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The Discourse Report: August 24, 2021
Democratic in-fighting over the budget, the FDA's slow-crawl approval process, the weird world of NFTs, and more
Americans Never Understood Afghanistan Like the Taliban Did by Shadi Hamid in The Atlantic on 8/23/21
One of the first things militant groups like the Taliban do when they enter new territory is provide “rough and ready” dispute resolution. Often, they outperform the local court system. As Vanda Felbab-Brown, Harold Trinkunas, and I noted in our 2017 book on rebel governance, “Afghans report a great degree of satisfaction with Taliban verdicts, unlike those from the official justice system, where petitioners for justice frequently have to pay considerable bribes.”
This is one major reason why religion—particularly Islam—matters. It provides an organizing framework for rough justice and a justification for its implementation, and is more likely to be perceived as legitimate by local communities. Secular groups and governments simply have a harder time providing this kind of justice. The Afghan government wasn’t necessarily secular, but it had received tens of billions of dollars from governments that certainly were. A Sharia-based, informal dispute system would almost certainly be frowned upon by those Western donors. How likely was it that an Afghan government headed by an Ivy League–educated technocrat could beat the Taliban at its own game?
The Moral Legitimacy of Our Actions in Afghanistan by Steve Stampley in The Dispatch on 8/24/21
Failure to recognize the moral righteousness and necessity of America’s mission in Afghanistan and elsewhere, or to outright deny it, is a tragedy that will spawn a thousand more.
The tension between advocates and critics of American power is necessary because, on the whole, it keeps us honest. However, when we swing too far in the direction of either camp, we make regrettable decisions. Obama learned this the hard way in Iraq. Yet, since the advent of the Trump administration, our nation has moved with alarming speed to reject the fundamental truth that America’s strength in the world is a worthwhile force for good. This is a catastrophic mistake.
Hubris, complacency, half-measures, inappropriate blurring of domestic political objectives into war strategy—the allied effort in Afghanistan suffered from all of the above. But we never lacked moral legitimacy. As the Taliban has demonstrated in its chaotic first week in power—hunting down our Afghan allies, executing the family members of journalists, firing indiscriminately into crowds and forcing women to “marry” fighters—it deserves the targeted firepower of a righteous, freedom-loving people, not our gelded acquiescence. This fundamental truth isn’t lost on Americans as we watch the current disaster play out on our screens.
In assessing America’s role as international leader after the fall of Saigon, George H.W. Bush, then ambassador to China, wrote in his diary, “As soon as America doesn’t stand for something in the world, there is going to be a tremendous erosion of freedom.” Historian Jeffrey Engel argues that Bush understood the key to enabling American leadership abroad was a renewal of Americans’ commitment to first principles and civic purpose at home. Today we face a similar reassessment of America’s role in the world. Once again, we must understand the grave consequences blind American retrenchment would have for millions around the globe. We must recommit to our first principles and the righteous purpose of America in the world.
The Afghanistan War Was Lost Before Biden Ended It by Michelle Goldberg in The New York Times on 8/23/21
Maybe American violence in Afghanistan could be justified if it were improving the average Afghan’s life. But often we seem to have made people’s lives harder. The most recent report from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction paints a damning picture of two decades of American efforts in Afghanistan: “U.S. officials often empowered power brokers who preyed on the population or diverted U.S. assistance away from its intended recipients to enrich and empower themselves and their allies. Lack of knowledge at the local level meant projects intended to mitigate conflict often exacerbated it, and even inadvertently funded insurgents.”
Speaking of those who think Americans could have stayed in Afghanistan long term simply to avoid losing, Crawford said, “What most of the conversation seems to be assuming here is that the level of civilian misery is taken out of the equation and all that matters is who controls Kabul.”
Taliban control of Kabul, of course, will also inflict civilian misery, and some youth will feel they’ve lost a shot at a future. There was never a decent way to leave the country, which is why we fought a futile war for 20 years. But there also wasn’t a decent way to stay.
House Democrats Still Scrounging for Votes as Party Factions Clash Over $3.5 Trillion Budget by Tony Romm in The Washington Post on 8/24/21
The $3.5 trillion budget is a centerpiece of Biden’s economic agenda, enabling Democrats to begin crafting much more detailed spending plans that Pelosi hopes to adopt in September. Their blueprint opens the door for an expansion of Medicare, a series of new investments in education and family safety net programs and new initiatives to fight climate change, fulfilling Democrats’ 2020 campaign pledges. Party lawmakers also hope to finance the new spending through tax increases targeting wealthy corporations, families and investors.
Democrats broadly support the aims of that package, which they hope to adopt through a process known as reconciliation — a move enabled by the budget that allows them to sidestep Republican opposition and a guaranteed filibuster in the Senate. But the tactic essentially requires Democrats to stay united, a tough task given the political fissures that nearly have sank the budget blueprint this week.
At the center of the battle are Gottheimer and eight other moderate House Democrats. The bloc of lawmakers for weeks had threatened to vote against the budget out of concern about its timing — arguing the House instead should have first considered then approved a bipartisan, roughly $1.2 trillion bill to improve the nation’s infrastructure. Both bills cleared the Senate earlier this year.
Pelosi opted to consider the budget, adhering to the demands of liberal lawmakers within her caucus, which earlier this year had threatened to scuttle the infrastructure bill if Democratic leaders did not comply. That soured centrists, who felt that Pelosi risked squandering a rare opportunity to adopt long-stalled public-works spending that had already garnered significant support from Democrats and Republicans alike.
Who Will Win Ohio’s Evangelicals? by Jim Swift in The Bulwark on 8/23/21
The Ohio GOP primary race for the U.S. Senate seat up for grabs in 2022 seems to be a contest of demagogic fakery between two former Marines. Among the voter blocs crucial to winning: evangelical Christians. According to the Pew Research Center, evangelicals comprise 29 percent of the state’s adult population, with Catholics and mainline Protestants at 18 and 17 percent respectively. Moreover, evangelicals make up a whopping 39 percent of Ohio Republicans, nearly double the percentage of Catholics and mainline Protestants (20 and 21 percent).
Republicans tend to put forward candidates who look like them—and pray like them, too: 99 percent of Republicans in Congress identify as Christian. The other 1 percent are Jewish. In fact, there are more Republican Mormons in Congress (9) than there are Republican Jews (2). This is nothing new, but it does suggest that politicians who aren’t some flavor of Christian may have trouble winning office as Republicans.
Which is why Josh Mandel, who is Jewish, has been doing a lot to cater to the evangelical crowd in Ohio. On Instagram and Twitter, he posts chummy photos with voters, usually with the name of their church on the sign conveniently highlighted. He’s tweeted “America was founded on the Bible” (it wasn’t) and that if elected he will “always make my decisions based on the Bible and US Constitution.” And it really is a smart play to highlight the deep ties between evangelicals and Israel when you’re running for higher office.
David Leonhardt (@DLeonhardt)
Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias)
David Roberts (@drvolts)
John Burn-Murdoch (@jburnmurdoch)
Vincent Rajkumar (@VincentRK)
U.S. Ramps Up Afghanistan Evacuations Ahead of Aug. 31 Deadline (ABC)
President Biden Expected to Receive U.S. Intelligence Report on Coronavirus Origins (CBS)
Afghanistan: How the Taliban Weakened America (The Economist)
How NFTs Are Reinventing the Digital World (Bloomberg Quicktake)
Rents Rising Across the U.S. as Employees Return to Offices (NBC)