I really, really love Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government blog. For my money, it’s the most rigorous and interesting conservative group blog about international affairs, presenting as it does the perspective of ex-policymakers in previous Republican administrations. Their criticisms of the Af-Pak strategy — see here, here and here for a taste — are valuable and insightful. Then Peter Feaver joins in.
Feaver is one of the most respected scholars of civilian-military affairs around. I’ve quoted him in the past and have consistently benefited from our conversations. The Bush White House hired him to serve on the National Security Council during the second term — he had worked for the Clinton NSC before that — where he focused on Iraq. It’s through that prism that Feaver interprets the element of the Af-Pak strategy that calls for congressionally-mandated benchmarks to judge success or failure. Feaver calls them a “double-edged sword.”
Benchmarks are a fine way to tether a strategy to reality and identify how to evaluate the implantation of that strategy. But benchmarks are not a panacea. And they could become the petard on which the Obama team finds itself hoisted in a year or so.
What if NATO, or Pakistan, or Afghanistan, or anyone fails to meet the benchmark goal within the specified time? Will Obama declare the strategy a failure? And then what? What bailout plan is there for a strategy that does not meet its benchmarks? Will Obama walk away from Afghanistan, as a recent editorial in the Economist feared?
Those who praise benchmarks in the Afghan strategy are the same folks who rushed to declare the Iraq surge a failure because certain benchmarks were not met by 2007. Thank goodness the Bush team had a better understanding of strategy and war than that.
This is a heady mix of grievance right here. No one who’s advocated for benchmarks has argued that they’re the “panacea” that Feaver describes. Rather, as Matthew Yglesias writes, “it’s important to have some policy offramps, some points at which we might conclude that we can’t achieve our biggest goals and need to radically scale back.” It’s hard to see what’s objectionable about that.
Well, unless you worked for the Bush administration and resented the Democratic Congress telling you that your history of failure in Iraq merited the creation of metrics to judge the future success or failure of your approach. The snark that Feaver exhibits here pretty clearly comes from that experience. It’s conspicuous that Feaver considers a missed benchmark to be a public indicator of take-your-toys-and-go-home failure. There’s another option, of course: examining why a benchmark didn’t get reached and adjusting accordingly. If Obama doesn’t do that in such a circumstance, he’ll be exhibiting the kind of crimped and self-assured thinking that leads you to view outside criticism as hosility, and the policy will surely fail as a result. Where did we see that before?
Look, far be it for me to deny Feaver his attempt at getting back at the Bush administration’s critics. I can’t imagine how it must have felt to be greeted with relentless hostility just because everything you did was a disaster and you tried to pretend it was a glittering success. (OK, sorry about that.) But perhaps it’s more valuable to view Afghanistan on its own terms and not as an opportunity to relitigate the Iraq debate.