June 11, 2010

The Left and Afghanistan (Updated)

Michael Cohen has a great essay in The New Republic on the American Left and Afghanistan. Michael's own policy preferences cloud his essay somewhat, but his diagnosis of the problem and its consequences is spot-on: the American Left has failed to develop and market a coherent policy alternative to counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. As a result, the American Left is frozen out of high-level policy discussions on U.S. policy in the region.

I question Michael's assumption that counterinsurgency cannot be a valid policy option for progressives, but I think he is correct that the American Left has been largely ineffective at forming a coherent policy alternative and then selling that alternative. Case in point is the Center for American Progress (CAP), at which several of my friends work. Says CAP's Brian Katulis:

[The progressives] were caught flat-footed in the face of the COIN public relations campaign, which came from the military, some civilians, and an echo chamber of think tank analysts and bloggers who played a cheerleading role rather than critically examining U.S. interests and policy options in Afghanistan.

This is disingenuous, of course. Brian and other analysts at CAP -- the most influential think tank on the American Left, with many alumni in the Obama Administration and a fantastic public relations staff -- have published extensively on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their 2007 report, "Strategic Reset," was a major report which argued -- contra the Surge -- for a phased withdrawal to take place in Iraq within one year from the report's publication date in June 2007. (Okay, in retrospect, that was a really bad idea.) But the problem with "Strategic Reset" and other papers is that not only did they fail to persuade anyone in Bush Administration, they also failed to persuade the Obama and Clinton campaigns. The Obama campaign's ultimate stance on Iraq, for example, looked a lot more like products being produced by CFR, Brookings, CNAS, and other think tanks in the center and center-left than it did anything produced by the Left. By late 2008, the Obama campaign's position on Iraq largely mirrored that of the Bush Administration!

Look, when the University of Nebraska stomped my beloved University of Tennessee in the 1998 Orange Bowl, it wasn't because of foul play -- it was because Tennessee was simply out-blocked and out-tackled by Nebraska. Anyone watching at home could see this.

Similarly, forming and marketing policy alternatives is the blocking and tackling of think tanks and policy-oriented intellectual life. Failing to form a coherent policy alterative and to market that alternative does not mean that you were overcome by an "echo chamber" of "cheerleaders" who -- unlike you, of course -- failed to critically examine U.S. interests and policy options. It just means that you fought a policy debate and lost it.

Cohen and I are in violent agreement that our policy debates would be enriched by the formulation of coherent policy alternatives on Afghanistan -- from left, right and center. If the current strategy fails, we will need alternatives and branch plans, and I have argued that for counterinsurgency to be relevant and effective, it needs careful criticism. But for the American Left to itself be relevant, it has to form ideas that it can then market to the public and policy-makers. Thus far, it has failed to do that on Afghanistan.

UPDATE: I've gotten some really good reactions to this post. I think it -- and Michael Cohen's article -- have struck a nerve. One reader wrote to suggest that one reason so many prominent members of the American Left have been reluctant to criticize the president on Afghanistan is because they are still hoping for jobs in the administration. Another reader wrote in to defend "Strategic Reset," arguing that while its central arguments were never ultimately persuasive, the report was important because it shifted the debate and staked out a position within Democratic policy arguments. Another reader -- a University of Tennessee graduate -- asked why I had to dredge up such horrible memories of the 1998 Orange Bowl and reminded me that Tennessee won the NCAA championship the very next year. (At the Fiesta Bowl, with me in attendence. They won by out-blocking and out-tackling Florida State, as I recall.)

Some folks at the Center for American Progress were upset with the post, and I understand: no one, myself included, likes to get called out by name in a post. Brian Katulis was particularly upset, and I can understand since I basically said his papers and positions on Iraq and Afghanistan had not been particularly effective. This is like telling an NBA shooting guard that his jump shot sucks, and Brian is a smart and serious scholar who I disagree with but respect. So I'm sorry about calling him out, though I thought it useful to illustrate the dynamic Cohen was describing. (And I thought and continue to think his quote was pretty disingenuous.) Another scholar at the Center for American Progress was upset that he was lumped in "the American Left," and I should have included a disclaimer that not everyone at CAP -- an organization for which I have a lot of respect -- is a card-carrying member of the Left. I understand they are an ideologically diverse and wonderful crew over there, though I am probably not alone in thinking CAP could reasonably be described as of the Left or liberal (in the 21st Century American definition of the latter word). I took what I perceived to be CAP's inability to gain traction for the positions laid out in their Afghanistan and Iraq papers to be emblematic of the American Left's inability to affect the policy debate on Afghanistan. I'm sorry if anyone at CAP felt that illustration unfairly pigeon-holed them. I think a broader discussion of American progressives and Afghanistan would be one worth having and told Brian I would be happy to participate in a public discussion of the issue sometime after I'm back off of dissertation leave.