Today, Ryan Crocker–career foreign service officer and former Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan–wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post criticizing its criticism of the Afghanistan war he oversaw. He pointed to progress made in Afghanistan, which is fair (and doesn’t necessarily contradict anything in the Post’s reporting), but generally did little to directly undermine worries about the war. Beyond that, as I noted in a frustrated Twitter thread earlier today, he showed off a lot of what’s wrong with US foreign policy.
I spent 11 years in Washington, DC, doing the usual young professional DC thing. I worked for a defense contractor. I joined networking groups. I attended events at think tanks. During this time I saw a lot of speeches either promising a new direction in US foreign policy or defending its current direction. Both tended to be vague and defensive even as they refused to directly engage with the very real problems in our policies. I had a flashback to that as I read Crocker’s op-ed.
One of the biggest issues is that he admits, albeit jokingly, to not really reading the reporting!
Having served twice in Afghanistan, as chargé d’affaires and as U.S. ambassador, I have a particular interest in this story. But I acknowledge that I’m not even close to having read all the interviews. I gave the document what is known inside the Beltway as “a Washington read,” looking for references to me. The main ones are two interview transcripts totaling 95 pages. I don’t think I gilded many lilies in talking about Afghanistan, whether in public comments or during my interviews with SIGAR.
Given how serious these reports are, I wish he would have at least read them before dismissing them.
Beyond that, he calls for a real “national conversation” on Afghanistan towards the end of his op-ed. But before doing so, he dismisses the critiques many of us have about US efforts there:
What is it, exactly, about nation-building that we must avoid at all costs? Does it extend to looking in the eyes of a hopeful Afghan girl of kindergarten age and saying, “Sorry, kid. You’re on your own”?
How, exactly, can we have a real national conversation about what to do in Afghanistan when questioning the need for nation-building gets us accused of not caring about hopeful Afghan kindergartners?
To be fair to Crocker, the issues with this op-ed–its refusal to confront the reality of US foreign policy, its authors failure to account for his own role in them–are not unique to Crocker. And that brings me to my point.
I hesitated before tweeting this morning, and writing this blog post. Crocker is a Big Name in US foreign policy, and it’s not a good career move to criticize Big Names. I had a friend who worked as a research assistant for another Big Name, and when he pointed out this Big Name had misrepresented some of the Big Name’s earlier stances that turned out wrong…his position (and foreign policy career) was cut short.
For many people who are relatively junior in the foreign policy world, access is often more important than expertise. Who you had access to early in your career can determine the course of your career. Those who managed to get in with the right people in Democratic foreign policy circles, for example, can then get good campaign positions and good appointments, which they can leverage to gain even better think tank positions when the Administrations change.
So there is a disincentive to criticizing Big Names when they misstep. And in the lack of such criticism, Big Names continue to get invited onto cable news shows, continue to be given think tank positions, and continue to write op-eds.
The result is a foreign policy world that lacks self-reflection or innovation. The Democratic staffers who got close to Big Names early in their careers got good positions in the Obama Administration. Since 2016 they’ve been using that experience to criticize Trump and, if a Democrat wins next year, they’ll go back into the Administration. Throughout this process there will be little open discussion on what we could have done better under Obama, because doing so means you’re cut out of the circle. I’m picking on Democrats and the Obama Administration because I had most of my interactions with them, but this could extend to Republicans and other Presidents.
Now, maybe I’m being unfair to Crocker here. He’s had a distinguished government career. I assume he knows what he’s talking about, and I would certainly trust him to nation-build over me. The problems in Afghanistan (and Iraq) are not his fault. But his inability to even engage with criticisms of the war he presided over–and the high likelihood that he will be highly sought after as a proxy or adviser if Democrats win next year–make me worry about Democratic foreign policy.
UPDATED TO CORRECT A TYPO