No Comment — October 1, 2009, 9:43 am

The Trouble with Smart Advisors

Confronted with a choice between the recommendations of two advocates, one smart and one seemingly less smart, on what basis does one choose that of the less smart one? Without firsthand knowledge of the situation under discussion, it would be almost impossible. The only thing one can do is try to bear in mind that sheer smartness is no guarantee of correctness, and that the smartest person in the room may be wrong. It sounds simple, but it’s not.

These words appeared in a short article in the June 1975 issue of Harper’s. The author was Richard Holbrooke.

Yesterday President Obama met for three hours with his national security team to begin discussion of the McChrystal proposal for Afghanistan. Richard Holbrooke is a prominent participant. So is David Axelrod, sending an unfortunate message that Obama views this as a political decision as much as a national security matter. Initial reports suggest that Obama’s advisors are split, with some siding with McChrystal and others expressing strong reservations about a second major ramp-up of the military effort in Afghanistan.

One hopes that Obama and his brain trust are focusing on some serious questions, the answers to which are not obvious. One is why the United States and its NATO allies should be augmenting their effort in Afghanistan, in view of increasingly clear evidence of widespread electoral fraud in the nation’s presidential election. As Laura Rozen noted and Ken Silverstein highlighted, a key United Nations observer has been booted apparently for speaking too strongly about the election rigging–a fact which serves only to make clear how important the point is and how much political figures wish not to be reminded of it. If the Americans and their NATO allies are putting lives at risk to bring democracy to Afghanistan, doesn’t it matter that the government we installed seems to be working to subvert the elections process?

General McChrystal’s plan, recently described by Steve Coll as the “ink spot” approach, has widely been understood in tactical terms as an anti-Taliban plan. But of course the president and his advisors have to assess this proposal in broader strategic terms. What does McChrystal believe he can accomplish and over what period of time? And what would these military accomplishments mean for the political realities in Afghanistan? Will Obama and his team be the prisoners of their own messaging? Will they be the prisoners of presidential decisions past? Will they succumb to the weakness that Holbrooke ascribed to the Kennedy era, namely picking the proposal that looks the smartest?

Holbrooke’s implicit message is evidently this: what is called for is not going with the smartest man in the room. It’s picking the options that best suit the long-term needs of the nation. What is at stake in this decision is more than merely prestige for generals and politicians. It is the future of a people who have suffered ever since their country was the setting for a great Cold War proxy conflict. And it is the future of our vaunted Atlantic Alliance, whose purpose is now being tested and transformed in Afghanistan. The answers are not obvious, and a rush to simplistic judgment needs to be avoided. It may take decades before we know which voice in the room is the wisest, and for now Obama is well advised to approach this decision, which may define his presidency, with care and caution.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2016

Atlas Aggregated

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Origins of Speech

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Verse

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Sigh and a Salute

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Prose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Don the Realtor

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Martin Amis on the rise of Trump, Tom Wolfe on the origins of speech, Art Spiegelman on Si Lewen, fiction by Diane Williams, and more

In Havana, the past year has been marked by a parade of bold-faced names from the north — John Kerry reopening the United States Embassy; Andrew Cuomo bringing a delegation of American business leaders; celebrities ranging from Joe Torre, traveling on behalf of Major League Baseball to oversee an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, to Jimmy Buffett, said to be considering opening one of his Margaritaville restaurants there. All this culminated with a three-day trip in March by Barack Obama, the first American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. But to those who know the city well, perhaps nothing said as much about the transformation of political relations between the United States and Cuba that began in December 2014 as a concert in the Tribuna Antiimperialista.

Illustration by Darrel Rees
Article
Don the Realtor·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"If you have ever wondered what it’s like, being a young and avaricious teetotal German-American philistine on the make in Manhattan, then your curiosity will be quenched by The Art of the Deal."
Photograph (detail) © Polly Borland/Exclusive by Getty Images
Article
The Origins of Speech·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"To Chomsky...every child’s language organ could use the 'deep structure,' 'universal grammar,' and 'language acquisition device' he was born with to express what he had to say, no matter whether it came out of his mouth in English or Urdu or Nagamese."
Illustration (detail) by Darrel Rees. Source photograph © Miroslav Dakov/Alamy Live News
Article
A Sigh and a Salute·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Si told me that various paintings had spoken to him, but he wished they had been hung closer together 'so they could talk to each other.' This observation planted a seed that would come to fruition years later in his mature work."
Artwork (detail) by Si Lewen
Article
El Bloqueo·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Amid the festivities and the flood of celebrities, it would be easy for Americans to miss that the central plank of the long-standing cold war against Cuba — the economic embargo — remains very much alive and well."
Photograph (detail) by Rose Marie Cromwell

Estimated portion of registered voters in Zimbabwe who are dead:

1/4

Honeybees can recognize individual human faces.

Pope Francis announced that nuns could use social media, and a priest flew a hot-air balloon around the world.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today