In a Foreign Policy article, “Confessions of a Vulcan,” Dov Zakheim puts himself and his former Bush-era “Vulcan” colleagues in his analytical crosshairs, in particular on the subject of Afghanistan and the larger issue of “nation building,” or, as Zakheim more correctly and precisely defines it, state building.
The article, though not long, resists simple summarizing, but a number of highlights serve as an encouragement for a serious reader. To begin with, Zakheim admits that his own appointment as coordinator for Afghanistan reconstruction – on top of his day job as Pentagon comptroller – in 2002 was a reflection of the Bush administration’s lack of a serious policy: “The decision to appoint me reflected not only the administration’s preoccupation with Iraq but its seeming loss of interest in following through on support for the reconstruction of Afghanistan.” This is not the kind of confession Washington power elites – and make no mistake, Zakheim’s status as a “Vulcan” was well merited – are in the habit of making.
A second sign of intellectual honesty in the article is Zakheim’s confession about the tasks of state building and the U.S. government’s capabilities to undertake it. The Bush team of Vulcans led by former secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were notorious for their skepticism of Clinton-era “nation building,” believing it to be a misuse of U.S. military power, and preaching a realist’s “humility” in strategy making. Thus it is less than surprising that the Bush administration operated at cross-purposes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Zakheim sketches the story briefly:
I came into the Bush administration believing that the United States was terrible at nation building (again, really state building). Events after 2001, during my stint in the Department of Defense, initially led me to conclude that I had been wrong. During the period when I was DoD’s civilian coordinator for Afghanistan, I openly conceded to my friends and colleagues that events in Afghanistan were disproving my belief that the United States was incapable of nation building.
Zakheim writes that he’s gone back and forth on the issue since – again evidence of a further, nearly unprecedented level of candor from a former public official. But his concluding confession is notable for its mature humility, both about the need for American power and on the part of those who wield it:
As long as the United States remains a superpower with global interests, it will find those interests threatened somewhere in the world. It cannot turn away from those threats; “Fortress America” is an inviting concept that became obsolete at the turn of the twentieth century, as the isolationists of the 1930s discovered by the end of that decade. It is of course impossible to foretell where America’s next war will take place. No one expected to go to war with Saddam Hussein in 1991, just a few years after the United States sided with him in his decade-long conflict with Iran. Amply predicted in intelligence circles though it was, no one in policy circles really expected post-Tito Yugoslavia to break apart. No one expected America to engage in a decade-long (and counting) war in Afghanistan. And not even the most rabid neocons expected that “mission accomplished” would take the better part of a decade to be realized in Iraq. That another war will take place is a certainty, however. And when it comes, whether against a so-called “rogue” state or another major power, the United States will need to be able both to make policy and to implement it.
The fact that policy during much of the Bush administration was made by people whose egos and dreams were outsized even by Washington standards undermined efforts to implement an effective followup to the initial military operations. An endless stream of journalistic accounts has documented the stubborn refusal of leading American actors in the Iraq drama to address the cultural, political, and religious realities that governed Iraqi society. Less well documented but no less important is the pernicious impact of a similar combination of blindness, obstinacy, and illusion regarding the implementation of American policy objectives in Afghanistan.
Real leadership is not only about setting directions. It also has to encompass a management style that can see efforts through to successful completion. In fact, it is not the management style itself that matters, it is the awareness that management matters. The details will not “take care of themselves.” It is all well and good to be a Vulcan, or to be a member of some future exclusive crowd of would-be public servants. Someone, however, has to know how to get the job done.
Cross-posted from the Weekly Standard.