My post yesterday heavily criticizing Michael O’Hanlon’s idea for America to meddle in Afghanistan’s election has received a lot of attention, much of it negative. That wasn’t my intent: the title and 250 words of a 1700 word post were about O’Hanlon’s participation on the CIA’s External Advisory Board. The other 1500 words or so discussed the substance of his argument, and I did not want to distract from that discussion. That was my mistake.
Also, while I think many responses are ridiculous and born of a tantrum at seeing privilege challenged, some responses are insightful and I think I owe everyone, including O’Hanlon, an apology.
For starters, the tantrum. More than one “insider” type with whom I have occasional email contact angrily denounced yesterday’s post as being ignorant, “bullsh*it,” and so on. A few others pointed out that no one should have to disclose this stuff because everyone does it in DC, so therefore it is not relevant to a discussion about an argument. I don’t buy any of those arguments, but they exist and I think should be acknowledged.
However. I do think I owe O’Hanlon an apology. For starters, I have met him and participated with him on several panels and discussions around town. While he and I disagree strongly on just about everything related to Afghanistan, he is one of the most polite and genuinely nice individuals I’ve met here. In a town like DC, where people are rarely nice about questions of policy and influence, O’Hanlon actually stands out for being so personable. So he does not deserve the rancor with which I wrote yesterday.
I also think it’s important to know what the External Advisory Board does. A reader sent me this link to former DCI Leon Panetta addressing one meeting of the EAB, and it really does seem fairly harmless in the grand scheme of things — more of a gathering to chit chat than a serious hashing out of policy decisions. So I will accept that I went overboard in focusing on O’Hanlon’s membership on this board in the title of that post: O’Hanlon’s primary affiliation is his think tank (just as mine is), and that should be that.
O’Hanlon’s involvement on the EAB is not a secret: I pulled that information from his public bio. More than one person has questioned how much more disclosure there needs to be, given that most newspapers only allow a single sentence for one’s affiliation and his Brookings work is far more important. There is also the question of whether disclosing his affiliation in the op-ed would have altered readers’ perceptions of his argument, since he was not writing about CIA policy. All of these are fair and appropriate, and I think people are justified to question whether there really is anything sinister in not disclosing it.
I went overboard in my attempt to argue against O’Hanlon, in other words, and he deserves an unequivocal and public apology for that.
I remain conflicted about the matter, however. O’Hanlon is, in short, advocating truly horrible idea — something my friend Ahmad Shuja also explains in detail at his blog. Beyond it being a bad idea, O’Hanlon is advocating the U.S. meddle with and, in a way, “fix” the outcome of an election in Afghanistan. And he also advises the CIA.
I can’t escape how fishy that looks. The CIA has an understandable reputation for political engineering (in part because they’ve done a lot of it in the past). I also have an inherent bias toward letting other countries make their own mistakes, even if we think we know better, because America is really bad at dictating outcomes in other countries.
It doesn’t mean O’Hanlon is doing anything fishy. I don’t meant to imply or accuse him of wrongdoing: as I said, he is not like that. I think he genuinely believes in what he’s saying, and that he doesn’t take instruction from DCI Petraeus or anyone else.
But the question of when disclosing an advisory relationship is appropriate is still relevant, I think. Even at the Washington Post, this has been an issue when it comes to writing about the war in Afghanistan, and I really do not understand where people think the line should be drawn on the question. It seems inconsistent (though some who privately disagreed with me were consistent in saying such demands for disclosure are unrealistic, given how many groups senior figures in DC interact with).
It is unrealistic and not terribly relevant to list everything you’ve ever worked on when commenting on a policy issue — in fact, it is probably your experience that makes your analysis worthwhile in the first place. But for a current affiliation, I think the issue is trickier. Two years ago, I wrote for PBS about the unhealthy symbiosis between pundits and senior officials, calling it a mutual appreciation society. The pundits serve as validators for policymakers, and thus provide public cover for decisions.
Disclosure is one way we can avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest when discussing these matters. But disclosure has drawbacks, too, including imposing an unrealistic expectation on writing and authorship. I honestly don’t know where the appropriate ethical line is here. And it was my mistake not to be clearer about how uncertain I am in yesterday’s post.