Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Political Genius of the Opt-Out

With the unveiling of the opt-out provision for the public option in the Senate health-care reform bill, Harry Reid may have sprung an ingenious trap. Sully begins the analysis:
Well, there has to be a debate in every state in which Republicans, where they hold a majority or the governorship, will presumably decide to deny their own voters the option to get a cheaper health insurance plan. When others in other states can get such a plan, will there not be pressure on the GOP to help their own base? Won't Bill O'Reilly's gaffe - when he said what he believed rather than what Roger Ailes wants him to say - be salient? Won't many people - many Republican voters - actually ask: why can't I have what they're having?

This is why this is lethal. The argument against new entitlements requires a macro-level perspective. You have to argue that although a measure may help an individual get something she wouldn't otherwise have - like adequate and reliable, if barebones, health insurance - its consequences will come back to haunt us all. You have to remind people that money doesn't grow on trees, that in the long run, more government involvement might hurt healthcare excellence, that you just need to rely on the wonderful private sector to deliver the goods in a more market-friendly way. This is always a tough sell because it requires voters to put abstract concerns over practical short-term gains. It's why conservatism always has a tough time in welfare state democracies.

But with health insurance companies, the GOP may not only have to make this argument, they may be onto a defining alliance they really, really don't want or need.

Imagine Republicans in state legislatures having to argue and posture against an affordable health insurance plan for the folks, as O'Reilly calls them, while evil liberals provide it elsewhere. Now, of course, if the public option is a disaster in some states, this argument could work in the long run. But in the short run? It's political nightmare for the right as it is currently constituted. In fact, I can see a public option becoming the equivalent of Medicare in the public psyche if it works as it should. Try running against Medicare.
Kevin Drum adds:
If it passes, then for the next four years Republican state legislators all over the country will be teaming up with the universally loathed insurance industry to try and deny their citizens access to a program that, to most of them, sounds like a pretty good deal. I don't know if Harry Reid was deviously thinking exactly that thought when he decided on this, but I'll bet someone was. It's hard to think of something that could force the GOP to make itself even more unpopular than it already is, but this might be it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Bring in the Drones

Scott Horton has a fascinating discussion about the appropriate use of dronesto remotely attack enemies of the US in the context of human rights, collateral damage and the rules of war. He raises questions on the degree of oversight of these operations, but concludes that such attacks in war zones are legitimate. However, as the targets become less significant and the innocent losses increase, the issues of accountablity becomes more difficult to analyze. His post was triggered by an article in the current New Yorker by Jane Mayer, and Horton includes a fascinating and chilling description of a recent successful operation.
On August 5th, officials at the Central Intelligence Agency, in Langley, Virginia, watched a live video feed relaying closeup footage of one of the most wanted terrorists in Pakistan. Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Taliban in Pakistan, could be seen reclining on the rooftop of his father-in-law’s house, in Zanghara, a hamlet in South Waziristan. It was a hot summer night, and he was joined outside by his wife and his uncle, a medic; the remarkably crisp images showed the uncle administering an intravenous drip to Mehsud, who suffered from diabetes and a kidney ailment.

The video was being captured by the infrared camera of a Predator drone, a remotely controlled, unmanned plane that had been hovering, undetected, two miles or so above the house. Pakistan’s Interior Minister, A. Rehman Malik, told me recently that Mehsud was resting on his back. Malik, using his hands to make a picture frame, explained that the Predator’s targeters could see Mehsud’s entire body, not just the top of his head. “It was a perfect picture,” Malik, who watched the videotape later, said. “We used to see James Bond movies where he talked into his shoe or his watch. We thought it was a fairy tale. But this was fact!” The image remained just as stable when the C.I.A. remotely launched two Hellfire missiles from the Predator. Authorities watched the fiery blast in real time. After the dust cloud dissipated, all that remained of Mehsud was a detached torso. Eleven others died: his wife, his father-in-law, his mother-in-law, a lieutenant, and seven bodyguards.

The Origins of the Deficit

Bruce Bartlett looks at actual budget numbers and pins the budget deficit in the year that ended Sept 30s to Bush Administration policies.  Bartlett continues his epochal rejection of Republican orthodoxy as he returns to the reality-based universe.
According to the Congressional Budget Office’s January 2009 estimate for fiscal year 2009, outlays were projected to be $3,543 billion and revenues were projected to be $2,357 billion, leaving a deficit of $1,186 billion. Keep in mind that these estimates were made before Obama took office, based on existing law and policy, and did not take into account any actions that Obama might implement.

Therefore, unless one thinks that McCain would have somehow or other raised taxes and cut spending (with a Democratic Congress), rather than enacting a stimulus of his own, then a deficit of $1.2 trillion was baked in the cake the day Obama took office. Any suggestion that McCain would have brought in a lower deficit is simply fanciful.

Now let’s fast forward to the end of fiscal year 2009, which ended on September 30. According to CBO, it ended with spending at $3,515 billion and revenues of $2,106 billion for a deficit of $1,409 billion.

To recap, the deficit came in $223 billion higher than projected, but spending was $28 billion and revenues were $251 billion less than expected. Thus we can conclude that more than 100 percent of the increase in the deficit since January is accounted for by lower revenues. Not one penny is due to higher spending.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Death of the New Right

A neat summary of the rise and fall of the New Right movement from its birth after World War II to its collapse with the election of Obama from a review of Sam Tanenhaus's new book, The Death of Conservatism by Carl Bogus of The American Prospect.
First, as the New Right sees it, the Establishment is truly untrustworthy. Some liberal leaders are naive; but others might be disloyal. This was what Joseph McCarthy preached. It was the theme of None Dare Call it Treason, a 1964 book by little-known author John A. Stormer that became a cult classic of the New Right, selling 7 million copies. And it was also the raison d'être of the John Birch Society, whose leader, Robert Welch, declared that "the chances are very strong that Milton Eisenhower [the president's brother and a college president] is actually Dwight Eisenhower's superior and boss within the Communist Party." William F. Buckley Jr. deftly gave the conservative movement a patina of respectability by repudiating Welch and the Birchers, whom he labeled as kooks, and by drawing a distinction between McCarthy, whose personal flaws he acknowledged, and McCarthyism, which Buckley claimed was necessary to save the republic. The theme of untrustworthy leaders endangering the nation persists despite the end of the Cold War. It is why some fret that President Obama is a secret Muslim who pals around with terrorists.

Second, distrust of the Establishment is connected to questions of class. McCarthy said that the traitors had "the finest homes, the finest college education and finest jobs in government." New Rightists saw Alger Hiss as the quintessential example of the privileged traitor whom the Establishment refused to condemn, despite damning evidence. The modern conservative movement has always seen itself as a populist insurgency, and liberals misapprehend it when they see the movement as an unswerving ally of big business.

Third, and most important, because the Establishment was ensconced at the highest levels of government, New Rightists came to see government itself as an enemy. This is what lies at the heart of modern conservatism's hostility to government. In line with an older tradition in the GOP, the modern Republican presidents not connected to the conservative movement -- Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush -- respected constitutional processes and governmental structure, implementing laws enacted by Congress even when they disagreed with them. But Tanenhaus argues that each of three modern Republican presidents with close relationships to the modern conservative movement -- Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush -- felt no such obligation and indeed carried out plans (in the Watergate affair, Iran-Contra, and secret surveillance and torture policies) that they deemed "too urgent to be trusted to the traditional channels of government."

Because the modern conservative movement has always seen the republic in peril and itself as the only reliable savior, it came to place allegiance to the movement and its ideology above all else.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Glenn Beck to the Rescue...of the Democrats

Dave Weigel in the Washington Independent comments on the role Glenn Beck is actually playing in the efforts of the Republicans to provide a viable alternative to Obama and the Democrats (h/t Sully),
I think the story misses something about the party’s Glenn Beck problem. It’s not just that conservative pundits like Beck, Rush Limbaugh, et al., are unpopular and controversial. It’s that they drive the GOP into very strange places.

The Democrats are in worse political shape than they were a year ago because unemployment is at 9.8 percent, the war in Afghanistan has grown less popular, and the bailouts of struggling banks are seen as wastes of money that haven’t worked. Republicans benefit when they talk about this stuff. But Beck and the others don’t let them talk about this stuff. For the past few months, they have moved the discussion onto fantasy terrain, accusing the president of reaching for dictatorial powers and surrounding himself with “radicals” who want to destroy capitalism.

In retrospect, the successful campaign against Van Jones, the former green jobs czar who resigned in September, was the turning point in the relationship between commentators and Republicans. Elected Republicans were not really talking about Jones until after Beck, with material from WorldNetDaily and conservative groups, had spent weeks pounding Jones for old, on-the-record quotes about how he’d once considered himself a “communist” and how Republicans were “a-holes.” When Beck discovered, via conservative blogger Jim Hoft, that Jones had signed a “9/11 truth” petition, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) became the first Republican to demand his resignation. And when Jones quit, Beck and the conservative commentary class gained clout. Since then, Republicans have obsessively gone after the president’s “czars” (a nonsense issue I’ve dealt with in the past) and after specific members of the administration, like “safe schools czar” Kevin Jennings and White House Communications Director Anita Dunn, whom conservative commentators were attacking for their past statements and associations.

This isn’t to say Republicans have been distracted or unsuccessful in Congress. They’ve certainly scored victories during this period. And by paying attention to these conservative witch hunts, they’ve definitely kept their base revved up. But in the current political context, it seems like they’re missing the forest for some shrubs. It’s as if Democrats tried to press their advantages in 2005 not by going after the Iraq War or the mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, but by spending weeks attacking mid-ranking members of his administration and claiming that President George W. Bush was driving the nation toward fascism. And remember, one of the huge political mistakes of 2005 was the Republican decision to do a full-court press on an issue that had come from conservative activists and pundits: the fate of Terri Schiavo.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Counterterrorism, the Constitution, and Human Rights

Adam Serwer on Tapped discusses a conference he attended on counterterrorism and a speech given by Marine General Doug Stone, who headed the detention, deradicalization, and reintegration effort in Iraq, in which Stone points to the US Constitution as the basis for our winning the fight.
Stone's basic argument was this: The fight against terrorism is as much an ideological "debate" as a physical battle, and it's a battle that is increasingly taking place in spaces of detention--Bagram, Pol-e-Charki, Guantanamo Bay. Stone says the goal should be to "empower moderates and isolate extremists" so the United States' detention policy--it's humaneness or lack thereof, its adherence to the rule of law--is essential, as is engaging the assistance of local religious leaders in offering an alternative ideology.

"I took an oath to defend and support the Constitution of the United States ... what is the Constitution?" Stone asked. "It is a rule of law [document], it is, with the Declaration [of Independence], perhaps the most profound human-rights statement in the history of civilization that we know. ... The debate we're engaged in is about the rule of law and human rights."

The conditions in Afghan prisons have long been the focus of human-rights groups -- but recently Gen. Stanley McChrystal cited them as a key factor in the growth of Islamic radicalism. Among his recommendations for reforming the system in Afghanistan, Stone suggested streamlining the process so that detainees are dealt with in a timely manner, and giving them meaningful opportunities to challenge their detention -- not necessarily in U.S. courts, however. I'll get more into his specific recommendations later, when I'm done transcribing the entire speech.

But I was struck by how forcefully Stone emphasized respect for human rights as an essential part of fighting terrorism, as well as the reality that many of the people detained aren't necessarily terrorists -- the exact opposite of the Bush claim that everyone they captured was necessarily among "the worst of the worst."

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Obama Process

Sully on Obama and his decision-making process:
There is a strange quality to Barack Obama’s pragmatism. It can look like dilly-dallying, weakness, indecisiveness. But although he may seem weak at times, one of the words most applicable to him is something else entirely: ruthless. Beneath the crisp suit and easy smile there is a core of strategic steel. In this respect, Obama’s domestic strategy is rather like his foreign one — not so much weakness but the occasional appearance of weakness as a kind of strategy.
The pattern is now almost trademarked. He carefully lays out the structural message he is trying to convey. At home, it is: we all have to fix the mess left by Bush-Cheney. Abroad, it is: we all have to fix the mess left by Bush-Cheney. And then ... not much.
The agenda may be clear. He wants an engaged Iran without nuclear weapons. He wants to be the first American president to enact universal health insurance coverage. He wants a sane two-state solution for Israel/Palestine. He wants to leave Iraq without having it blow up on him. He wants to find a way to solve the AfPak Rubik’s Cube. He wants to allow gays to serve openly in the military. But on all these things, it’s mid-October and still ... nothing substantive. So obviously, he’s a total fraud and failure, right?


He sets out a goal and then he waits. He waits for the other players to show their hand. He starts a process that itself reveals that certain options are unfeasible, until he is revealed by events to have no other choice but ... well, the least worst practical way forward. He always knows that things can change, and waits for the optimal moment to seize the initiative.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Obama and the Race Speech

Robert Draper writes in GQ about Obama and the race speech (h/t Sully):
This was especially true last March 13, when the incendiary sermons of Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, blew up all over the cable networks. On that Thursday, Obama had spent the entire day and evening in the Senate. That Friday, after enduring a series of tough interviews, Obama informed Axelrod and campaign manager David Plouffe, “I want to do a speech on race.” And he added, “I want to make this speech no later than next Tuesday. I don’t think it can wait.” Axelrod and Plouffe tried to talk him into delaying it: He had a full day of campaigning on Saturday, a film shoot on Sunday, and then another hectic day campaigning in Pennsylvania on Monday. Obama was insistent. On the Saturday-morning campaign conference call, Favreau was told to get to work on a draft immediately. Favreau replied, “I’m not writing this until I talk to him.”

That evening, Saint Patrick’s Day, less than seventy-two hours before the speech would be delivered to a live audience, Favreau was sitting alone in an unfurnished group house in Chicago when the boss called. “I’m going to give you some stream of consciousness,” Obama told him. Then he spoke for about forty-five minutes, laying out his speech’s argumentative construction. Favreau thanked him, hung up, considered the enormity of the task and the looming deadline, and then decided he was “too freaked out by the whole thing” to write and went out with friends instead. On Sunday morning at seven, the speechwriter took his laptop to a coffee shop and worked there for thirteen hours. Obama received Favreau’s draft at eight that evening and wrote until three in the morning.

He hadn’t finished by Monday at 8 a.m., when he set the draft aside to spend the day barnstorming across Pennsylvania. At nine thirty that night, a little more than twelve hours before the speech was to be delivered, Obama returned to his hotel room to do more writing. At two in the morning, the various BlackBerrys of Axelrod, Favreau, Plouffe, and Jarrett sounded with a message from the candidate: Here it is. Favs, feel free to tweak the words. Everyone else, the content here is what I want to say. Axelrod stood in the dark reading the text: “The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made.… But what we know—what we have seen—is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope—the audacity to hope—for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”

He e-mailed Obama: This is why you should be president.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Keep America Safe?

Scott Horton on the new Liz Cheney-Bill Kristol public policy creation:
If you enjoy fear-mongering, here’s a not-for-profit organization for you: Keep America Safe. William Kristol and Liz Cheney are the dynamic duo behind it. Cheney is just off a Sunday talk show appearance in which she explained that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the president of the United States—a decision that coincides with new polls showing America suddenly resurgent as the most admired nation in the world—actually reflects the loss of American leadership and a disdain for America. That was just a taste of the Bizarro World that also appears in a video issued by Keep America Safe. It appears to be stitched together from segments broadcast by Fox News, few of which stand up to fact-checking. (For instance, it suggests that Obama has stripped the defense budget, when in fact this year’s budget is $40 billion larger than last year’s. Charles Krauthammer tells us Obama hasn’t decided what to do about Afghanistan. In fact, Obama has already rejected the idea of a draw-down, so the only question that his team is deliberating is how large the new contingent of troops will be. That contrasts with the Bush-Cheney team, which received a comparable appeal for more troops from its Afghanistan commanders in April 2008, and decided to ignore it.) So, considering that the major departures Obama has made from Bush strategy actually involve more robust use of the military—especially in Afghanistan and in the Pakistani border region—what is it that Obama has done that makes America unsafe?

I’d reduce the real purpose of Keep America Safe to this: “Please don’t prosecute my father!” It’s increasingly clear that Dick Cheney was the author of the Bush-era torture policies, and my hunch is that when the Justice Department releases the OPR report on the torture memos, we’re going to find more evidence of the invisible hand of Dick Cheney behind the whole project. Any fair-minded federal prosecutor looking into the matter would shortly be preparing to do what Patrick Fitzgerald probably wishes now he had done: indict Dick Cheney.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Burying the Supply Side

Bruce Bartlett is an economist who worked with Jack Kemp in creating the original supply-side tax cuts that were embraced by the Republican Party and Ronald Reagan beginning in 1980. He has since rejected that approach and become an outspoken critic of Republican tax policies. In his new book, The New American Economy, and on his blog, he discusses why his economic philosophy has changed.
During the George W. Bush years, however, I think SSE (supply-side economics) became distorted into something that is, frankly, nuts--the ideas that there is no economic problem that cannot be cured with more and bigger tax cuts, that all tax cuts are equally beneficial, and that all tax cuts raise revenue.

These incorrect ideas led to the enactment of many tax cuts that had no meaningful effect on economic performance. Many were just give-aways to favored Republican constituencies, little different, substantively, from government spending. What, after all, is the difference between a direct spending program and a refundable tax credit? Nothing, really, except that Republicans oppose the first because it represents Big Government while they support the latter because it is a "tax cut."

I think these sorts of semantic differences cloud economic decisionmaking rather than contributing to it. As a consequence, we now have a tax code riddled with tax credits and other tax schemes of dubious merit, expiring provisions that never expire, and an income tax that fully exempts almost on half of tax filers from paying even a penny to support the general operations of the federal government.

The supply-siders are to a large extent responsible for this mess, myself included. We opened Pandora's Box when we got the Republican Party to abandon the balanced budget as its signature economic policy and adopt tax cuts as its raison d'être. In particular, the idea that tax cuts will "starve the beast" and automatically shrink the size of government is extremely pernicious.

Indeed, by destroying the balanced budget constraint, starve-the-beast theory actually opened the flood gates of spending. As I explained in a recent column, a key reason why deficits restrained spending in the past is because they led to politically unpopular tax increases. But if, as Republicans now maintain, taxes must never be increased at any time for any reason then there is never any political cost to raising spending and cutting taxes at the same time, as the Bush 43 administration and a Republican Congress did year after year.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Pre-Existing Insanity

As if the concept of pre-existing condition could not be more bizarre, Steve Benen picks up on the story of an overweight infant denied coverage in Colorado.
  • Imagine having a perfectly healthy two month old baby and having your insurance company tell you they won't cover him. One [Grand Junction, Colo.] family says that's what's happened to them.
  • Baby Alex is a happy, adorable, big baby. And now at three months old, the family's insurance company says he's not eligible for coverage.
  • Alex eats well, is growing fast and has no pre-existing conditions. But his mom Kelli says their insurance company says he's just too big. "Insurance standards say if he's above 95 percent he's uninsurable."
  • Because of his size, Alex was turned down for health insurance, his height and weight put him in the 99th percentile according to CDC guidelines.
The baby is healthy, but is nevertheless considered "obese." The insurance company said "a number has to be used as a cutoff," so Alex was out of luck, through no fault of his own

The baby's father added, "I could understand if we could control what he's eating. But he's 4 months old. He's breast-feeding. We can't put him on the Atkins diet or on a treadmill. There is just something absurd about denying an infant."
After the story went public, the insurance company backed down. But, still....

RNC Web Fail

Steve Benen notes some of the highlights of the new website rolled out today by the Republican National Committee. In addition to struggling with intermittent crashes, RNC head Michael Steele has produced some real gems:
* The site includes a new two-page section on Republican "heroes." It features quite a few historic African Americans -- note to the RNC: you're trying way too hard -- including legendary baseball player Jackie Robinson, who wasn't actually a Republican.

* Steele has a blog on the site. It's called "What Up." The first sentence reads, "The Internet has been around a while, now." Seriously, that's exactly what it says.

* The site features a timeline of Republican Party "accomplishments," dating back to 1860. The last entry is from 2004, and refers to directing federal funds to private religious schools in D.C., in a voucher program that's failed in a variety of ways. The previous "accomplishment" was the launch of the Iraq war in 2003 (the piece also spells "Iraq" incorrectly). According to the RNC's own new website, the Republican Party hasn't had any accomplishments in the last five years.

* The RNC created a page for "future leaders" of the party. It's literally blank.

* Steele's first blog post asks readers, "Why are you are Republican? Think about that for a minute."
Sure beats me!!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

You Won the Nobel Peace Prize, Now What?

Kevin Drum comments on Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal's op-ed in Friday's WaPo.
Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's former intelligence chief, obviously didn't know that Barack Obama was about to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize when he wrote his op-ed about Afghanistan in this morning's Washington Post, but he sure sets out some Nobel-worthy goals in his piece.  Here are two of his six bullets:
  • Fix the Durand Line. As long as this border drawn by the British is not fixed, Pakistan and Afghanistan will be at loggerheads and always suspicious of one another. A joint development project for the border area, announced by both Pakistan and Afghanistan, and supported by the United States and the world community, will direct people's eyes to the future rather than the past.
  • Push India and Pakistan to fix Kashmir. That is doable, once both countries see a determined effort by the United States in that direction. Both countries are beholden to the United States -- Pakistan for the military and financial support it receives and India for the nuclear energy agreement it has signed with Washington.
OK then!  Just fix two problems that are among the oldest, most intractable border disputes on the planet.  And then in his second term Obama will be freed up to negotiate that long-awaited peace treaty with Mars.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Health Care Reform Turns the Corner

Paul Krugman notes that it is beginning to look likehealth care reform is going to pass,
What’s actually happening, though, is that the backlash crested mid-summer, and that there is now at least a modest backlash against the backlash. At the same time, the Obama administration has made it clear that they will push something through, using reconciliation if necessary, and in effect put Democrats who don’t go along on the spot.
And all this in turn means that Democrats who probably don’t really want reform have lost what they had in 1993: safety in numbers. It’s one thing to let health care die quietly; it’s another to be one of the, say, two Democratic senators responsible for denying cloture and blocking the party’s most important domestic policy initiative since Medicare, and then to be blamed, rightly or wrongly, for big losses in the midterms.
So the odds now are that the thing hangs together, and reform is indeed enacted this year. It will be a highly flawed product; we’ll probably spend much of the next decade trying to fix it.
But it does look as if it’s going to happen. And that will be a huge victory for progressives.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Pirate Fail

Oops...from the BBC:
A group of Somali pirates has been captured after attacking a French navy ship by mistake, apparently thinking it was a harmless cargo vessel.

French military spokesman Admiral Christophe Prazuck said the pirates attacked in skiffs late at night some 500km (310 miles) off the Somali coast.

But the command and supply ship, the Somme, repelled the attack and chased the pirates, capturing five of them.
Probably not how they were taught to do it in pirate school....

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Afghan Muddling

Marc Lynch, who writes the Abu Aardvark blog for Foreign Policy, poses a fundamental question on the options facing the Obama Administration as it struggles with the decision as to what to do in Afghanistan (h/t Ezra).
I've been hearing two things a lot about the President's choices on Afghanistan strategy: first, that it's time to either "go all in or get out", the second that he is "dithering" in the face of an urgent decision. Both seem to me profoundly unhelpful, driven more by political positioning than by serious analysis. Sending more troops may in fact be the right call -- I'm open-minded on that question -- but the attempts to bull-rush the process are problematic on their face.

"All in or get out" is a typical false choice offered by advocates of any position who support the "all in" option in question, since it's so much easier to argue the risks of "getting out" than it is to argue against intermediate options. And as for the rush, why make such a momentous choice precisely at a moment of total political chaos in Afghanistan and the near complete absence of a legitimate partner on which to build due to the rampant fraud which eviscerated the Afghan election?
He goes on to dispute the argument that since we need to have a debate at some point, why not have it now and get it over with and also notes his skepticism on several key points.
I'm skeptical about the ambitious goals on offer because the odds of it succeeding on those terms are exceedingly low. If the goal is the creation of a functioning, effective, legitimate Afghan state then I would say the prospects are close to zero. Not with 40,000 troops, not with 400,000 troops, not in twelve months and not in twelve years. Afghanistan has gone through nearly thirty years of non-stop war and is as close to a functional anarchy as most anyplace on Earth. I am unmoved by arguments that there was once a decent state fifty or a hundred years ago. Thirty years of continuous war and anarchy are not so easily overcome – with or without the Afghan election fiasco. If the goal is lower than that – local level security, keeping the Taliban on the ropes, etc – then maybe this can be done for a while. More troops would help do it in more places, but I doubt it would add up to the national level.

Which brings me to a serious question: what’s so terrible with muddling through for a while, giving the new tactics a chance to work at the local level while preventing the worst-case scenarios from happening? Why choose between escalation or withdrawal at exactly the time when the political picture is at its least clear? Why not maintain a lousy Afghan government which doesn’t quite fall, keep the Taliban on the ropes without defeating it, cut deals where we can, and try to figture out a strategy to deal with the Pakistan part which all the smart set agrees is the real issue these days? Why not focus on applying the improved COIN tactics with available resources right now instead of focusing on more troops? If the American core objective in Afghanistan is to prevent its re-emergence as an al-Qaeda safe haven, or to prevent the Taliban from taking Kabul, those seem to be manageable at lower troop levels.