Denigration by punctuation

by Andrew Sprung

Glenn Greenwald goes another round on Joe Klein's rebuttal of his attack yesterday, and also engages my response:

In a post yesterday about public opinion and war, I noted that Joe Klein justified the war in Afghanistan by claiming it was necessary to prevent war between Pakistan and India -- a justification and purpose never cited by the U.S. Government.  To justify the fighting of a war for reasons different than the stated official reasons, Klein propounded the highly undemocratic proposition that "some of the best arguments about why this war is necessary must go unspoken by the President."  Yesterday Klein and Andrew Sprung, writing at Andrew Sullivan's blog, both responded to what I wrote -- Klein by pointing to Obama's statements in a 2008 interview about the need to diplomatically resolve the India-Pakistan dispute and Sprung by pointing to statements made by various commentators and experts about the importance of the India-Pakistan dispute in the region.

None of that really disputes, but rather bolsters, what I wrote. I wasn't disputing Klein's reporting that many people, including inside the administration, privately claim that we need to stay in Afghanistan to prevent conflict between India and Pakistan, nor was I criticizing him for reporting that this was the case, nor was I even commenting on whether that war justification is valid.  My objection is that the U.S. Government, in all the times it explained why this war was necessary, never cited that as a justification or a goal.  If, as Klein and Sprung both claim, that is truly one of the Government's primary goals, then we're fighting this war for reasons different than what the public is being told.

It's true that Greenwald's main focus was on the government's alleged hiding of its main reason for fighting in Afghanistan. But before getting to the secrecy charge, Greenwald indulged in a bit of denigration by punctuation  -- deploying scare quotes, italics and Winnie-the-Pooh caps to imply that this rationale for engagement was being ginned up to bolster a weak case, if not made up out of whole cloth:

But even with all of the "debate" over the war in Afghanistan, there are still significant anti-democratic features to it.  Over the weekend, Time's Joe Klein, undoubtedly reciting what his hawkish government sources told him, trotted out a brand new "justification" for the war in Afghanistan:  we have to stay in order to prevent India and Pakistan from going to war with each other.  The U.S. government excels at finding brand new Urgent National Security Reasons to continue fighting wars once the original justifications fail or otherwise become inoperative:  no more Al Qaeda in Afghanistan? Still have to stay, otherwise India and Pakistan will fight.

That innuendo is dropped in part of Greenwald's his response today -- he was not "commenting on whether that war justification is valid."  In fact, though, this sarcasm weakens his main complaint about Obama's alleged secrecy, insofar as it implies that neither the arguments nor their bearers are central to the Administration's thinking or worth taking seriously:

The fact that a bunch of super-smart, highly Serious, in-the-know Washington insiders chatter with one another that India-Pakistan tension is a Key Reason for the war -- while the public at large is fed a bunch of melodramatic, scary cartoon claptrap about 9/11 and Terrorists and Al Qaeda -- doesn't undermine the point I made.  It is the point.  Now that there's virtually no Al Qaeda left in Afghanistan, if a primary reason we're now fighting that war is to prevent conflict between India and Pakistan, if that's really the war aim we have, then the President is compelled to say so.

Greenwald seems to want us to believe simultaneously that a) this is all a bunch of pointy-head chatter, deployed either for the chatterers' amusement or to add faux pillars to the Administration's argument edifice, and b) that it's the secret heart of the Administration's case for war that dare not speak its name.

Take it as a given that concern over Pakistan's worries about India is part of the Administration's calculus in Afghanistan. In that case, I think Greenwald overstates Obama's alleged secrecy. The challenges of dealing with Afghanistan, "Pashtunistan," Pakistan, Kashmir, and India are devilishly convoluted. The direct national security aim is  to neutralize the Taliban so that a measure of stability can be restored in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and al Qaeda's freedom to operate can be shrunk to as near zero as possible. Ultimately, one of Greenwald's  "Serious, in-the-know Washington insiders" -- Steve Coll -- argues, that goal depends on development in Pakistan -- and so on peace between Pakistan and India:

American policy over the next five or 10 years must proceed from the understanding that the ultimate exit strategy for international forces from South Asia is Pakistan's economic success and political normalization, manifested in an Army that shares power with civilian leaders in a reasonably stable constitutional bargain, and in the increasing integration of Pakistan's economy with regional economies, including India's

A means to that end is to convince the Pakistanis that the U.S. is not scheming with India to extend Indian influence in Afghanistan. Is it incumbent on Obama to go that far down the aim chain in the public case he makes for war? Even if it is, does failure to do so constitute deception? Few people accuse Obama of talking down to the electorate or failing to acknowledge the complexity of issues. 

Klein, I think answers the secrecy charge well, even as he returns to his own claim that Obama could widen the case he's made for his AfPak policy:

He's concerned that the regional strategic concerns that I've described are a secret causus belli on the part of the Obama Administration. That's rather melodramatic. What's actually happening here is...diplomacy. It would be indelicate for the Administration to talk about its fears that Pakistan will trend toward an Islamist takeover if we leave--because the Administration doesn't want to rile or insult the Pakistanis (although Bruce Riedel, who led the first Obama Afghan review, has said so very publicly, both to me and in an article in the National Interest). It is also impossible to speak publicly about Kashmir because the Indians go berserk whenever we do so (as the Indians did, when Obama mentioned Kashmir in the interview with me cited above) [in Oct. 2008].
As I said, these are matters of diplomacy, not intelligence. They have nothing to do with the sort of government secrecy that so concerns civil libertarians like Greenwald. Indeed, the argument I laid out is not considered news in the foreign policy community; I felt the need to repeat it in order provide some context for the Afghan decision. I also believe that the Administration could have done a better job in providing that context. But the President--or any of his top officials--would be foolish to comment on it, since that would work at cross-purposes with our diplomatic mission in the region.