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Left-Right Convergence?

This item by Ed Kilgore was first published on December 16, 2009.
The latest intra-progressive dustup over health care reform displays a couple of pretty important potential fault lines within the American center-left. One has to do with political strategy, and the role of the Democratic Party and the presidency in promoting progressive policy goals and social movements. I’ll be writing about that subject extensively in the coming days.
But the other potential fault line is ideological, and is sometimes hard to discern because it extends across a variety of issues. To put it simply, and perhaps over-simply, on a variety of fronts (most notably financial restructuring and health care reform, but arguably on climate change as well), the Obama administration has chosen the strategy of deploying regulated and subsidized private sector entities to achieve progressive policy results. This approach was a hallmark of the so-called Clintonian, “New Democrat” movement, and the broader international movement sometimes referred to as “the Third Way,” which often defended the use of private means for public ends. (It’s also arguably central to the American liberal tradition going back to Woodrow Wilson, and is even evident in parts of the New Deal and Great Society initiatives alongside elements of the “social democratic” tradition, which is characterized by support for publicly operated programs in key areas).
To be clear, this is not the same as the conservative “privatization” strategy, which simply devolves public responsibilities to private entities without much in the way of regulation. In education policy, to cite one example, New Democrats (and the Obama administration) have championed charter public schools, which are highly regulated but privately operated schools that receive public funds in exchange for successful performance of publicly-defined tasks. Conservatives have typically called for private-school vouchers, which simply shift public funds to private schools more or less unconditionally, on the theory that they know best how to educate children.
Now clear as this distinction seems to “New Democrats,” there are a considerable number of progressives who think it’s largely a distinction without a difference, in education policy and elsewhere. And we are seeing that fundamental divergence on opinion on other, more prominent issues right now. On the financial front, the Obama administration reflexively pursued a strategy of regulation and subsidies for the financial sector, without modifying the fundamental nature of financial institutions, even as critics on the left argued for nationalization (at least temporarily) of key financial functions. At the more popular level, critics of TARP from the left joined critics of TARP from the right in deploring “bailouts” of failed financial institutions, even though the two groups of critics held vastly different views of the right alternative course of action.
Similarly in the health care reform debate, the Obama administration pursued legislation that utilized regulated and subsidized private for-profit health insurers to achieve universal health coverage. This approach was inherently flawed to “single-payer” advocates on the left, who strongly believe that private for-profit health insurers are the main problem in the U.S. health care system. The difference was for a long time papered over by the cleverly devised “public option,” which was acceptable to many New Democrat types as a way of ensuring robust competition among private insurers, and which became crucial to single-payer advocates who viewed it as a way to gradually introduce a superior, publicly-operated form of health insurance to those not covered by existing public programs like Medicare and Medicaid. (That’s why the effort to substitute a Medicare buy-in for the public option, which Joe Lieberman killed this week, received such a strong positive response from many progressives whose ultimate goal is an expansion of Medicare-style coverage to all Americans).
Now that the public option compromise is apparently no longer on the table, and there’s no Medicare buy-in to offer single-payer advocates an alternative path to the kind of system they favor, it’s hardly surprising that some progressives have gone into open opposition, and are using the kind of outraged and categorical language deployed by Marcy Wheeler yesterday. As with the financial issue, there’s now a tactical alliance between conservative critics of “ObamaCare,” who view the regulation and subsidization of private health insurers as “socialism,” and progressive critics of the legislation who view the same features as representing “neo-feudalism.”
To put it more bluntly, on a widening range of issues, Obama’s critics to the right say he’s engineering a government takeover of the private sector, while his critics to the left accuse him of promoting a corporate takeover of the public sector. They can’t both be right, of course, and these critics would take the country in completely different directions if given a chance. But the tactical convergence is there if they choose to pursue it.
For those of us whose primary interest is progressive unity and political success for the Democratic Party, it’s very tempting to downplay or even ignore this potential fault-line and the left-right convergence it makes possible. It’s also easy to dismiss critics-from-the-left of Obama as people primarily interested in long-range movement-building rather than short-term political success; that’s true for some of them. But sorting out these differences in ideology and perspective is, in my opinion, essential to the progressive political project. And with a rejuvenated and increasingly radical Right’s hounds baying and sniffing at the doors of the Capitol, we don’t have the time or energy to spare in dialogues of the deaf wherein we call each other names while getting ready for the elections of 2010 and 2012.
UPDATE: In discussing this post with several friends, I recognize I should be very clear about my motives here. I am not trying to promote an ideological fight within the Democratic Party or the progressive coalition, and don’t want to exaggerate ideological differences, either. But ideology, however muddled, is part of what makes most politically active people tick. And if we don’t talk about it–and about differences in strategic thinking as well, which will be the subject of future discussions here–then all we are left with to explain our differences on this issue or that is questions of character. And anyone paying attention must recognize there’s far too much of that going on. “Progressive pragmatists”–the camp with which I most often personally identify, as it happens–often treat “the Left” condescendingly as immature and impractical people who don’t understand how things get done. Meanwhile, people on “the Left” often treat “pragmatists” as either politically gutless or personally corrupt. This is what happens when you don’t take seriously other people’s ideological and strategic underpinnings; whatever you gain in ignoring or minimizing differences in perspective or point of view is lost in mutual respect. Sure, the character attacks on both sides are sometimes accurate, but nobody should assume that in any particular case without further examination of each others’ ideological and strategic views. That examination is what we are trying to promote here.


TDS Co-Editor William Galston: The Courage of Our Contradictions

This item, by TDS Co-Editor William Galston, and originally published here on December 10, 2009, is cross-posted from Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, where it first appeared. It is a response to E.J. Dionne’s review of Alan Wolfe’s The Future of Liberalism.
These are perplexing times for American liberals. Last November’s euphoria has given way to frustration and even doubt. This was inevitable, to an extent, because governing is always harder than campaigning. Mario Cuomo’s dictum that we campaign in poetry but govern in prose applies with special force to a president whose eloquence on the campaign trail so effectively aroused enthusiasm and raised expectations.
But some critics have gone farther, charging that liberalism is undermining itself because, as Alan Wolfe puts it, “all too often, liberal politicians lack the courage of liberalism.” This diagnosis leads to a prescription: We must “get liberals to once again believe in liberalism.” This is a version of the 12 Angry Men/Mr. Smith Goes to Washington theory, prominent to this day in Hollywood–a leader willing to confidently deliver an unvarnished liberal message will sweep away all before him. (The remake would star Warren Beatty.)
Reviewing Wolfe’s new book The Future of Liberalism in these pages, E.J. Dionne rejects the author’s shortage-of-courage thesis but focuses on a related phenomenon–namely, liberal ambivalence–about radicalism, populism, social democracy, globalization, individualism, and much else [See “Liberalism Lost and Found,” Issue #14]. While it’s hard to object in principle to Dionne’s suggestion that liberals should “face their own contradictions squarely,” it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi as a bumper-sticker (except perhaps among former Marxists). More to the point, it’s inadequate analytically. Today’s liberals face political difficulties not because they’re gutless or conflicted but because many of the things they believe (rightly, in my view) go against the grain of beliefs that are deeply entrenched in our political culture.
That is not a reason to abandon liberalism. As Wolfe, Dionne, and Paul Starr have shown, the liberal tradition is responsible for much of what is best in modern America, and it charts the most promising path to future reforms. It is, however, a reason to proceed in full awareness of the obstacles in its path and to acknowledge that along the way we will often have to accept much less than we want. This means that liberals in high places may have to be less full-throated than either Wolfe or Dionne might prefer. But as the late Ted Kennedy so shrewdly recognized, a series of modest victories can add up to major changes.
Last year’s electoral sweep, to begin, was a victory for the Democratic Party, but not necessarily for liberalism. Self-described conservatives outnumber liberals by nearly two to one, and the liberal share of the population has risen only marginally, from 19 to 21 percent, during the past decade. And while 72 percent of Republicans consider themselves conservative, only 37 percent of Democrats consider themselves liberal, versus 39 percent moderate and 22 percent conservative. Republicans are ideologically homogeneous; Democrats represent a diverse coalition. If liberals hope to pass major legislation, they must negotiate and compromise with members of their own party whose outlooks differ from their own.
This is a current reality, unlikely to change anytime soon. Other challenges to liberalism have roots deeper in our history. One centers on the role of government. The early American liberalism of the founding era embodied a handful of basic ideas: among them, fear of tyranny and of concentrated power; mistrust of human nature, which needed to be checked and channeled through institutions and rules; and a preference for government that was limited in scope, though not purely laissez-faire by any means.
From this parsimonious beginning, the federal government grew by fits and starts. The Whigs successfully advocated investment in the public goods needed for economic growth, a strategy that arch-Whig Abraham Lincoln continued as president through measures like the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act. The post Civil War expansion of industrial corporations created a thrust toward government as a countervailing power that could limit monopolies and impose regulations in the public interest. Three generations after Andrew Jackson strangled the Bank of the United States, repeated financial crises led to the creation of a much more powerful central bank, empowered to curb dangerous market-based instability. A generation after that, an economic crisis that overwhelmed the capacities of individuals, civil society, and state governments led to new national institutions and policies to provide some measure of security against disaster. In the wake of World War II, the overlapping demands of national defense and global leadership produced a large standing army and a new array of security-oriented institutions. The war also sparked demands to move the historic commitment to equal rights from an abstract norm to concrete practice, which involved the national government in a new system of enforcement. And rising public concern over the externalities of economic growth–especially its impact on the economy–led to new national institutions, laws, and regulations.
Each of these expansions of national power seemed justified, and often compelled, by changing circumstances. In the aggregate, though, the federal government became more expensive and intrusive; it assumed more responsibility that it could easily discharge; and it presumed a level of competence that it often lacked. After the mid-1960s, trust in government declined steadily, reaching an historic low in the month before Barack Obama’s election. It has not improved appreciably since.
This is the central conundrum of modern liberal governance: While state power has grown, America’s anti-statist public culture has persisted. Our national default setting, from which we deviate only under extreme pressure, is suspicion of state power. Half a century ago, this took the benign form so pithily characterized by political scientists Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril, that Americans were “ideologically conservative” but “operationally liberal.” Today, after policy failures at home and abroad, many American object to larger government, not (only) on ideological grounds, but also because they doubt its competence and integrity. While the American people accept many liberal aims (including fundamental health reform), they mistrust the means by which liberals typically pursue them. As Obama is discovering, change we can believe in requires a government we can trust, which most Americans don’t think we now have.


Democrats who disagree with Obama’s Afghan plan face a difficult choice – They can categorically reject and oppose the administration or play a role in the coming struggle between those who seek a political solution to the conflict and a military one

This item by James Vega was originally published on December 9, 2009.
The plan President Obama laid out last week for Afghanistan has confronted anti-war Democrats with a profoundly difficult strategic choice – one that will have far-reaching implications not only for Afghanistan but for America as well.
The first option is to conclude that Obama is either a helpless or a willing captive of the pentagon and to dismiss his entire administration as hopelessly and irrevocably committed to militarism. The second is to view the Obama administration as instead the arena where a strategic debate between the advocates of a political solution and a purely military one is now going on and to attempt to influence that key strategic decision.
For many anti-war Democrats there is a powerful temptation to embrace the first alternative. After all, on the surface there seems little difference between the views of Obama and his generals. Compared with the clear and disciplined agreement among Obama’s cabinet members in favor of sending 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, any slight disagreements over the details seems trivial.
Disappointed Democrats can point to evidence to support this view. A Dec 7th Washington Post analysis entitled “McChrystal’s Afghanistan plan stays mainly intact” begins by saying that McChrystal “will return to Kabul to implement a war strategy that is largely unchanged after a three month-long white house review of the conflict… the new approach does not order McChrystal to wage the war in a fundamentally different way from what he outlined in an assessment he sent the White House in late August.”
This would seem quite conclusive, but, it is, in fact, not the complete picture. Obama actually did modify McChrystal’s original plan in four significant ways. To see this, it is necessary to clearly describe several key elements of a standard counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign.

1. The enemy – called the “insurgents” in COIN – are broadly defined as any people or groups actively opposed to a “host government” that is supported by the U.S. In the case of Afghanistan, the leading COIN strategists define the enemy as any and all of the seven quite distinct groups that comprise the Taliban as well as a variety of other forces influenced by jihadist Islam or who oppose U.S. troops on nationalistic grounds.
2. The mission is defined in purely military terms. The enemy must be defeated and his will to resist broken. The goal is victory, not a political compromise.
3. A counterinsurgency campaign’s basic strategy is not simply to defend static positions or train soldiers but to create stable governments, deliver services, build new institutions and promote pro-western development. A COIN campaign is said to be a failure if it does not win the support and loyalty of the population for the U.S. supported “host government”.
4. The timetable is long-term and open-ended. Historically a few counterinsurgency campaigns have been successfully concluded in 8-14 years while a larger number dragged on for decades. COIN advocates realize that long, indecisive wars are deeply unpopular so they usually define the timetable as simply “as long as it takes” or “until victory” rather than defining any specific number of years or decades.

General McChrystal’s August memo actually incorporated all four of these elements, but none remained in the final plan. With the help of Joe Biden, Obama was able to modify these basic principles in four key ways:


Zero For Thirty-One: Lessons From the Loss in Maine

Editor’s Note: This item, originally published on November 24, 1009, is a special guest post by Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, a student at Harvard Divinity School and the director of The Progressive Project, a national organization that works in communities across the country to elect progressive candidates and promote LGBT civil rights. This article is based upon TPP’s work on the “No on 1” campaign in Maine, and on other campaigns to defeat similar ballot measures. Several interviewees quoted in the piece are not identified by name at their own request. Jasmine has written for The Democratic Strategist in the past, and her writing has appeared in The Advocate, Alternet.org, American Short Fiction and other publications.
Back in late September, I traveled with two friends to Biddeford, Maine, to volunteer with the “No on 1” campaign, which was working to defeat Question 1, a proposal to strike down a law legalizing same-sex marriage in that state. It rained all day, the kind of weather that oscillates between mist and downpour and that, on a mild day, makes you laugh at its sheer excess. Our task was straightforward: go door to door, ask people how they planned to vote, rate them on a scale of one to five, and move on. The campaign was in the final stretch of the persuasion stage and this would be one of the last times they had face-to-face contact with swing voters. We were assigned to a middle-class neighborhood in which single-family homes dotted either side of a busy two-lane road. There were no sidewalks, and passing cars gave me a wide berth as I mucked along on the shoulder of the road, as obtrusive as a safety-conscious hunter in my orange raincoat.
Since 2004, the LGBT movement has lost thirty such campaigns across the nation and a lot was at stake in Maine. All of those losses had been explained by factors like inadequate funding, or in the case of the California “No on 8” campaign, an anemic field operation. The “No on 1” campaign was determined to do things better, and by all standard metrics they did.
At that point in the campaign season, the polls were dead even, which in these kind of ballot measures usually means we are actually down by a few points. But the “No on 1” campaign had already raised over $2 million, twice as much as the other side. Volunteers had been canvassing since early summer, and there were paid organizers on the ground across the state. A national network of donors and field volunteers was also bolstering our efforts. Perhaps most significantly, the campaign had already identified the number of supporters they needed to win. Campaign lore holds that if you have these names on paper by early October and run a tight turnout operation, you will win in November.
I was almost done with my shift when I approached a brick ranch house with an open garage. A man in his sixties was wiping off an Allen wrench. Next to him was a motorcycle with long, athletic lines and a gleaming turquoise body. He was friendly as we talked about his bike and the weather. If he raised his eyebrows when I explained why I was there, the conversation didn’t abruptly stop in its tracks, as sometimes happens. “I’ll be voting yes,” he said evenly.
“Can I ask why?”
“The Bible says one man, one woman.”
I nodded. In literal terms, he was right. In moments like this, I’ve often responded by coming right back about what else the Bible says. But this has never led anywhere except a quick dead end. So instead, I asked if I could talk with his wife.
She joined us in the garage, and it was then that I noticed the scooter propped next to the motorcycle, its body a turquoise that perfectly matched the bigger bike’s.
“Do you ride together?” I asked.
They laughed. “I let her get ahead,” the man said, “and then I catch her.”
She explained that she also opposed gay marriage. “As a married gay person, I can tell you that not much changes for anyone but the couple,” I said. “It mostly comes up when you’re talking about things like hospital visits, times when you really need your rights.”
“Our grandson is gay,” the woman said. “We raised him.” She went on to explain that their grandson was having a difficult time. From the time he was a child, she said, she’d known he was gay.
“I never picked up on it. She had to tell me,” her husband chimed in and they laughed again.
“Is it hard for you that he’s gay?” I asked the man.
He seemed surprised by this question and this in itself was telling. It became clear that their grandson was part of their life and much loved, if not fully understood. The conversation continued and then a bit suddenly, the man choked up and wiped his eyes. “I knew a guy growing up who was that way and he got picked on a lot. I used to stand up for him.” His wife put her arm around him. “He can’t stand when people get picked on,” she said.
For a moment, it was silent in the garage.
“Making same-sex marriage illegal sends a message that we’re second class citizens. It opens the doors for people to get picked on, and worse,” I said. They listened, but weren’t terribly persuaded. The conversation circled back to The Bible. I told them I was Christian and brought up an example of scripture that we don’t tend to follow literally – the mandate to give away all your material possessions. We spent a few minutes on this. But again, not terribly persuasive.
“Should I put you both down as planning to vote yes?” I asked.
“You know, I’m still making up my mind,” the woman said. “I just don’t know.”
The conversation ended a few minutes later when their dog – small, blind and adventurous – raced out of the garage and toward the road. The woman went to rescue him. I asked them to keep thinking about the issue and thanked them for the conversation, one of the longest I’ve ever had canvassing. It was also one of the most moving. I have thought of it countless times since then.
Walking away, I rated her as a “three,” or swing voter, and him as a “four,” or likely to vote yes. According to a literal interpretation of the campaign playbook, this conversation had actually been a waste of time in every regard except one: the campaign now knew not to spend time and resources doing further outreach to this couple. At this point in the campaign cycle, an exacting calculus kicks in and attention shifts to turning out identified supporters, “one’s” and “two’s” on the scale. All other voters are lumped together and categorized as unwinnable. For the next five weeks, this couple and voters like them would not hear directly from the campaign, except in TV ads. This is considered smart organizing, and typically it is.
So what went wrong when, five weeks later, the voters of Maine passed Question 1 by a margin of 53 – 47%, making gay marriage illegal? There has been virtual consensus that the “No on 1” campaign was well-run. The leadership of national organizations blamed the loss on the slow tides of history and the bigoted tactics of our opponents. Some grassroots activists said that after thirty-one losses, we should accept that these campaigns are unwinnable and start focusing our efforts elsewhere. Pundits also weighed in, with Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com observing that, “this may not be an issue where the campaign itself matters very much; people have pretty strong feelings about the gay marriage issue and are not typically open to persuasion.”
Here’s where I disagree. This loss confirmed a lesson that the thirty preceding it only suggested: we cannot win the support of swing voters by adhering to the traditional campaign playbook. To do so, we must tear out a few pages and write new plays.


Democrats – Don’t be misled. The media is going to call Obama’s new Afghan strategy a “betrayal” of the Democratic base – but it’s not. It’s actually a decisive rejection of the Republican/Neo-Conservative strategy of the “Long War”

This item by James Vega was originally published on November 17, 2009.
Print Version
When Obama presents his new strategy for Afghanistan in the next few days it is inevitable that many in the press will describe it as a profound betrayal of the Democratic “base”. Obama will face fierce criticism from many progressive and anti-war Democrats who will consider his decision to significantly increase the number of troops as representing a complete capitulation to the military and Republican neoconservatives.
This reaction is understandable, but it is actually profoundly wrong. At the same time that Obama’s plan will authorize additional troops, his new strategy already represents a powerful repudiation of the fundamental Bush/neoconservative strategy and a historic reassertion of civilian control over the military after 9/11.
For many Democrats – those who do not carefully follow the cloistered and jargon-filled “inside the beltway” debates over counter-terrorism and military strategy — this assertion will seem utterly and patently absurd — how can a decision that significantly increases troop levels in Afghanistan possibly also represent a challenge to a militaristic strategy?
In order to understand why this apparent paradox actually makes sense it is necessary to view the specific issue of Afghanistan in two larger contexts — the overall strategic debate about how to conduct the long-term “war on terror” and the proper relationship between the President and the military. The fundamental conflict that has been going on between, on the one hand, the Obama administration and the Republican/neoconservatives and the military on the other has actually been over these two larger strategic questions and not over the precise number of troops to send to Afghanistan. The size of the proposed troop increase in Afghanistan is only a single sub-issue within a much larger debate over what American military strategy and policy should be for the next ten, twenty and even fifty years.
On one side is the perspective that is variously called the Global War on Terror, World War IV or simply The Long War”. It is widely shared among Republicans and neoconservatives and is supported by a major sector of the military establishment.
This view was codified in the period immediately after 9/11. Its central premise is that military operations aimed at hunting down individual terrorists and dismantling specific terrorist organizations are totally inadequate – indeed almost worthless — in dealing with the threat of global terrorism. It is only by fundamentally transforming the societies of the Muslim world – by introducing U.S. style political institutions and orienting their societies and economies toward the west and the global economy – that the roots of Islamic terrorism can be undermined.


Blue Dogs Have Shot at Redemption

by J.P. Green
Dems who opposed the health care reform bill passed last week blundered badly for a number of reasons — ten to be exact, according to TDS Contributor Robert Creamer’s post in the November 13 edition of HuffPo. In addition to the principle reason cited by Creamer and other pundits — that the bill’s key provisions, including the publlic option, were supported by majorities in their districts — Creamer adds some interesting contentions among the ten, including these nuggets:

2). Once the bill is passed it will become even more popular. Social Security, Medicare, and child labor laws were all controversial when they were first passed. Now they are all revered features of the American landscape. The same will be true of the health insurance reform that makes health care a right for all Americans.

and,

4). If Democrats are successful at passing their agenda and nationalizing the Mid-terms – which would otherwise be terrific news for the most vulnerable Members – the Members who voted no on the health care bill will look like skunks at the garden party.

and,

6). News flash to Democrats who voted against the health bill: not one of the “tea party” gang is going to support you in 2010. Whether you voted yes or no, they are all going to work their hearts out for your opponent. The “tea party” gang you saw at your town meeting in August does not represent swing voters in the district – they are the hardcore base of the Republican Party.

and,

8). Voters like fighters…On the whole, swing voters – and certainly mobilizable voters – like fighters. They like candidates who have strong beliefs, and stick by their guns. That quality is an independent variable in deciding how persuadable voters cast their ballots.

Actually, all of Creamer’s points are both plausible and interesting. He concludes saying that all is not lost, even for those who voted against the legislation on the first lap, noting “each of the 39 Democrats – and all but one Republican — who voted against the health care bill have one more chance to redeem themselves. When the bill comes back from the House-Senate Conference there will be one more up or down vote on health care reform.”
To the average voter, the candidate who rides the tide of historic change that gives millions of American families a stronger sense of security looks a lot better than the one getting rolled by it.


More Evidence to Support Health Reform

by Matt Compton
When the House voted to pass the health care bill, cable news shows were filled with pundits talking about how many Democrats voted against the legislation to avoid taking a hit in their districts.
But the first poll that I’ve seen which shows a member of Congress losing support at home actually comes as bad news for Rep. Mike Castle — a Delaware Republican who voted against the bill.
A new survey from Susquehanna Polling & Research shows Beau Biden — Delaware’s attorney general and the son of the vice president — beating Castle by five points in a match up for the US Senate. When the same firm polled the race this spring, Castle was up 21 points.
Why is Biden surging? As Dave Weigel points out:

He’s grabbed the lead in vote-rich New Castle County, built up a 41-point lead among Democratic voters, and moved to only 5 points behind Castle among independents. According to the pollster, the shift “may be a result of negative publicity [Castle] received in the state after casting a ‘no’ vote for President Obama’s health care reform bill in the U.S. Congress.” Castle, who has thrived as a moderate Republican in an increasingly Democratic state, has been casting more partisan votes–against the stimulus package, for the Stupak amendment–that have been well-reported in Delaware.

As we noted in a staff post earlier, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that there’s nothing to be gained from voting against health care reform. I think we can safely add this latest bit of data to the top of the stack.


Military Strategy for Democrats: The key issue in Afghanistan isn’t the number of troops we send, it’s the mission that they’re given – and that’s why the military doctrine and strategy of “counterinsurgency” is totally inadequate as a guide

em>(this is the first of a two part analysis. A print (PDF) version of the entire memo is available here)
The real decision America must face in regard to Afghanistan is not the precise number of troops that should be sent but rather the mission they are given to perform.
Last January, when Obama took office, there was a broad national consensus on this subject. On the one hand, there was universal agreement that US forces should prevent Al Qaeda from ever again using Afghanistan as a base for training camps or other terrorist facilities. Quite the contrary, there was wide approval of the goal of completely dismantling and destroying Al Qaeda as an organization.
Although it was not always explicitly stated, it was quite obvious that this would require preventing the Taliban from taking control of (1) the capital city of Kabul and several other major urban areas and (2) a number of key infrastructure installations like major airports, electric power stations and national highways. The commitment to destroy Al Qaeda also clearly implied the need to establish and maintain a certain number of observation posts, forward operating bases and other “in country” forces adequate to provide intelligence about terrorist activity in various regions of the country. Most Americans were entirely in agreement with this approach.
On the other hand, there was absolutely no support for the ambitious “nation building” and cultural reprogramming of the kind the Bush-Cheney administration tried in Iraq– a vast investment of soldiers, funds and resources aimed at transforming Iraq into a pro-American, free market utopia. Most Americans were not willing to sacrifice more American lives or resources in this ideological neo-conservative crusade.
Public opinion on these issues has not changed greatly since January and behind all the complex maneuvering of the last several weeks the view described above still appears to be Obama’s view as well. There are difficult practical decisions about the proper number of troops that are needed to execute this strategy but the issue has become additionally and deeply confused in recent weeks because the influential military doctrine called “counterinsurgency” suggests a fundamentally different mission and strategy from the one described above. The current version of this doctrine is embodied in FM-3-24 – the US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.
The term “Counterinsurgency” – often abbreviated as COIN — has had phenomenally good press in recent years. On the one hand, it is frequently credited as being the strategy behind the success of the surge in Iraq. Yet, at the same time, it is also described in a way that makes it sound rather appealing to liberals. The most common one-sentence description of the doctrine is that it is focused on “protecting the local population rather than killing the maximum number of enemies” which makes it sound relatively cautious and even rather humane. Because it is usually presented in this appealing way, the approach has received remarkably little critical scrutiny.
(In fact, the general lack of clarity about what the doctrine actually entails was the major source of the confusion that emerged during the last few weeks. Last March, in the six-page “White Paper of the Interagency Policy Group” that defined US policy toward the Af-Pac region, there was actually only a single paragraph specifically devoted to the role of counterinsurgency in protecting the Afghan population. It read as follows: “Our counter-insurgency strategy must integrate population security with building effective local governance and economic development. We will establish the security needed to provide space and time for stabilization and reconstruction activities.”
To people unfamiliar with FM-3-24 these words sounded comfortably vague and relatively benign. But based on standard formulas for estimating the appropriate size of forces in COIN operations a literal interpretation of the paragraph above could be argued to require the deployment of as many as 600,000 troops to Afghanistan. The COIN specialists in the Interagency Policy Group all understood this potential interpretation of the paragraph when it was included in the draft and now point to these two sentences as having represented a binding presidential commitment to a vast expansion of the US forces and mission. As a recent Washington Post article has outlined, however, a number of the non-COIN participants in the drafting of the White Paper absolutely did not intend these few words to represent a binding, open-ended commitment on Obama’s part for a massive increase in US forces)
More important than this confusion, however, is the fact that Counterinsurgency doctrine has two fundamental weaknesses.


Military Strategy for Democrats Part 2: The key issue in Afghanistan isn’t the number of troops, it’s the mission that they’re given – and that’s why the military doctrine and strategy of “counterinsurgency” is totally inadequate as a guide

This is the second part of a two-part analysis. A print (PDF) version of the memo is available here
The two basic weaknesses of counterinsurgency theory – the doctrines’ wildly ambitious social objectives and its myopically narrow conception of “victory” — are directly reflected in General Stanley McChrystal’s August “Commander’s Assessment” of the situation in Afghanistan.
A. McChrystal’s strategic approach will ultimately require huge numbers of soldiers and resources – far more than are now being discussed.
The Commander’s Assessment defines dramatically ambitious goals for a counterinsurgency campaign: The campaign must:

“…earn the support of the Afghan people and provide them with a secure environment.”
…focus on operations that bring stability while shielding [the the civilian population] from insurgent violence corruption and coercion.
…protecting the people means shielding them from all threats….
…protecting the population is more than preventing insurgent violence and intimidation. It also means that [coalition forces] can no longer ignore or tacitly accept abuse of power, corruption or marginalization.

This is a completely different objective than the goal of neutralizing Al Qaeda and will demand resources far beyond anything that has been publically proposed. John Nagl — one of the three authors of FM-3-24 — has repeatedly warned that actually doing the “armed social work” envisioned in FM-3-24 will require far more troops than anyone is currently discussing. This is how Michael Crowley summarized Nagl’s view in the January, 2009 New Republic:

Nagl’s rule of thumb, the one found in the counterinsurgency manual, calls for at least a 1-to-50 ratio of security forces to civilians in contested areas. Applied to Afghanistan, which has both a bigger population (32 million) and a larger land mass (647,500 square miles) than Iraq, that gets you to some large numbers fast. Right now, the United States and its allies have some 65,000 troops in Afghanistan, as compared to about 140,000 in Iraq. By Nagl’s ratio, Afghanistan’s population calls for more than 600,000 security forces. Even adjusting for the relative stability of large swaths of the country, the ideal number could still total around 300,000–more than a quadrupling of current troop levels.

Moreover, from a purely military point of view, if we are eventually going to end up sending 300,000 troops, it is vastly preferable to “bite the bullet” sending the bulk rapidly to dramatically alter the tactical situation rather than in small driblets over a period of several years.
Nagl also notes that in the longer term, maintaining such large numbers of soldiers in Afghanistan will create nearly irresistible pressure to reinstate the draft and will require a massive increase in the military budget – one that will eventually necessitate new taxes.
For Nagl and many other conservatives, these are sacrifices that all Americans should be gladly willing to make. They point to the example of the stalwart working class and middle class British families who sent generation after generation of their sons to fight in India, Asia, Africa and the Middle East during the era of the British Empire. Most ordinary British citizens at that time fully accepted the need for large garrisons of British troops doing “armed social work” in British colonies around the globe on an essentially permanent basis. By the 1920’s many British families had proudly sent three or four successive generations of their young men to fight “For the Empire” as their noble patriotic duty.
It is dubious, however, that a majority of Americans share this perspective and are willing to make the same kind of commitment today. The current arguments over sending 40,000 or 50,000 more troops are therefore really just preliminary skirmishes in a much larger battle to convince the American people to support a full-scale, 300,000 soldier counterinsurgency campaign that may last for decades.


Job Tax Credit As Second Stimulus

This item by Ed Kilgore was first published on October 21, 2009.
As the economy continues to struggle, it´s increasingly obvious that some sort of federal job tax credit may be the only ´´second stimulus package´´ that could gain traction in Congress.
The idea has long attracted conservative support, but lately progressives, including former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and the Economic Policy Institute, have been out in front. It´s popular among some Democrats and economists in part because its costs are dependent on its success (unlike across-the-board tax cuts), and in part because it´s viewed as a way to counteract offshoring of jobs.
EPI has a new job tax credit proposal out, and it´s very focused on designing a credit that is large enough to have an immediate impact, temporary enough to keep its cost relatively low, and efficient enough to avoid corporate freeloading.
If there´s another idea that can serve as the centerpiece of a follow-up to the stimulus legislation, I don´t know what it would be. Waiting for a cyclical economic recovery seems irresponsible, and certainly dangerous to the party controlling the White House and Congress.