I've spent a good part of the last couple of days pondering the question, "What did Bing West really mean in denouncing Nir Rosen's Rolling Stone piece?" Yesterday, I jumped into the question that West (pictured to the right) raised of whether a journalist should be traveling with the enemy. (Short answer: Press coverage of the other side is essential. Being in a situation where you might be complicit in the killing of Americans is not defensible.)
Today, let's look into West's accusations of failed leadership:
Most disturbing was the lack of outrage to Rosen’s sojourn by the
administration, the military, the civilian appointees and the
politicians. Secretary of Defense Gates
is a cool, detached official who reacts to events. He does not plot a
course into the future. He does not project a determination or a vision
about how to succeed in Afghanistan. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral William Mullen,
calls for a strategic review – after six years of fighting! - laments
that “we cannot kill our way to victory”, a vacuous absolution that
transfers responsibility for failure to others. Why increase from
32,000 to 50,000 US troops, whose basic training is as riflemen, if the
application of force – killing - is not the objective? A policeman
protects the population by arresting criminals; a soldier protects the
population by shooting the enemy soldier. Our military succeeds in
confusing us all by reverting to Rodney King's plaint that we should
all just get along.
When our leaders lack moral clarity and courage, then agnosticism
about our mission in Afghanistan is understandable. Rosen’s conduct is
not the problem; he was taking advantage of American moral lassitude.
Our leaders don’t stand up for the righteousness of our cause. Why not
hang out with the Taliban, if America’s leaders see nothing wrong with
This passage inspired some equally strong responses from other bloggers. Here's our first rebuttal, from Spencer Ackerman:
Recognizing the basic strategic fact that not all problems have a
military solution indicates that Bob Gates and Mike Mullen and David
Petraeus means "transfer[ing] responsibility for failure to others."
Could this myopia be any more self-refuting? I take back what I said about not reading West's new book, because I can't wait to see how The Strongest Tribe explains away the obvious failures of the killing-our-way-to-victory strategy in Iraq from 2003 to 2006.
Abu Muqawama had even more to say in defense of the senior leadership at the Pentagon:
Aside from accusing the Department of Defense -- en masse --
of lacking "commitment and passion in the cause," West also accuses
Sec. Gates and Adm. Mullen of lacking "moral clarity and courage." If
you're Sec. Gates -- getting your teeth kicked in on a daily basis
while trying to fight two wars and keep a military from falling apart
-- how much patience would you have for Bing West's opinion right about
While the paragraphs I've quoted above are not West's best written work, I think it's pretty clear what he's arguing:
At the level of the Secretary of Defense and the JCS Chairman, there has not been a clear strategy for Afghanistan. Gates is reactive. The strategic review should have happened a long time ago.
If we can't "kill our way to victory," what's the point of sending more American troops? I'm reading that section of West's blog post a lot differently than ackerman and Muqawama. West is hardly a babe in the woods about counterinsurgency. He knows that sending soldiers "whose basic training is as riflemen" is not necessarily going to help. They're not trained to be policemen, or civilian reconstruction professionals, or intelligence analysts. The NATO mission in Afghanistan needs to increase all these skills, not just blindly send more soldiers whose training is limited to shooting the enemy. West is arguing against a simple-minded "surge for Afghanistan," when something else is needed--which undoubtedly includes more people who also know how to kill.
People who don't have a clear strategic vision leave the moral playing field wide open. If there's no clear picture of what people should do to create particular outcomes--political, military, and moral--there are no grounds for saying that someone, like a journalist traveling with the Taliban, is doing something wrong.
I don't agree with everything West says. For example, the phrase "American moral lassitude" is a bit too broad for what otherwise sounds like a criticism of the top military and civilian leadership (much like Dereliction of Duty accuses the top brass of failures in the Vietnam War). I also don't think that the US government needed to respond officially to Rosen's article at all.
On the other points, however, I think the critics both misread what West was saying, and in some ways, were definitely wrong themselves. It's specious for Ackerman to accuse West of being against a free press--a little weird, since West is a journalist himself. (And someone who has had some pretty acid things to say about the senior leadership already, in his book on Iraq, No True Glory.) And who cares if Muqawama is right that Gates gets his "teeth kicked in on a daily basis while trying to fight two wars" if he can't clarify what the strategy for the Afghanistan war really is?
West's post does have its faults. On the "how do journalists cover the other side" question, his answer leaves almost no room for a Rosen to do his job. (Robert Farley's rebuttal is still the best I've read on this question.) But on the leadership issue he has a much stronger argument.
The author, Nir Rosen, traveled with Taliban fighters to a meeting with a Taliban commander. While Rosen doesn't actually witness the Taliban fighting US, Afghan, or NATO troops, he very well could have--and in fact, set out with the intent of observing a Taliban attack, if the opportunity presented itself:
They have promised to take me to see the Taliban in
action: going out on patrols, conducting attacks, adjudicating
disputes and providing security against bandits and police.
Some bloggers, including Bing West, took exception with what Rosen did--loud, angry exception. And I largely agree with them.
During war, public information about the other side is critical. Citizens cannot judge the wisdom or stupidity of the war without knowing something about the adversary. Whether the reality of the enemy is better or worse than the caricature that emerges out of ignoramce, the important thing is, the caricature is wrong. It does not tell you what it's really going to take to defeat the adversary. Debates over the war then inevitably collapse into disagreements over the military actions we pursue, with practically no reference to the people who are their target, or the effect these operations have. Ultimately, this kind of one-sided discussion is not really about war at all, but some kind of fictional military engineering problem.
In fewer words, then, it's just important to recognize the importance of getting information about our adversaries. There's no question that, not only is that an important service that journalists can provide, but it's arguably their duty.
The real question, though, is how they go about that task. Interviewing a Taliban commander isn't wrong. Agreeing to accompany Taliban fighters during a mission to kill Afghan or Western soldiers is.
Instead of spilling a lot of my own words about this topic, I urge you to watch the second part of the "Under Orders, Under Fire" episode of Ethics In America. Both this series and The Constitution: A Delicate Balance were filmed in the 1980s. Prepare to be surprised by whom you'll see in these excellent discussions, what they say, and how well they say it.
After starting "Under Orders, Under Fire," you should first listen to the brief but illuminating discussion about torture in war. Then go to the second part, in which the panel wrestles with the problem of an American journalist traveling with enemy soldiers, just as Rosen did. The real kicker comes when a Marine colonel makes the rhetorical question: what happens when American soldiers are in a position to save endangered journalist?
If that doesn't paint a clear enough picture for you, watch this short video of a British journalist and British soldiers caught in a Taliban ambush. Next, imagine yourself as a journalist on the other side of this firefight. If you didn't have doubts whether you should be there...Well, you're a cold-hearted bastard, at the very least.
Bing West goes a little farther than necessary to make his point. Comparing the Taliban (whom I am not defending) to the Waffen SS just gives critics the opportunity to give less weight to the important part of his argument. You don't need "American moral lassitude" to explain one journalist who displayed faulty judgment.
I strongly recommend reading Robert Farley's analysis, which makes many excellent points that I don't need to repeat here. However, I'll make one last observation of my own. Rosen's article just isn't very good. He leaps to broad conclusions about the Taliban from encounters with a small group of them. Not only does that leave him open to the compound fallacy, but it's not impossible to imagine that some of the softer, nicer elements of Taliban life were staged for his benefit.
Even if you take everything he sees at face value, the narrative of the story is, "My wild, dangerous trip to see an ornery Taliban commander." His experience may add to our understanding of the war in Afghanistan, but it's too small for the general conclusions about the war that Rosen wants to make.
The latest podcast from the National Spy Museum is especially good. Frederick Hitz, the first inspector general for the CIA, covers a number of critical topics, including weaknesses of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), the critical importance of the staff for Congressional oversight committees, and the uphill battle hiring good people into intelligence jobs at painfully sub par salaries. Definitely worth the half hour listening to it.
People may give a brief nod to the weakness of the rational, unified actor model of government behavior in foreign policy and national security. Yeah, yeah, the government is really different formal organizations and distinct personalities that cooperate or clash. There's no philosopher king with complete control over everything. If you really want to understand why governments do what they do, you really have to understand how their constituent parts work together (or not).
Unfortunately, it takes real attention to learn how governments really work. Changes over time, like the upheavals in the CIA over the last couple of decades, only make it that much harder for the average citizen to keep track of it all. Yet another reason why we need fewer lazy journalists who attend press conferences at the Pentagon or the White House and type up the results. To return to the content of the Hitz interview for a moment, it isn't enough to report the passage of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Act. The real story is what happens next.