City of Brass

City of Brass


towards a “realist” foreign policy

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

There’s a new foreign policy group in town called the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, and they have written a letter to President Obama urging him to “focus US strategy more clearly on Al Qaeda” instead of explicit nation-building. The text of the letter follows:

Dear Mr. President:

During your campaign for the Presidency, Americans around the country appreciated your skepticism of the rationales for the Iraq war. In 2002, you had warned that such an endeavor would yield “a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, and with unintended consequences.” You pointed out the dangers of fighting such a war “without a clear rationale and without strong international support.” As scholars of international relations and U.S. foreign policy, many of us issued similar warnings before the war, unfortunately to little avail.

Today, we are concerned that the war in Afghanistan is growing increasingly detached from considerations of length, cost, and consequences. Its rationale is becoming murkier and both domestic and international support for it is waning. Respectfully, we urge you to focus U.S. strategy more clearly on al Qaeda instead of expanding the mission into an ambitious experiment in state building.

First, our objectives in that country have grown overly ambitious. The current strategy centers on assembling a viable, compliant, modern state in Afghanistan–something that has never before existed. The history of U.S. state-building endeavors is not encouraging, and Afghanistan poses particular challenges. Engaging in competitive governance with the Taliban is a counterproductive strategy, pushing the Taliban and al Qaeda together instead of driving them apart. If we cannot leave Afghanistan until we have created an effective central government, we are likely to be there for decades, with no guarantee of success.

Second, the rationale of expanding the mission in order to prevent “safe havens” for al Qaeda from emerging is appealing but flawed. Afghanistan, even excluding the non-Pashto areas, is a large, geographically imposing country where it is probably impossible to ensure that no safe havens could exist. Searching for certainty that there are not and will not be safe havens in Afghanistan is quixotic and likely to be extremely costly. Even if some massive effort in that country were somehow able to prevent a safe haven there, dozens of other countries could easily serve the same purpose. Even well-governed modern democracies like Germany have inadvertently provided staging grounds for terrorists. A better strategy would focus on negotiations with moderate Taliban elements, regional diplomacy, and disrupting any large-scale al Qaeda operations that may emerge. Those are achievable goals.

Third, an expanded mission fails a simple cost/benefit test. In order to markedly improve our chances of victory–which Ambassador Richard Holbrooke can only promise “we’ll know it when we see it”–we would need to make a decades-long commitment to creating a state in Afghanistan, and even in that case, success would be far from certain. As with all foreign policies, this enormous effort must be weighed against the opportunity costs. Money, troops, and other resources would be poured into Afghanistan at the expense of other national priorities, both foreign and domestic.

Mr. President, there is serious disagreement among scholars and policy experts on the way forward in Afghanistan. Many of those urging you to deepen U.S. involvement in that country are the same people who promised we would encounter few difficulties in Iraq and that that war would solve our problems in the Middle East, neither of which proved to be the case. We urge your administration to refocus on al Qaeda and avoid an open-ended state-building mission in Afghanistan.

(see the article at Politico for the full list of signatories – including Andrew Bacevich, Doug Bandow, and Steven Clemons)

Do thes ekind of letters have any real influence on policy? In a nutshell, yes. It’s worth pointing out that a letter to President Bush from the neocon thinktank Project for a New American Century formed the basic template for the War on Terror. The PNAC folks also had tried to goad President Clinton into action against Iraq – it’s remarkable how similar their policy prescriptions were; literally, 9-11 changed nothing for these people apart from giving them the excuse they wanted to implement the policy they’d always advocated. The same folks also sent President Obama a letter advocating (surprise) a stay-the-course approach in Afghanistan.

Clearly, the Realistic Foreign Policy folks hope to influence Obama in much the same way the PNAC crew influenced Bush, though of course their policy prescription is essentially the opposite. What worries me is the word “realistic” – it echoes the old, amoral realpolitik far too closely for my taste. I’m more in favor of a pragmatic liberal interventionism, and personally do believe that nation-building is an essential aspect of our foreign policy, but like these CRFP folks I don’t think that gigantic military expeditions (with imperial overtones) are the way to go about that.

As I mentioned in my previous post, 9-11 still tends to dominate most foreign policy thinking on terrorism, and the CRFP people are much the same as their ideological opponents at the PNAC in this regard. The focus should not exclusively be on Al Qaeda per se but also on nascent groups like Al Shabab as well, and how to prevent them from imposing (and exporting) their views. Still, the CRFP is doing something valuable here by ensuring that President Obama does hear their argument and is forced to consider it.



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