Bring Back the Baggage, Please

This is well past its purchase-by date, but Dafna Linzer had a Washington Post Outlook piece in March on the National Security Council’s “Sesame Street Generation.” Not as sneering as the title implies, the article describes the first generation of NSC officials to come of age in an era of American unipolarity. If the article is any indication, my exceedingly low expectations for my generation may have been a touch too optimistic.

In one particularly breathtaking passage, Meghan O’Sullivan, the president’s point person for Iraq on the NSC, describes her intellectual heritage and how that shapes her approach to policy:

For many of the generals with whom O’Sullivan consults in her current job, the painful experience of Vietnam permeates their thinking on Iraq. Not for O’Sullivan. “We are the first post-Vietnam generation, without the baggage of Vietnam, which doesn’t mean we don’t try to learn some of the lessons from there about counterinsurgency and so forth, but it’s not my first frame of reference and I think that’s a good thing,” said O’Sullivan.

Actually, having a pessimistic view of counterinsurgency would probably be a good thing. The new Army field manual on counterinsurgency is only the latest indication that the sunny optimism of the Bush administration was a mistake, and that counterinsurgency is much, much harder than administration officials thought it was before we went in to Iraq.

After the first Persian Gulf war, President George H.W. Bush famously exclaimed “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!” It appears his son, and the Sesame Street Generation at the NSC—the Best and the Brightest, if you will, of Generation X—are doing their level best to bring it back.