On Assumptions and the Use of Force

I’ve been doing some thinking in preparation for my debate tomorrow night with Mark Jacobson hosted by the Pell Center at Salve Regina University. We’ll be talking Afghanistan policy, mostly looking forward, but it is hard to discuss where we are going without considering where we’ve been.

Anyway, it has become a truism that the Bush Administration blundered badly in Iraq when it assumed (wished?) we’d be greeted as liberators in 2003. Instead of a grateful, helpful, eager population, we found the Iraqis, instead, to be resentful, focused on avenging past grievances, and generally non-cooperative.  I think most people now see this as unsurprising, and our failure to plan accordingly a cause of much avoidable heartache.

In 2009, we dramatically expanded our presence in Afghanistan on the assumption that we could, in short order, establish security in the country, promote self-sustaining development, establish competent security forces, and stabilize and legitimize existing political institutions. As it turns out, none of this has worked out quite as planned. There was more violence in 2009 than in 2008, more in 2010 than 2009, more in 2011 than in 2010. The first quarter of 2012 was better than the first quarter of 2011, but only back to the 2010 level, and still higher even peak levels in 2008-9. So maybe we’re finally seeing a downturn, but I think that is a premature conclusion. There are increasing doubts about the effectiveness of development initiatives. And well, as Joshua Foust ably demonstrates, evidence on security forces and legitimacy is decidedly mixed or lacking.

I would argue that these outcomes in Afghanistan are unsurprising.

So I guess my question is, which set of assumptions was more (un)likely a priori? The assumption of being greeted as liberators? Or the assumption that we could somehow transform a poor, war-torn country into a nation able to essentially fend for itself against a well-established insurgency?

I don’t have a firm answer, but I have to say that simply by virtue of their scope, the 2009 assumptions were even more unlikely than the 2003 ones. In 2003, the Bush admin was essentially hoping that the Iraqi state could be decapitated, but that it would otherwise continue to function according to the status quo. The Obama admin, instead, was banking on being able to induce a pretty major transformation of Afghan society under fire.

Now, I am not saying the Obama decision was worse. Bush had the option of doing nothing, i.e. not invading Iraq. Obama was faced with a war in progress, so I think it is fair to cut him a little slack there. But purely on the basis of key assumptions, the 2009 surge was easily as badly reasoned as was the invasion of Iraq.

The Limits of Development in Afghanistan

From the WaPo:

A U.S. initiative to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on construction projects in Afghanistan, originally pitched as a vital tool in the military campaign against the Taliban, is running so far behind schedule that it will not yield benefits until most U.S. combat forces have departed the country, according to a government inspection report to be released Monday.

The report, by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, also concludes that the Afghan government will not have the money or skill to maintain many of the projects, creating an “expectations gap” among the population that could harm overall stabilization efforts.

Um… no shit? But yeah, who could have known?

How about… everyone. Afghanistan is a tremendously poor country. It has very, very limited infrastructure and capacity. Oh, and by the way, there is a f__ing war raging in the middle of it. But somehow, the country is supposed to absorb annual development funds that represent a significant portion of GDP? In what world does that possibly work?

As I have pointed out many times, the problem with Afghanistan policy isn’t that I just happened to be on the opposite side of a debate where reasonable people could disagree. The problem is that the policy as it was developed was perhaps the laziest effort imaginable. Proponents of COIN and nation building in Afghanistan have never, ever done even the most cursory due diligence on their proposals. The whole policy is built on a series of demonstrably false propositions.

But yeah, what’s a few thousand lives and a few hundred billion wasted among friends?


The Economics of Pot and the Nature of the “Obvious”

Yglesias highlights a new book that argues:

There’s been relatively little analysis of what a legal marijuana industry might look like. One key but little-appreciated fact is that, according to persuasive research by Jonathan Caulkins, Angela Hawken, Beau Kilmer, and Mark Kleiman in their new book Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs To Know, is that legal pot would be amazingly cheap. In fact, midgrade stuff would be so cheap that it might make sense for businesses to give it away like ketchup packets or bar nuts.

America’s farmlands are some of the most productive in the world, thanks in no small part to technology and the existence of scale sufficient to leverage that technology. Even what Americans think of as a small family farm is quite large compared with an illicit marijuana operation. There are no amber waves of cannabis anywhere in the world today, but under a true legalization regime there would be. And this makes all the difference.

How cheaply could pot be grown with advanced farming techniques? One potential data point is Canada’s industrial hemp industry, where production costs are about $500 per acre. If the kind of mid-grade commercial weed that accounts for about 80 percent of the U.S. market could be grown that cheaply, it implies costs of about 20 cents per pound of smokable material: Enough pot to fill more than 800 modest-sized half-gram joints for less than a quarter!

The superficial ineffectiveness of prohibition masks a huge impact on the supply side that, for better or for worse, is what stands between America and much cheaper highs.

This is fascinating. Not the pot angle which is interesting enough, but the nature of the argument itself which is both absolutely, unambiguously, obviously true once stated, and yet something which literally had never occurred to me. Nor, indeed, is this an argument I can recall being well enunciated elsewhere.

And it isn’t like I haven’t thought about marijuana legalization before. I have. I support it. I still do. I do because in the final analysis I consider marijuana prohibition to be an arbitrary and unnecessary imposition on personal freedom. But the full economic consequences of this, particularly for marijuana pricing, never occurred to me. And yet, it is obvious, isn’t it now that you’ve heard it?

I love these sorts of arguments. Just a great reminder about how often we can miss big things that are staring us right in the face.

On Islamists and Rick Santorum

Crossposted from BJ.com:

On Islamists and Rick Santorum

Yesterday, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Lauren Morgan posted an interesting piece on “Islamism in the Popular Imagination” over at Gunpowder and Lead. It makes two main argument, one poorly and one quite well, but both are important in their own way. The piece is written using a HuffPo piece by David Briggs entitled “Is It Time to Reconsider the Term Islamist?” as a foil.

First the weak argument. From Gartenstein-Ross:

Briggs bolsters his case by quoting Mansoor Moaddel, an Eastern Michigan University sociologist, as saying that in his interviews, he found that “‘in some respects, Mr. Santorum is more extremist’ than leading figures of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.” Nor is Briggs the only Western commentator to fatuously compare Santorum to Islamic extremists. To actually approach the claim being made by Briggs and others — that Islamist politicians possess an agenda that is less extreme than that of Rick Santorum — a better approach is to look at the practice in Middle Eastern states, as well as the policies advocated by Islamist politicians with significant audiences (as opposed to mere fringe players).

GR argues convincingly that policies put in place by Islamist parties throughout the Middle East are more extreme than Santorum. And indeed, on issues like religious freedom, women’s rights, and gay rights, GR is quite correct. Islamist regimes are worse than anything Santorum has proposed.

But I’d argue this is an apples to oranges comparison. Santorum’s limits are defined, I think, more by the limits imposed by American institutions rather his ideology per se. In other words, GR is comparing institutionally unconstrained ideological positions with those heavy constrained by institutions. It actually is not at all difficult to find actors on the right who would like to see religious freedom severely curtailed. Indeed, there is even a “Constitutional theory” out there among right wingers than Muslims should not receive First Amendment protections because either Islam is a “cult” or because it was not extant in any significant way in the United States when the Bill of Rights was ratified.

In terms of gay rights, there are also plenty on the right who would like to see homosexuality recriminalized, and even subjected to the death penalty. And, of course, Santorum himself has notable compared homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality.

It is surely true that Santorum is not worse than various Islamist regimes in the Middle East, in terms of religious freedom, women’s rights, and gay rights, but man that is damning with faint praise isn’t it? But the bigger issue is that comparing ideology to ideology is perhaps more useful than comparing policy outcomes simply because institutions matter. What makes Santorum less of a menace to Muslims, women, and gays isn’t his “moderate” beliefs; rather it is that he operates in an institutional context where his maximalist positions are so absurd that they don’t even become part of the discussion…. until they do, of course. Until this past year, who would have imagined that access to contraception would reappear on the national agenda? I could have sworn that was settled two generations ago.

On the other hard, Gartenstein-Ross’s piece raises what is, indeed, an important policy challenge for progressives, namely what our stance ought to be in dealing with Islamist regimes that do indeed have very poor records on issues of freedom of religious/conscience, women’s rights, and gay rights.

Now, I know that in merely broaching this topic, I will be accused on somehow shilling for Israel. Just to clarify, I’m not. I consider Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to be both criminal and criminally stupid, and I think our economic aid to Israel makes us complicit in this criminality and stupidity. I wish it would stop, or that we’d at least use the leverage it provides to encourage some sort of fair solution. But, I promise I’ll write more about Israel later. This piece is not about Israel, but rather about some of the appalling human rights issues in the Arab/Muslim world.

As Mona Eltahawy’s crie de coeur argues:

Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend. When more than 90 percent of ever-married women in Egypt—including my mother and all but one of her six sisters—have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty, then surely we must all blaspheme. When Egyptian women are subjected to humiliating “virginity tests” merely for speaking out, it’s no time for silence. When an article in the Egyptian criminal code says that if a woman has been beaten by her husband “with good intentions” no punitive damages can be obtained, then to hell with political correctness. And what, pray tell, are “good intentions”? They are legally deemed to include any beating that is “not severe” or “directed at the face.” What all this means is that when it comes to the status of women in the Middle East, it’s not better than you think. It’s much, much worse. Even after these “revolutions,” all is more or less considered well with the world as long as women are covered up, anchored to the home, denied the simple mobility of getting into their own cars, forced to get permission from men to travel, and unable to marry without a male guardian’s blessing—or divorce either.Not a single Arab country ranks in the top 100 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, putting the region as a whole solidly at the planet’s rock bottom. Poor or rich, we all hate our women.

The status of homosexuals is, if anything, even worse.

The tension arises because I would argue that the three core tenets of a progressive foreign policy ought to be:

  1. A skepticism of the utility of military force, with a resultant anti-militarist orientation. (Not anti-military, but anti-militarism.)


  1. A deep respect for the concept of self-determination which often manifests itself through adherence to anti-imperialist principles.


  1. A commitment to promote fundamental human rights.


The third is less historically grounded in the progressive tradition than the first two, but it is becoming increasingly important. The notion of a “responsibility to protect” as a fundamental limitation on state sovereignty is increasingly broadly accepted, and I think it is, in any case, a logical corollary to a human-focused conception of “self-determination.”

I think it is important for us to stand up against Muslim bashing in the United States. It is equally important to note that the “anti-Sharia” lunacy on the right is just that, lunacy. And yet, there is a real issue here in terms of our international relations with countries that do have quite poor records on human rights. As a practical matter, think we need to embrace the “Arab Spring,” and even be open to working with Islamist regimes if they come to power through democratic means. And yet, it does make me uneasy. Finding a way to balance these competing pressures is difficult, and I admit, it isn’t clear to me what precisely our position should be toward Islamist regimes that are either emerging democracies or long-standing allies that nonetheless have poor human rights rights.

Return of Normal Civ-Mil Relations

So, earlier today, I was arguing with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross about his post on Islamism, which I think is quite good by the way, although I felt it made an ill-conceived and pointless attempt to haul Rick Santorum into the mix in an ostensible effort to argue that American “Christianist” radicals are not really as radical as Islamist ones. Anyway, that is true as far as it goes, which isn’t very far since it is comparing apples to oranges in the sense that Santorum’s limits are defined, I think, more by the limits imposed by American institutions rather his ideology per se. In other words, GR is comparing institutionally unconstrained ideological positions with those heavy constrained by institutions. That has to matter… but that is a separate debate.

In this debate comes Aaron Ellis with a bit of pointless snark:

Now, I don’t mind a little snark. And I certainly don’t mind being reminded of my past mistakes. How else can you learn? But in this case, it is just wrong on so many fronts.

I never argued a coup was imminent, as the Seven Days in May reference suggests. What I did argue, from 2007 on, was that development in civil-military relations were extraordinary and far out of the usual American experience. I argued that having Petraeus be the face of Iraq policy was politically craven and that it was dangerous in that it politicized the military, as indeed the General Betray-Us ads clearly demonstrated. I later argued that the 2009 Afghanistan policy process was broken, and that military entrepreneurs such as Stanley McChrystal were going outside the bounds and trying to make policy. Again, basically all the published work since supports this position as well. Well, not Broadwell’s hagiography of Petraeus, but books by more respectable journalists have, I think, shown this to be true, including Chandrasekaran’s recent book. Then when McChrystal went off the reservation first at IISS and the in the Rolling Stone article, I suggested this was a MacArthuresque breach and that he should be fired. In the end, the President agreed with me on this score.

A lot of people pushed back throughout this process, including folks like Andrew Exum, Aaron Ellis, and Spencer Ackerman. Their argument, in short, was that I was hysterical and overreacting, and that nothing out of the usual was occurring at all. They claimed that I just disagreed with policy and was trying to blame it on the generals.

But look, that clearly wasn’t true, there was more going on. Once McChrystal was fired and Petraeus retired, things went back to normal. We still have a big war in Afghanistan, but General Allen isn’t the face of it. He’s not giving media circus Congressional testimony. He’s not appearing on the Sunday morning talk shows. He’s not inviting Rolling Stone reporters for boozy smoozefests in the hopes of winning over young liberals. He’s just, you know, doing his job.

We had a pretty major policy shift as we stepped up the drawn down date in Afghanistan, and guess what, there were no leaks of “strategic assessments” from military leaders to block/change the policy.

I mean, seriously, can anyone look at civil-military relations today and claim that they are the same as they were from 2006-2009? Of course not. Things are back to normal, and being back to normal we can appreciate how bizarre it was to have guys like Michael Hayden, Petraeus, and McChrystal running around with major policy roles, both in setting it and in selling it to the public.

In short, I was right. What was going on there was not the norm. So it is bizarre — and a little galling frankly — to see Ellis snarking it up when my arguments have been so well supported since.

UPDATE: Or think of the Libya decision, with which I disagreed, btw. Again, normal civil-military relations. Military in the background.

Broaden the Bain Focus

So I was recently invited to start posting on perhaps my favorite blog, Balloon Juice.

Crossposting my first substantive post:

Broadening the Bain Focus

In addition to the political benefits for Obama, another interesting dynamic is that attention to Romney’s career in the financial sector is, I think, prompting some additional attention to dubious practices in that sector. John posted on Bain’s interactions with Dade International, and mistermix posted on the NYT story about how Goldman screwed Dragon Systems. But there is an even bigger issue here that I want to raise.

Let me use Ezra Klein as a foil. He writes about the founding of Bain Capital:

Bill Bain’s idea was simple. His firm, Bain & Co., was making lots of money by advising companies in exchange for fees. The fact that it was making money was proof that its staff understood what it took to make struggling companies successful. So why not eliminate the middleman? Rather than advising companies for a fee only to watch the current management reap the big profits, Bain Capital would take over troubled companies, manage them to profitability and reap the rewards itself.

That is an curious spin, and one that Romney himself might offer. According to this model, corporate raiders like Romney are just turnaround specialists. They take over “troubled” companies, and right them.

And yes, this does happen. But this is only part of the story.

“Troubled” companies have a particular meaning on Wall Street. Sure, sometimes they refer to companies that are just muddled, have over-expanded, and are badly managed. But more often, what they are talking about is companies that do not seem to providing a large enough return to shareholders—a stagnating stock price in particular. But that does not mean a company is “troubled.” It can be quite profitable, have productive and loyal employees, have satisfied customers, and cash on hand.

What players like Bain do is enforce a Wall Street preference. There is a bias against companies that seek a “quiet life.” They are shunned by institutional investors, which depresses stock prices and makes these companies “troubled” in the first place. It isn’t that they are not profitable, but rather than institutional investors don’t like them, and as a result they trade at dramatically lower P/E ratios. Indeed, it isn’t even clear that takeover targets do have weaker stock performance if you look at total returns, including dividends.

Once a company goes public, it is essentially subject to “disciplinary” takeovers if it fails to act in accordance with financial sector preferences. This is often phrased as “poorly performing managers,” but what does that really mean? That is really just about enforcing a certain conventional wisdom about what a company ought to do. But these preferences are socially problematic. Consider some of the things that seem to contribute to being a takeover target: slow growth, stable revenues, cash on hand rather than debt, generous employee compensation, conservatively-funded pension or insurance plans. (Again caveats abound. There is no simply model of predicting takeover targets.)

So, in a sense, Bain, and other buyout specialists, serve to enforce a particular type of corporate behavior that focus on expansion at the expense of predictability, risk acceptance in terms of contractual obligations to employees, and a ruthless focus on cost controls at the expense of employee loyalty and stability.

As a practical matter, it is not clear that this sort of approach is conducive to more rapid economic growth. Certainly the rise of this consensus and expansion of “disciplinary” takeovers since the 1980s has not resulted in any noticeable improvement in U.S. macroeconomic performance. And furthermore, the evidence on whether takeover targets overperform or underperform after being bought is mixed.

But what has happened is that as firms accept these practices, they become more dependent on the financial sector. They borrow more, become more active in raising money through equity sales, they run leaner by hedging through derivatives, and so on. In each case, they pay a cut to financial firms. The result has been that the financial sector’s share of corporate profits has risen dramatically since the 1980s.

Some of these companies will now be more successful, but many that move toward debt-fueled expansion will crash and burn. The financial sector wins either way. But it isn’t clear to me that corporate America in general win, and certainly workers whose pensions gets looted, and unions busted, and ride the boom and bust cycles of overtime and layoff do quite poorly.

Romney and Bain

I have to admit, I’ve been amused to watch the Romney campaign’s idiotic response to the the question of when he actually left Bain. Really a textbook example of how to turn something manageable into a protracted and wounding issue.

There is an aspect of the Bain story that I do want to focus on a little. Bain is a major element of Romney’s case for being President. He has private sector experience and all. But I do wonder how transferable that experience is. In the final analysis, Bain is a tiny company. It only has 400 employees today. Yes, it made a lot of money. There are various dynamics in the financial sector to explain that. Basically, all financial sector firms have very high profits per employee. But what does that have to do with management experience, necessarily? In terms of management, Romney ran a small firm, surrounded by highly paid, select associates, all pulling in the same direction (making money).

This isn’t to say that Romney’s Bain experience is meaningless, or that it should be seen as a negative. I’m just suggesting that if running a small business is a qualification for the Presidency, then there are several million other Americans just as qualified as Romney.

The case for Romney ought to be one of policy… but he keeps trying to make it about biography — Bain, the Olympics — and inherently that is a fraught approach for him because he’s going to end debating minutiae about the past rather than laying out a positive vision for the future. That’s just bad politics. As I’ve noted before, despite his millions and his good hair, Romney just isn’t that good of a pol.

Of course, if my sole real policy agenda was denying poor people health care and lowering taxes on the rich, maybe I’d be happy with whatever distractions I could muster.


Because conservatives are such principled Burkeans, you often hear them complain about liberal policies in terms of “over reach” or “the arrogance of government imposed solutions.” See to hear conservatives talk, you’d think that, you know, if liberals could just be a little patient, conservatives would have the opportunity to unveil incremental and affordable free-market solutions to public policy challenges.

As a result, whenever liberals enact any changes, you get a lot of gnashing of teeth over how liberals have pre-empted some initiative, or worse, by overreaching have “poisoned the well” for future reforms.

This is, of course, the so-called “principled” objection of the Obamacare and to Obama’s mini-DREAM actions on immigration reform.

But when are these magic, incremental, affordable free-market solutions going to arrive? In all cases it is at some undefined spot in the future. “Soon.” It is the Friedman Unit of domestic politics.

But look, if conservatives really do share our concern about, say, health insurance, immigration, financial regulation, inequality, and the myriad other things they give lip service to, then where are those initiatives?

Actually, in fairness, there is one Republican… a former business leader and governor… who did tackle health care. He passed a middle of the road bill to increase access to insurance, using ideas developed by conservative think tanks that made the best use possible of the free market. And, it worked.The state he ran now has the lowest rate of uninsured in the nation. I really wish that Republican would run for President. Oh, wait…

But just as McCain developed second thoughts about his signature accomplishment– campaign finance– while he was running, so has Romney decided that his incremental approach was also too far, too fast.

So go ahead America, give them the White House. Give them control of Congress. Be sure to get back back to me on how “Soon” worked out for you.