Tag: conservatives

Pervasive Illiteracy in the Afghan National Army

Afghan_SigmaMatt Yglesias has a lot of smart things to say about the pervasive illiteracy plaguing the Afghan National Army. Upwards of 75 to 90 percent (according to varying estimates) of the ANA is illiterate.

As Ted Galen Carpenter and I argue in our recent Cato white paper Escaping the Graveyard of Empires: A Strategy to Exit Afghanistan, this lack of basic education prevents many officers from filling out arrest reports, equipment and supply requests, and arguing before a judge or prosecutor. And as Marine 1st Lt. Justin Greico argues, “Paperwork, evidence, processing—they don’t know how to do it…You can’t get a policeman to take a statement if he can’t read and write.”

Yglesias notes:

This strikes me as an object lesson in the importance of realistic goal-setting. The Afghan National Army is largely illiterate because Afghanistan is largely illiterate…we just need an ANA that’s not likely to be overrun by its adversaries. But if we have the more ambitious goal of created [sic] an effectively administered centralized state, then the lack of literacy becomes a huge problem. And a problem without an obvious solution on a realistic time frame [emphasis mine].

Such high levels of illiteracy serves to highlight the absurd idea that the United States has the resources (and the legitimacy) to “change entire societies,” in the words of retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel John Nagl. Eight years ago, Max Boot, fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, likened the Afghan mission to British colonial rule:

Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets…This was supposed to be ‘for the good of the natives,’ a phrase that once made progressives snort in derision, but may be taken more seriously after the left’s conversion (or, rather, reversion) in the 1990s to the cause of ‘humanitarian’ interventions. [emphasis mine]

But as I highlighted yesterday at the Cato event “Should the United States Withdraw from Afghanistan?” (which you can view in its entirety here), policymakers must start narrowing their objectives in Afghanistan, a point Yglesias stresses above. Heck, as I argued yesterday, rational people in the United States are having difficulty convincing delusional types here in America that Barack Obama is their legitimate president. I am baffled by people who think that we have the power to increase the legitimacy of the Afghan government. It’s also ironic that many conservatives (possibly brainwashed by neo-con ideology) who oppose government intervention at home believe the U.S. government can bring about liberty and peace worldwide. These self-identified “conservatives” essentially have a faith in government planning.

Yet these conservatives share a view common among the political and military elite, which is that if America pours enough time and resources—possibly hundreds of thousands of troops for another 12 to 14 years—Washington could really turn Afghanistan around.

However, there is a reason why the war in Afghanistan ranks at or near the bottom of polls tracking issues important to the American public, and why most Americans who do have an opinion about the war oppose it (57 percent in the latest CNN poll released on Sept. 1) and oppose sending more combat troops (56 percent in the McClatchy-Ipsos survey, also released on Sept. 1). It’s because Americans understand intuitively that the question about Afghanistan is not about whether it is winnable, but whether it constitutes a vital national security interest. An essential national debate about whether we really want to double down in Afghanistan has yet take place. America still does not have a clearly articulated goal. This is why the conventional wisdom surrounding the war—about whether we can build key institutions and create a legitimate political system—is not so much misguided as it is misplaced.

The issue is not about whether we can rebuild Afghanistan but whether we should. On both accounts the mission looks troubling, but this distinction is often times overlooked.

Good News: 9/11 Didn’t ‘Change Everything’

On the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and D.C., things are going much better than most of us dared hope in the initial aftermath of that horrible day.  We’re still a secure, prosperous, and relatively free country, and the fear-poisoned atmosphere that governed American politics for years after 9/11 has thankfully receded.

Not everyone’s thankful, however.  Boisterous cable gabber Glenn Beck laments the return to normalcy. The website for Beck’s “9/12 Project” waxes nostalgic for the day after the worst terrorist attack in American history, a time when “We were united as Americans, standing together to protect the greatest nation ever created.” Beck’s purpose with the Project?  “We want to get everyone thinking like it is September 12th, 2001 again.”

My God, why in the world would anyone want that?  Yes, 9/12 brought moving displays of patriotism and a comforting sense of national unity, but that hardly made up for the fear, rage and sorrow that dominated the national mood and at times clouded our vision. 

But Beck’s not alone in seeing a bright side to national tragedy.  Less than a month after people jumped from the World Trade Center’s north tower to avoid burning to death, David Brooks asked, “Does anybody but me feel upbeat, and guilty about it?” “I feel upbeat because the country seems to be a better place than it was a month ago,” Brooks explained, “I feel guilty about it because I should be feeling pain and horror and anger about the recent events. But there’s so much to cheer one up.” 

One of the things that got Brooks giddy was liberals’ newfound bellicosity. That same week, liberal hawk George Packer wrote:

What I dread now is a return to the normality we’re all supposed to seek: instead of public memorials, private consumption; instead of lines to give blood, restaurant lines… ”The only thing needed,” William James wrote in ”The Moral Equivalent of War,” ”is to inflame the civic temper as past history has inflamed the military temper.” I’ve lived through this state, and I like it.

There’s something perverse, if not obscene, in “dreading” the idea that Americans might someday get back to enjoying their own lives.  “Private consumption!”  “Restaurant lines!”  The horror!  The horror!

Like Brooks’s National Greatness Conservatives, a good many progressives thought 9/11’s national crisis brought with it the opportunity for a new politics of meaning, a chance to redirect American life in accordance with “the common good.”  Both camps seemed to think American life was purposeless without a warrior president who could bring us together to fulfill our national destiny. 

That’s why prominent figures on the Right and the Left condemned George W. Bush’s post-9/11 advice to “Enjoy America’s great destination spots.  Get down to Disney World in Florida.  Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”  As Jeremy Lott notes, “in his laugh riot of a presidential bid,” Joe Biden repeatedly condemned Bush for telling people to “fly and go to the mall!”  A little over a year ago, asked to identify “the greatest moral failure of America” John McCain referenced Bush’s comments when he answered that it was our failure sufficiently to devote ourselves “to causes greater than our self interest.”   

True, Bush’s term “destination spots” is a little redundant; but otherwise, for once, he said exactly the right thing.  And of all the many things to condemn in his post-9/11 leadership, it’s beyond bizarre to lament Bush’s failure to demand more sacrifices from Americans at home: taxes, national service, perhaps scrap-metal drives and War on Terror bond rallies?

National unity has a dark side.  What unity we enjoyed after 9/11 gave rise to unhealthy levels of trust in government, which in turn enabled a radical expansion of executive power and facilitated our entry into a disastrous, unnecessary war. 

In his Inaugural Address, Barack Obama condemned those “who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans.” “Their memories are short,” he said, “for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.”

Riffing off of Obama’s remarks, Will Wilkinson wrote:

Can you recall the scale of our recent ambitions? The United States would invade Iraq, refashion it as a democracy and forever transform the Middle East. Remember when President Bush committed the United States to “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world”? That is ambitious scale.

Not only have some of us forgotten “what this country has already done … when imagination is joined to a common purpose,” it’s as if some of us are trying to erase the memory of our complicity in the last eight years — to forget that in the face of a crisis we did transcend our stale differences and cut the president a blank check that paid for disaster. How can we not question the scale of our leaders’ ambitions? How short would our memories have to be?

Oddly, even Glenn Beck seems to agree, after a fashion.  The 9/12 Project credo celebrates the fact that ”the day after America was attacked, we were not obsessed with Red States, Blue States, or political parties.”  And yet Beck has called on “9/12’ers” to participate in tomorrow’s anti-Obama “tea party” in D.C. 

On the anniversary of 9/11, what’s clear is that, despite the cliche, September 11th didn’t “change everything.”  In the wake of the attacks, various pundits proclaimed “the end of the age of irony” and the dawning of a new era of national unity in the service of government crusades at home and abroad.  Eight years later, Americans go about their lives, waiting in restaurant lines, visiting our ”great destination spots,” enjoying themselves free from fear — with our patriotism undiminished for all that.  And when we turn to politics, we’re still contentious, fractious, wonderfully irreverent toward politicians, and increasingly skeptical toward their grand plans.   In other words,  post-9/11 America looks a lot like pre-9/11 America.  That’s something to be thankful for on the anniversary of a grim day.

Steele and the Left-Wing Republicans

One of the most disturbing things about the current health care debate is that some Republicans are positioning themselves as defenders of Big Government Medicare and against efforts to trim the program’s costs.

Yet the taxpayer costs of Medicare are expected to more than double over the next decade (from $425 billion in 2009 to $871 billion in 2019), and the program will consume an increasing share of the nation’s economy for decades to come unless there are serious cuts and reforms. Even the Obama administration talks about “bending the cost curve” to slow the program’s growth.

Yet Republican National Committee chairman, Michael Steele, takes to the Washington Post today to defend Medicare against any cuts, while at the same time criticizing the Democrats as “left-wing ideologues:”

  • “Under the Democrats’ plan, senior citizens will pay a steeper price and will have their treatment options reduced or rationed.”
  • “Republicans want reform that should first, do no harm, especially to our seniors.”
  • “We also believe that any health-care reform should be fully paid for, but not funded on the backs of our nation’s senior citizens.”
  • “First, we need to protect Medicare and not cut it in the name of ‘health-insurance reform.’”
  • “Reversing course and joining Republicans in support of health care for our nation’s senior citizens is a good place to start.”

Steele uses the mushy statist phrasing “our seniors” repeatedly, as if the government owns this group of people, and that they should have no responsibility for their own lives.

Fiscal conservatives, who have come out in droves to tea party protests and health care meetings this year, are angry at both parties for the government’s massive spending and debt binge in recent years. Mr. Steele has now informed these folks loud and clear that the Republican Party is not interested in restraining government; it is not interested in cutting the program that creates the single biggest threat to taxpayers in coming years. For apparently crass political reasons, Steele defends “our seniors,” but at the expense of massive tax hikes on “our children” if entitlement programs are not cut.

Sorry Boys, Sarah Palin Is (Partly) Right

Don’t believe everything you read at The Plank – including the part about Sarah Palin’s “death panel” claim being a “lie.”

Palin’s claim was a tad hyperbolic, but that does not change the fact that – as I explain in the Detroit Free PressPresident Obama has proposed a new government panel that would enhance Medicare’s ability to deny care to the elderly and disabled based on government bureaucrats’ arbitrary valuations of those patients’ lives.

Who’s the Isolationist?

There may be no more vicious epithet from neoconservatives these days than “isolationist.”  One would think the term would mean something like xenophobic no-nothings who want to have nothing to do with the rest of the world.  No trade or immigration.  Little or no cultural exchange and political cooperation.  Autarchy all around.

But no.  ”Isolationist” apparently means something quite different.  Never mind your views of the merits of international engagement.  If you don’t want to kill lots of foreigners in lots of foreign wars you are automatically considered to be an isolationist.

President Bill Clinton called Republican legislators “isolationists” for not wanting to insert the U.S. military into the middle of a complex but strategically irrelevant guerrilla conflict in Kosovo.  (He made the same criticism against them for not supporting even more money for foreign aid, which presumably meant the Heritage Foundation was filled with isolationists at the time). 

But the definition is even broader today.  It means not willing to go to war for any country that clamors for a security guarantee irrespective of its relevance to American security.  At least, that appears to be the definition applied by Sally McNamara of Heritage.

On Monday in National Interest online I criticized the argument advanced by Ms. McNamara and others that alliances and military commitments automatically prevent war.  More specifically, the claim is that  if only the U.S. would bring the country of Georgia into NATO – or simply issue a Membership Action Plan, which neither offers a security promise nor guarantees NATO membership – Moscow would never dare take the risk of attacking Georgia.

History suggests this is a dangerous assumption.  Both World Wars I and II featured alliances that were supposed to prevent conflict but which instead acted as transmission belts of war.  One can argue whether or not the alliances were prudent.  One cannot argue that they prevented conflict as so many people thought (and certainly hoped) they would.

Thus, alliances should be viewed as serious organizations.  A promise to defend another nation should be treated as a momentous undertaking.  And the public should be aware of all of the risks of policies advanced by the nation’s leaders.  This should go double when a nuclear-armed power is involved and treble when the geopolitical stakes are trivial for the U.S. while significant for the opposing state.

For suggesting this Ms. McNamara argues that I am both an isolationist and a neo-isolationist.  (I’m not sure of the difference between the two.  Maybe the latter indicates that she realizes I believe in free trade, increased immigration, and international cooperation, which makes for a curious kind of “isolationism.”  Still, advocating a reduction in military commitments and the consequent risk of war, rather than a policy of galloping about the globe tossing security guarantees hither and yon, apparently means I am at least a “neo-isolationist.”)

Even worse, I am accused of “appeasement” for suggesting that being prepared to trade Washington for Tbilisi is a bad bargain.  Ah, the “A” word.  To count the cost and not support every commitment, no matter how distant or irrelevant, is the same as encouraging the next Adolf Hitler.

Please.

It is time for a serious discussion as to why we have alliances today.  If it isn’t to promote American security, let’s be clear about that.  If NATO is an international social club, or a second European Union, or a global Good Housekeeping seal of sorts, then policymakers should level with the American people who are paying the bills.

Even more so, if the alliance is geared to defending everyone else, then let’s admit that too.  Georgia would not be defending America.  Nor will Albania, Croatia, Estonia, and the other geopolitical titans recently inducted into the NATO fraternity.  The security commitment effectively runs one way.

So for what stakes are NATO expansion advocates willing to risk war with nuclear-armed Russia?  To hope that America’s commitment is never called is no substitute for honestly assessing the risks, interests, and trade-offs at stake.

If none of these considerations is relevant – if failing to constantly add new defense welfare clients is the same as “withdrawing from the world” and giving Hitler a green light – is there any stopping point? Presumably no.  If Georgia is to come in, then presumably Ukraine too.  If Ukraine, how about Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia?  Why not Mongolia, Nepal, and Bhutan?  Maybe go a bit further.  Perhaps Sri Lanka? 

But why stop there?  Should not any nation which desires protection from any other nation be entitled to American protection?  After all, to say no would, in Ms. McNamara’s words, offer “a geo-political victory to Moscow” or someone else, whether Beijing, New Delhi, Ankara, or whoever.  Failing to protect weak states – East Timor, Congo, Belize, and more – would demonstrate that we have failed to learn the lesson that “appeasement simply does not work.”

It is easy to conjure up new missions for the U.S. military.  But the most important question is whether these tasks advance the security of America – this nation, its people, and its system of constitutional liberty.  Scattering security guarantees about the globe as if they were party favors – treating them as a costless panacea to the problem of war – makes America less, not more secure. 

And making that argument does not mean one is an “isolationist” advocating “appeasement.”  Unless the Founders were isolationist appeasers as well.

As George Washington observed in his Farewell Address:

Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

His sentiments apply even more today, when America’s adversaries are pitiful and few, and America’s friends are many and dominant.  The U.S. need not – and should not – withdraw from the world.  But Washington should stop making unnecessary and dangerous military commitments.

The White House as Animal Farm

As George Orwell’s Animal Farm closes, the revolutionary pigs have been transformed into oppressive humans.  It took some time to occur on the Animal Farm.  It’s taken just a few months in the Obama White House.

Reports McClatchy Newspapers:

President Barack Obama is morphing into George W. Bush, as administration attorneys repeatedly adopt the executive-authority and national-security rationales that their Republican predecessors preferred.

In courtroom battles and freedom-of-information fights from Washington, D.C., to California, Obama’s legal arguments repeatedly mirror Bush’s: White House turf is to be protected, secrets must be retained and dire warnings are wielded as weapons.

“It’s putting up a veritable wall around the White House, and it’s so at odds with Obama’s campaign commitment to more open government,” said Anne Weismann, chief counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a legal watchdog group.

Certainly, some differences exist.

The Obama administration, for instance, has released documents on global warming from the Council on Environmental Quality that the Bush administration sought to suppress. Some questions, such as access to White House visitor logs, remain a work in progress.

On policies that are at the heart of presidential power and prerogatives, however, this administration’s legal arguments have blended into the other. The persistence can reflect everything from institutional momentum and a quest for continuity to the clout of career employees.

“There is no question that there are (durable) cultures and mindsets in agencies,” Weismann acknowledged.

Conservatives once opposed executive aggrandizement.  Then with George W. Bush in office, they embraced the idea of the presidency as a kind of elective monarchy.  With President Barack Obama now pushing the executive power grab, will conservatives rediscover their inner-Constitution and again join the barricades for liberty?

Beyond Irony

Karl Rove should have been named Man of the Year at some point by the Democratic National Committee. The political consultant/Bush adviser played a big role in expanding the burden of government, convincing Bush to saddle the nation with fiscal disasters such as the “no-bureaucrat-left-behind” education bill, the corrupt farm bills, the pork-filled transportation bills, and the horrific new entitlement for prescription drugs. He also helped ruin the GOP image with his inside-the-beltway version of “compassionate conservatism,” thus paving the way for big Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008.

I can understand why libertarians have no desire to listen to his advice, but I’m baffled why Republicans or conservatives would give him the time of day. Yet he is a constant presence on FOX News and has a weekly column in the Wall Street Journal. With no apparent irony, his latest WSJ column is entitled “How to Stop Socialized Health Care.” Too bad he didn’t follow his own advice in 2003 when pulling out all the stops to enact the biggest entitlement in four decades.