Shadow Government

What does Rick Perry have to say about Afghanistan?

The Republican presidential debate in Florida on Tuesday focused again on jobs, taxes, and healthcare, with virtually no mention of Afghanistan, which is the United States' third-largest military deployment since Vietnam and fifth-largest since World War II. There was only passing mentions of terrorism, Iran, or China. This is especially odd given that the President does not have the power to create jobs, change the U.S. tax code, or revamp the health care system -- which is the burden of the private sector and the U.S. Congress, respectively -- but he does have the authority to conduct foreign policy and command the armed forces.

The debate contained just one back-and-forth on Afghanistan between Jon Hunstman, about whom the less said the better, and Rick Perry. This is Perry's first public comment on Afghanistan that I've seen of any length. Here it is, according to the CNN transcript:

[I]t's time to bring our young men and women home and as soon and obviously as safely as we can. But it's also really important for us to continue to have a presence there. And I think the entire conversation about, how do we deliver our aid to those countries, and is it best spent with 100,000 military who have the target on their back in Afghanistan, I don't think so at this particular point in time. I think the best way for us to be able to impact that country is to make a transition to where that country's military is going to be taking care of their people, bring our young men and women home, and continue to help them build the infrastructure that we need.

Perry advocates for a troop withdrawal "as soon and obviously as safely as we can," which probably means he is not in favor of a withdrawal at the price of outright defeat. He is also open to some kind of residual U.S. military presence, presumably for ongoing training and counterterrorism operations. He wants to complete the responsible transition to Afghan security forces. I'm not sure what he is getting at about delivering foreign aid with 100,000 troops with targets on their backs -- perhaps he is saying he is skeptical about how effective foreign aid can be in a country with an ongoing conflict, which makes sense. But then he is also in favor of continuing to help build infrastructure, presumably military infrastructure like roads, airports, and bases to help the Afghan security forces, and vital economic infrastructure, like roads (again) and electricity, to help the Afghans achieve economic self-sufficiency. I admit I'm reading a lot into his remarks, but that is always the case with transcripts.

All in all, Perry seems to be in company with Romney, articulating a cautious willingness to persist in Afghanistan, complete the transition to Afghan lead, yet be realistic about what's achievable there. The two leading candidates have staked out a middle position between, on the one hand, Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman, who advocate withdrawal regardless of the consequences, and, on the other, Michelle Bachman, who in an earlier debate seemed to advocate for persistence regardless of the cost (and who I suspect would be joined by Rick Santorum). The Perry-Romney position has the advantage of being both decent policy and, I think, good politics.

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Shadow Government

Concerns over Obama Iraq policy continue to mount

A number of experts share my concern that the Obama Administration is taking undue risks with its Iraq policy. In a compelling analysis, Meghan O'Sullivan lays out the potential upside of a more prudent Iraq policy. And in an equally compelling analysis, Kenneth Pollack lays out the potential downside of the path that the Obama Administration appears to have chosen. Together, they make a powerful argument for reconsidering the current trajectory and for making a mid-course correction.

I worked closely with O'Sullivan on Iraq policy in Bush's second term, and I found her to be one of the most candid and insightful internal critics of our policies. She was an early advocate of the shift to the surge strategy and she was especially good at understanding the interplay of U.S. policy and internal Iraqi politics.

Pollack was one of the more important outside voices on Bush's Iraq policy. He was an early supporter of efforts to confront the Hussein regime, but he also was an early critic of missteps. By 2006 his critique was especially trenchant. Then in late July 2007, he co-authored (with Michael O'Hanlon) one of the most influential op-eds in the entire Iraq saga. At that time, Republican backers of Bush's efforts in Iraq were losing heart and Democratic opponents of the surge were close to realizing their goal of stopping the new strategy. The Bush White House was reduced to pleading for a few weeks delay so Congress could hear from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker directly in September, but the mood in Congress was unwilling even to do that. In the midst of the political storm, Pollack and O'Hanlon wrote that the new surge strategy was working and that political opponents at home should give it more time. Since Bush opponents had regularly used Pollack and O'Hanlon's earlier critiques as a club with which to bash the Administration, their surprising notes of optimism gave their op-ed outsized influence.

I hope the Obama Administration is listening to O'Sullivan, Pollack, and others today. If Obama policymakers have a good counter-argument, I would like to see it developed in a thoughtful way -- addressing these real critiques, rather than strawman arguments. The Obama team has the benefit of inside information that even the most well-informed outsiders might lack, so it is possible the Administration understands something that these recent pieces are missing. But it is also possible that the Administration has locked onto a policy that is wrong-headed and the President is in a state of denial over the likely consequences. Only a careful and candid engagement of the arguments can resolve the matter. Time is running out for that engagement.

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