Tag: Andrew Exum

Ross Douthat’s War on Theory

I have been following the reporting out of Egypt with the same interest as other onlookers, and I share their ignorance. I know very little about Egypt and do not feel competent to offer predictions, much less advocate for one or the other position on the questions posed to the United States by events in that country.

While the events themselves are exhilarating to watch, of equal interest to me has been the parade of American commentators who know nothing about Egypt but nonetheless have been providing copious commentary on the subject.  I thought Andrew Exum’s lament on this phenomenon was particularly righteous.  Watching cable news, Exum reports that he was:

absolutely stunned by the willingness of the show’s guests to opine about Egypt without having any actual experience in or expertise on Egypt or the broader Middle East. Is it really that tough to say, “Hey, that’s a great question, Joe, but I am not really the best guy to give the viewers at home a good answer?”

Instead, guest after guest – most of whom are specialists in or pundits on U.S. domestic politics – made these broad, ridiculously sweeping statements about the meaning and direction of the protests.

It is in this context that Ross Douthat continues his war against those who make their foreign policy theories explicit:

Ross Douthat | photo by Josh Haner/The New York Times

The long-term consequences of a more populist and nationalistic Egypt might be better for the United States than the stasis of the Mubarak era, and the terrorism that it helped inspire. But then again they might be worse. There are devils behind every door.

Americans don’t like to admit this. We take refuge in foreign policy systems: liberal internationalism or realpolitik, neoconservatism or noninterventionism. We have theories, and expect the facts to fall into line behind them. Support democracy, and stability will take care of itself. Don’t meddle, and nobody will meddle with you. International institutions will keep the peace. No, balance-of-power politics will do it.

But history makes fools of us all…

Sooner or later, the theories always fail. The world is too complicated for them, and too tragic. History has its upward arcs, but most crises require weighing unknowns against unknowns, and choosing between competing evils.

The fact that theories are imperfect does not make them any less necessary.  We take refuge in foreign policy theories because there is no alternative.  As Ben Friedman pointed out in responding to Douthat previously, it is impossible to have foreign policies without foreign-policy theories.  The same goes for economics, domestic politics, and a whole range of human behavior.  People take (or oppose) various actions based on their expectations about what outcomes the actions will (or will not) produce.  Whether people are conscious of it or not, our expectations are products of our theories.  People disagree about which theories are good and which are bad, but we all have them.

On Changing Strategy in Afghanistan

I have a post responding to some of the critics of the recent Afghanistan Study Group report (in which I participated) over at at the National Interest.  A snip is below:

I am forced to conclude that neither [Joshua] Foust nor [Andrew] Exum understands what strategy is. It is not, pace Foust, induced by piling up mounds of granular operational and tactical detail and then seeing what one can shape out of the pile. Instead, those engaged in strategy must attempt to discern and state clearly the interests at stake (in this case those the United States has in Afghanistan or the region more broadly) and then to attempt to connect the complex chain of ends, ways, and means in order to explain how best to pursue those interests. I thought the report was fairly clear on the task force’s views on America’s interests and in proposing to bring America’s exertions better into line with its interests. Thoughtful critiques would engage either on the grounds that the authors have misconstrued (a) America’s interests, (b) how best to pursue them, or (c) both.

But for the life of me I cannot find evidence that either Foust or Exum recognizes strategic thought. Both appear to believe that they are engaging in it by picking nits with various aspects of the report’s analysis, but none of their critiques of the smaller claims does anything to knock down the report’s conclusion: that America has limited interests in Afghanistan; that those interests are actually reasonably easy to achieve; and that our current efforts there are at best wasteful and at worst counterproductive…

If you have interest, give it a read.  Bernard Finel has more here.

Kilcullen Joins the ‘To Hell with Karzai’ Faction?

“No, really—tell him that. ‘Hanging from a lamppost!’”

Three weeks ago I observed that Stephen Biddle, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar who previously had emphasized the centrality of Hamid Karzai to the prospects for success in Afghanistan, had coauthored an article in Foreign Affairs on Afghanistan that hardly mentioned Karzai.

Now one of the archbishops of counterinsurgency and close Petraeus confidante David Kilcullen appears to have joined the “To Hell with Karzai” caucus as well.  First, in an interview with Doyle McManus of the LA Times, Kilcullen lamented that Karzai “has been treating us as if he’s got us over a barrel,” and suggested that we might want to remind the Afghan president that “he’s a guy who will be hanging from a lamppost a month after we leave if we don’t protect him.”  Tough stuff!

Today Kilcullen piles on some more in a NPR interview, advising a strategy of bypassing the central government and “empowering” local constituencies to fight the Taliban themselves.  Kilcullen says that the Afghan National Police have been “raping people’s children” at checkpoints and “shaking people down.”  By contrast, Kilcullen says, the Afghan National Army is better but is far too small to take the reins from the Americans any time soon.

The most vexing thing about all this is Kilcullen’s caveat that there must be “safeguards in place so that it doesn’t lead to the creation of alternative power structures that suck the oxygen away from a legitimate government.”  But how is that supposed to work?  It seems like “empowering” local forces to police their own territory and fight the Taliban is a zero-sum diffusion of power away from the central government and into the provinces.  In the LA Times interview, Kilcullen said that “the absolutely critical thing we haven’t done very well is come up with a political strategy to take an illegitimate government and turn it into a legitimate one.”  But it’s hard to see how doing an end-run around Karzai by training (and arming?) local constituencies to fight the Taliban helps achieve this “absolutely critical thing.”  Presumably this is why Karzai reportedly hates the idea.  It seems to me that this reflects an important strategic confusion: Is our strategy to build a viable national state in Afghanistan, or to embrace the diffuse and non-national existing power structures in Afghanistan at the expense of the central government?  If it’s the latter, why do we need a counterinsurgency campaign?  If it’s to do both, I think we’ve got problems.

Alternatively, is this all a big bluff to get Karzai to believe that America may leave if he doesn’t start doing what we tell him?  If so, Karzai should probably call the bluff.  American government officials have made Afghanistan out to be a vital national interest and would have a hard time turning a 180 on that judgment.  Meanwhile, Republican sharks have already begun circling Obama, and a searing and humiliating meltdown in Afghanistan probably isn’t on David Axelrod or Rahm Emanuel’s agenda right now.

Now, I’m no counterinsurgency guru, but I don’t see how you square this center-versus-periphery circle.  Maybe one of my COIN guru pals like Spencer Ackerman or Andrew Exum could help me out here.

Exum’s Perplexing Non-Response

Last week I wrote a blog post criticizing Andrew Exum’s views on the philosophy of science.  In fact, I was surprised to see that a doctoral candidate at King’s College held these views at all.

Andrew Exum

Today Exum posts a perplexing non-response, forswearing any interest in getting involved in the debate…that he brought up in his first post.  Instead, he accuses his critics of getting their “proverbial panties in a twist” and posts a response from a reader that doesn’t defend the views Exum expressed in his first post.

I’m not quite sure what to say, other than that this isn’t much of a response.  Note, though, that he obliquely makes the same argument he made last week, criticizing Dan Drezner’s “willingness to hold forth on the peoples and politics of the Arabic-speaking world and Iran without any time spent in the region or training in its languages.”

Richard Pipes made a similar argument when he argued that despite his lack of expertise in nuclear weapons or security studies he was qualified to lead the Team B project because of his “deep knowledge of the Russian soul.”  And we all remember how that turned out.

Andrew Exum and the Philosophy of Science

Andrew Exum suggests a “manifesto…for those using quantitative analysis to study war/Hippocratic Oath for Quantitative Analysis in Security Studies” here.  I think there are two different critiques lurking in there, but his presentation of his list muddles them together.  The first critique is mostly about the importance of modesty in social science, but the second seems quite like an assault on the very idea of social science.

First, let me put my cards on the table.  I am not a quant or a formal modeler.  (These two approaches are different, but Exum seems to lump them together.)  I have a rudimentary statistics background, and could identify supremely egregious errors in both quantitative and formal model papers if I were locked in a room and threatened with violence.  I am no partisan of either faction.  But I think Exum’s views are probably common in DC, so this could work as a forum for discussing part of what I think is wrong with the DC policy debate.

Take, to start, Exum’s suggested pledge that “War is a human endeavor. I recognize that it is a phenomenon that does not conform to neat mathematical equations,” and set it in the context of another one: “I recognize that very few squad leaders in the 10th Mountain Division have ever taken a course in statistics yet probably know more about the conduct and realities of war than I do. “

The first claim is about modesty: social science is not the same as physical science.  It is harder to conduct controlled experiments in social science, for a variety of practical/political and moral/ethical reasons.  (The war in Iraq may be an exception.)  If what Exum is getting at here is a claim like “quantitative scholars can be arrogant and oversell their research,” then Amen.  But his second claim lionizes squad leaders in the 10th Mountain Division as superior in knowledge to social science researchers.  I find this juxtaposition very odd, and I think it’s basically a rejection of social scientific principles in general.  (It also seems to carry with it an implicit claim that military operations cannot be subject to scrutiny by non-military overseers.  As a helpful reviewer of this post wrote, “It’s the equivalent of saying that we should just do whatever teacher’s unions want in K-12 education policy, or that the guys who run meatpacking plants are qualified to offer opinions about food safety.”)

It just isn’t true that inducing inferences from anecdotal experience produces better explanations/predictions than do people who have larger universes of cases and can control for various factors.  Exum seems to support an approach to theory-building in which one directly observes facts and then induces theory based on those observed facts.  To put it mildly, this is a peculiar view of the philosophy of science.  So what starts as a lament about the arrogance of various factions of social scientists becomes a larger criticism of social science itself.

That is because while Exum is explicitly focusing on quantitative researchers or formal modelers or both, qualitative research is subject to the same criticism he is offering.  If first-hand observation of facts leads to sounder understandings of subject matter than does clear theorizing and fair-minded examination of larger samples of data, then social science itself is cast into doubt.  If that’s not where he’s going with this, I’d like to hear more about where he is going.

The practical problem with his call for theoretical and analytic modesty is that it cuts against the incentives researchers face.  Existing scholarship consists of very ambitious theories that are promised to hold lots of explanatory power.  Given that is the nature of the debate, a paper that says outright “my theory is pretty good, but I identify lots of important cases where it won’t hold together and I don’t know why” would have little chance of publication.  I think this is an important point, and many theorists will tell you over drinks the limits of their theories, but the incentive structure is such that one can’t sell a theory in that way.

Strategy and Counterinsurgency

Counterinsurgency expert Andrew Exum, of Abu Muqawama war blog, takes on Justin Logan’s post below. At the risk of restating Justin’s points, I feel compelled to jump into the fray.

Exum says basically this: Our policies have tended to result in small wars, however foolish. We want an Army of our policies. There is, in other words, a difference between operations and strategy. Counterinsurgency experts are just preaching good practice in the former. They just work here. Grand strategy is someone else’s gig.

There is merit in this view. But it has two problems.

First, the COIN gurus do not confine themselves to the operational side of things. Exum works for the Center for New American Security, which has collected counterinsurgency experts who argue that 1) Americans can become proficient counterinsurgents and 2) counter-terrorism requires that transformation. I believe neither. Apparently Exum only buys 1. I hope he can convince his colleagues to stop saying 2.

Second, the stark divide between strategy and operations is an ideal. The theory that the military services are only professional technicians serving the ends of politicians is too simple.  The Army has political interests, which change with its structure and leadership. Those interests affect our defense and foreign policy. The causal arrow between national security policy and the structure and doctrine of the organizations that execute it points both ways. Pretending it is not so is a dodge, even if it gets you an A in your undergraduate civil-military relations class. Both Creighton’s Abrams’ reforms ensuring that the president had to activate the reserves to start a war and the Weinberger-Powell doctrine were sneaky usurpations of authority. They were also realistic efforts to avoid bad wars and on balance good things.

Defense writers tend to depict the generals who resist permanently transforming the US ground forces into a counterinsurgency force as benighted fools and the lieutenant colonels who buck them as forces of truth and light. The reality is more complicated. The Big Army that wants to fight only Big Wars reflects a realistic sense of what military force can and can’t do and the insight that reengineering foreign countries goes in the can’t bucket. They make these wars less likely. The little army aligned against them is a result of the fact that these wars occur anyway, and being prepared is sensible. I am not sure who I’m rooting for.

More clear to me is that the realist view of small wars wars could use support. Realists say that what we’ve discovered fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are just COIN best practices, which guarantee nothing because this is ultimately someone else’s politics. They say that the best solution is don’t do it and next best is to severely curtail your objectives and stop confusing counterinsurgency with counterterrorism. If the new counterinsurgency class believes even part of that, they should say so more forcefully.