Foreign-Policy Community, Meet Common Sense

To disagree with Senators McCain and Graham is not to preach isolationism. It is high time that "realism" stopped being a dirty word.

Reasonable people can disagree, and I respectfully disagree with two men whom I greatly admire, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham. I have known and liked Senator Graham for a number of years, from the time he served in the House of Representatives. My relationship with Senator McCain goes back much further, to the days when he was Captain McCain and I was a young analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. They are both great Americans and their views on military matters deserve the most serious consideration.

Nevertheless, that does not mean that they are correct on the question of our involvement in Libya, or for that matter, about our objectives in Afghanistan. To be opposed to our intervention in Libya or to question America's state-building role in Afghanistan is not to be isolationist, as the senators seem to suggest, nor is it to refuse to "stand up for freedom". Rather, it is to raise issues that call for pure common sense.

Let us begin with Libya, a war that is being fought under false pretenses. To begin with, the administration denies that we are fighting a war at all (although if one of our support aircraft crashes, and we lose a pilot, the Department of Defense would be hard put to tell the bereaved family that the pilot died in a training accident). To make matters worse, it is quite clear that the administration and NATO seek nothing less than to kill Muammar Qaddafi. Yet on this point as well, the White House equivocates.

Finally, the administration argues the hypothetical; had NATO not intervened, Qaddafi would have killed thousands of his citizens. In fact, there is no way of knowing whether his statements were pure hyperbole, which would have been very much in character for the mad dictator. Yet the administration hardly utters a peep about Syria, where the Assad regime has been systematically slaughtering its citizens. Indeed, the killing had already begun when Secretary of State Clinton dubbed Bashar al-Assad a "reformer."

America therefore finds itself fighting a war that is not a war, with a mission—to kill Qaddafi—that is not a mission, to prevent a massacre that might or might not have taken place, while truly defenseless people are being mowed down elsewhere in the Middle East. With all due respect to Senators McCain and Graham, it is hard to fathom their interventionist logic as it pertains to Libya.

The Senators are also concerned that Republican presidential candidates, notably Governor Romney, appear to be wavering on Afghanistan. They argue that America's counterinsurgency policy is succeeding. At issue, however, is whether that policy, which is joined at the hip to a state-building mission, has any real future in what RAND analyst Seth Jones has rightly dubbed "the graveyard of empires."

Senators Graham and McCain are far from being the first to wish for an orderly, well governed Afghanistan. Over one hundred fifty years ago, leading British officials sought the very same outcome. But the Duke of Wellington, no neophyte when it came to warfare, argued against excessive involvement in Afghanistan, issuing a blunt warning (as Peter Hopkirk relates in his history of the Anglo-Russian rivalry in Central Asia, The Great Game) that "where the military successes ended, the political difficulties would begin."

Nothing much has changed since then, except that the United States has had a much poorer record at state building than the British Empire. There was, in fact, a window of opportunity to set Afghanistan aright, in the period 2002-2004, when al-Qaeda and the Taliban were nowhere to be found. Unfortunately, small-minded officials in the Office of Management and Budget denied the State Department and the Agency for International Development the resources they needed to revive Afghanistan's agricultural and small business sectors and to help organize its nascent government. Even had the money been made available, there is no way of knowing if it would have been put to good use: Americans are notoriously bad at coming to terms with other cultures, other value systems and, for that matter, other languages. But at least the timing of American assistance would have been correct.

Today, development work is carried out in great danger, under the umbrella of the military; indeed, some of that work is being done by the military itself. At the same time, even as Americans are being wounded or killed in defense of his country, Afghanistan's president rails against foreign occupation. Surely in these circumstances, Republicans, whether in Congress or seeking the presidency, have every reason to express doubt about the magnitude and prospective length of our commitment to Afghanistan.

To disagree with Senators McCain and Graham is not to preach isolationism. It is simply to account for reality. And it is high time that "realism" stopped being a dirty word.