Stanley McChrystal’s War on Poverty

Stanley McChrystal’s War on Poverty

Jim Sleeper: McChrystal’s War on Poverty

GENERAL STANLEY McChrystal’s recently announced counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan overturns many of the doctrines that the United States brought to Iraq in 2003 and expands others that were developed after 2006. But if it’s anything like the publicity its neoconservative cheerleaders are giving it, it has the possibility of resurrecting a set of policies that failed not only in Vietnam but also in LBJ’s “War on Poverty.”

The biggest obstacle to the strategy isn’t the supposed invincibility of the Taliban or an American liberal failure of nerve; it is achieving McChrystal’s ambition to do in Kabul what Americans couldn’t or wouldn’t do in New Orleans.

In his recent “interim assessment” for the White House and his “counterinsurgency guidance” for the troops in Afghanistan, McChrystal rejects what the conservative foreign-policy pundit Max Boot calls the “conceit that an army can defeat an insurgency simply by killing insurgents.” Never mind that until recently that was the conceit of law-and-order conservatives and “present danger” neocons; now, McChrystal sidelines it along with the more liberal “culture of poverty” that he says characterizes NATO’s disorganized efforts in Afghanistan.

McChrystal hopes to transcend the policies of both the militarist right and the social-welfare left by expanding the war to “embrace the people,” be “a positive force in the community,” and “use local economic initiatives” to displace the insurgency. With massive new resources, his new doctrine would integrate “military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency.”

But whose government? Hamid Karzai’s has proven to corrupt as well as feckless. And America’s is responsible for a decades-long disintegration of the “actions” McChrystal mentions–a disintegration that left New Orleans patrolled by Blackwater guards in a perfect storm of unchecked global warming, failed infrastructure, corrupt politics, laissez-faire economics, and social disarray. It’s not so easy to tell what model the NATO coalition would be fighting for now.

THE FAILURE of the Bush administration’s militarized free-market fundamentalism to win hearts and minds at home or abroad may explain the neoconservatives’ leap to social engineering and subsidies for dubious characters posing as popular leaders.

For half a century conservatives have derided and defunded such strategies except when they could be billed to “national defense,” like the U.S. Interstate Highway System and the first federal student loans. Small wonder, then, that people who so recently scorned “nation-building,” “community organizing,” community policing, and public jobs are now rhapsodizing them in the name of national defense.

Here’s Max Boot, just back from Afghanistan:

Next to the combat outpost is a brand-new district center built with foreign aid money. Inside we sit down to chat with the district governor, Mohammed Yasin Lodin, a natty man with frizzy black hair and a thin mustache, and the police chief, Colonel Amanullah, who is (unusually for an Afghan) clean shaven. Yasin is overflowing with praise for the improvements wrought by the Americans.

The Americans later tell me that the governor… is doing a good job, spending far more time than he used to in the district (his family lives in Kabul) because it is now safe to do so… The Afghan soldiers and police also receive praise.

And here’s David Brooks, touting the Afghan National Solidarity Project, that helps “villages elect Community Development Councils. Western aid agencies give the councils up to $60,000 to do local projects, but it’s not the projects that matter most. It’s the creation of formal community structures. These projects are up and running in 23,000 villages.”

The results are “astonishing” and “surprising,” Boot claims; and they are outpaced only by press releases and glowing reports that read like the publicity for the inner-city programs that Richard Nixon once chided for merely “throwing money at problems.” For McChrystal, reports like those of Boot and Brooks are fruits of the “strategic communications” that are essential to “policy development, planning processes, and the execution of operations.”

The general also requests massive new resources to “fight corruption and improve the delivery of basic services such as clean water, paved roads, electricity, education, and a functioning legal system.” He wants to raise Afghan government salaries because “the notoriously low wages…are a major inducement for corruption.”

War on Poverty strategists wanted all this, too. So do American local and state governments. Right now.

McChrystal estimates that Afghanistan’s thirty million people will need 600,000 counterinsurgents. There are “only 270,000 (170,000 Afghans, 64,000 Americans, 35,000 from other nations)” now, but such things, Boot explains, are “too intricate to be reduced to such back-of-the-envelope calculations. Unique local characteristics have to be taken into account.”

I heard that in Brooklyn in the 1960s; and it sounds dissonant coming from commentators who so recently told Americans that we have to meet savagery with more savagery because, as Brooks put it in 2006, the terrorists “create an environment in which it is difficult to survive if you are decent.” That’s also what Charles Hill, Rudolph Giuliani’s foreign-policy advisor in 2008, told the Yale Herald in 2004. When asked, “What is the most efficient way to ensure that terrorists will not be in charge?,” Hill responded, simply, “Kill them.”

But that was then. Now, as Boot explains, “the old tactic of going into an area, killing some insurgents, and leaving was about as effective as ‘mowing the lawn’….Even more important is to provide durable security and some prospect of a better life to the population.”

Brooks enthuses similarly that while, at first, in Iraq “the good guys had only vague ideas about how to win this war, now they’re much smarter.” So, apparently, are conservative pundits.

THERE ARE lessons in the failures of both the free-market militarist right and the social-welfare left. But McChrystal’s lesson plan is incomplete, not only because President Obama hasn’t yet committed the resources, as Boot and Brooks complain; it’s also because Obama, as America’s Community Organizer-in-Chief, understands better than McChrystal (who only discovered “soft power” as a fellow at Harvard’s National Security Program in 1997) that lasting democratic solutions can’t be orchestrated or imposed by Central Command, Kennedy School power points, or, indeed, a top-down War on Poverty.

A little history might help here. The Bush Administration’s National Security Strategy of 2002 vowed to make the world safe for democracy in order to make it safer for America. That seemed sensible, because history seemed to be on democracy’s side: At the start of the Iraq war, the historian John Lewis Gaddis, a supporter of Bush’s grand strategy, was fond of noting that there are many more democracies now than in 1914 and that, after the end of the cold war, free markets were opening the whole world and making even more people free.

But the discovery that attacks on New York and Washington had been prepared in Afghanistan turned spreading democracy into a national defense priority more than an historical inevitability. Bush introduced unilateral, preventive war-making; and Gaddis found precedents for it, telling a Yale audience, “It doesn’t hurt to give history a little nudge now and then.” Remove tyranny, and most people will choose democracy.

But removing Saddam and his cadres without nourishing democratic alternatives left us owning something we’d broken. And now history is nudging us back. Hence conservatives’ new urgency not only to win savage battles but also to drain swamps of corruption and despair. But now that their own model of “democracy” has generated such swamps in America, it’s not so clear that national defense or democracy are best served by creating more public jobs in Afghanistan than right here.

Americans, too, want freedom, Lyndon Johnson admonished in the speech that inaugurated the “War on Poverty” in 1965. “But freedom is not enough. You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: Now you are free to…choose the leaders you please. You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’….Ability is stretched or stunted by…. the poverty or the richness of your surroundings.”

That was too much for conservatives then; and it was also too much in 2003, when conservatives were only telling Iraqis, “Now you are free to…choose the leaders you please.” But the crisis in Afghanistan has caused them to come around. Even so–what have they come around to? The promulgators of the “War on Poverty” soon discovered that the United States had its own set of corrupt warlords and predatory lenders who turn real estate into unreal estate and who savage the American dream of homeownership and curry public assistance for themselves but deny their workers basic security and training and sell them degrading distractions.

That is part of the reason why last week General John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Wesley Clark, one of McChrystal’s predecessors as NATO commander, called the high proportion of American youth unfit for military duty “a matter of national security.”

That puts a new twist on Boot’s claim that “the most pressing problem for McChrystal lies not in Afghanistan…but inside the United States.” McChrystal’s call for more resources does put President Obama and liberals on the spot. But his conservative boosters can’t very credibly demand more resources from an American economy and a polity they’ve left on the ropes.

Anyway, a liberal capitalist society’s strengths depend ultimately on virtues and beliefs that its armies, markets, and even social workers can’t nourish. Strong citizens have to be nurtured in other ways–such as those of the “power organizations” in civil society that rebuilt devastated parts of New York City through the Industrial Areas Foundation’s Nehemiah program. It trains citizens in strategies that often rebuff free-market conservatives and welfare-state liberals alike.

The “War on Poverty” did many things wrong, but so will McChrystal’s plan unless Americans decide that we can’t serve our national defense by advancing democracy in Afghanistan unless we’re doing at least as much and as well to advance it here at home.

Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is author of The Closest of Strangers (Norton 1989) and Liberal Racism (Viking 1997).


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