Our Best Stuff From a Week We Went Big on Policy
The Afghanistan withdrawal, our intelligence bureaucracy, and a really (really) big ‘human infrastructure’ package.
Happy Saturday! I’m not sure if where you are is super hot or extra rainy, but I’m guessing it’s one of the two. Which makes it a great day to stay inside and read—and have we got some stuff for you!
By now you’ve heard our spiel a few times: We started The Dispatch to focus on reporting and informed commentary. We wanted to do deep dives on policy, analyze legislation, evaluate and critique the leaders we elect to represent us.
For a while, when I would tell people about my job or those familiar with it would ask how it was going, I would reply, “Well, it’s been busy. We knew when we launched that the runup to the election would be hectic, but we sure didn’t plan on a pandemic or a summer of protests and riots or, well, this,” and then I would shrug and gesture wildly and everyone knew I was talking about the aftermath of the election.
Don’t get me wrong: We’re proud of the work we’ve been doing all along. We brought you firsthand accounts from doctors who were treating COVID patients, we covered the pandemic relief stimulus packages, we tracked the development of the vaccines. We covered all aspects of the Trump administration and the 2020 campaign. We did some of our best work in the aftermath of the election, and even broke a little news.
Now that things have calmed down a little bit, though, we’re able to focus a little bit more on deep dives into important topics. And this week we were especially strong on that front. I won’t go into detail here, because I summarized the big pieces below. But I’ll tell you a little bit about the authors, because it shows our commitment to bringing you authoritative voices on important issues. When we wanted to discuss the Department of Justice’s recent decisions on national security leak investigations, we turned to Jack Goldsmith. Goldsmith was assistant attorney general in the George W. Bush administration—he knows the DOJ, and he knows the intelligence bureaucracy.
Paul Miller wrote the below piece on Afghanistan and how strategic mistakes by every president during the last 20 years led to the current situation, in which we are withdrawing with little more than faint promises that the Taliban has already shown they won’t keep. Miller not only served in Afghanistan in 2002, he was the director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council staff from 2007 to 2009. He, too, knows his stuff.
If you haven’t yet checked out these pieces, please do. And thanks for reading.
Our intelligence bureaucracy has a big problem: There is a massive overclassification of information pertaining to national security, and too many people have access to it. Jack Goldsmith uses two recent decisions by the Justice Department to show the paradox this creates. He points to a new DOJ policy against seizing reporter communications in leak investigations, which shows how the executive branch is unable or unwilling to guard against the dissemination of leaks that undermine our intelligence-gathering efforts and can even get people killed. He also writes about the DOJ’s decision to cease legal action started by the Trump administration against John Bolton for publishing his memoir. The executive branch’s policies on “prepublication review” of books by administration members to prevent the release of classified information can keep vital information that shouldn’t be classified from getting out. “The U.S. secrecy system has grown too big to fix. It is too sprawling across too many agencies and private contractors who are too interested in maintaining their secrecy prerogatives as they defend the nation,” Goldsmith writes.
President Donald Trump’s attempt to claim victory in an election he lost did unspeakable damage to Americans’ faith in the integrity of our elections. It’s a time for sober discussion and debate about campaigns and election law. The Democrats’ response? The For the People Act. “Almost none of the contents of this overstuffed bill respond to the events that unfolded between November and January,” Walter Olson writes. “And we know why: It was largely composed of bills drafted long before November, aimed at scoring points in older fights, and often as symbolic exercises in signaling to constituency groups.” Olson turns his attention to the institutions that withstood the challenges of the 2020 election: The Senate, the Electoral College, and the Supreme Court, and all of which are under attack from the left. “There was a serious challenge to the workings of a democratic transition, for sure, but it did not come from these institutions,” he writes. “Why are we asked to see them as the problem in need of urgent repair?”
For better or worse, our time in Afghanistan is coming to an end. The Biden administration, perhaps in recognition of the fact that September 11 was not exactly the best deadline for withdrawal, has announced our troops will be leaving by August 31. The Taliban is resurgent and threatening provincial capitals, the Afghan government is weak, and al-Qaeda still enjoys safe haven. Paul Miller explains that it took serious blunders by each administration that oversaw the war effort to have it end on these terms. “George W. Bush’s light footprint and war in Iraq, Barack Obama’s self-defeating doubts and withdrawal timetables, Donald Trump’s peace deal, and now Joe Biden’s withdrawal. These decisions helped make a bad situation worse and virtually assured that the future course of events in Afghanistan will reflect the Taliban’s interests more than the United States’.”
It’s a lot of money: The Biden administration has reached a deal with Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee on a $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” package that would have to be passed through the budget reconciliation process. Leaving aside the obvious concerns and questions—how will this be paid for? Has anyone checked the national debt lately?—it’s worth asking whether this could make inflation worse. Consumer prices have jumped 5 percent in the last year, and massive government borrowing can contribute to inflation. In Uphill, Harvest and Ryan talked to a number of sources, whose opinions run the gamut. Harvard economist Jason Furman noted that much of the spending won’t start for a year or two, which mitigates the effect on inflation. Sen. John Cornyn, meanwhile, worries that previous aid packages have created demand for goods and services that are affecting prices, and this could exacerbate things. On the other other hand, we can’t really be sure how the legislation will affect inflation, for a very good reason: It hasn’t been written yet.
And now for the best of the rest:
Charlotte has a detailed explanation of how Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq are wreaking havoc for U.S. troops stationed there, and how the Iranians conceal their involvement. Also on Iran, Thomas Joscelyn uses his Vital Interests newsletter to show how Iran hunts down dissidents while providing safe haven to al-Qaeda operatives.
In The Sweep, we continue our 2024 primary primer, this week looking at three governors who could be contenders: Ron DeSantis of Florida, Greg Abbott of Texas, and Kristi Noem of South Dakota.
Can’t forget the pods: Jonah has a wide-ranging conversation on the culture wars, the left’s relativism, and American exceptionalism with Yuval Levin on The Remnant. On Advisory Opinions, David and Sarah do one last (probably) post-mortem on the Supreme Court term and how Trump’s appointments changed the ideological makeup. And on The Dispatch Podcast, Sarah and Chris Stirewalt interview former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.