Stephen M. Walt

Drezner’s holiday gift

Drezner’s holiday gift

FP colleague Dan Drezner is clearly feeling generous this holiday season, which is a wonderful thing. Yet at the same time, I miss his normally sharp-elbowed intelligence. To be specific, his recent post is too forgiving of the incestuous relationship between Iraq/Afghan commander David Petraeus and inside-the-Beltway operators Fred and Kimberly Kagan, as well as of the other think-tankers Petraeus "consulted" with during his stints in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To his credit, Dan acknowledges that there are troubling features in this case. It bothers him that Kimberly Kagan hinted that they’d say critical things about the Afghan campaign unless they got more cooperation from the Pentagon, and then penned upbeat stuff once they got what they wanted. Dan also thinks exploiting their relationship with Petraeus for fundraising purposes was "unseemly" (an uncharacteristically timid charge for him.) And he’s bothered by the reports that they overstepped their role as consultants and seemed to interfere with the chain of command.  

Dan’s main defense of the Petraeus/Kagan relationship is that military commanders ought to get outside their own bureaucratic environments on occasion and solicit informed advice from independent experts. It is hard to disagree with this general observation, but the devil is in the details and in this case they are pretty damning.

The main problem is that the relationship between Petraeus and his outside advisors was rife with conflicts of interest and perverse incentives, and it made it almost certain that a) Petraeus would mostly get advice he wanted to hear, and b) the people he was consulting would return home and write upbeat articles about him, and the strategy he was pursuing. And that’s exactly what they did.

Here’s the basic structure of the situation. If you’re a politically ambitious commander like Petraeus, you want good advice. But you also want to make sure that you and your decisions are portrayed in a positive light. So you invite some well-connected civilians to visit your operation, and you make sure you select people who aren’t known for being critical of the war and who will be easy to co-opt if need be. And when the consultants come to visit for a few days or weeks, you make sure they receive briefings that give the impression things are going well even if they are not.  

Next, consider how this looks from the consultants’ perspective. If you’re an inside-the-Beltway think-tanker (and especially if you’re someone who depends on soft money), it’s a big deal to be invited to go to Afghanistan or Iraq and advise the commander. It makes you look more important to your colleagues, your boss, and your board, and you can go on TV and radio and write op-eds invoking your "on-the ground" experience. If you have to debate somebody on U.S. policy, you can sit up straight and pontificate about "what I saw when I was in Kabul," or "what General Petraeus told me when we were discussing COIN strategy," or whatever. Then you (or your organization) can write fundraising letters or grant proposals touting your connections and deep on-the-ground experience. And let’s not forget the role of ego: it’s just plain flattering to think a four-star general wants your advice.

Your well-scripted tour of the battle zone will probably convince you things are generally okay, of course, but you may still have a few doubts or questions and you may even express them to the commanders who invited you over. But what you won’t do is tell them that the entire enterprise is misguided, or return home and write a hard-hitting piece explaining why the strategy is wrong or that the war effort is likely to fail. Because if you did that, it would be the last invitation you’d ever get and you wouldn’t be able to play up your insider status anymore. Even worse, powerful people inside the national security bureaucracy might start bad-mouthing you, thereby diminishing your clout in Washington and destroying any hopes you might have had about serving in the government.

To see how well this works, ask yourself: How many of the people who took advantage of Petraeus’ hospitality ended up writing critical assessments of his strategy or offered pessimistic forecasts about the prospects for victory? Not Michael O’Hanlon or Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution, not Max Boot or Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, and certainly not the Kagans. I haven’t done a comprehensive survey of everything that Petraeus’ various advisors have written since then, but my impression is that virtually all of them remained upbeat about both wars for quite some time and none were critical early on. And it isn’t as if there wasn’t plenty of evidence that both of these wars were going badly.

Dan and I agree in principle: U.S. government officials and military commanders should sometimes solicit independent outside advice. And I have no problem with academics offering advice if they feel they have something to contribute. But we ought to recognize from the start that these relations are fraught with the potential for corruption and cooptation. Powerful leaders aren’t likely to solicit advice from people who aren’t already sympathetic to their views, and even scholars with considerable integrity will find it hard to keep their bearings, speak truth to power, and tell the rest of us what’s really going on.