Ominous Canary Songs

OMINOUS CANARY SONGS…. Count me among the skeptical of Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy. What really worries me is what I’ll call the “reverse canary” problem. Simply put, the wrong people are too happy.

You’re all familiar with the phrase “canary in the coal mine.” The idea was that miners would bring canaries down into the mines as warning signals. When the air became toxic, the canaries would be affected first — thus warning the miners of imminent danger.

With respect to the Afghanistan policy, the problem isn’t that the “signaling” canaries are dropping dead. The problem is that they’re too happy — they’re chirping with excessive mirth. Specifically, when Max Boot, Robert Kagan, Bill Kristol, and the Post editorial board are all excited about the policy…. well, it might be time to get out of the mine.

More substantively, my fear isn’t so much with the policy announced yesterday. For the short term, Obama’s policy strikes a reasonable balance between the “minimalist” and “maximalist” camps, which are helpfully described by Ilan Goldenberg. I’m ok with giving a “middle ground” strategy of regional diplomacy and reconciliation a chance — but only for the short term. If things don’t go well, then I agree with Goldenberg that we need to change course:

If a middle ground strategy shows little to no progress within the next 12-18 months than it would be wise for Obama and his advisors to reconsider and move to a [minimalist] strategy…. This will be extraordinarily difficult as once you commit to a strategy changing course involves admitting failure and reevaluating — something American administrations have been historically bad at.

Precisely — and that’s what worries me. This strategy seems extremely susceptible to morphing into an open-ended, long-term commitment without clear objectives. Frankly, I didn’t see any exit strategy yesterday. I saw no verifiable metrics for determining whether we’re achieving our objectives (and on that — is the objective to disrupt al Qaeda, or to stabilize the government?). I’ve heard promises of benchmarks — but nothing yet. And even assuming concrete benchmarks emerge, it’s hard to believe we’ll really pack up and leave if they’re not met.

Let’s be clear — this is an escalation. It’s a reasonable one, for now. But these things tend to snowball. To echo Robert Frost, way leads on to way. And if things deteriorate, or if our allies depart, it’s easier to imagine that additional escalation (rather than minimalism) will follow. It’s not that I don’t believe in the goal — I’m just skeptical that increased military efforts are capable of achieving these goals.

And that brings me to the canaries. The problem with the neocon foreign policy view is (among other things) its excessive overreliance on military force. Escalation and more force is the answer to most any question. Some sincerely believe in this policy — others are probably playing out some Freudian drama because they were teased on the playground. But anyway, for whatever reason, more force is always the answer with them — and it’s almost never the right choice.

And that’s frankly what worries me about their enthusiasm for Obama’s strategy. They recognize not only that it’s an escalation, but also how readily the policy lends itself to future escalations.

The past few years have shown us that these people are drawn to failed policies like moths to burning flames. The fact that they are finding this one so attractive should give us pause.