Monday, October 27, 2008

NYT endorses Obama; makes a mistake

Easy, easy. . . there’s a semicolon up there. . . so, please, just read on.

In a lengthy editorial, published Friday, the New York Times endorsed Barack Obama for president:

The United States is battered and drifting after eight years of President Bush’s failed leadership. He is saddling his successor with two wars, a scarred global image and a government systematically stripped of its ability to protect and help its citizens — whether they are fleeing a hurricane’s floodwaters, searching for affordable health care or struggling to hold on to their homes, jobs, savings and pensions in the midst of a financial crisis that was foretold and preventable.

As tough as the times are, the selection of a new president is easy. After nearly two years of a grueling and ugly campaign, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois has proved that he is the right choice to be the 44th president of the United States.

Mr. Obama has met challenge after challenge, growing as a leader and putting real flesh on his early promises of hope and change. He has shown a cool head and sound judgment. We believe he has the will and the ability to forge the broad political consensus that is essential to finding solutions to this nation’s problems.

In the same time, Senator John McCain of Arizona has retreated farther and farther to the fringe of American politics, running a campaign on partisan division, class warfare and even hints of racism. His policies and worldview are mired in the past. His choice of a running mate so evidently unfit for the office was a final act of opportunism and bad judgment that eclipsed the accomplishments of 26 years in Congress.

Well, I could quibble with just what the Times might call McCain’s accomplishments, for most are ephemeral or singularly self-serving, but that is nothing to get too up in arms about really. Within a generation, John McCain’s “career,” for lack of a better term, will be reduced to an interesting footnote; the editorial’s reference to “accomplishments” might be little more than a rhetorical flourish.

Instead, I take umbrage at an assumption quite casually tossed out in the section of the endorsement labeled “National Security”:

The American military — its people and equipment — is dangerously overstretched. Mr. Bush has neglected the necessary war in Afghanistan, which now threatens to spiral into defeat. The unnecessary and staggeringly costly war in Iraq must be ended as quickly and responsibly as possible.

While Iraq’s leaders insist on a swift drawdown of American troops and a deadline for the end of the occupation, Mr. McCain is still talking about some ill-defined “victory.” As a result, he has offered no real plan for extracting American troops and limiting any further damage to Iraq and its neighbors.

Mr. Obama was an early and thoughtful opponent of the war in Iraq, and he has presented a military and diplomatic plan for withdrawing American forces. Mr. Obama also has correctly warned that until the Pentagon starts pulling troops out of Iraq, there will not be enough troops to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

[emphasis added]

While I wholeheartedly advocate a quick end to the US occupation of Iraq, even if the next president engineers that exit, there will not be enough troops to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan—because as numerous experts, General McKiernan, and even Barack Obama understand, there is no military solution to the problems in Afghanistan.

While I personally find it infuriating enough that it is accepted as dogma that the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was moral, necessary, and unavoidable (if our goal was to apprehend Osama bin Laden, other options were on the table), it is now even more exasperating to hear talk of escalation in that theater treated as if it were America’s strategic “big duh” moment. The Times’ asserted consensus ignores both recent experience and centuries of history, but, even more concretely, it ignores the current debate.

Take, for example, former New York Times Berlin and Istanbul Bureau Chief Stephen Kinzer, writing earlier this month in the Boston Globe:

The McCain-Obama approach to Afghanistan, like much of US policy toward the Middle East and Central Asia, is based on emotion rather than realism. Emotion leads many Americans to want to punish perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. They see war against the Taliban as a way to do it. Suggesting that victory over the Taliban is impossible, and that the United States can only hope for peace in Afghanistan through compromise with Taliban leaders, has been taken as near-treason.

. . . .

In fact, long-run success in Afghanistan - defined as an acceptable level of violence and assurance that Afghan territory will not be used for attacks against other countries - will only be possible with fewer foreign troops on the ground, not more.

A relentless series of US attacks in Afghanistan has produced "collateral damage" in the form of hundreds of civilian deaths, which alienate the very Afghans the West needs. As long as the campaign continues, recruits will pour into Taliban ranks. It is no accident that the Taliban has mushroomed since the current bombing campaign began. It allows the Taliban to claim the mantle of resistance to a foreign occupier. In Afghanistan, there is none more sacred.

The US war in Afghanistan also serves as a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda. It is attracting a new stream of foreign fighters into the region. A few years ago, these jihadists went to Iraq to fight the Great Satan. Now they see the United States escalating its war in Afghanistan and neighboring regions of Pakistan, and are flocking there instead.

Civilian deaths alienating a local population, the honor inherent in resisting a foreign occupier, a US presence serving as a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda—it all should sound chillingly familiar to even the most casual news consumer (no less a newspaper). It certainly seems to for at least one US Senator. . . and that one would be Russ Feingold:

We need to ask: After seven years of war, will more troops help us achieve our strategic goals in Afghanistan? How many troops would be needed and for how long? Is there a danger that a heavier military footprint will further alienate the population, and, if so, what are the alternatives? And – with the lessons of Iraq in mind – will this approach advance our top national security priority, namely defeating Al Qaeda?

. . . .

Regardless of whether we send more troops, we need to understand that, as in Iraq, there is ultimately no military solution to Afghanistan's problems. Unless we push for diplomacy and a regional approach, work to root out corruption, stamp out the country's narcotics trade, and step up development and reconstruction efforts, Afghanistan will probably continue its downward trajectory.

Not every paragraph of the Feingold piece is as clear as the ones above (if those are even that clear); in many ways, Feingold hedges his bets by refusing to rule out options and posing much in the form of questions. But at least he is asking a question. The New York Times (and, to an extent, the man that they endorsed) has not.

To be fair to Obama, I think he has made it pretty clear that he is a stronger advocate for multinational, diplomatic solutions than either Bush or McCain. But the nature of that diplomacy is yet undefined, while the “need” for more US troops in Afghanistan is a stated given. If and when a President Obama must make his plans more concrete, he would do well to enlist Feingold as an ally, and let the Democrat from Wisconsin ask him the questions quoted above. Obama would also be well served by talks with people who think like Kinzer:

Even if the United States de-escalates its war in Afghanistan, the country will not be stable as long as the poppy trade provides huge sums of money for violent militants. Eradicating poppies is like eradicating the Taliban: a great idea but not achievable. Instead of waging endless spray-and-burn campaigns that alienate ordinary Afghans, the United States should allow planting to proceed unmolested, and then buy the entire crop. Some could be turned into morphine for medical use, and the rest destroyed. The Afghan poppy crop is worth an estimated $4 billion per year. That sum would be better spent putting cash into the pockets of Afghan peasants than firing missiles into their villages.

Deploying more US troops in Afghanistan will intensify this highly dangerous conflict, not calm it. Compromise with Al Qaeda would be both unimaginable and morally repugnant, but the Taliban is a different force. Skillful negotiation among clan leaders, based on a genuine willingness to compromise, holds the best hope for Afghanistan. It is an approach based on reality, not emotion.

Perhaps the New York Times editorial board should give Kinzer a call as well.

* * *

But the Times actually needn’t go out of house. Here’s Nicholas Kristof from their own editorial pages:

Our intuitive approach to fighting terrorists and insurgents is to blow things up. But one of the most cost-effective counterterrorism methods in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan may be to build things up, like schooling and microfinance. Girls’ education sometimes gets more bang for the buck than a missile.

A new study from the RAND Corporation examined how 648 terror groups around the world ended between 1968 and 2006. It found that by far the most common way for them to disappear was to be absorbed by the political process. The second most common way was to be defeated by police work. In contrast, in only 7 percent of cases did military force destroy the terrorist group.

I quoted Kristof in a post last August. I also quoted Iliana Segura, who looked at the same RAND study and also applied it to Afghanistan:

If the United States really wants to improve the situation in Afghanistan, it should start by ending the occupation. It should then cough up money for humanitarian aid and reconstruction. (One estimate puts the tab at $10 billion.) This is not just for the sake of Afghanistan, but for the sake of Americans as well, who are no safer today than they were when the planes hit the towers. Ending the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan is the first, crucial step in that elusive goal of "winning hearts and minds" that the United States claims to be so committed to in the region. As Iraq has demonstrated, occupying armies are not a deterrent to terrorism. Occupying armies breed terror.

Most important, it's time to stop thinking of Afghanistan as the "right front" of the so-called "War on Terror" -- an idea that has been perpetuated by everyone from Barack Obama to Jon Stewart (who idiotically told Colin Powell in 2005, "the Afghanistan war, man did I dig that. I'd like to go again") -- and start questioning the legitimacy of the "War on Terror" itself. . . .

"Terrorists should be perceived and described as criminals, not holy warriors, and our analysis suggests that there is no battlefield solution to terrorism," wrote Seth Jones, the lead author of the study. "Military force has rarely been the primary reason for the end of terrorist groups, and few groups within this time frame achieved victory."

I added my own two cents to those two fine columns, but you can go back and read those with a simple click. I expect Barack Obama has at least glanced at that RAND report; what could it hurt to sit down with Kristof and Segura, too?

(cross-posted on The Seminal)

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