In the Graveyard of Tautologies

by Joshua Foust on 1/3/2010

In 2005, writing of his time as a governor in southern Iraq, Rory Stewart said he “tried to create a tolerant, modern society.” Then the Islamists won an election, and the dream fell apart.

What astounding arrogance! That he, Stewart, a British aristocrat, could hitchhike into Iraq in 2003 and lay claim to a region of the country, proclaiming his intent and duty to build his version of a perfect society, failed is to be expected (he once admitted to the Charlie Rose show that he is an unabashed Orientalist, but said that’s totally okay). But that he blames this failure on the Islamists, and not his own blind arrogance and penchant for meddling—never forgetting to remind us that he, and only he, can divine the subtle mental gymnastics of these noble savages he serves for a year at a time—that blame is simply unforgivable.

It is the main reason I have ignored his writings on Afghanistan—aside from the broadest generalities no one could ever disagree with (let us have achievable goals and not, ahem, create a modern, tolerant society), he says comparatively little aside from quippy tautologies. Arguing for humility in foreign policy is never a vice, and generally laudatory… but for one to have such a strangehold over the Afghanistan debate the way Stewart does (just try counting the number of times journalists compare him to T.E. Lawrence, with the subtle distinction that Lawrence had achievements while Stewart has little more than appointments), one must have something to say. And what little Stewart has to say is so circular and self-referential, I’m at a loss to explain it.

This is a man begins his stories by saying things like “I met a Turkish man in Istanbul,” and wrote four-thousand words about how Afghanistan is an illusion because our goals there are marginally too utopian for his tastes (rather than nation-building, he’d prefer a limited-in-some-way-but-still-effective counter-terrorism idea). Which is fine—you can’t really argue with either statement or idea (of course you’d meet Turks in Turkey; just as of course we’d all prefer a low-cost counterterrorism approach to an intractable problem).

The thing is, once you disassemble all of Stewart’s platitudes and quips, once you actually jot down what his ideas are, you’re left with a confused jumble. The essence of his ideas, once you get past his brief flirtation with massive infrastructure projects (which he rejected without a word as to why), is that the slow escalation of forces from 2006 onward have been the wrong thing to do. And that would be a perfectly fine argument to make, if he actually argued that point, developing lines of thought, supporting them with evidence, and explicitly connecting the rise in violence to the presence of more troops (and not to other coincidental phenomena, like a worsening government, a destabilized Pakistan sending refugees and militants across the border, and so on).

In 2008, that had transmogrified into a muted call for a return the Rumsfeld strategy of “light footprint,” whereby the Coalition would withdraw from the troublesome Pashtun areas and concentrate its rebuilding efforts in the non-Pashtun areas, and send small special forces out on raids into the troublesome Pashtun areas to keep security under control. Of course, such an idea ignores Afghanistan’s seething ethnic politics, which should have been a concern to one as openly prideful of his local knowledge as Stewart (that idea of his had other serious problems as well, which have already been covered to death).

But really, despite years to research his ideas and craft his thoughts, Stewart remains basically stuck where he was in 2007, noting things were bad and saying we should scale back. And again, that is not an immoral position to take, but given the lack of detail or heft behind his arguments—they sound really pretty until summarized, then they seem trivial—I just don’t get why people still hang on his every word.

So I had a hard time reading Stewart’s latest essay for the New York Review of Books. After two-thousand words, he was still complaining, essentially, that President Obama was following the advice of the military while trying to balance out other domestic objectives. Does that really need so much space? It does if you’re Stewart, for whom an argument is not just about persuading, but about impressing upon the reader/listener that he is an educated and worldly British OBE who is also witty and loves quipping.

But ignoring his version of wit for a moment: just what, exactly, is he trying to argue here? Nearly three-thousand words into this essay entitled, “Afghanistan: What Could Work,” and I’m still reading about Obama wrestling with his strategy, and not an actual discussion of what could work (“It is difficult to find the appropriate language to express such insights,” he helpfully begins one paragraph, only to write an either/or comparison that could be in an undergraduate policy analysis class).

Stewart’s essay is filled with the tantalizing beginnings of an argument—he almost discusses how Obama might reach out to the Taliban in one section, and how he might properly balance the ratio of troops to population in another—but none of them are developed. They are simply listed between large blocks of exposition with the same general points—moderation, scale it back, let us be limited in our goals and expenditure—repeated throughout, not so much argued as placed for flavor.

The last three paragraphs are where Stewart could have brought the whole rhetorical tangle to an acceptable conclusion, a recognition of how bad all our options are. And he kind of does that. But not really. We see again, the confused mess, that moderation is better than extremism, and therefore we should choose moderation. And I get that, I really do. In fact, I’m downright sympathetic to that argument.

But Stewart, as has become normal for him, didn’t actually argue a damned thing. He didn’t discuss “what could work,” as the title of his essay suggested he might. He instead listed a lot of ways what is happening right now could go wrong, and listed the choices President Obama has made and still faces, and has expressed his hope that everyone does the right thing. Thanks a lot, and good luck in Parliament, I guess?

If I wanted that a shallow bit of moralism, I have the New York Times. They’re a lot less long-winded in their pretention. Why Stewart still gets such prestigious media real estate for his is beyond me.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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