Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Disease of More

Pat O'Reilly, the NBA coach and now team president (or whatever), wrote about the Disease of More, which then became the Disease of Me.  That after winning a championship, it is harder to repeat because the individual players focus on themselves rather than the team.  Well, in US foreign policy, the Disease of More is a bit different: it is the Washington, DC and media tendency to think that the only way for the US to be engaged is to send more troops.  That not sending troops or removing troops is "disengagement" or isolationism.

Obama was accused of being isolationist when he would be reluctant to use force--dithering over the eventual surge in Afghanistan, refusing to send troops to Syria, etc.  This is a failure of imagination, a failure to learn lessons, and it is an incredibly dumb way to stretch concepts so that they don't mean anything. 

Isolationism refers to staying out of things entirely.  The 1930s isolationists, including the America Firsters, were opposed to any assistance to the Europeans--a pox on both their houses, a fear that the US would get drawn in, and/or some Nazi sympathizers wanting US to stay out of it so that Hitler could win.  In the 21st century, there has been so much conflation of not using force with being isolationist.  Sure, perhaps Obama didn't want to spend so much time on the Mideast, but he did, his diplomats did, his national security staff did, and the US was heavily involved all along.

These days?  Trump has increased the troops to the region by something close to 50%, there are stories of potentially seeking bases in Syria, and on and on.  For what purpose?  When the American general said that the Taliban would soon be on the run in Afghanistan, that victory was around the corner, he was widely scoffed at.  Again, we need to figure out what the best tools for whatever it is that is the goal to be achieved. 

The costs of using force have always been underestimated:
  • the recent NYT story indicates that the US may have killed 30 times more civilians in Iraq than previously estimated
  • civilian casualties are probably making things worse by generating new hostiles
  • the $ cost at home is over $5-6 trillion and growing and will keep on going up for as long as the veterans of these wars are alive (the US only recently stopped paying the costs of WWI).
  • the twitter accounts that remind of us of this date in history are reminding me that the Russians thought Finland would be a walkover around this date in 1939.  Um, no. 
We need to think about how to measure success besides focusing on inputs (more troops).  We need to figure out what kinds of strategies and tactics actually work.  And, yes, we need to have a lot more humility about how effective US troops can be.  That probably requires American leaders to figure out what they want.... and that is hard to do when the US national security bureaucracy is fully staffed with sharp people.  These days?  Many positions are unfilled, and we have incompetents (Trump, Tilleson) and racists (Trump, Kelly) at the top.

Oh, and hoping that Mattis will save us?  Wishful thinking is just that.

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