David Brooks’s Afghanistan Straw Man

In a Campaign Desk piece today, I talk about the reflexive hawkishness of various big-deal think tanks and op-ed columnists when it comes to American policy in Afghanistan. One particular David Brooks column—the most clear-throated call The New York Times has published for an escalation of the war effort—demands close scrutiny, and Stephen Walt provides some, via a Duke political scientist, here.

In addition to the points raised by Walt’s correspondent, Brooks’s column is an impressive display of straw-man building: in his scenario, the only alternative to his preferred course of action is full withdrawal. “These are the realistic choices for America’s Afghanistan policy — all out or all in, surrender the place to the Taliban or do armed nation-building,” Brooks writes. But in fact, people inside and outside the government have begun to consider a stripped-down counterterrorism mission that would attempt to keep pressure on al Qaeda but not focus on building Afghan state institutions. It’s not at all clear this would be an effective approach, and Brooks has every right to disagree with it, but it’s disingenuous to dismiss it out of hand.

Then there’s his citation of CFR’s Stephen Biddle. Biddle’s American Interest essay making “the difficult case” for the war is thoughtful stuff, and Brooks represents it fairly. But readers who find the argument—which is that stability in Pakistan, which is key to American interests, depends on stability in Afghanistan—may be discomfited by Spencer Ackerman’s account of a conference call Biddle participated in in late July. Asked whether the “Pakistan depends on Afghanistan” claim didn’t sound a wee bit like Vietnam-era domino theory, Biddle said:

I think that’s a very important analogy to keep in mind. I thought the analogy between Iraq and Vietnam was misguided and unhelpful. I think the analogy between Afghanistan and Vietnam is potentially a good deal closer. The underlying nature of this conflict is much closer to Vietnam than Iraq ever was. That doesn’t necessarily mean the same outcome is foreordained. And I think a central implication of all this for anyone who decides that this close call on the merits should not be resolved in favor of withdrawal is if you’re going to stay, you need to make darn sure that we get a better outcome than we did in Vietnam. That we fix some of the mistakes we made then and we do it right this way.

And remember—Biddle’s thinking is one of the factors Brooks cites to support a new commitment to the war!

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.