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

May 2016

Fighting Chance

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Front Runner

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Habits of Highly Cynical People

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Unhackable

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

American Imperium

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Elisabeth Zerofsky on Marine Le Pen, Paul Wachter on the quest for an unhackable email, Rebecca Solnit on cynical people, Andrew J. Bacevich on truth and fiction in the age of war, Samuel James photographs E.P.L. soccer, a story by Vince Passaro, and more

I sat in a taxi with Emma and her son, Stak, all three bodies muscled into the rear seat, and the boy checked the driver’s I.D. and immediately began to speak to the man in an unrecognizable language.

I conferred quietly with Emma, who said he was studying Pashto, privately, in his spare time. Afghani, she said, to enlighten me further.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Front Runner·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"The F.N. asked to be sent to an institution whose legitimacy it did not accept, and French voters rewarded the party with first place in the election."
Illustration (detail) by Matthew Richardson
Memoir
I Am Your Conscious, I Am Love·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A paean 2 Prince
"And one thinks, Looking into Prince's eyes must be like looking at the world."
Photo ©© PeterTea
Article
Stop Hillary!·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"As wacky as it sometimes appears on the surface, American politics has an amazing stability and continuity about it."
Article
Plexiglass·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I sat in a taxi with Emma and her son, Stak, all three bodies muscled into the rear seat, and the boy checked the driver’s I.D. and immediately began to speak to the man in an unrecognizable language.

I conferred quietly with Emma, who said he was studying Pashto, privately, in his spare time. Afghani, she said, to enlighten me further.

Photograph (detail) by Karine Laval

Average number of pounds of pennies in an American home:

6

There were new reports of cannibalism in North Korea.

The Finnish postal service announced it will begin mowing lawns on Tuesdays.

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