A few stray thoughts:
(1) My basic model of the current political-economic landscape is that the United States has hard decisions ahead: after at least two decades of profligate spending, we can either adjust to a leaner and more sustainable state that will allow the forces of creative destruction to do their often unpleasant but ultimately necessary work of fostering growth or we can embrace economic sclerosis, and congratulate ourselves for becoming a more “decent” society while permanently banishing millions of workers from the economic mainstream. I’ve clearly stacked the deck here in favor of entrepreneurial growth, perhaps unfairly.
There is a foreign policy parallel. One of the arguments for an ambitious Pax Americana foreign policy is that while the U.S. is the world’s dominant economic power, this won’t always be true. And so our goal should be to use our relative military strength, founded on our relative economic strength to create a framework of rules and institutions that will make the world a better, safer, more productive place in the future, when our relative advantages will continue to wane. Abdicating this responsibility will make the world more dangerous, and thus making it more expensive to defend the “homeland” in the future when our relative power will have dwindled.
If you take this view seriously, then we should think about our foreign policy priorities through this lens of costs and benefits. I think that we need a proper counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, and I hope that President Obama’s approach will get us most of the way there. But can we sustain another Iraq- or Afghanistan-like mission? Or would we be better served by retooling our military for maintaining control of sea lanes and extending the reach of hunter-killer teams dedicated to rooting out terrorist enemies who don’t require failed states as safe havens? For a long time, the world’s remaining rogue states looked like the most potent threat to American security. While I believe that Iran represents a serious threat to the United States and our allies, the incompetence and insanity of the Iranian regime is primarily a threat to Iranians. We absolutely need to maintain a united front against Iran and press them to abandon their nuclear weapons program. Yet we also need to think about right-sizing our national security commitments in line with our need to right-size the federal government.
The United States is a rich country and we can afford to crush our enemies. I do, however, understand the growing number of conservatives and libertarians who wonder if we can afford to engage in the kind of nation-building that we’ve committed to under Clinton and Bush and Obama. As far as I’m concerned, we have no choice when it comes to Afghanistan: we have to make it work. The next time we consider an expensive foreign policy commitment, however …
(2) Secretary Gates’s Senate testimony is excellent, and he addresses the safe haven argument nicely. For an excellent critique of the president’s “deliberately constructed contradictions,” check out Steve Coll’s take. He is very persuasive on the invocation of dangers of the soft date for withdrawal.
The problem lies in how the Taliban and the Pakistan Army will read the explicit use of a calendar. Ahmed Rashid, on NPR’s Morning Edition, speaking from Lahore, voiced the same fear that seized me when I heard the President be so explicit about 2011: No matter how nuanced the invocation, Pakistani liberals fighting against the Army’s hedging strategy of support for the Taliban and Al Qaeda will be demoralized by the use of a specific date. They will interpret it as evidence that the United States has already made a decision to leave the Afghan battlefield and that it will ultimately repeat its past pattern of abandoning Pakistan periodically. This may be unfair, but the perception is inevitable.
Again, I’m willing to give the administration the benefit of the doubt because, as Secretary Gates has noted, the Taliban knows that the U.S. is divided over the war. But there’s no denying that setting an exit date — even as a goal — is problematic.
(3) Matt Yglesias linked to a very interesting analysis from Gilles Dorronsoro of the Carnegie Endowment on whether we’re sending troops to the right regions. Basically, Dorronsoro believes that we don’t have the willingness or the resources to vanquish the Taliban in areas where they have deep roots, and so we ought to fight them where they really are an invading force. One assumes that this strategy would limit the Taliban’s advances and give the central government breathing room to build security forces. Eventually, Kabul could reach some kind of accommodation with Taliban-dominated regions. This doesn’t sound like an attractive solution, but it does reflect the fact that the Taliban really does have considerable support in the south. It’s not unreasonable to think that we should focus on the low-hanging fruit, so to speak.
(4) Robert Kagan has a <a href="http://voices.washingtonpost.com/postpartisan/2009/12/obamas_lonely_decision.html“>characteristically trenchant analysis, which includes some well-deserved sharp jabs at Joe Biden.