Daniel W. Drezner

Why I’m not (completely) outraged by the Kagans

Why I’m not (completely) outraged by the Kagans

Late last night the Twitterverse was alive with the sound of clucking from foreign policy wonks outraged by Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s fascinating, detail-rich Washington Post story on the very cozy relationship that think-tankers Fred and Kim Kagan had with multiple commanders in Afghanistan.  The highlights:

The four-star general made the Kagans de facto senior advisers, a status that afforded them numerous private meetings in his office, priority travel across the war zone and the ability to read highly secretive transcripts of intercepted Taliban communications, according to current and former senior U.S. military and civilian officials who served in the headquarters at the time.

The Kagans used those privileges to advocate substantive changes in the U.S. war plan, including a harder-edged approach than some U.S. officers advocated in combating the Haqqani network, a Taliban faction in eastern Afghanistan, the officials said.

The pro-bono relationship, which is now being scrutinized by military lawyers, yielded valuable benefits for the general and the couple. The Kagans’ proximity to Petraeus, the country’s most-famous living general, provided an incentive for defense contractors to contribute to Kim Kagan’s think tank. For Petraeus, embracing two respected national security analysts in GOP circles helped to shore up support for the war among Republican leaders on Capitol Hill.

Fred Kagan, speaking in an interview with his wife, acknowledged the arrangement was “strange and uncomfortable” at times. “We were going around speaking our minds, trying to force people to think about things in different ways and not being accountable to the heads” of various departments in the headquarters, he said.

The extent of the couple’s involvement in Petraeus’s headquarters was not known to senior White House and Pentagon officials involved in war policy, two of those officials said….

As war-zone volunteers, the Kagans were not bound by stringent rules that apply to military personnel and private contractors. They could raise concerns directly with Petraeus, instead of going through subordinate officers, and were free to speak their minds without repercussion.

Some military officers and civilian U.S. government employees in Kabul praised the couple’s contributions — one general noted that “they did the work of 20 intelligence analysts.” Others expressed deep unease about their activities in the headquarters, particularly because of their affiliations and advocacy in Washington.

Now, the standard reaction has been to blast the Kagans and Petraeus for being exemplars of the you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours collusion between top military brass and think-tankers.  It evokes the DC clubbiness that induces nausea in some quarters. 

I can’t quite get there, however.  I can almost get there.  The three most damning elements of the story are: 

1)  The Kagans emailing Stanley McChrystal (and ccing Petraeus) because their requests to visit Afghanistan were getting slow-rolled.  In the email, they said that they were concluding that the strategy was not going well.  Soon afterwards, they got access and then wrote a WSJ op-ed praising the strategy;

2)  When Petraeus was the Afghanistan commander, the Kagans would occasionally "spar" with field commanders because they believed these officers weren’t focusing on the Haqqani network more.  This made the officers decidedly uncomfortable, since the Kagans obviously weren’t in the chain  of command. 

3)  Kim Kagan wrote fundraising letters for her think tank while in Afghanistan so the Kagans could stay in-country and volunteer for CENTCOM rather than take any money from them. 

I think these are somewhat valid concerns, and yet….

a)  One of Chandrasekaran’s implications is that a critical op-ed by the Kagans would have undercut GOP support for the Afhanistan strategy.  This strikes me as way, way, way, way exaggerating the influence of the Kagans.  There was no groundswell in the GOP to get out of Afghanistan, so a critical op-ed would have simply led to demands for greater resources in that theater of operations. 

b)  The Kagans’ place in Petraeus’ HQ clearly upset some military subordinates — and yet I can’t get too upset that they were made uncomfortable.  As the story notes, one of the reasons Petraeus wanted the Kagans there was to have an outside perspective on the operation.  No one inside the uniformed services is gonna like that, because it dilutes their own authority.  Indeed, the other way to spin this is that Petraeus was wary of getting too wrapped up in the military bubble and craved outside input.  Isn’t that what you want as a check against organizational groupthink? 

c)  I’m not gonna defend the fundraising letter — that seems… unseemly.  Castigating the Kagans for not being on Petraeus’ payroll, however, also seems a bit strange.  This might have been a pay-for-play move for influence, but I don’t think it was about money. 

From Petraeus’ side, having the Kagans there clearly served a dual purpose.  Sure, he got an outside voice, but he was also able to co-opt potential critics with this gambit.  Whether this is a good thing or not for American foreign policy is an honest matter of debate.  It seems like Petraeus only coddled more hawkish military advisors, and it’s likely the case that they would have been the bigger media thorn. 

As a general rule, however, I can’t get too worked up about government officials seeking outside input.  This becomes a problem only if the outreach/co-optation is so successful that it shields a policy from any criticism — and not even Petraeus is that good at stroking think-tankers. 

I understand the concerns that some Petraeus critics have with his relationship with the Kagans.  I share some of them.  But I would be equally wary of policy principals that refused to engage with outsiders or refused to consider information from outside their own bureaucracies. 

What do you think?