Eliot Cohen’s Key to Victory: Shut Up

Today’s Washington Post features an op-ed by John Hopkins’ SAIS professor Eliot Cohen arguing – via a series of fictional statements – that the Obama team’s decision to speak with Bob Woodward is likely to have a devastating impact on our ability to win in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The technique is too cute by half. I could just as easily come up with a series of quotes by people who believe that the costs of the war in Afghanistan far exceed the benefits. (e.g. The widow of a soldier killed in Afghanistan, upon reading the Woodward excerpts, bursts into tears. “Why have we chosen to fight a war that Gen. Petraeus admits we will likely never win, and which our children and grandchildren will be fighting?”)

By the same token, Cohen employs Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Benjamin Netanyahu to make his case that Obama is weak. How hard would it be to make up fictional statements by two other heads of state – say, by allies who have pulled out of Afghanistan, or are preparing to – that they are encouraged to see that someone in the U.S. government recognizes that the war in Afghanistan is a gross misallocation of resources and is looking for ways to refocus counterterrorism efforts, and away from a decades-long nation-building mission that is likely to fail? Not hard.

But I refuse to play Cohen’s game according to his rules. Better to focus on the flaws of his underlying argument – to the extent that there is one – that the reason we aren’t winning this/these war/wars is because the president’s aides are talking out of school. If they just shut up, and did what the generals said (some of whom, by the way, must also be talking to Woodward) we’d be on the road to victory.

Please.

As with an earlier Afghanistan story that began with a few ill-considered remarks to a reporter, we shouldn’t be focused on the fact that people talk off the record. That is the story that Cohen and other war-hawks tell. The more important story is that the Afghan strategy is fatally hamstrung by 1) an unreliable local partner, a necessary ingredient for any successful counterinsurgency campaign; 2) a profound lack of trust between the Afghan people and the American/NATO counterinsurgents; and 3) a complete mismatch between the ends sought and the resources (time, money, troops) available.

I have no idea how Cohen responds to points one and two. Those two problems are not unique to Afghanistan, and the absence of those two conditions has doomed many other counterinsurgency missions.

As for number three, Cohen might believe that talking about victory will convince the American people that they should back the military’s preferred strategy, which OMB said would cost $889 billion over the next 10 years (on top of the $250+ billion already spent), as the best possible use of money that we do not have. Indeed, Cohen has apparently convinced himself that the American people would be anxious to spend another ten or twenty years bogged down in a distant land trying to rebuild roads and schools, if only the president talked about it more often. Cohen might even believe, contrary to all evidence, as well as basic common sense, that the U.S. government is capable of creating a functioning nation state in Afghanistan, and that it constitutes a vital U.S. national interest to make that happen.

In short, Eliot Cohen believes that President Obama shouldn’t question how the Afghan mission aligns with our vital security interests, or even if it is achievable. He’d rather that he just shut up, believe in it – really believe –and back the generals.

I disagree. Where Cohen scorns (via proxies spouting imagined off-the-record quotes) internal administration deliberations as dangerously misguided, I am perversely encouraged that the president seems at least willing to ask hard questions, and that some of his advisers understand the utter futility of the current enterprise.

Of course, I’d be even happier if President Obama did what past presidents have done: determine the strategy, give the order, and expect the military to carry it out. And if the military leaders that he has won’t do it, he can find others. There are lots of them.