Two of the most influential columnists on foreign affairs are Thomas Friedman of the New York Times and David Ignatius of the Washington Post. Both are centrist middle-aged white men writing for major newspapers. Both also are successful authors, though the Rousseauian Friedman produces optimistic non-fiction works, while the more Hobbesian Ignatius writes dark thrillers about intelligence. Also, I think Friedman tends to be influenced a bit more by diplomats, while Ignatius seems a bit more plugged into the worlds of intelligence and the military.
These very similar writers have come to very different conclusions on what President Obama should do in Afghanistan. Friedman says cut your losses, while Ignatius says put in more troops.
Friedman thinks the United States can't do much right in the Middle East, so shouldn't try:
We need to be thinking about how to reduce our footprint and our goals there in a responsible way, not dig in deeper. We simply do not have the Afghan partners, the NATO allies, the domestic support, the financial resources or the national interests to justify an enlarged and prolonged nation-building effort in Afghanistan.
I base this conclusion on three principles. First, when I think back on all the moments of progress in that part of the world - all the times when a key player in the Middle East actually did something that put a smile on my face - all of them have one thing in common: America had nothing to do with it.
Friedman, oddly to me, thinks that Iraq is more important than Afghanistan and Pakistan. I disagree, but this may be in part because he lived in Lebanon and Israel, while I lived in Afghanistan. I think the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan threatens the United States far more than anything in Iraq does. That is, I think Pakistan is deteriorating quickly and has weapons of mass destruction and Islamic extremists who are gaining ground, while Iraq is only deteriorating slowly, has no WMD (remember, Tom?) and its few Islamic extremists are on their heels.
"Iraq matters," he states flatly. He doesn't say why. I disagree with Friedman a lot on Iraq-he was wrong about the invasion, he doesn't understand the dynamics of what happened in 2006-08, and he still thinks "a decent outcome there really could positively impact the whole Arab-Muslim world." That veers mighty close to Wolfowitizian dreams of swamp draining.
Ignatius does better. First, he's on the ground, in Kandahar, and that always helps in commentary. He thinks more troops could help protect the people and "buy enough time for the country's army and government to fight their own battles" against the Taliban and their allies.
Good as far as it goes. I wish Ignatius also had written about the need to have U.S. troops protect the people from the brutality and abuses of Afghan soldiers and police. The need for more U.S. forces isn't just about insurgents. The predatory behavior of some of them has driven Afghans into the arms of the Taliban. Having American units partnered with Afghan forces won't stop such abuses, but it will lessen them. For example, I am told there currently are five checkpoints between Spin Boldak and Kandahar, with official shakedowns of truck drivers at each. Such corruption is a tax on the stomachs of poor Afghans. Get rid of the unnecessary checkpoints, and have Americans around the other ones, and fewer Afghans will go hungry.
Final score: Ignatius 1, Friedman 0.
Meanwhile, my worry is that Abdullah drops out of the runoff in the next few days, leaving us with little but a half-rotten Karzai. More on this on Christiane Amanpour's CNN show this coming Sunday at 2 pm Eastern.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.