A neglected but unfortunate casualty of the Bush administration is Peter Feaver’s reputation for patient and rigorous thinking. Before the guy went into the White House, he was an excellent scholar of civilian-military relations and interesting political scientist who thought nothing of working for both Clinton and Bush at the NSC when his country called. But the time he spent in the second-term Bush White House has left him determined to settle scores with Bush critics and pick needless fights over the more-incontestable Bush failures.
So it is with Feaver’s latest post, which sticks up for Bush’s acceptance of bin Laden’s escape from Tora Bora, the first (and perhaps only) unambiguous U.S. military failure of what used to be termed the Long War or the War On Terrorism. I give him credit for boldness. Not many people want to say it’s ultimately no big deal that the man responsible for 9/11 escaped and lived to reconstitute his terrorist network. I suspect very strongly that before Feaver entered the Bush White House, he was one of them.
Now, however, Feaver wants to make two arguments. The first is, juh, you don’t know that going after bin Laden at Tora Bora with U.S. troops might have made things better; we can’t even say for sure it would have worked. And there, sure, yes, counterfactual conditionals are a poor mode of reasoning. Feaver passes Logic 201.
His second argument is more baroque:
My problem with the Tora Bora critique — both its generalized form and the particular form advanced by [Foreign Policy editor] Glasser — is that it conveniently forgets that the reason bin Laden was “trapped” in Tora Bora in the first place is that Secretary Rumsfeld and General Franks and CIA Director George Tenet defied both the conventional war plans and the conventional wisdom to mount the very light-footprint campaign that Glasser et al. are complaining about. If Rumsfeld and Franks and Tenet had used the conventional warplan that involved a heavy U.S. ground presence instead of the rapidly deployable light-footprint that Glasser denounces, the invasion of Afghanistan would have happened some time in 2002, if then. If Rumsfeld and Franks and Tenet had listened to the conventional wisdom during the early weeks when the light-footprint approach appeared to be faltering, they would have abandoned the Afghan effort long before the battle in Tora Bora.
First of all, this was not a “Rumsfeld/Franks/Tenet” plan. It was a Tenet plan. Anyone who covered the military and the CIA back then know that the reason why the first phase of the invasion worked the way it did is because the military had no invasion plan for Afghanistan off the shelf and the CIA did. It took several critical weeks for Franks, backstopped by Rumsfeld, to figure out how to move ground forces into Afghanistan. While that happened, the CIA gave duffel bags’ filled with cash to Northern Alliance warlords, who pushed south from the Panjshir Valley, eventually assisted by Special Forces and backed with airpower. That led to Tora Bora. Then, as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s report makes crystal clear, Franks and his subordinates — unchallenged by anyone higher up — opted not to use U.S. forces that were available to cut off al-Qaeda’s escape from Tora Bora. Then the Bush administration misrepresented to the public what it knew about Tora Bora.
I don’t even know what point Feaver actually wants to make here — whether he wants to defend Franks’ reasoning at Tora Bora or whether he just wants to churlishly tweak the critics. But if I can cut through his own shoddy writing and reasoning, he presumes that because it was impossible to get ground troops into Afghanistan in October 2001 it remained impossible to get ground troops into Tora Bora in December 2001. That’s just ignorant. It appears that Bush Derangement Syndrome has a right-wing variant that’s even more persistent than its left-wing affliction.
“I am certainly not going to defend every decision made by Rumsfeld or every scintilla of spin advanced by the Pentagon press shop,” he writes, and I certainly hope that’s true, because I miss the old Peter Feaver.