Experts are usually careful not to make forecasts that can be quickly proved wrong. But catching up on back issues of the New York Review of Books, I came across an exception to that rule, an article titled “Afghanistan: The Moving Target” by the foreign policy writer William Pfaff. This short piece now stands as a nearly comprehensive catalog of the pessimistic clichés that dominated public discussion of the war just six weeks ago.
The war in Afghanistan was going badly, Pfaff wrote, because you can’t win a war with airpower … against an enemy that digs in, as in Vietnam … in a country without high-value targets. In the author’s view, the Pentagon was doing everything wrong, causing massive civilian casualties and a humanitarian catastrophe because of its unwillingness to put American ground forces at risk. President Bush was unwilling to admit his mistakes. The Northern Alliance wouldn’t move against the Taliban; there was no Pashtun opposition in the south; Ramadan was coming; Osama Bin Laden would never be found; and it wouldn’t matter if he were found, because terrorism is a hydra-headed monster. Pfaff missed only a few doomy chestnuts: the “Arab Street” rising against us; the anti-terrorism coalition splintering; Afghanistan as the graveyard of great powers.
What this suggests to me is a new noun, pfaff, for warrantless doom-saying about American military and foreign policy. Through the early weeks of the war, the papers and the networks were full of it. Another sorry example was R.W. Apple’s front-page news analysis piece in the New York Times of Oct. 31. Headlined “Afghanistan as Vietnam,” it painted a similar picture of looming debacle, exactly three days and two weeks into the conflict. “Like an unwelcome specter from an unhappy past, the ominous word ‘quagmire’ has begun to haunt conversations among government officials and students of foreign policy, both here and abroad,” Apple wrote.
At the time, my colleague William Saletan shrewdly dissected the way this kind of weasely language expresses a defeatist viewpoint while simultaneously attributing it elsewhere. In Apple’s analysis of the war, signs of progress were “sparse.” The war was going “less smoothly than many had hoped.” Two weeks later, when the signs of progress were plentiful and the war was going more smoothly than many predicted, Apple wrote another analysis deriding “the naysayers and the what-iffers,” “the armchair Clausewitzes,” and “the pessimistic prophets” who once thought the war was going badly. Wonder who he could have been thinking about.
It may be a bit early to declare the first stage in the War on Terrorism a decisive success. We still haven’t found Osama Bin Laden or Mullah Omar. But in every other respect, Afghanistan has made a whole coterie of dour windbags look like analytical midgets. The Taliban has collapsed and been replaced by a plausible coalition government. This occurred with extraordinary speed and only a handful of American casualties, thanks to the remarkably effective use of air power and local military proxies. This victory has provoked neither additional terrorist attacks against the United States, nor a new wave of anti-American sentiment in the Islamic world, nor the collapse of the Pakistani government, nor a fragmentation of the anti-terrorism coalition. Humanitarian relief is beginning to flow into Afghanistan again. We are winning, not just relative to “expectations” but in absolute terms.
The pessimists, however, have declined to retreat into their caves. Some, like Apple, have changed costumes and now pretend to have been optimists all along. Others, appearing nightly on the NewsHourWith Jim Lehrer, have simply abandoned one set of alarm bells for another. Skeptics who argued Afghanistan would prove a quagmire now propose similar clichés in relation to a potential war against Iraq. Taking the battle to Saddam Hussein, they suggest, could cause the Arab Street to rise against us, the coalitionto fragment, domestic support for the war to falter, and so on. But at this point, the interesting question is not whether such analysis has any merit. It’s why such pessimism continues to flourish in the face of military success.
In part, the persistence of this kind of pessimism is a testament to the power of incorrect ideas. One such idea is the limited strategic value of air power. John Keegan, the British military historian, recently wrote a mea culpa on this subject in the Wall Street Journal. Keegan admits to repeatedly underestimating the effectiveness of American air power, in both Kosovo and Afghanistan. But in the piece, he continues to try to come up with explanations for the Taliban’s collapse that will vindicate his old theory that air power doesn’t work. Even now, Keegan can’t fully countenance the idea that precision bombing may have changed the nature of modern warfare. Another such bad idea that won’t let go is the insuperability of guerrilla warfare. For some, memories of Vietnam are so strong that they prevent the drawing of obvious distinctions, such as the difference between guerrillas who do and don’t have popular support, who are and aren’t receiving arms from major foreign powers, who fight in jungles as opposed to on exposed plains.
In another way, pessimism serves as a proxy political argument, for hawks as well as doves. The best illustration of the former was the Washington Post op-ed page on Oct. 30, which featured twin pieces by Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol. Krauthammer’s piece argued that the war was going badly because it was being “fought with half-measures”—i.e., with too much consideration for our coalition partners, for the feelings of Arabs, for public opinion, and so on. Kristol despaired that we were making “no evident progress” because of our reluctance to commit ground troops. Neoconservative hawks like Krauthammer and Kristol were too quick to see failure because they suspected the Bush administration of holding back. For doves who suspect American motives, on the other hand, skepticism about the war is a way of discrediting the use of force without arguing against it in principle. Focusing on potential costs and ignoring potential benefits loads the dice against our acting militarily.
Finally, there’s a built-in media bias toward pessimism. In a nutshell, Cassandra has always gotten better ratings than Pollyanna. Moreover, for a commentator to sound sanguine courts humiliation in a way gloom-and-doom doesn’t. A retrospective judgment of excessive pessimism merely shows a critic to be thoughtful and serious. And unless you’re gratuitously specific in your pessimism, it’s hard to be proved wrong. A retrospective judgment of excessive optimism, on the other hand, reveals someone as naive and unsophisticated. And unlike pessimism, even vague optimism can end up looking utterly foolish, because there are so many ways something like a war can go wrong. Even those accountable for positive results, such as President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, learn to shun optimism. This is the essence of the expectations game. From a leader’s point of view, it’s preferable to prepare people for the worst and have the worst not occur than it is to have to explain why you underestimated the hazards going in.
But at this point, military pessimists have a track record we can evaluate. They were wrong about the Gulf War, which they said was unwinnable without 10,000 American casualties, a fracturing of the anti-Saddam coalition, a rising of the Arab Street, and so on. They were wrong to forecast failure of various kinds in Bosnia and Kosovo. Now they’ve misjudged what the greatest military force the world has ever seen could do on the medieval battlefield of Afghanistan. Like a stopped clock, the naysayers and what-iffers will be right someday. Until then, I’m giving victory the benefit of the doubt.