I have been tying up some loose ends here at CNAS, putting the final touches on my new Afghanistan paper as well as finishing up a research proposal with LTG (Ret.) Dave Barno, a longtime mentor of mine who starts work at CNAS next week. Starting this weekend, though, I will be gone for about 10 days on a trip to the Persian Gulf, which is a) the one area of the Arabic-speaking world in which I have not spent a lot of time and b) the area of the Arabic-speaking world in which the United States arguably has the most interests. So this research trip is long overdue.
I have bought a new Kindle for this trip and thought you guys might be interested in what I'll be taking with me to read while traveling:
1. Someone sent me a complimentary paper copy of Greg Gause's new book on the international relations of the Persian Gulf states, and I cannot think of a better introduction to the region. I have only met Gause once, back in 2007, and thought him both really smart and also kind of a smart-ass. So naturally, I liked him. I also have a reading packet prepared by the CSIS, which is leading this trip, crammed full with useful CRS reports and such.
2. I convinced the team here at CNAS to buy me a paper copy of Buying National Security: How America Plans and Pays for Its Global Role and Safety at Home, which readers of this blog will remember I'm excited about. Cindy Williams and Gordon Adams are both really smart and write about something -- the national security budgeting process -- that is rarely understood by policy geeks like me but really important.
3. I'm also about halfway through an advance copy of Megan Stack's beautifully written new memoir, Every Man in This Village is a Liar: An Education in War. More on this book later.
4. On the Kindle, I have two new books on Lebanon written by two journalists I very much respect. Both David Hirst and Michael Young have taken the time to tutor me on occassion during my time in Lebanon, and I answered a few technical military questions for David when he was writing his book. Their two books are, respectively, Beware of Small States: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East and The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle. You can read a glowing review of the former here and a glowing review of the latter here.
6. Finally, I downloaded the ESV Study Bible and Phil Ryken's commentaries on Ecclesiastes alongside Tarif Khalidi's new translation of the Qur'an. That may seem like an odd combination of books, but both Ryken and Khalidi have been mentors* of sorts through the years: Ryken was a pastor at the church I attended in college, and Khalidi is, well, my scholarly hero. Despite his wicked sense of humor and light-hearted spirit, Khalidi is the most intimidating intellectual I have ever met. His command of English, Arabic, Greek and Latin is simply awe-inspiring, especially for someone like me who struggles with all four, and his new translation of the Qur'an is a remarkable achievement. I'm not about to get into the different ways in which Protestant Christians and Muslims approach their respective holy texts, but I will say that I someday hope to approach at least the New Testament with the erudition with which Khalidi tackles the Qur'an. Really impressive. Khalidi's humility** and interest in younger scholars also sets an example for others to follow.
*One of this blog's readers noted how many "mentors" I seem to have. It's true, I collect them. Some are those to whom I have consistently turned for advice through the years, and some are those from whom I have sought advice only a few times. I tend to seek out smart, older people, though, who seem to have figured things out that I have not. (It's worth noting, though, as my friend N.S. always does, that the first "Mentor" kinda sucked at his job.)
**Just to give you a few examples, Khalidi had this habit, during my two stints at AUB as both a master's student and as a visiting researcher, of periodically seeking my opinion on obscure points of Arabic or Greek grammar. Tarif Khalidi asking you a question about Arabic grammar is a little like Paul Krugman asking for your opinion on macroeconomics, and Khalidi's Greek is, I am 90% sure, far superior to mine. But I think it was just his way of engaging with me, in a remarkably self-effacing way, and it left a mark on me with respect to proper ways to treat students and younger scholars. What an incredible man.
From Lee Smith's The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations:
This is a book about Arab poilitics, society, and culture, which is to say this is a book about some Arab idea and the force they have on how people live from day to day in the region. I have tried to discuss those ideas as dispassionately as possible, although I recognize that the main thesis -- that violence is central to the politics, society, and culture of the Arabic-speaking Middle East -- is likely to cause unease. Nonetheless, the idea that people naturally prefer the strong horse to the weak one is this part of the world seems to me unassailable; it is impossible to understand the region without recognizing the significance of violence, coercion, and repression. That doesn't mean that I think the Arabs only understand force -- a charge frequently leveled by many critics against, for instance, the Bush administration. It just means, I think, that force is at the core of the way most Arabs understand politics, and that therefore there is no way to understand how the Middle East works without understanding the concept of the strong horse. It is not a moral judgment but a description.
A few weeks ago, in an interview I conducted for the blog with Deb Amos, I linked to a review of Lee Smith's new book that had been written by Max Rodenbeck, the Economist's longtime Middle East bureau chief. The review was uncompromising in its brutal criticism of Lee's book, and Lee -- who I met in Beirut in 2005 -- took some offense at my linking to it. Despite the fact that I made clear in the post that I had not yet read Lee's book and could not pass judgment on it, Lee perhaps thought I was endorsing the criticism. So I offered to give him some space on the blog to respond to Rodenbeck but never heard back from him. I then actually sat down and read the book. It's well-written, and the reportage is often engaging. But I had a major objection to the above thesis and asked Lee if he would be up for the kind of Q&A sessions I have held with other authors. Lee very politely declined, which was his right, especially since he knew that I could not offer the kind of whole-hearted endorsement I gave this book or this book or this book.
What was the problem I had with the book? I had two, really, and I do not want to get lost in the forest on account of the trees, so I'll stick to addressing the major theme. The first question I would have had for Lee would have been, "What is so Arab about the strong horse thesis?"
I know the quote about the strong horse comes from Osama bin Laden, but if you are going to write a book about how one people -- the Arabs -- live their lives according to this underlying principle, should you not also explain how other peoples are different? I asked Lee if he had ever read a book I often cite on this blog, The Logic of Violence in Civil War by Stathis Kalyvas. There are two ways of thinking about popular support, Kalyvas explains: "One way is to think of it as an attitude, preference, or allegiance, and the other is to emphasize behavior or action."
When studying civil wars and insurgencies, a funny thing happens when you start measuring popular support in terms of the latter: "The higher the level of control execised by an actor, the higher the rate of collaboration with this actor -- and inversely, the lower the rate of defection."
We all, then, more or less obey a "strong horse" principle in conflict environments. Kalyvas found this to be true everywhere from my home in East Tennessee (looking at violence during the U.S. Civil War) to his home in Greece (using microcomparitive evidence taken from the Greek Civil War). Political loyalty is less endogenous than it is continually shaped and re-shaped depending in large part on which faction or party exerts control over an area. When Lee argues Arabs obey a "strong horse" principle, he is right -- but his thesis isn't unique to the Arabs.
The second problem I have with Lee's book is what I believe to be an underdeveloped understanding of American force and its limits. About three years ago, I was having a beer with a friend in Kramerbook's when Lee walked in. We all three knew each other from Beirut and soon began talking about the intransigence of the Syrian regime. Lee shocked us by suggesting quite seriously that one option would be to bomb the presidential palace in Damascus or perhaps the residence in Latakia. I had breakfast with the same friend on Easter Sunday, and I checked with him to make sure I had remembered this conversation correctly. (I had.) What shocked me is that Lee had not seemed to think too seriously about the political effect he intended to achieve with this act of force. Coercive strategies and the force that make them possible are viable options, sure, but entire books have been writtenexplaining how the coercive power of the threat of violence largely goes away once the violence is actually exercised. Forget the international outcry or the domestic consequences of an act of war absent congressional consent -- my worry is that bombing the presidential palace in Damascus would not significantly affect Syrian behavior and would only serve to highlight the limits of American military power. (Kind of like when Hizballah took over West Beirut in 2008 and we ... parked a U.S. Navy destroyer off the coast of Lebanon. The way that act read on the streets of Beirut was not "America is strong" but rather quite the opposite.)
But here is Lee, at the end of his book, conceding that "foreign powers cannot impose political solutions in the Middle East" but arguing that we should be ready to liberally use military force in the region in order to strengthen Arab allies. "Americans ... should understand that he who punishes enemies and rewards friends ... is entitled to rule." It is often said that there exist no military solutions in the Middle East -- only political solutions. "For foreign powers," Lee argues, "the reverse may be true."
Holy Clausewitz, Batman! So we're just supposed to use military force and hope folks get the message? Drop some bombs and wait for the desired political effect?
When Kalyvas writes about control and collaboration, he is talking about exercising real control over a population. The kind of control the U.S. Army exercised with tremendous resources and manpower over Baghdad in 2007. Lee is actually quite critical of counterinsurgency, as he thinks it necessarily leads to negotiations with people he feels the United States has no business talking to. ("We rightly refuse to have relations with groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, but if we continue to see our struggles in terms of COIN, in due course we will have no choice but to open up relations with all these so-called non-state actors.") He also think it distracts from dealing forcefully with Arab regimes since COIN advocates often argue on behalf of sub-national engagement strategies.
But I have served in two U.S.-led wars and studied many others, and I cannot help but agree with Gen. Sir Rupert Smith that force, when exercised by the United States and other powers, has very real limits. When I read an editorial in this morning's Wall Street Journal arguing that the Obama Administration is not serious about stopping Iran's nuclear program, for example, I have to ask (along with Jeffrey Goldberg) where I might find a viable military alternative to the current course of action. What is the military alternative, and is it credible?
I'll conclude with this: if you're going to make a case for the use of violence to realize a political end, you're not going to find me in the back of the room wearing a Code Pink t-shirt and waving a banner. But you will find me with my hand politely raised asking how, exactly, the use of force is meant to achieve the political end. What are the interests at stake? What are the resources available? What are the desired end states? What are the risks and possible unintended effects? How are we mitigating those risks and unintended effects, and what contingency plans are we developing for when things go wrong? (And things will go wrong.) And what is your plan, by phase, for how force will be used? By all means, let's have a conversation about the use of force. But it has to be a mature discussion, and you better think through the questions I just asked. Because hope is not a method -- not for the Obama Administration, and neither for those who casually recommend the use of force in the political sphere.
I had lunch with Amos Harel of Ha'aretz a few months ago in Tel Aviv, and he floated the idea of starting a blog on security issues in the Middle East that would reach a larger audience than his normal posts for Israel's newspaper of record. (Or is that Yedioth Ahronoth these days? I honestly don't know.) I normally enjoy the reporting Amos does with Avi Issacharoff, so I am enjoying their new blog, even if it reads less as a blog and more as just another section of Ha'aretz. Both guys are excellent journalists who would (and probably did) make the late Ze'ev Schiff proud. (Avi, in particular, earned kudos for physically protecting Palestinian families from crazy religious-nationalist settlers two years back.) The one thing that bothers me, though, aside from the format, is how isolated the discussion is. I mean, it's all about Israel and the Palestinian Territories. And that's fine, as that's the beat walked by Harel and Issacharoff. But it's less "the Middle East" and more "a slice of the eastern Mediterranean."
On a serious note, you wonder whether or not Israel's isolation in the region has made the perspective of its reporters increasingly blinkered. If I were the editor of Ha'aretz, I would send talented guys like Amos and Avi off to report from Washington or London or Tokyo for a year to get a more global view of security before returning home to report on the IDF and the territories. Have them do a fellowship at CSIS or RUSI or something. One of the things I thought was cool about Schiff is how plugged in he was with the policy debates taking place in Washington and Europe.
Another thing I would like to see -- and this is by no means the responsibility of any one journalist or newspaper -- is a good blog on Middle East security issues written by reporters from all around the region, with bloggers from Cairo, Baghdad, Beirut, Tel Aviv, the Palestinian Territories, Yemen, etc. all joining in. Is that too much to ask for? Some newspapers have tried to do this, but with budgets shrinking, what you end up getting is two or three English-speaking journalists trying to cover an entire region with little coordination and too few resources.
That having been said, I think Amos and Avi have perhaps chanced upon the most appropriate name for a blog covering security in the Middle East. Middle East Security Survey. Or: MESS. I plan to be a regular reader and look forward to their future posts.
P.S. Speaking of Israel, followers of my Twitter feed will know I saw none other than Tzipi Livni wandering around 7th Street NW in Chinatown yesterday. Lady Muqawama spotted her first and made me walk into the Anne Taylor store to confirm. I walked in, started scanning the store, and was like, "Not famous ... not famous ... not famous ... woah, hey, it's Tzipi Livni!" The AIPAC conference, of course, is going on right now, which you can follow here if it interests you. (I'm personally not that interested, honestly, for pretty much the exact reasons Jeffrey Goldberg C'87 lists here.) Now if any of you want to leave comments below, by all means do so, and feel free to tell me whether or not I should have either given Livni a big hug and kiss or arrested her for war crimes. But let's keep the discussion free of ugly anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim or anti-Arab slurs, okay? Because those are not cool.
So a typical cycle for this blogger is to get annoyed by some criticism, write something snarky and mischievous, and then get all Presbyterian about it and feel guilty for having written something snarky and mischievous. I wrote something snarky and mischievous about Dan Drezner yesterday and now feel kinda bad about it because it's really not cricket to write such things. And since I don't really know the guy and can't apologize directly, allow me to both reference what I wrote and honor his particular field of research by recommending a brief reading list on the political economy of the Middle East. (I'm not sure if Drezner would define himself as a political economist, actually, but close enough.) When I was a graduate student at the American University of Beirut, the Department of Political Science there was briefly blessed with two of the finest political economists to have worked on the Middle East in recent memory. The first was then-president of AUB, John Waterbury, and the second was a mentor of mine named Yahya Sadowski. The key thing about both of these guys is that they are both first-class political scientists specializing in political economy who have also spent decades in the Middle East living and researching. This allows them to write with both rigor and intimacy with their subject matter. Accordingly, if you're looking to start some research on the subject, you could do a lot worse than:
Okay, I feel better now for having done that. I'll be gone for a week or so, so allow those books to tide you over. What will I be reading while I'm gone? Why, none other than my main man Hein Goemans! Drink some beer, Hein! The royalty check is in the mail!
Today we have a special interview with NPR's Deborah Amos. Deb is a longtime reader of this blog and an even longer-time student and observer of the Arabic-speaking world. I asked her to discuss, for the benefit of the readership, her quite lovely new book on Iraqi refugees and some of the regional dynamics set in motion by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
1. Let me start off by saying that I really enjoyed this book. For a journalist who has spent most of her time in radio and television, you are an exceptionally eloquent writer. But I want to talk about the tone with which you wrote your book as opposed to your diction. It strikes me that you can write a critical essay on the Arabic-speaking world with contempt, or you can write an equally critical essay on the Arabic-speaking world with compassion. I can't help but notice that at the same time Max Rodenbeck has been taking Lee Smith to task for apparently doing the former, you have done the latter.* But then, you have spent most of your professional life working in or on the Middle East, haven't you? Your love for the cultures and peoples of the region shines through your narrative, and even when you pass judgment, you pass it with a high degree of sympathy and self-awareness. Tell us a bit about how you first came to the Arabic-speaking world and how your long engagement with the region set the stage for this book.
Thank you for recognizing that broadcast journalists can write complex sentences. In some ways, this book represents a long journey. I first arrived in the Arabic speaking world in 1982. I landed at the port of Jounieh to report on the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. My first image of a Middle East war zone was a woman water skiing off the waters of Christian east Beirut as Israeli jets were pounding Muslim West Beirut. It was my first lesson in sectarian fault lines. I also had the best meals of my life that summer; it is Beirut, after all. Over the next three decades I reported from almost every corner of the Middle East. Iraq had been off-limits in Saddam’s time. I could get a visa to travel there, but it was illegal for Iraqi’s to talk to foreigners. When I arrived in Baghdad in 2003 I could talk to everybody. They all had plenty to say and in some ways that opening conversation in this formerly closed country set the stage for this book.
2. I want to ask you about the Iraqi refugee crisis in just a minute, but your book is about more than that. As eloquent as I found the prose inside the cover of your book, the title is a rather blunt, inelegant "Eclipse of the Sunnis". On the other hand, maybe that title says all that needs to be said. Is that the theme of this book? Are we seeing a seismic shift in power relations in the Arabic-speaking world? And how can that be so when Sunni Muslims still constitute such an overwhelming majority of the Arabic-speaking peoples?
When I first started writing the book I had a different title in mind. I was interested in the experience of exile and I wanted to use the opening line from a poem by Dante that expressed the pain of political banishment. “You shall leave everything you love most,” wrote Dante and it seemed to capture the complicated emotions of Iraqis who hated Saddam but were deeply tied to their culture and community. The title changed as I understood that the sectarian cleansing in Iraq had a wider implication. The majority of exiles and refugees are Sunni Arabs. Baghdad has had a demographic shift that is historic and seismic. Baghdad is now a Shiite capital which has an impact on the way power relations work in the country. Iraq’s Shiites won the sectarian war, the Sunnis lost. However, Iraq is not an island. As you correctly point out, Sunni Muslims still constitute an overwhelming majority in the region. Iraq’s Sunni neighbors see the resolution of the exile crisis as an indicator of Iraqi’s identity. An eclipse implies a phase. There will be no stability in Iraq until there is political reconciliation and power sharing. To quote an Iraqi political analyst, “The Kurds are only 20% of the population without a friend in the region, and they’ve managed to destabilize Iraq for 80 years. The Sunnis have friends in almost every neighboring capital.”
3. About a year ago, The Gamble by Tom Ricks came out and seemed to have as many detractors as admirers. I was one of the people who liked it, taking it for what it was, largely because I knew it was just one of many books that would be written about the events known as the "Surge" and that other books would soon be published telling the story of Iraq from the perspective of grunts, insurgents, and ordinary Iraqis. Tom Ricks has told me that he himself looks forward to reading those books. I think your book is, in some ways, a "Surge" book in that it speaks to the effects the war and especially the U.S.-led offensive of 2007 has had on ordinary Iraqis -- and especially those who came to be refugees. What do you think about the idea that your book -- meant to be a broader narrative of the region -- is in some ways also a book about the Iraq War and the Surge?
While the “Surge” is not the major focus of the book, I write about the Iraq war and the events that surround the surge from an Iraqi point of view. I felt it was a view missing from the war literature. I couldn’t be on the ground in Baghdad in 2007, but I was in Damascus during the troop build up. There were more Iraqis fleeing the country in 2007 than had left in 2006. In Damascus, the UN refugee center was packed each day. By interviewing the newcomers I could document the explosion of sectarian cleansing that took place as additional U.S. moved into Baghdad neighborhoods. For many Iraqis, the price of the surge was quite high and some are still paying. Tactically, the surge contributed to the dramatic drop in violence, strategically, the surge failed to spark a political reconciliation in Iraq. Which means the refugee crisis could be with us for some time to come.
4. You write, in your chapter on Lebanon, how the Palestinian refugee problem in that country is proof positive of what happens when refugee crises go unresolved. What do you see as the long-term effects of the Iraqi refugee crisis on the region?
First, I want to talk about important indicators. I believe the March 7th parliamentary elections will play a role in the refugee crisis. The outcome will determine whether there are wide spread returns. The Iraqi election commission expects that more than 160 thousand Iraqis to vote in the voting centers across Syria. Arab League poll watchers are going to be dispatched to monitor the vote. The refugee neighborhoods are papered with campaign posters and Iraq’s Sunni politicians are courting the exile vote including Tarek al Hashimi, Iraq’s Vice President. This is an unprecedented event. The exiles are part of a ‘virtual’ Iraq that exists beyond the borders. The election outcome could determine whether Iraqis remain in exile, a destabilizing population in the region, or return home. They will be watching for the signals of power-sharing and what the vote reveals about the strength of the sectarian fault lines.
5. What concrete steps should policy-makers -- U.S., international, regional, Iraqi -- take to address the refugee crisis?
A few years ago, when I started interviewing refugees and NGO’s in the region, a U.N. official estimated there would be about 100 thousand Iraqis that would not go back. The number has probably grown larger since then, but the list reflects the legacy of the past few years: those too traumatized to return, religious minorities still threatened, female headed households, and Iraqis who worked for the U.S. military. While the U.S. resettlement program has made great strides, the specific program for military translators is a failure. The number of Iraqis granted special visas is dismally low. The program needs some serious attention. As for the larger picture, donor fatigue is hampering UN programs that support refugees. The International community still has a role to play in funding programs in Jordan and Syria. The latest U.S. government report portrays an Iraqi population that has no hope of employment or integration in exile; their children are largely outside the education system. This is not good news for Iraq’s future. The Iraqi government’s policy towards exiles and the internally displaced seems to be one of willful neglect. The Obama administration must use any remaining clout to get the next Iraqi government to focus attention on this population.
6. I usually end these interviews with a booze-related question, asking my interviewees to name their five favorite bars in their far-flung corners of the globe. Your book, though, reflects your love affair with the cuisine of the Middle East. You're always writing about food, and although I think we've dined together a couple of times, I remember with especial fondness a big dinner we enjoyed at Abdul Wahab al-Inglizi in Beirut with Leena, Oliver and several others. What, then, are your five favorite restaurants in the Arabic-speaking world? And your answers don't have to be all haute cuisine experiences -- what are the best places, for example, for fuul or kabob?
Thanks for letting me off the hook on the booze question. I’m not much of a bar girl, but I have done my share of sampling Arak around the region. However, the cuisines of the Middle East are my favorite topic. I would have to place Abdul Wahab al-Inglizi at the top of the list because I’ve spent many enjoyable evenings there, including the dinner you mention. Many of my favorite dinner memories include the company as much as the food. A meal at al-Mayass, an Armenian restaurant in Ashrafieh, a Beirut neighborhood, was all the more remarkable because Sami Zubaida, the “cuisine sociologist,“ was a guest. There is no better place to eat Ful than Abu Abdo’s in Aleppo, Syria. The restaurant is a “hole in the wall”, serving ful for more than 70 years. The dash of Aleppo pepper makes it all worthwhile. And while I’m on this great food city, I have to nominate a meal at Aleppo’s private food club located above Yasmeen d’Alep Hotel. You have to make friend with a member to get an invitation, but you have 600 people to choose from. And finally, the kabob. This is sure to get me in deep trouble, but I nominate the Iraqi kabob as the finest in the region. Iraqi refugees have opened more than a dozen restaurants in Damascus. My favorite is Qassim al Kassam Abdul Guss. You’ve pointed out a much better translation than the one I used in my book, “slave of grilled lamb,” which says all you need to know about the Iraqi obsession with grilled meat.
Thanks, Deb! Interested readers can buy her book here.
*I have not yet read Lee's book, I should say, so I cannot pass judgment on it. I plan on reading it, though, and will ask Lee to do a similar Q&A for the blog if the readership is interested and Lee is willing.
I just found this via Arabist. This is Anthony Shadid, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middle East correspondent for the New York Times (and the Boston Globe and Washington Post before that), speaking at my alma mater.
No wonder we have no peace in the Middle East. George Mitchell spends all his time with Hillary Clinton discussing the plotlines of Dan Brown novels while Jeff Feltman stares off into the distance, bored and wishing he were back in Lebanon. Shouldn't they instead be reading books like this one? Or this one? Or this one? If you want to read a novel, read this one. Or this one.
Recommend others in the comments section, please. (h/t Laura.)
But there is a deeper reason, as well, for Obama to claim necessity in Afghanistan. It is part of what increasingly seems to be a striving for moral purity in international affairs by this administration. Obama and his top advisers apologize for America's past sins, implicitly suggesting they will commit no new ones. And that goes for fighting wars. No one can blame you for fighting a war if it is a war of necessity, or so they may believe. All the inevitable ancillary casualties of war -- from civilian deaths to the occasional misbehavior of the troops to the errors of commanders -- are more easily forgiven if one has no choice. The claim of necessity wipes away the moral ambiguities inherent in the exercise of power. And it prevents scrutiny of one's own motives, which in nations, as in individuals, are rarely pure.
This hoped-for escape from moral burdens is, however, an illusion. Just because America declares something necessary doesn't mean that the rest of the world, and especially its victims, will believe it is just. The claim of necessity will not absolve the United States, and Obama, from responsibility for its actions.
As Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out long ago, Americans find it hard to acknowledge this moral ambiguity of power. They are reluctant to face the fact that it is only through the morally ambiguous exercise of their power that any good can be accomplished. Obama is right to be prosecuting the war in Afghanistan, and he should do so even more vigorously. But he will not avoid the moral and practical burdens of fighting this war by claiming he has no choice. An action can be right or just without being necessary. Like great presidents in the past, Barack Obama will have to explain why his choice, while difficult and fraught with complexity, is right and better than the alternatives.
Even if you do not like Kagan -- as I recall, ahem, he used to support another administration that explained its foreign policy in black-and-white moral choices -- you should read this very good column. Last week, I flew to Boston to give a talk on Afghanistan to a collection of senior-level government officials from the United States and abroad as part of the Kennedy School's Executive Education Program. All credit goes to the excellent audience -- which happily agreed to listen to a talk on strategy and operations from a 31-year old and peppered me with some great, thought-provoking questions. But without a doubt the most persistent questions I received were along the lines of "What are we doing in Afghanistan and why are we there in the first place?"
The fact that these are the questions that I am now receiving from career public servants in our nation's departments and agencies should be a huge warning bell for the administration. And it means that Kagan is exactly right -- this is now Obama's war, and he and Stan McChrystal need to explain to the American people in non-IR-speak why we are in Afghanistan and what we are doing there. (Hint: if you cannot explain your policy to folks in the 3rd Congressional District of Tennessee in a way they can understand it, you might need to change your policy.) As one career public servant explained to me afterwards, "It's not like we do not support the war in Afghanistan -- it's just that no one has explained what we're doing there."
Over to you, Mr. President, though Gen. McChrystal and the rest of your commanders should be able to help you here. I know some people fret about generals "selling" the war to the American people -- and there was certainly some of that going on in 2007 -- but I thought Gen. Petraeus's efforts to explain our strategy and operations before the U.S. Senate were helpful and not a threat to civil-military relations. So the president should ask Gen. McChrystal to do the same when he visits Washington this fall. But again, the primary burden on all this falls to POTUS.
Elsewhere in today's Post, Ignatius and Diehl wring their hands over the Middle East and lament the capacity of the Israelis and Palestinians to get the Americans focusing on the trees at the expense of the forest. "As so often happens in Middle East negotiations," Diehl writes, "what were intended as simple first steps have become an end in themselves, subject to months of posturing, hair-splitting and horse-trading."
As Monty Python understood, though, this is just the way it is.