Last week, I wrote about the lessons that President Barack Obama and his foreign policy team have learned -- or should have learned -- from their mistakes over the last four years. The civilian side of government, I noted, doesn't have a "lessons learned" apparatus the way the military does. It should, but then, so should my line of work. Reporters can be called to account for factual errors, but columnists, who traffic in opinion, need not even acknowledge the category of "mistake." It is largely up to us to blow the whistle on ourselves. And this is what I propose to do this week.
In looking back through my columns of the past three years, I had no trouble coming up with my most egregious misjudgment: A year ago, on the eve of Egypt's parliamentary elections, I wrote that while Egypt's new government "may have a strongly Islamic cast, it won't actually be Islamic," since experts were predicting that the Muslim Brotherhood would win 15 to 40 percent of seats, with the rest divided among various forces, including Salafists. In fact, the Brotherhood and the Salafists took three-quarters of the seats in Egypt's new parliament.
But that's just electoral math. My deeper misjudgment was to think that, once in power, the Brotherhood would take democracy as seriously as they had while serving as a parliamentary minority under President Hosni Mubarak. Instead, Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsy has taken his electoral victory as a mandate to demolish obstacles to his rule -- temporarily, he insists. The most reform-minded members of the Brotherhood have left the fold, but have not themselves become a significant political force. Egypt now faces a spreading politics of confrontation in which no party believes that it can afford to trust to democratic tactics. The situation is utterly fluid and unpredictable, but it is by no means obvious that Egypt's political marketplace will prove self-correcting.
Like any prudent columnist, I have hedged my hopefulness with cautionary notes. But I was too hopeful -- my besetting flaw. I put too much stock in Obama's ability to put a new face on America, which is to say that I shared the somewhat giddy expectations of many people in the administration. When I look back at what I wrote about the counterinsurgency strategy that Obama adopted in Afghanistan, I see that I was too willing to suspend my own skepticism about the civilian side of the policy. In 2010, I suggested, correctly, that "the organic time scale" of governance reform "is just too gradual to match any military timetable Americans will accept."
But then I contradicted myself. Earlier that year, I had spent time with soldiers and civilians in the critical southern district of Arghandab, as well as with officials in Kandahar and Kabul, who "believed that they could make a meaningful difference" by the time troops began to draw down, if only Afghan president Hamid Karzai would stop frustrating their efforts at reform -- a thought which I endorsed. But Karzai was never going to stop being Karzai, and my impulse that the institution-building effort could only work generationally, if at all, was right. I was too susceptible to their hopefulness.
Experience has been a painful teacher -- for the last two administrations, and for those who have invested in their soaring aspirations. And experience has taught us, among other things, that while America can blow things to smithereens, it cannot do nearly as much as it thinks to put them back together: "The world is so much more complicated, and so much more refractory, than we wish it to be; and our wishes all too often govern our understanding." That was me, writing about Iraq -- though it could have applied to plenty of other things. "It behooves us, then, to act with humility," I concluded, "and to try as best we can not to confuse what we wish to be with what can be."