Tag Archives: Ezra Klein

It’s not the withdrawal

Soldiers with the 10th Mountain Division escort evacuees at
Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, Aug. 20

The invasion was doomed from the start.

Addressing America’s current political crisis, Ezra Klein’s essay in The New York Times, “Let’s Not Pretend That the Way We Withdrew From Afghanistan Was the Problem,” asserts that the problem is much bigger than the chaotic withdrawal. There was no feasible way to exit gracefully. All the attacks on Biden and the mismanagement of the pullout are a distraction. Focussing on the disastrous drawdown is more palatable than admitting a colossal defeat: The ignominious exit leaves Afghanistan no better off after two decades of occupation at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives lost and an expenditure of more than $2 trillion.

No, the real problem, Klein contends, is our failure to learn from past disasters. We are blinded by the illusion that our military might can force the outcome we seek. We believe the oxymoron that we can impose democracy on a culture that we don’t know. We deceive ourselves by insisting on our honorable conduct despite all the evidence to the contrary.

The misguided faith in our ability to control coupled with our refusal to accept the limitations of our power keep leading us down a rabbit hole.

There’s no denying America is the most powerful country in the world, but what we’ve seen over and over in recent decades is we cannot turn that into the outcomes we want. Whether it’s Afghanistan or Libya or sanctions on Russia and Venezuela, we don’t get the policy outcomes we want, and I think that’s because we overreach — we assume that because we are very powerful, we can achieve things that are unachievable.

Emma Ashford, a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security

Klein reports that Ben Rhodes, a top foreign policy adviser to President Barack Obama, told him

Afghanistan. Iraq. Yemen. Somalia. Libya. Every one of those countries is worse off today in some fashion. The evidentiary basis for the idea that American military intervention leads inexorably to improved material circumstances is simply not there.

Moreover, writes Klein, we are holding on to the illusion of our knowledge. The Iraq war should have taught us that 

We don’t know what we don’t know, and, even worse, we don’t always know what we think we know [emphasis mine]. Policymakers are easily fooled by people with seemingly relevant experience or credentials who will tell them what they want to hear or what they already believe. … We do not understand other countries well enough to remake them according to our ideals. We don’t even understand our own country well enough to achieve our ideals.

Klein alludes to the famous observation of Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense for President G.W. Bush and an architect of the Iraq war:

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. 

But Rumsfeld missed another kind of unknown. Klein appends the one that proved the most treacherous, the false known, that is, believing that something false is actually true. Things like Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction and the conviction that the Iraqis would joyously welcome an American invasion.

We don’t listen to the dissenting voices that recognize the folly of foreign invasions. “That has allowed too much to go unquestioned, and too many failures to go uncorrected,” writes Klein, and

It is telling that it is Biden who is taking the blame for America’s defeat in Afghanistan. The consequences come for those who admit America’s foreign policy failures and try to change course, not for those who instigate or perpetuate them. [Emphasis mine]

Klein notes the hypocrisy of our foreign policy and its tragic consequences:

To many, America’s pretensions of humanitarian motivation were always suspect. There are vicious regimes America does nothing to stop. There are vicious regimes America finances directly. It is callous to suggest that the only suffering we bear responsibility for is the suffering inflicted by our withdrawal. Our wars and drone strikes and tactical raids and the resulting geopolitical chaos directly led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis.

But, he concludes,

The choice we face is not between isolationism and militarism. We are not powerful enough to achieve the unachievable. But we are powerful enough to do far more good, and far less harm, than we do now.

Will the powers that be embrace that philosophy?


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Stand up on International Women’s Day

Women’s rights are human rights. Wear red in solidarity with women across the US and in more than 30 countries. March 8 will be A Day Without a Woman, in which women who can will take the day off from paid and unpaid labor and avoid shopping.

Show up at town halls and petition your members of congress to repair Obamacare. Speak up for the gutted EPA, clean water and clean air. Insist on the importance of public education, of the arts and of a social safety net to provide the necessities, like nutritious food and health care to those who can’t provide for themselves. Defend regulations that were put in place to protect people from predatory lenders, to safeguard public health, to keep the stock market honest. The fabric of American democracy is being rent by a blitz of lethal blows. You know of others that also affect you personally. Stand up! Make yourself heard! There is power in numbers.

Read Emily Crockett’s “The ‘Day Without a Woman’ strike, explained.” She’s done a masterly job of examining the “gendered revolt” kicked off by the Women’s March on Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

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Trump’s failure to govern is the real danger

DonaldTrumpSourWe’ve been fearing the possibility of Trump’s succeess in exerting his executive authority to corrupt and ultimately extinguish American democracy. His assault on the meaning of “truth” and “lies” has blurred that crucial distinction in the minds of his followers. He has denounced the free press as the “enemy of the people” and barred the White House briefing room to major news outlets that have criticized his administration. He is prosecuting a group of people based on their religion and has accused the protesters who oppose his policies of being paid to do so. His spokesman, Steven Miller, has firmly asserted that the president’s authority “will not be questioned,” Trump’s response to the thwarting by the judiciary of  his immigration ban.

Trump loves to win and basks in praise. Putin called him “bright and talented,” prompting Trump to say it was “a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.” Conversely, Trump hates losing so much that he vehemently denies defeat in the face of all evidence to the contrary. (How often has he insisted on his “record-breaking” electoral college win and attendance at his inaugural?) He retaliates against real and perceived criticism by discrediting its source, like the “so-called judge” who stayed his travel ban. Even worse, he tweeted, “if something bad happens blame him and court system,” directing opprobrium away from his incompetent overreach and against the courts.

Trump’s most hostile remarks and actions are vindictive. Consequently, the likelihood of Trump’s failure, not his success, as president is giving rise to a new fear— that Trump’s anger and frustration will fuel his hostility to democratic institutions. Journalist Ezra Klein is turning from dread of Trump’s autocratic nature to alarm at the president’s demonstrated unwillingness to learn the ropes in his new job in order to govern effectively. Klein began to recognize that

Trump might have the will to power, but he doesn’t have the discipline for it. Grim scenarios suggesting his presidency would grow too strong missed the likelier scenario that it would be extremely weak.

Klein cites the “convincing” argument of Yuval Levin, editor of “National Affairs” journal:

I think the more plausible cause for worry is that he will be a dysfunctional president. He seems to have come in without a clear sense of the nature and character of the presidency in our system, and he’s not playing that role but rather using the presidency as a platform for playing the role he has always played. And for now the White House team seems to be reinforcing that rather than counteracting it. The result of that seems more likely to be dysfunction than autocracy.

The infighting and inexperience of Trump’s staff, its failure to fill many administrative posts, Trump’s uncontrollable impulses to immediately tweet his reaction to what he sees on television, the weakness of his executive orders that can’t withstand judicial review all manifest the dysfunction of the White House. “How is he going to go from here to strongman?” Klein asks.

But Ron Klain, chief of staff to Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden adds his voice. Klain theorizes that “If Trump became a full-fledged autocrat, it will not be because he succeeds in running the state.” He continues,

It’ll be that he fails, and he has to find a narrative for that failure. And it will not be a narrative of self-criticism. It will not be that he let you down. He will figure out who the villains are, and he will focus the public’s anger at them.

We’ve already seen that dynamic. If “something bad happens,” because of the stayed travel ban, then blame the judge and the courts. If the press is critical, don’t give them any access, call their reporting fake news and lies. Neutralize the opposition by smearing it: the “lying” New York Times,” “most overrated” actress Meryl Streep, “unwatchable” and “not funny” “Saturday Night Live.” Trump vanquished his rivals for the presidency by branding them with slurs: “low energy” Jeb Bush, “Lyin'” Ted, “crooked” Hillary, etc.

Who will have the power to curb Trump’s worst impulses? Who is going to call him out? We need more than two Republicans. John McCain and Lindsay Graham can’t do it alone. What will it take for others step up to the plate?

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