers the plausible explanation that Obama is adopting the latter while trying to sell it as the former. I hope Peter is right, and if he is, this is no way to explain a war to an already skeptical public. Still, I am more suspicious.

My fear is that this discrepancy is not just a matter of communications but strategy. It was reported over the weekend that the administration was divided over the policy review (no surprise there), with Biden calling for a minimal approach while Clinton and Holbrooke pushed for nation-building that dare not speak its name. Judging only by the two public documents we have on the new Af-Pak policy, my concern is that, rather than choosing one option over the other, Obama split the difference -- opting for some elements of an enemy focused counter-terrorism strategy and other elements of a population-centric counter-insurgency strategy. Some might say this is a prudent compromise, taking the best of both approaches. Perhaps. Or it could just be the arithemetic mean between two principled positions that won't lead to failure but might not be enough to produce success either.

So, for example, Obama increased U.S. troops, but not as much as his commanders wanted. He supported expanding the Afghan army and police, but not as much as many experts called for and way below what was reportedly being considered. As for the mission, the White Paper says, "Our counter-insurgency strategy must integrate population security with building effective local governance and economic development." This is right and laudable. But not only do the words "counter-insurgency," "protect," and "population" not appear anywhere in Obama's speech, he gives the impression that our troops will just continue to be employed to chase around the enemy. Furthermore, he says, "we will shift our mission to training and increasing the size of the Afghan security forces." Which begs the question, as Philip Zelikow rightly asks: "Is this a stabilize/train/withdraw strategy or a clear/hold/build strategy?" I still can't say, and no rhetoric can paper over that difference.

The same splitting of the difference could be seen in the communication of the new policy. Obama explained why we must succeed in Afghanistan, and though I agree with Sen. McCain that he should have prepared Americans more for how hard this will be, the president did a good job of making the case. The problem is, he did it on a Friday, where news is sent to die. This, after sending 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan in a press release. And then the president devoted his weekend radio address not to the war he just escalated, but to floods in Minnesota and the Dakotas (important though they are).

So after several days, and several readings, I'm still left wondering: What exactly is Obama's Af-Pak policy? I hope it's what's in the White Paper, and I hope Feaver is right that the discrepancy between that and the speech is all a rhetorical matter. But if it's not, if Obama did split the difference on the policy, he'll need to be encouraged, as Dan Twining says, to improve it through its implementation. Either way, if I were a U.S. diplomat or soldier, I'd be rather confused right now as to what my commander-in-chief is calling on me to do.