The End of Friedman Units

A lot of good stuff to read about Barack Obama’s Afghanistan speech last night. Andrew Sullivan is optimistic about actually achieving a good outcome. Michael Cohen is, I think, less optimistic about the outcome for Afghanistan, but does agree that this means the war is coming to an end. He and Marc Ambinder both have fascinating views on what both see as Obama’s improved presidenting (yeah, I’m starting to use that as a word): how Obama has learned to handle his relationship with the military. Spencer Ackerman is less optimistic all around; he sees “peace talks and forever war.” And don’t miss Andrew Sprung on the speech itself as well as the policy.

I’m mostly on Cohen’s side here, although cautiously so. To me, the question all along — in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then in Libya — has been whether Barack Obama is going to be able to resist the logic of the Friedman Unit — the idea that even though the US wants to leave, it’s the next six months that are critical, so the US doesn’t want to do anything just yet to jeopardize long-term success by pulling the plug just a little too soon.

To date, Obama has resisted that logic in Iraq, and has continued to carry out the slow-motion surrender that George W. Bush agreed to regardless of any apparent threats. It seems to me that what’s really important about the Afghanistan speech last night is that, as Cohen sets it up in his piece, Obama is making his strongest pitch yet against the logic of the Friedman Unit.  And, to me, that’s the important thing. Ackerman is concerned, for example, about negotiations for a long-term presence in Afghanistan, and cites the enormous number of bases built there. But in Iraq, Obama turned out to be willing to dismantle bases, and just leave.

Afghanistan doesn’t promise to have the same ending; Ackerman is right that Obama probably wants a long-term counterterrorism fight to continue against al-Qaida. But whether is good policy or not is, at least to a large extent, a separate question. As far as the larger war in Afghanistan, there’s still plenty of uncertainty: is a negotiated settlement possible? If not, is some sort of muddle-through workable? Are the costs and risks to coalition troops worth whatever remaining gains are possible over the next few years? But the major risk has always, it seems to me, been not defeat but quagmire. That’s still going to be the main danger, in my view, going forward. You can be sure that the logic of the Friedman Unit will show up again and again, as long as Obama’s scheduled withdrawal is in effect; indeed, we’ve seen it in Iraq, and will see it again as the year goes along. And that’s why to me, the strong stand against that logic was the most important thing in the president’s speech, and it’s very good news indeed.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.