David Rothkopf

The surest way of producing “mission failure” is picking the wrong mission…

Want to understand why the U.S. is currently in such dire straits in the greater Middle East? Just take a look at today’s Washington Post. It leads with a story given the four-column headline “McChrystal: More Forces or ‘Mission Failure.'” Beneath that is a second story, providing analysis from Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Karen DeYoung, also ...

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Want to understand why the U.S. is currently in such dire straits in the greater Middle East? Just take a look at today's Washington Post. It leads with a story given the four-column headline "McChrystal: More Forces or 'Mission Failure.'" Beneath that is a second story, providing analysis from Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Karen DeYoung, also about the strategic debate about our strategy in Afghanistan.

Read the stories ... or the one the New York Times seemingly raced to shoe-horn onto its front page once it heard the Post had gotten hold of the classified McChrystal report ... and you see that General McChrystal defines his "mission" as winning against insurgents. (Although, as mentioned Friday, his parallel targeting of abuse of power and corruption within the Karzai government is itself a hugely important element of the report, a sign of just how strained that relationship has become.)

Want to understand why the U.S. is currently in such dire straits in the greater Middle East? Just take a look at today’s Washington Post. It leads with a story given the four-column headline “McChrystal: More Forces or ‘Mission Failure.'” Beneath that is a second story, providing analysis from Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Karen DeYoung, also about the strategic debate about our strategy in Afghanistan.

Read the stories … or the one the New York Times seemingly raced to shoe-horn onto its front page once it heard the Post had gotten hold of the classified McChrystal report … and you see that General McChrystal defines his “mission” as winning against insurgents. (Although, as mentioned Friday, his parallel targeting of abuse of power and corruption within the Karzai government is itself a hugely important element of the report, a sign of just how strained that relationship has become.)

Reading these stories, you would think that the most important decision the Obama administration faces right now regarding its efforts in the Middle East is to decide whether or not to accept the arguments of McChrystal and the military to increase troop deployments to Afghanistan. And that’s the problem.

On one level it’s a problem because the troop levels involved simply are not enough to tip the scales in our favor. The proposed incremental increases in forces associated with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is comparatively small and the larger, more rapid increases in the Afghan police and army that are targeted — to achieve a total force of 400,000 — are seemingly offered, according to the Post, without dates. Even more troubling is the fact that if we rush into place such a force it will be under-trained and inadequately screened. And finally, there is plenty of reason to doubt whether it is really such a good idea to hand over such a force to a central government that is so deeply flawed. 

But it’s also a problem because it’s the wrong debate. It’s not about our core mission.

Afghanistan may have been the “good war” when compared to Iraq. But both were waged in pursuit of the same goal: to make America more secure and to defeat avowed enemies of the United States. There is only one best way to do that. And it’s not being done either in Iraq or Afghanistan. It can’t be done there. It has to be done here at home. It’s reducing our dependence on oil from the region and cutting into the flows of that oil money that support bad actors. 

But continue to read through today’s papers and you see this more important mission is given second shrift — even as world leaders gather in New York for high level climate talks that are inextricably linked to our national security interest in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. 

Also, as in the case of the Post, while there is a good editorial today that opens with a statement about why it is vitally important to price carbon if we are to fight global warming, it does not note the centrality of pricing carbon to achieving our most important national security objectives. That’s not surprising. The media and politicians still tend to treat the issues as though they were separate. Of course, they are not. 

That’s why it’s therefore doubly disturbing when … in articles in the Wall Street Journal on the NY climate talks or the New York Times story about European concerns that the United States lacks the “will” to move forward those talks … all consulted note that administration negotiators are hanging back from the kind of solid commitments demanded by our leaders elsewhere in the world because of a sense the Congress simply won’t go there.

Per the Journal report:

Is the U.S. Senate really expecting all the other countries to make a serious effort on climate change at the Copenhagen Conference in the absence of a clear commitment from the United States?” John Bruton, the European Union’s Ambassador to the United States said in a written statement last Thursday. “Asking an International conference to sit around looking out the window for months, while one chamber of the legislature of one country deals with other business, is simply not a realistic position.”

If this were only a failure of vision and will on the part of the U.S. Congress with regard to climate change … itself a momentous global threat … it would be a sign of a serious dereliction of duty on their part. But failing to recognize the urgency of a need for a price on carbon implies the Congress simply does not care about our troops in the Middle East today or those who may serve there in the future.

But you see, I don’t think that’s actually the case. And I think that the secret to making progress on the issue of setting a price on carbon is linked to getting Congress to see it as a choice: you can pay for the oil addiction with blood or you can pay for real security with a modest tax.

That is the core point Tom Friedman made in his excellent New York Times column yesterday (in which I was quoted.) Climate talks or the climate debate on the Hill and the McChrystal Report and what we do next in Iraq are inextricably related. Which means that horse-trading climate for healthcare or coming up with excuses as to why they shouldn’t move until the Chinese make emissions commitments is playing fast and loose with U.S. national security.

Sadly, at the moment, we are a long way from reframing these issues as we should. Which is why, as bleak as the McChrystal report may look, a similar report assessing our prospects in achieving what is our real core mission would be even more unsettling — based not on the failings of a foreign government but of our own. 

MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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