September 21, 2009

In Praise of Sobriety

And you guys wonder why I admire Steve Biddle? Whereas I fire off 200-word blog posts, Steve doesn't so much as pour his cup of coffee in the morning without doing a thoughtful cost-benefit analysis. His testimony to the Senate last week was vintage stuff. He sketched out a case for the war in Afghanistan by starting with U.S. interests and then laying out the options, always acknowledging that the other side in the debate has a compelling argument too and that any course of action carries serious risks. 

I know some of my friends opposed to this war are frustrated with me at the moment, but in all fairness, I'm frustrated with them too. No one can accuse me of glossing over the difficulties of the war in Afghanistan on this blog, but I have heard very few people make the case against the war while admitting that withdrawal might carry with it serious costs or that those who think the war is in the U.S. interest at the moment might have some evidence on their side as well. (And it's not an either/or debate, right? There might be operational choices other than COIN that safeguard U.S. interests. But those who would advocate those choices owe it to us to operationalize them and show us what they would look like on the ground as well as what risks they would run.)

Whatever decision is made on Afghanistan should be made in a careful and deliberate manner, with various sides making cases for courses of action based on interests, resources, risks and a clear-eyed understanding of both the environment in Afghanistan and Pakistan and U.S. and allied capabilities. That's what Steve does, with a healthy dollop of humility, and I have yet to hear this from the opposition. It's like the worst aspects of the Iraq War debate in both the run-up to the war in 2002 and 2003 and again when the decision was made to surge troops in 2006 and 2007. In the former, the administration and other supporters of the war effectively closed the door on a sober debate of the war's merits and risks, while in the latter, the left was so far committed against the war that it could not bring itself to acknowledge the way in which the war's dynamics had changed in 2006 and 2007 through factors such as the Awakening, the Baghdad Security Plan, the silent guns of Jaysh al-Mahdi, etc.

By all means, you can disagree with the conclusions at which Steve arrives in his testimony. But the process by which he reached his conclusions and the humility with which he holds them should both be lifted up as examples for all parties to follow.