Why should Pakistan's smart, hard-working ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani have to resign for doing his job? After all, if as has been asserted, he was involved in getting a back-channel note passed from Pakistan's president to Admiral Mike Mullen when Mullen was chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, isn't that what ambassadors do for their bosses? Yes, it's embarrassing if the note offered to reshuffle the leaders of Pakistan's military and intelligence services in exchange for U.S. assistance in quashing a potential coup. And yes, it's even more embarrassing that Mullen's staff asserts he more or less totally ignored the note.
But let's be honest, isn't the real problem here that a message that was supposed to be on the down-low was found out? (And doesn't that suggest the real mistake was channeling the note through a Pakistani-American businessman who couldn't keep his mouth shut?)
On a deeper level, doesn't the entire incident simply further confirm the fact long-acknowledged by Pakistan hands (and anyone else who's paying attention) that this country seems to be emulating the Chinese model in Hong Kong: one country, two systems? Given the depth, history and tensions associated with the divides between that country's civilian political establishment and its military-intelligence establishment, isn't the truth about Pakistan that is one of the world's true schizo-states?
It is the fact that the civilian government has never been able to assert effective authority over the military or the ISI that has led to the repeated instances of the government promising one thing while its security apparatus was doing another. It is why the country is viewed by the charitable in Washington as a "frenemy." (The less charitable simply view it as an enemy we have to work with, the diplomatic equivalent of a hostile witness in a court case.) In fact, it is why I have also heard more than one Pakistani diplomat use the same term to refer to their own country's relationship with the United States in the past year or so. Admittedly, the Pakistani diplomatic corps tends to represent the civilian government and are so regularly frustrated in their duties by the military and the intelligence services that they are often even more openly hostile to them than are the Americans who by now are simply resigned to their lying and coddling of extremists.
In fact this entire incident underscores why it is misleading and dangerous to think of Pakistan as a unitary country. Not only are its institutions divided, but so too are its people. For every cluster of extremists or those who view their region and much of the world with paranoia-fed hostility, there are masses who seek peace, stability and prosperity and would happily be done with the costly distractions of fighting and divisiveness -- whether internally or, for example, with neighbors like India.
The challenge for the United States and the rest of the world is to manage to work with constructive, sympathetic elements in Pakistan while somehow containing the threat posed by the others, notably those in the ISI and the military who somehow feel it is in the country's interest to support militant groups and to grow the country's nuclear capabilities. Unfortunately, the outlook for managing that challenge does not look good. The civilian government, even if it can hang on for a while longer, is weak and electoral challenges from groups supported by and sympathetic to the military look likely to grow stronger. The nuclear weapons program only looks to grow more dangerous ... and thus we will become even more dependent on the dubious elements of the Pakistan establishment to look out for our most pressing security interests. The country faces profound economic risks that could easily inflame unrest, undercut civilian authority and lead to a push back for the stronger hand of military leadership. And the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will undoubtedly trigger and effort by the Pakistani security elites to support their allies among the Taliban in the struggle for control that will undoubtedly come as the power void in that country next door to Pakistan grows.
As a consequence, our complex and tense relationship with Pakistan is only likely to grow more tense as the complex and tense relationships within the country do as well. Perhaps the greater problem is that the more likely "cure" for schizo-statehood will be a return to military rule. While some will argue this offers desirable stability, it is worth remembering just how that has worked out in the past. It has resulted in a country that unsettled the region and the world with its rogue nuclear program and its support for terrorist and extremist groups. While the illusion was momentary institutional stability in Islamabad, the result was not only undemocratic, it was deeply destabilizing and profoundly dangerous. And that is why anyone with an interest in Pakistan or the region should resist the allure of a return to such faux "stability." Because as schizoid as the situation we face is here, we need to remember that some of the divisions mean that there are forces in the country fighting for democracy, for genuine progress, for an end to conflict and for the kind of civilian control of the security apparatus that is essential to any healthy state.
SHAUN TANDON/AFP/Getty Images
According to the eye-opening lead story in today's New York Times, when President Obama gave the order to go get Osama, he also gave the order to go with enough strength to fight off resistance or interference from our Pakistani allies. Which has to trump (in both timeliness and relevance), the story broken by The Guardian detailing how about a decade ago the United States and Pakistan reached a secret deal allowing the U.S. to go into Pakistan after bin Laden ... and Pakistan the right to complain about it afterwards.
It has gotten far beyond face-saving posturing in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. This was further demonstrated by the sorry effort made by Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in his first post-raid speech to the Pakistani parliament. His assertion that suspicions of Pakistani complicity in protecting bin Laden were "absurd" sounded just as desperate and hollow as his threats that Pakistan would "retaliate with full force" if the United States violated its sovereignty again. Clearly, per the excellent Eric Schmitt, Thom Shanker, and David Sanger story in today's Times, the United States had anticipated such a response this last time around and come to the conclusion that an extra few dozen troops and two helicopters should just about do it in fending off that threat.
Having said that, the degree of unease with the relationship illustrated by the expectation of possible resistance from the Pakistanis may be a less worrisome sign of how troubled the relationship is than the apparent ok by the president to use force against our nominal ally if it came to that.
BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
It is remarkable how much moral confusion and ethical contortionism can surround something as straightforward as the execution of a self-admitted mass murderer. But run anything through the political Play-doh Fun Factory of Washington and it comes out twisted as a pretzel.
This is not a partisan statement. Both sides have plenty of intellectual dishonesty, hypocrisy, and nonsense to account for.
On the right, you have the scramble to assert that the entire successful mission to dispatch Osama turned on information gained through aggressive interrogation methods. The argument is troubling on several levels. First, we know that "aggressive interrogation" is not only a codeword for torture, it is actually a synonym for it. The right is therefore once again staking out the pro-torture position, asserting that without them and their willingness to make the tough decision to compromise American values and U.S. and international law, this triumph wouldn't have been possible.
On one level, they fail yet again to see that torture is never justified and that it not only debases the U.S. but actually plays into the hands of men like bin Laden, making their anti-U.S. case for them. The stark fact remains that even in a situation requiring certain moral compromises, if the only way to get bin Laden was by torturing his associates, we shouldn't have done it.
But celebrating this shameful episode in our history like it was a badge of honor is not only morally bankrupt, it is stupid foreign policy. It will intimidate no one and alienate millions. Further, it negates or minimizes the role of the people who deserve the greatest celebration for this achievement and who, thus far, have received the least credit: the rank and file of the intelligence, military and law enforcement communities who pieced together the trail to bin Laden using countless sources, high-tech surveillance, old-fashioned shoe-leather and exceptional tenacity and skill. When there are so many successes to celebrate in this venture why embrace the one about which we should be most ashamed and which is likely to do us the most damage internationally?
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
When the United Kingdom's prime minister stands up in front of an elite audience and slams an old friend alongside of whom Britain is fighting the war on terror for its government waste and because too many of that country's richest are getting away without paying much tax at all, it's got to sting. But fortunately for Jeff Immelt and the rest of us here in the United States, David Cameron was in Islamabad and the broken, favoritism-ridden, inefficient system he was excoriating was not the one in Washington but the one that, at least nominally, is responsible for Pakistan.
That said, Cameron is among a rapidly shrinking number of folks who have yet to pile on to the revelations of GE's protracted tax holiday and, by extension, President Obama's appointment of Immelt to be his competitiveness advisor. In fact, my guess is Immelt will not be able to survive indefinitely in his capacity as an informal consultant to the president. When I spoke to two different senior economic officials in the administration about him this morning, they both rolled their eyes and wondered aloud what the White House was thinking when he was picked.
America has produced few better respected senior executives than Immelt. And for an administration that needed better ties with the business community in a hurry, he seemed like an excellent choice. But as one of the officials observed to me, he was a disaster waiting to happen even before the tax hubbub and GE's ties to the Fukushima nuclear calamity became hot topics. Why? Because with so much of GE's revenue coming from outside the United States, it was only a matter of time before the company made a decision to invest in an overseas project that would be seen as sapping American jobs or at least failing to create them.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
The greater good is the bitch-goddess of foreign policy. It provides at once both the inspiration to elevate society and the temptation to debase it. I'm sure one of the reasons that the study of foreign policy draws in so many passive-aggressive poindexters is because they get a cheap thrill from entering a fraternity in which the only admissions requirement is checking your conscience at the door.
In the first international affairs class one attends or the first serious discussion of foreign policy in which one participates, sooner or later the focus turns to the tough choices that must be made in the name of the Shiva of Foggy Bottom.
It is easy to understand this impulse when one watches scenes as in Libya in which a corrupt despot seeks to maintain his illegitimate chokehold on a society through the slaughter of those who only seek the rights due all men and women. Using force and taking life to stop evil and to protect those who cannot defend themselves is certainly justifiable albeit fraught with moral complexities that we too often too easily set aside.
That said however, we have to acknowledge that the natural habitat of this particular bitch-goddess is the slipperiest of slopes. It is worth remembering that most of the world's greatest sins have been committed in the service of someone's definition of the greater good. It is a point the Obama administration ought to take to heart as recent headlines suggest that we are crossing to the wrong side of the world's most dangerous border, the one that divides "realism" from "evil."
Not surprisingly, no place illustrates this danger like the region we call AfPak. And as a consequence no place more emphatically shouts out the question: "Have we no decency? Are there no limits to what we are willing to accept in the pursuit of our allegedly high-minded goals?"
We accept Hamid Karzai and elements of the Pakistani government although we know them to be corrupt and very likely supporting or enabling our enemies. We do this despite the lesson being chanted in public squares across the Middle East -- not to mention most of the history of modern U.S. foreign policy -- is that this approach inevitably comes back to bite us in the most sensitive parts of our national interests. We are seen as the co-authors of the wrongs our chosen despots commit or tolerate because ... well, because we are. That we are doing this in Afghanistan even as we are seemingly preparing to embrace a bigger role for the Taliban in the government only compounds the wrong -- the only justification for supporting Karzai is that he is better than the alternative but we don't seem to think that's necessarily the case anymore. Whatever your view of the issue, you have to admit it's a treacherously morally ambiguous place to venture to reclaim the national standing the Obama team correctly feels the United States lost during the Bush years.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
While President Obama may have ignored my personnel advice, he may have made excellent decisions anyway. If, as the rumor mill has it, Bill Daley, the former Commerce Secretary is to be the new chief of staff at the White House and Gene Sperling is to replace Larry Summers at the National Economic Council, Obama will have picked two pros who can both provide needed continuity and needed change. Daley knows how to get things done and is well-liked by business people. Sperling has done the job, is exceptionally smart and will run a much more open, inclusive shop than Summers … and empowering the economic cabinet is a key must-do for the Obama team.
David Brooks's op-ed in the New York Times on the uselessness of the pro and con debate about "big government" is half right and half wrong. He's right it does not matter how big or small government is but whether it works effectively and in support of a nation with the will and resources to succeed. But it is half wrong in that within the debate is a question about the appropriate role of government. Here Republicans argue that government should stay out of people's affairs and market's business wherever possible and Democrats are willing to accept a more expansive role. The reality, of course, is that no country can tackle the problems we face as a country without a major role for government. Whether the issue is infrastructure, energy policy, education, fixing what is broken fiscally, ensuring honest and fair markets, protecting the environment or preserving the peace, America's biggest challenges require the government be there and be effective. Right now though the debate sounds like two dating services that are suggesting the choice in the dating market is between Mother Theresa and Snooki. It is not even the right discussion to be having.
While it may not have been very politic for a U.S. battlefield commander in Afghanistan to liken the situation on the ground to a Tom and Jerry cartoon, it offers yet another insight into the futility of the conflict there. Richard Cohen in the Washington Post gets it exactly right when he calls this an unnecessary war and likens our tolerance of it and the public's lack of urgent interest in it to factors which could fuel our national decline, akin to what happened during the fall of the Roman and British empires. He is not overstating it. We're going bankrupt and wasting lives trying to do the impossible for a cause that's un-winnable. Every day we continue to fight in Afghanistan U.S. leaders are abusing the public's trust, killing our young and stealing from their orphaned children to pay for it.
Speaking of bankruptcy, I have a sense that Obama's "air traffic controller moment" will come when a big public pension fund goes belly up and the federal government is asked to step in to bail it out… with a long-line of similar cases on deck. He will face a dangerously slippery slope and public opinion will be heavily for giving the public workers a haircut on their benefits. Obama will face huge pressure from SEIU, one of the most important unions backing him. And he will define whether he is serious or not about pulling the United States out of this mess and getting us back on our feet by whether or not he gives in to that pressure. The right answer is to start negotiating deals downward now, walk the crisis back before it happens, reduce the benefits packages and give the states and municipalities the breathing room they need… or huge lay-offs and deteriorating public conditions are certain to result. Not to mention a big financial crisis.
I have all the respect in the world for Zbigniew Brzezinski. But his op-ed in the Times, in which he calls Chinese Premiere Hu's visit one of the most important in 30 years, while thoughtfully argued, is misleading on that core point. No doubt, the visit is more important than the last because China is more important than the last time the leaders met. However, by the same logic, the next visit will probably be more important. Further, with a leadership change in the offing, the first meetings with the next generation of leaders are almost certain to be more important still. The key issues for the two countries to resolve are longer term in nature and go to the core question of shaping a successful working relationship between two strategic rivals that are also vital partners. Right now, too much of the power in the relationship seems to have swung to the Chinese. The United States must -- through a better understanding of its own national interests and competitive advantages, through marshalling diplomatic support worldwide for its initiatives, and through regaining economic momentum and avoiding international distractions --resume a stronger stance in the relationship. It must resist the temptation to mesmerized by China hype and it must build an international coalition to counterbalance Chinese influence and ensure that before China assumes a greater role on the international stage, it is clear the country is willing to play a constructive role helping to address global challenges from combating proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to maintaining stable financial markets to fighting global warming.
The most important story in the world as 2011 begins: the continuing political unrest in Pakistan, marked by the weakening of the government's coalition over the weekend and the assassination of the prominent governor of Punjab, a Zardari supporter. A political meltdown in Pakistan is the one event that will have great powers worldwide holding their breaths (although further economic meltdown in the Eurozone and in U.S. states and localities is a close second on this watch list.)
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
This is a critical moment for the United States's most fraught diplomatic challenge.
Pakistani officials arrive in Washington this week for meetings designed to shore up a relationship that is both vital and exceedingly dangerous for both regimes. The Pakistani delegation will nominally be led by the country's foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi. But the real focus will be the man who many feel is so powerful that the fact he is not yet president reflects only a personal choice on his part. As Pakistan's top military officer, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani might as well be known as General Plan B. If the current government stumbles, if unrest spreads, U.S. officials are fully counting on him to step in and put a lid on the problem.
The conversations this week will be publicly focused on gestures of support for the Pakistanis from the U.S. government, from beefing up civilian and military aid to generating public statements of common purpose. But behind the scenes there will be palpable tension. The United States is dissatisfied -- the feeling being that Pakistan is not doing everything it can to assist in tracking down extremist groups living within their borders.
That discomfort undoubtedly is not eased by the exclusive report in Britain's Guardian today that is entitled, "Pakistan intelligence services 'aided Mumbai terror attacks.'" The story describes a 109-page Indian government report based on the interrogation of David Headley; the Pakistani-American arrested in relation to the Mumbai attacks. "Under questioning," writes Jason Burke, "Headley described dozens of meetings between officers of the main Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, and senior militants from the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) group responsible for the Mumbai attacks."
While the perspectives provided by Headley offer just one view and include a number of statements suggesting that senior ISI officials may not have been plugged into the entire Mumbai plan, they corroborate much of what has long been suspected about ties between the ISI and extremist groups. Further, they tell an unsettlingly logical story of how the Mumbai attacks were undertaken as part of a deliberate strategy by the historically more regionally-focused Lashkar-e-Taiba to remain relevant in a world in which competing terrorist groups were attracting members seeking the grander mission of jihad against the West.
It is a nauseating image: officials of a government nominally allied to the United States working with terrorists to plan a murderous attack on innocents as a marketing ploy on behalf of their stone cold terrorists of choice. Nauseating, but despite Pakistani denials that it is baseless, with the unmistakable ring of truth.
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
The news that Osama bin Laden is -- according to a NATO official -- in hiding in Northwest Pakistan hardly qualifies as a shock. That said, the resurfacing of rumors about the location of the greatest villain of our age reminds us just what a massive story the resurfacing of the man would be. In some respects, the fact that bin Laden is still alive, while a black eye for U.S. intelligence, provides President Obama with what has to be the greatest "Get Out of Jail Free" card in the world. Find and capture or kill Osama at any time during the next two years and Obama sails into a second term.
Oversimplification? Perhaps. But the emotional impact of writing the final chapter on the bin Laden story would be so great, and the coverage of that final chapter would be so over the top, that it's hard to imagine another single development on the positive side of the ledger that could provide greater political lift for the president.
Of course, if catching the elusive al Qaeda mastermind were so easy, it would have been done during the past 10 years. Indeed, the U.S. government has been trying to dispatch him for considerably longer than that -- since the Clinton years. That a guy the size of an NBA guard, one with supposedly complex medical needs, who happens to be the most wanted man on the planet earth, has managed to go to ground in a way that makes Saddam's trip down the spider hole seem poignantly amateurish, is really quite a remarkable achievement. Even more amazing is that despite the fact that he has been out there on the lam for a decade, virtually no one on either side in fractious, no-holds-barred world of U.S. politics is willing to suggest that not finding him is a failure. (With the exception of perhaps Joan Rivers who, as chronicled in the recent documentary about her life, A Piece of Work, suggests that as a dialysis patient he ought to have been fairly easy to find in a country like Afghanistan which, she suggested, had only one electric outlet. Just follow the cord is her recommendation.)
MAX AVDEEV/AFP/Getty Images
This weekend the Obama Administration will send a team to China headed by the somewhat unlikely duo of Larry Summers, head of the National Economic Council, and Tom Donilon, deputy national security advisor. The purpose is to send a clear message that the U.S. is approaching its relations with China strategically, with a view that integrates the full range of economic and security concerns.
While such trips are old hat for Summers, the journey represents a bit of a change of pace for Donilon, the inside guy who is credited with having done a great job making sure the policy process trains have been running on time within the National Security Council. Some in Washington are buzzing that this is a profile- and skill-raising trip intended to make Donilon a better candidate to replace National Security Advisor James L. Jones should Jones decide to depart, as many expect he will. Others grumble that the trip represents precisely the kind of "operational" role for the NSC and NEC that many cabinet departments have long thought should be out of bounds for White House policy coordinators.
But beyond the Washington gossip the trip has caused, the juxtaposition of economic and security concerns offers an illustration of an often over-looked fact -- the centrality of economic issues to current U.S. national security concerns. In China, the tricky calculus is fostering collaboration on security issues from North Korea to Iran in the face of political pressure back home to press Beijing harder on issues like currency valuation and unfair competitive practices (especially those associated with pressuring foreign firms to transfer proprietary technologies).
The U.S. has never been especially effective at coordinating its multiple interests in China so that pressure in one policy area produces progress in another -- or even simply avoids causing setbacks. So this trip, in concept at least, represents a step in the right direction -- at least if Congress doesn't undercut the administration's efforts by, for example, drafting its own legislation on currency issues.
But China is just one of a host of current hotspots where Summers, Geithner, and the international economic team are playing a central role on national security issues.
For example, in Afghanistan, the story of the week turns on the amazingly brazen behavior of the Karzai gang in trying to pressure the United States into bailing out a clearly corrupt and mismanaged bank in which President Hamid Karzai's brother, Mahmood Karzai, is the third largest shareholder. Mahmood has publicly called for a bailout even though his affiliation with a bank through which U.S. funds flow to Afghan security forces compromises both him and the president. Both remain unabashed, however, behaving like the proverbial kids who murder their parents and seek the mercy of the court on the grounds that they are now orphans. So the United States is in a pickle: Step in and support the Afghan kleptocracy and its culture of corruption or stand on principle (and law), and run the risk that the bank falters. It's not a situation that General David Petraeus can handle, but how the economic team manages it will have direct ramifications for him.
In the same way, some of the most sensitive concerns regarding Pakistan turn on economic policy. Will the Zardari government pump too much cash into the economy to deal with the aftereffects of the devastating flooding, and risk a major inflationary episode? Or will it introduce price controls and a set of micro economic measures that, if mismanaged, could produce social tensions or even rioting? The wrong mix of policies could plunge the already fractured and battered country into political turmoil and perhaps the reintroduction of military rule.
In talks with the Israelis and the Palestinians, many of the core concerns will turn on how to improve the economic conditions for the Palestinian people. If they can get past initial hurdles, they will, of course, ultimately have to move to a state structure that will enable organic economic growth in a Palestinian state, actually fostering job and wealth creation for people who have lived in an economic no man's land for too long.
In North Korea, it is reported that the administration, conducting high level meetings on the subject this week, is seeking to explore "engagement." In the case of the economically isolated and struggling North, that inevitably will mean economic packages in exchange for gradual normalization of relations or reductions of threats. At the same time, this week, the administration widened sanctions intended to force Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.
In Iran, the core initiative at the moment is making targeted economic sanctions work. In Iraq, the issue is fostering economic growth to help "purchase" social stability. The list goes on. It is clear that wherever the stakes are highest for the United States in the world, even as military and diplomatic initiatives garner most of the attention, behind the scenes much of the most critical work is being undertaken by international economic officials.
It is interesting to note in this respect that the responsibility for conceiving and coordinating most of these activities lies in the White House to a much greater degree than it does with military or diplomatic initiatives. The White House team on these issues is excellent. But in the end, these functions are so fundamental that the real leadership capabilities need to be cultivated elsewhere.
The economic team at the State Department could and should play a greater role in this respect; Undersecretary for Economic Affairs Robert Hormats is a talented and experienced official. As I have written before, State also could and should develop a dramatically enhanced capability when it comes to emergency economic intervention -- pre- or post-crisis. And all the other economic agencies need to be prepared to collaborate on this, not on an ad hoc basis but through a permanent program promoting cross-training and what the military might call inter-operability. Call it an economic rapid response capability -- or call them economic green berets.
We need people we can drop into critical situations and help manage them with an eye to our security and political needs rather than traditional purely economic metrics. That's a critical role for which development officials are ill-suited, and we still don't really have the fully developed institutional structure we need to support it.
Looking at the issues faced by the United States today, while one can't help but admire much of what is being done, the strategic side of the international economic agenda is such that it warrants some real thought about how and with whom we should be meeting such challenges in the future.
Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images
With new reports of flood-related calamity in Pakistan today, it is time to launch a different sort of international response to the problem in the Indus River Valley. Because as tragic as this disaster that has shattered the lives of perhaps as many as three New York Cities full of people has been, it is really only a prelude to even greater problems.
On one level, those problems are associated with the ever-present possibility of future floods, a threat that exists because of inadequate flood control infrastructure, flood warning mechanisms, and flood response resources within the country. On another level, as highlighted in Steve Solomon's insightful August 15 op-ed in the New York Times, perhaps an even greater problem in the years ahead -- due to both population growth and melting Himalayan glaciers that might even be a culprit in the current disaster -- will be linked to potential water scarcity, droughts, and resulting food shortages in the same region.
But there is a third looming problem, also addressed but not fully explored in Solomon's piece. That is the problem associated with the fact that the waters of the Indus are shared -- which is to say competed for -- by Pakistan and India. The less water for irrigation, drinking and energy production in the region, the more likely it is that there is conflict between these two nuclear states. Indeed, despite the ethnic and political tensions that have existed between these countries since Pakistan's founding, it could well be that water rather than religion or border disputes is the most likely trigger of future fighting, a prospect made deeply unsettling given the arsenal these two massive nations possess.
PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images
Reading this weekend's New York Times's article on the deftness and ease with which the rich in Pakistan avoid paying taxes, an idea struck me. Well, actually to be perfectly honest, it struck my father -- who passed it along to me. The fact that he is currently lying in a hospital being pumped full of mind-altering drugs doesn't in any way undermine the quality of the idea. In fact, it just makes me want some of those drugs.
Because it is an idea of striking clarity and manifold levels of appeal.
In short, it may well be that two of the biggest threats facing the United States America -- the decay of nuclear Pakistan and the rise of the Tea Party movement here at home -- suggest a grand solution fraught with opportunity (and delicious ironies).
We need to keep an eye on Pakistan, but can't officially send troops there. Further, we can't afford to keep the ones we have in Afghanistan (who are actually there to keep an eye on Pakistan ... shhhh ... don't tell anyone) there indefinitely. And beyond that, we don't want to put our valued troops needlessly at risk.
At the same time, at home we are confronted by a new political movement whose leaders drape themselves in the flag and then proceed to espouse a worldview that is alternatively un-American (anti-immigration in a nation of immigrants, anti-personal freedoms like choice, pro-infusion of politics with religion) and ante-diluvian (anti-science, pro-vigilantism, pro-solving problems at the point of a gun). They are out of place here and lord knows -- given our history of success without them -- they are expendable.
The tea-baggers want a country? Let's give them one: send them to Pakistan.
It's a marriage made in heaven. Admittedly, there may be some disagreement as to which heaven, but let's leave that to them to work it out.
Think of the ways the Tea-bagger worldview makes Pakistan a much more natural place for them to live than America:
Here is a country with a large population committed to policies rooted in the values and outlook of centuries ago and a large group of Americans with a similar nostalgia for hangings, gunfights, superstition, racial and religious conflict and witch hunts. So theoretically, despite Pakistan's historically documented, deeply rooted strain of anti-Americanism, this may well be the one group of Americans with whom they have the most in common and thus, the ones with the best chance of building the bridge we need between our two cultures. And if we had to learn to live with less of the mean-spirited, misguided shrillness of the bagger rhetoric, I think we could handle it. And if it all ended badly for all involved, well, we could probably live with that, too.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
For all the debate of Afghanistan and troop levels and strategies and the views of Generals McChrystal and Petraeus, there are two vital facts that have been ignored. First, we are missing the one general who is probably most essential to our ability to ultimately achieve our goals in Afghanistan (including leaving) and we are ignoring the army that will not only be most useful to that general, but also the army that happens to be the largest in both of our Middle Eastern theaters of war.
More troubling still is that the general could have and should have been appointed by the president and approved by the Congress many months ago, but the position has been allowed to remain open throughout a critical period. And the army is more or less entirely within the control of the U.S. government and yet we lack the proper mechanisms to command or control it.
Whether our goal in Afghanistan is counterinsurgency or counterterrorism, whether we are "all in" or "all out" (or something in between), whether we are there for the long haul or the short term, there are nonetheless a few things all can agree upon. We need a stronger central government in Kabul and to become stronger the government will need to better provide services, strengthen existing institutions and win the support of the Afghan people. Infrastructure and economic growth will be key elements of this success formula. As it happens, they are also key elements of the counterinsurgency strategy argued for by General McChrystal as they are essential to both winning hearts and minds and to sending a message that the option we support has more to offer each individual Afghan than do the options offered by the Taliban or by the war lords who favor the kind of perpetual tribalism that has left the country vulnerable and dissolute for centuries. In addition, without creating the conditions conducive to a strong Afghan government, we will have no one capable of Afghanizing ... which is to say, we can't leave without handing the baton to someone else.
Central to our ability to achieve these goals are the people in the U.S. government who are specifically organized to handle post-crisis intervention and reconstruction functions. Unfortunately, despite our regular need for such capabilities, we don't actually have a department or agency that is specifically built and sufficiently supported to achieve these goals. This despite the fact that such interventions have been among the most regular and crucial functions of the U.S. government for decades. Hopefully, Secretary Clinton's QDDR process will produce some recommendations to remedy this.
In the meantime, the next best thing we have is the U.S. Agency for International Development, a worthy but inefficient and often lumbering entity. Nonetheless, it is going to play a critical role in what we do in Afghanistan ... or it can and should play such a role. It also has related and vital roles to play in Pakistan, Iraq and other regions where state failure or state weakening create security as well as humanitarian risks.
These are the things it has. What it doesn't have is a leader. It is now almost November and the new administration has failed to arrive at a candidate for the job everyone can agree on and who can pass the muster of the absurd vetting processes that now dog would-be senior officials and impede this government's ability to function. We came close a while back but the candidate withdrew his name. There is behind the scenes scuffling over this one, partially because there is a sense the agency needs to change and there is a division of opinion as to whether it should be more independent or more closely integrated into the State Department. (The correct answer is "b." The work of A.I.D. is a critical component of American statecraft and the levers of its function need to be controlled by America's chief diplomat.)
Whenever this missing general is brought on board however -- and one can only hope that it is very, very soon -- he or she is going to have to cope with another reality that is not fully understood by most Americans and which is vital to the function of the U.S. government and to our success or failure in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that is how we get to the phantom army I mentioned earlier.
That army represents the majority of people currently on the ground in those two countries on behalf of the U.S. government and is therefore the largest single force on the ground in our Middle Eastern theaters. It is the army of contractors that have become the Hamburger Helper of American military and diplomatic initiatives in our two current wars.
One person who does understand this evolving reality is Middlebury College Professor Allison Stanger, author of One Nation, Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy. The book, now out from the Yale University Press, is a must read for anyone interested in how foreign policy really works in the 21st Century. And it reveals a reality that is radically different from what many expect. Stanger calls Iraq and Afghanistan America's first two "contractor wars" because so much of the work done in each country is being done by cadres of workers reporting not to the U.S. government but to the lowest bidder. She points that the lion's share of AID's budget actually goes to contractors -- that in effect, AID is essentially a contracting agency.
Stanger sees benefits to this approach -- getting the right people for the job, creating efficiencies -- and she sees weaknesses -- Blackwater, anyone? But the vital message of the book is that the system has undergone a massive change but our views of it and the strategies and tactics we apply have not. Nothing makes this point more clearly than the fact that the largest army on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan does not actually report up the chain of command ... or, for that matter, any coherent chain of command. Single capable individuals, like Richard Holbrooke, help mitigate this with energetic management of non-military operations ... but the Holbrookes of this world are few and far between and throwing czars at problems is no way to provide lasting solutions.
To achieve whatever success is possible in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and ultimately the Palestinian Territories and elsewhere is going to require that we address these two problems. First, find that missing general. Then, let's get down to the business of understanding what business we are really in ... and create the strategies and structures we need to make the most of what we've got.
DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images
Today, it's all good news in the world...
Remember back a couple weeks ago when the G-20 leaders agreed to get rid of subsidies on fossil fuels? Well, guess what? So far not much has happened here on that front ... not surprising perhaps since the "commitment" by the G-20 leaders did not include a timeline. But one bold, shining light has emerged that is leading the way for us all. Who should Barack Obama and his fellow statesmen call for advice? Why their old pal Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Because just this past Sunday the Iranians moved to cut back on their subsidies for fuel (and food) in the interest of trying to trim their budget. Admittedly, the money they save will be used to attempt to make a big hole in the ground where Israel is, but since this is Good News Tuesday, let's focus on the upside. Today, Tehran is our good governance pick of the week.
Have you seen those promos for the latest movie by catastrophe specialist Roland Emmerich, 2012? They'd be pretty horrifying even if they did not, as pointed out in Entertainment Weekly, use collapsing twin towers as one of their money effects. But fortunately, it turns out that we don't have to go see the movie in order to help prepare for the doomsday it suggests was predicted by ancient Mayan calendars. According to an AP story yesterday, the Mayans that are still with us say this end of days frenzy is just an over-wrought misinterpretation of the calendars which do note that late in 2012 some unusual astronomical developments will take place. This may, they imply, be worth a visit to the backyard with a telescope but it doesn't warrant hiding in the basement with a year's supply of franks and beans. Or going to see 2012, which according to early reviews is itself such a disaster, it'll have audiences wishing for the real thing before they've finished their popcorn.
What's better than good governance in Iran and the fact that the world's not going to end in three years? How about something that seemed impossible just a few months back: economic recovery? Yup, according to Larry Summers, the president's top economic advisor, in a letter to Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner, happy days are near again. Consumer confidence is coming back and the housing market is stabilizing. But, for most Americans, an even more credible source than a senior government official who happens to be one of the world's leading economists has emerged: TV ads. Yep. According to a front-page story in today's New York Times, "While economists and investors study housing starts and gross domestic product predictions to measure economic vibrancy, General Electric, Bank of America and other companies are using commercials to proclaim America's future is bright." And if they say it in a TV ad, you know it's true. Otherwise how do you explain all the ShamWows and that Popeil Pocket Fisherman in your basement?
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has reported following talks with Secretary of State Clinton that there is a "good chance" of cutting a deal with Iran on its nukes. He also called the threat of sanctions "counterproductive," revealing a resolute and moving faith in the fundamental decency of mankind ... and especially in the Iranians despite a track record that would and has made lesser nations doubters. State Department spokespeople said that they didn't seek anything from the Russians during the trip, which provides us with more good news since nothing is precisely what they got.
In today's Washington Post, Anne Applebaum, almost certainly their best regular commentator, finally digs deep enough to find the positive spin on our favorite prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. This is important because without Berlusconi, newspapers would be dull grey things ... er, even duller, greyer things. We need a buffo world leader and I suspect we can all agree he's the perfect guy in the perfect place given his special breed of apparently corrupt ludicrousness and the not unimportant fact that Italy is probably the largest country we could trust to such a clown without really dire consequences to the planet. Writes Applebaum, seeking to explain his popularity, "Besides, with Berlusconi as your prime minister, you don't have to take yourself too seriously. You don't have to trouble yourself with geopolitics or the state of the planet, or poverty and failed states. You can stay at home, remain unserious and argue about the latest legal scandal. And maybe that too, is part of the prime minister's appeal."
And in other good news: The five short-range missiles tested by North Korea yesterday were only short-range missiles, while the recent spate of bombings in Pakistan have been tragic they do serve as a useful reminder that our real problems in that neck of the world are not in Afghanistan, despite the fact that the Baucus health-care bill doesn't actually fix a single one of the problems it sets out to address according to members of the House of Representatives it may actually get a helpful makeover in conference, Nicolas Sarkozy loves his 23-year-old son enough to advance him for a job running a good chunk of Paris's financial district, and perhaps most upliftingly the founder of Cirque du Soleil returned safely from a trip to outer space today thus guaranteeing the world more of his trailblazing work creating the theatrical equivalent of Muzak. Next up: why not an evening of bad jokes, young scantily clad women, acrobats, plastic surgeons and opera music called "Berlusconi!"
OMAR TORRES/AFP/Getty Images
As indicated late last week by the first half of my foreign policy report card, President Obama has put a first class team in place to manage his international agenda and so far they are working well together. But what about the policies themselves? It's early yet, of course, but it's worth asking-where have they made their mark and what kind of marks is that likely to get them.
Remaking the American Brand, Grade: A
Job one was slamming the door on the George Bush Era then locking it, boarding it up, doing a "Cask of Amontillado" brick wall on top of that, and then depositing the whole thing in Yucca Mountain for safe keeping. Related to this was getting out there, introducing Michelle, and letting intelligence, charm and competence tell the story. My belief is most of the world wants to like America so this task was not quite as hard as some had made out (which makes Bush's alienation of the planet all that much more of an accomplishment), but Obama has shined as the new front man for the "new, improved" good old USA.
North Korea, Grade: B
Oh, right. As if I am stupid enough to evaluate the North Korea policy in the wake of Bill Clinton's historic visit... Well, actually the outcome was easy enough to predict; Clinton wouldn't have gone if the release of the two journalists weren't a pretty sure thing. The North Koreans wouldn't have accepted him if they didn't think it was time to take a little breather (as we periodically do) from all the heavy breathing. But the long-term issues will remain. Clinton himself once said nuclear weapons were North Korea's only cash crop and so they will likely keep playing the game we're used to. Frankly, if Clinton hadn't gone, I think I would have given a D on this front because they have been toying with us on the nuclear issue and our multilateral efforts have been ineffective. Also our policy has been virtually identical to Bush's. Or maybe I would have given the administration a "C" because I enjoyed Hillary's mudslinging with the Dear Leader a few weeks ago. It was lousy diplomacy but had a higher truth content and more comic content than such exchanges usually do. (Come to think of it, I wonder how our former president and Kim Jong Il handled the "funny lady" who looks like a "pensioner going shopping" comments at dinner tonight? And however they handled it, if only we could have gotten a glimpse of the "Annie Hall" subtitles that would have revealed what they were really thinking.")
Iran, Grade: C+
The big plus in the current team's policy re: Iran is clearly the move toward engagement. The big negative is clearly the move toward engagement. They cancel each other out which is why I give them a "C." Engaging with Iran is the right thing to do. This is a country with the greatest possibility of leading the Middle East toward democracy and integration with the west. It is sophisticated, cosmopolitan and too diverse to pigeonhole just because the views of a few leaders are crazed. (We in the United States should have learned this lesson from how we wanted to be treated when W was at the helm.) But as has been said here before, engagement is a tactic -- not a policy objective. We were so eager to achieve it that we were late in condemning the unrest in the streets in Tehran. And I fear that the success or failure of engagement in Iran will be seen as so central to the President's ultimate foreign policy grade that we may be too accepting of the promises of a regime with almost two decades of history of breaking promises. I give the plus because I think Hillary Clinton leads a group of tough-minded policymakers in the administration on this issue and I think there is still a decent chance we may get the best of both worlds: engagement and the ability to respect ourselves the next morning.
Israel and Palestinian Territories, Grade: B
As discussed here earlier, we may be on the verge of a historically bad patch in the U.S.-Israel relationship. The United States feels the need to get tough just as an Israeli administration comes in that is inclined to defend the indefensible (which is the expansion of settlements). But frankly, only through such toughness will the United States be able to be an effective intermediary in defusing this chronic crisis.
Also: the administration has been hugely more engaged on this front than their predecessors... which is a big plus. But we have to ask: when push comes to shove, will the administration be as tough with the Palestinians as will be necessary? Will a perhaps too soft stance on Iran create a deeper rift with an Israel with legitimate security concerns regarding a nuclear Iran? My guess is we will make some progress on this front in the next three years...more than at any time since the Clinton days. But now that we have established that we recognized what needed to be changed...we need to prove that we recognize what also needs to be preserved in our relationship with Israel.
Afghanistan and Pakistan, Grade: D
This is the "Be Careful What You Wish For, War." The administration framed this as the good war during the campaign and now it has become theirs. This is where their military management skills will be tested. This is where their geopolitical mastery will be tested. And, I believe, this is where they will start to fail those tests ... not because they won't be working the issues as hard as possible or putting their best people on the problem. Rather it is because ancient ethnic divisions, geography, religious politics and history make victory ... victory of any sort ... almost impossible. The best we can hope for is to get some bad guys and get out, hand the problems over to locals and forge a partnership with the other great powers in the region, notably India and China to contain the spillage from a place that is likely to be an open wound on the world for decades to come.
Iraq, Grade: B-
Look, Obama was elected to get us out of here and that's what he's doing. Having said that, watch closely as to what happens as we leave. My sense is a combination of government incompetence and corruption and the intractability of local problems is likely to produce festering unrest that keeps 50,000 or so U.S. troops in this country for...well, maybe not John McCain's 100 years...but a long time. (Which was the point McCain was inartfully trying to make, I think.) And if you want to start a betting pool, I say the over-under on an independent Kurdistan is 2020 and I'll take the under.
BRICs-Russia: C, China: A-, India: A-, Brazil: B-
The Obama team has made a great contribution by recognizing the rightful place of these emerging powers within whatever organization ultimately succeeds the G8. But the policies with each country have been a mixed bag. The most important of the relationships by far is with China...it's the most important bilateral relationship in the world by far. Obama has put in place a terrific ambassador, early meetings have gone pretty well and most importantly, the clear message has been sent about the centrality of the relationship. If the Chinese are beating us up a bit on economics well, turn about is fair play...and an important dimension of a relationship among equals. While the Indians gave Hillary a hard time on climate, her trip and the up-coming meeting in Washington with PM Singh suggest this relationship too is entering a new era. The U.S.-India relationship has never been more vital to us or to them ... that's a good thing. So far the relationship with the Russians has left everyone a little uneasy. I happen to think that's roughly how we should feel about the Russians, but it is hard to say the relationship is in especially good shape and we are cutting them a little too much slack. (Did you notice the Russian-Iranian naval exercises a few days ago?) Lula and Obama have a natural affinity and we are also sending a great ambassador to Brazil but the cave to Sen. Grassley on the ethanol tariff takes away something the Brazilians wanted a lot. So, the future of that relationship will really depend on what the U.S. does to help Brazil claim a larger role on the international stage.
Europe, Grade: B
The Euros started out loving Barack. But the administration dragged its feet on European proposals for major global regulatory reform in finance and the Euros dragged their feet on upgrading their help for the United States in AfPak. It's going to get worse if the "special relationship" we have with the U.K. ... which has been crucial in managing our other relationships in the region ... is damaged because, as seems likely, the next British PM is a guy, David Cameron, who the Obama team is going to have a tough time getting along with. It's going to get worse still if our budget constraints start having us cut back further on our international military activities and more pressure will be applied to Europe to step up. But so far so good on this front and it seems likely that given strong working relationships at the highest level with France and Germany, things should be fine. (Although it's quite a thought: the U.S. could be closer to Sarkozy's France than to Cameron's U.K.)
Latin America, Grade: C
Face it, the U.S. only cares about Latin America when it has to. So far, Obama and company have given Mexico good attention and although the security situation in that country remains unsettled and that could lead to a likely resurgence of a PRI that may be harder for Obama to deal with, it is hard to imagine any U.S. administration handling the relationship better. There has been slight movement on Cuba. I mark the administration down a whole grade on this point since there should have been major movement on Cuba-the removal of a policy that is so bad I really hate to speak its name. Sin embargo, even worse are likely to be the consequences of our hesitant policy toward Hugo Chavez. Read the recent NY Times article on what Venezuela has been doing with the FARC in Colombia. Chavez may be a tinpot crackpot but he is working to undermine democracies in the region like Colombia ... and of course, Venezuela ... even as he continues to proclaim his democratic legitimacy. This is a place where the clown show in Trinidad is going to look worse and worse as engagement with this truly bad actor is quickly ruled out.
Africa, Grade: B
So far the administration has made the case that it wants to do more for this relationship. Now, of course, it actually has to do more. Thus far, the issues of the region have gotten precious little bandwidth and the failure to put in place someone to run U.S. A.I.D. hasn't help. So...good message but the proof is in the pudding. (Also, the over-under on the next time we send U.S. troops to Africa is 2015. I'll take the under. In other words: a dangerous policy mistake to watch is under-estimating the geopolitical importance of Africa going forward.)
Multilateralism, Grade: C
High marks are earned for starting to mothball the G8 in favor of the G20. Low marks for sluggish and limited trade policy, likelihood of a punt in Copenhagen, very limited results at most summits, failing NPT and no good successor in sight, and not very effective use of the UN to date. (Though that could change I do have a lot of faith in Susan Rice to change it.)
So, there you are. Ruminate. Admire. Cast aspersions. I can take it. Where I am right now Washington seems far far away and I am finding new clarity. (Or possibly suffering from oxygen deprivation.)
Middle: Joe Raedle/Getty Images; Top Right, clockwise: Joe Raedle/Getty Images, Mark Wilson/Getty Images, JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images, KNS/AFP/Getty Images, David Silverman/Getty Images, ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images
Today, in the nation's capital, began our new, fun for the whole family National Af-Pak Festival. Goat on a stick for everyone!
Unfortunately, despite White House efforts to prepare for this event, the real leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan were unable to make the trip to Washington. So, the president has had to make do with the two figurehead leaders of these countries -- Asif Ali Zardari and Hamid Karzai, two dubious, often bumbling, albeit popularly elected clowns who leave us with the impression that these neighboring Stans were both named in part after Stan Laurel.
Of course, theirs is a dark kind of comedy, more in the vein of say, Kurt Weill or the Coen Brothers. To get a sense of just how bleakly comic it is, just watch Zardari's attempt to spin America in his interview with Wolf Blitzer yesterday (lampooned today by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post). It's the least convincing effort to use the media to persuade the world that a faltering, inadequate leader was actually up to the job since George W. Bush's last press conference (though to be honest, Zardari makes Bush look like Pericles.) Karzai has been little better. It was only a few weeks ago that he appalled us with a merengue around the issue of legalizing rape in marriage that was so tortured and difficult to watch it reminded us of Steve O's recent stint on "Dancing With the Stars."
Of course, Afghanistan and Pakistan's real political leaders remained back at home doing what they usually do -- running the army, leading opposition groups, and planning terror attacks. But in honor of these festivities one of the most prominent of these true powers, the Taliban, agreed to stage a commemorative parade of perhaps 500,000 people on the road out of the Swat Valley. Like most Taliban events, this one will undoubtedly feature their special breed of rock concerts -- which, unfortunately for participants, translates into "group stonings" in Urdu. (And I don't mean like at a Phish concert.) In addition, much of Waziristan will be shut down for the occasion...and also, as it turns out, for the next 200 years. Furthermore, as a special concession to our quest for building ties to moderate Taliban, the United States has agreed to provide a special, all-American guest of honor for that ever-popular regional fave, adulter-stoning. Yes, we're sending John Edwards. His wife, Elizabeth, donated several cartons of her new book to be used in lieu of actual rocks.
Meanwhile back in Washington, President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and a chunk of the cabinet are meeting with Zardari and Karzai. (Though despite today's public display of embracing one another at the White House, you get the impression that after hours Asif and Hamid will not be heading to the Willard for appletinis. Ok, out of respect to Islamic prohibitions against alcohol consumption, virgin appletinis.)
Earlier today, Secretary Clinton indicated there were encouraging signs of progress in the meetings between the two countries...although it has to be acknowledged her task was made somewhat more difficult by her simultaneous need to apologize for scores of civilian deaths that may have been caused by a U.S. strike in Afghanistan. Later, President Obama called the meetings "extraordinarily productive" which suggests that despite the deficiencies of the two visiting leaders such meetings may be helpful.
So what were the signs of progress besides the meetings themselves? Well, um...Afghanistan had seemed increasingly irrelevant to the core conflict which has been relentlessly and worryingly intensifying in Pakistan but, that could change as tens of thousands of Pakistani refugees stream into the neighboring country. Not encouraging enough for you? Ok, remember when Admiral Mike Mullen announced that the situation in Pakistan was really worrisome? Well, now he said he's not so worried. (No hint of coercion, er, constructive guidance from his civilian bosses there. And Zardari's attempts yesterday to be reassuring on this subject were particularly unconvincing.)
Nonetheless, despite all the perfectly sensible reasons to be cynical about all this, there is also something refreshing and pragmatic about Obama's intensive, constructive efforts to open and maintain communications channels as well as offer meaningful support for things like schools, roads, and hospitals, and generate good will in Af-Pakia. It would be naive to be too hopeful that such efforts will produce precisely the results we want. Money is fungible. These governments are neither efficient nor known for their probity. These leaders, in case I've neglected to mention it, aren't members of the A-team. But just as Obama, Clinton, and Holbrooke have no choice but to deal with the presidents, it would be foolish not to make the kind of regional strategy effort the administration is currently undertaking. The stakes are too high and the options -- should things go further down the tubes -- are not good. (For a summary of such options, see David Sanger's excellent column in yesterday's online edition of the New York Times.)
So, while I don't think the Cherry Blossom Festival has anything to worry about just yet, I think we should all hope these Af-Pak Festivals remain a fixture on the Washington schedule as long as they produce anything like meaningful results...and I'm glad that the response to what appear to be intractable problems is not simply to bluster or to minimize them or to turn away.
Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images
I don't know about you, but I find it a little peculiar that after an election campaign during which it was regularly argued that Pakistan was one of the most dangerous places in the world -- and after the new administration's very appropriate decision to devote significant new resources to the challenges we face in that country...and after top officials working the issue since almost day one...and despite the fact that throughout this period the country was primarily described as the unstable haven of our terrorist enemies -- it now turns out, rather surprisingly, that there seems to be an organized civil war going on there in which those same enemies were making substantial progress marching on the capital. They are functioning more as a coordinated guerrilla force and the prospect of them picking off multiple provinces of the country (much as the FARC did in Colombia creating pockets of failed or radicalized provinces in the wrapper of a weak state...what you might call a hybrid state) is looming as a real one.
Even given the fact that Pakistan was the site of one of our greatest intelligence failures of modern history (failing to catch their development of nuclear weapons...a failure that may, in future, look even worse than it does today) it is still surprising to think that we have been viewing this situation so incorrectly for so long. Yet, as evidenced by Admiral Mullen's reactions following his recent trips, the situation has deteriorated dramatically and we seem to have been caught flat-footed. Sure, the Zardari government has now started to make a show of going after the Taliban. And yes, their ambassador Husain Haqqani, an old friend and a good, smart guy with a tough job, had a piece in the Wall Street Journal saying "everything's fine, please send helicopters" yesterday as an attempt to soothe fraying American nerves. But behind the scenes, policy types and military leaders are concerned this country, which is ground zero in many of the worst-case scenario exercises gamed out by national security officials, may be on the verge of spiraling out of control.
That would be a very, very bad thing. What with the nukes and all. Made worse by the fact that the options available to us are slim. The Pakistanis don't want us on the ground. (So instead they get Predator attacks which they don't much like either. And, utterly appropriately, Holbrooke attacks which, as Slobodan Milosevic would tell you...if he weren't deservingly dead...can be worse.) We can't work too closely with our best potential ally in the region, India, because it would only inflame the Pakistanis. And the situation in Afghanistan is also not so great.
One specter that is raised in my mind is that Pakistan becomes a bit like Cambodia. Everyone has accepted our troops should be on the ground in a neighboring country but the war has shifted across a border and we are now faced with the dilemma of whether or how we should cross that border. The Cambodia thing, by the way, did not turn out so well. (The main difference of course, is that back then the primary war was in Vietnam. Today, it is in Pakistan.)
So what are we left with? Comforted by? Well, by Plan B of course. And to understand that, you have to meet General Plan B: Pakistan's top soldier, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Kayani, who replaced former President Musharraf as head of the army, is the first Pakistani chief of staff who also headed up their notoriously unreliable (which is to say divided in terms of loyalties) intelligence services, the ISI. He's the default option for DC policy hounds, the guy who steps in when the bell finally tolls for Zardari as it inevitably will. He is the man whose leadership stands between us and 60 or more Pakistani nukes going unsecured, between us and a radicalized Pakistan.
And the American people will gladly go along with it. It won't be much comfort to Musharraf...in fact, he may find the irony rather galling, but if we could be sure that a strong military government could keep a lid on Pakistan for the foreseeable future we would jump at it. Jump back at it. Take it again. Democracy schemocracy. Let's have stability and worry about the details later. Heck, we're taking a stand against torture that ought to buy us at least this pragmatic diversion from our alleged national ideals, right? At least that is pretty much the conventional wisdom in Washington. (Which, oddly enough, in this case actually makes pretty good sense.)
In fact, looking at the region and the instability in Afghanistan and Iraq, it does not seem farfetched at all to imagine a successful Obama presidency ending with strongmen or juntas in charge of each of these countries. Because the alternatives are messy and unstable at best, requiring more military resources than we can muster or military options we'd rather not consider at worst.
Ironically, the one country in the region we have not invaded, Iran, may be the one with history and the public discourse most likely to actually produce something like sustainable democracy. (Which as one noted expert in the region suggested to me...somewhat optimistically...could spill over into the political approaches of Hezbollah and Hamas.) It's not on the imminent horizon to be sure, but it is fair to say that Iran has always been a better candidate for stable, functioning democracy than the other three places.
So, could that be the Obama legacy? Three juntas and a democracy? In these four places? It wouldn't be according to the game plan and we'd have to hold our noses from time to time, but it's worth considering just how welcome such an outcome would be if it produced greater stability and the time we needed to reduce our dependence on the region's oil and contain the region's nuclear and terrorist threats. Come on, admit it, you'd take that deal in a heartbeat.
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
Because it is downright silly to evaluate a president after only 100 days -- especially on his performance in an area as complex and wide-ranging as foreign policy -- and because it is doubly unfair to evaluate someone by arbitrary metrics, let's try another approach. Let’s establish a scale by which we can judge the President after four years in office, one full term. This way he can know in advance how he's going to be graded (we’re fairly confident he is a loyal FP reader), and we can discuss his presidential achievements and slip ups in foreign policy in more meaningful terms.
Of course, with a couple hundred countries and dozens of cross-cutting issue areas to consider, it would be impossible to list every important metric in one blog posting....even given my tendency toward, um, full-figured postings. So, let me pick ten and you can add others.
This is the issue that more than any other in international relations differentiated Obama from his opponents during the 2008 election cycle. And with this issue, like so many others, the initial metric is going to be: does he leave it better than he found it? In this case, this will mean living up to his promise to withdraw most American troops...while at the same time ensuring that Iraq doesn't backslide into chaos endangering the region. (It'll be interesting to see whether, if confronted with the possibility of disorder in Iraq, Obama and Americans in general are willing to accept a strongman who puts a lid on the country even if that means democracy is not exactly robust. You know, like Saddam.) It is also essential that problems within Iraq do not spill over into other countries be they renewed stirrings of a desire for an independent Kurdistan or tensions associated with Shiite-Sunni rivalry. By this metric, the most likely outcome -- messy, below optimal democracy, reasonable stability, moderate violence, and no need for more than say, 50,000 U.S. troops -- would be seen as a victory.
Right now the relationship is strained -- which is a polite way of saying we've been at each other's throats for three decades -- but there is nonetheless hope for a dialogue that produces a somewhat enhanced relationship and a tolerable outcome on the issue of Iran's nuclear program. Iranian regional aspirations, especially as expressed through the actions of its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, are also worrisome. Live up to the hopes by establishing some kind of on-going, even sporadic dialogue and a peaceful nuclear program with ironclad inspection and enforcement mechanisms that include disposing of waste elsewhere, probably in Russia, would earn a pretty good grade. Progress by covertly and overtly U.S.-backed Iranian reformers producing a chance at a bigger diplomatic opening and more control of Hezbollah's meddling outside Iran would be even better. Triggering and allowing a nuclear arms race in the region is an automatic F. Working this all out through effective multilateral cooperation is a key to a passing grade.
I'm a pessimist about our prospects here so frankly, I would consider it a passing grade if we don't end up with more troops there than we have right now and if the whole of Pakistan is not being run by fundamentalists. Losing more of Pakistan or Afghanistan to the Taliban, al Qaeda, or other extremists or having the two countries serve as a base for another attack on India or elsewhere, would bring the overall grade down a lot. This is Obama's war. Colin Powell's "you break it, you own it" dictum applies. Capture Osama you get an automatic A here, though more importantly, the president probably also gets an automatic reelection. Actually achieve military success and shore up democracy and attitudes toward America in Pakistan and not only does Obama get an A but Richard Holbrooke gets a Nobel Prize and probably his own talk show or cabinet post, whichever he would prefer. (Please note: I am a very big Holbrooke fan. If he can't help here, no one can.)
This is an area in which most American presidents are happy to keep the burners set to simmer. But few American presidents have raised expectations of better relations with the Muslim world and this is the symbolic issue for the entire region. Some concrete progress must therefore be made for his regional policy to be considered a success. A Syria deal seems to me the most likely outcome, but the successful development and introduction to you should forgive the expression, a roadmap to a two-state solution is a sure-fire way to push up the overall grade almost regardless of what happens elsewhere. Engineer this and Obama gets the Nobel Prize (sorry George Mitchell, maybe you can finally become baseball commissioner.)
Ok, now we have a G2, what are we going to do with it? This is an area where Obama can blaze a real trail in 21st Century foreign policy, forging a doctrine of interdependence with a critical partner that is also a likely rival on key issues. Given that no progress can be expected on arms control, economic recovery, combating climate change, managing global trade, and dealing with hotspots from Iran to North Korea without Sino-U.S. cooperation...and that more progress can be made than may be expected if we forge a new kind of really substantive working partnership....this is an issue that is not in the headlines daily that ought to be front of mind for the President nonetheless. This is really where an Obama doctrine outlining how the U.S. now must learn to work with countries with which we have major differences will take its most meaningful shape. Let its long-term development being overtaken by successive crises of the hour and again, automatic F.
6. The Atlantic Alliance
Eight-five cents of every defense dollar on earth is spent within the Atlantic Alliance. If the United States is to slip the bonds of being the world's sheriff, the only way to do it is to revitalize this alliance and to develop practical guidelines for out-of-theater actions where support is not as anemic as it has been recently for our AfPak efforts. Further, these relationships are the foundations of America's foreign policy historically and these countries are on many issues our most natural allies. The United States cannot achieve multilateral success without restoring and maintaining a partnership here at a level that transcends the grievous damage done during the past eight years.
7. Reinventing the Multilateral System
Everything needs to be fixed or newly created...the IMF, the World Bank, regional banks, global financial regulations more generally, the non-proliferation regime, the WTO, the UN Security Council, a global environmental organization-and it needs to be done with a new core group leading the way. This includes the United States, Japan, the EU and the BRICs. Find a way to strengthen these organizations, fund them, create structures that reflect the new emerging global power structure, move beyond the toothlessness of previous global regimes and Obama may do more good than being successful in any of the other areas cited here. Do little and it will make it much harder for the United States to leverage its constrained resources into the kind formula for international leadership that the century will demand.
8. Combating Climate Change
While mentioned above, failing to set a price for carbon or to take other crucial steps to reduce U.S. dependence on fossil fuels could cast the administration in a very bad light in the eyes of future generations (those with gills and webbed-feet). While I overstate likely outcomes, we are in a period which much produce progress or damage may well be done that could have very serious security consequences for us even beyond implying continuing dependence on dangerous and unstable oil-producing regimes. There are plenty of metrics here but the ultimate one is simple: implement a carbon pricing mechanism by the end of these four years or you get another automatic F.
9. Quarterbacking the Global Economic Recovery (This Includes Protecting the Well-Springs of Domestic Economic Strength -- Notably the Dollar)
This is the issue on the minds of everyone right now and if the crisis endures well into 2010 it is already likely that mid-term elections will make it harder for the President to achieve other goals here. Fail to engineer a substantial recovery by 2012 and the administration will be unable to get the extension from the professor that it inevitably will argue it needs to achieve all the goals set out above. Get 'er done and not only does the president get a high overall grade, but he gets that automatic four year extension on all his other work -- a four year extension. Be seen as responsible for permanently weakening the dollar and driving up the price of borrowing for a debt-addicted United States, automatic F.
10. Manage the Unexpected and Yet Defining Crisis We Can Hardly Predict
It will come...perhaps several will come...or they will involve hostages or terrorist attacks or a coup or an unexpected natural disaster and as the previous occupant of the Oval Office (who achieved a very unusual F for his eight years of foreign policy mismanagement, bad study habits, and violation of the U.S. constitution) will tell you, all your progress can be undone in the public's eye in an instant. This is a critical part of being president and a key here is setting up a team and a process that can handle the unexpected. Has he done this? Well, he certainly has taken promising steps in that direction.
Several areas may be important in a real way, but they probably won't rise to the level of the ten cited above in shaping his final grade. These include keeping a lid on Mexico and the Quartersphere, the part of the hemisphere we will really be focusing on re: drugs, stability, and immigration, the regional issues that touch our borders. Also: Many of the thorniest foreign policy problems we face can be found in Africa (this may be where the unexpected crises come from although my money is on traditional locations or Central Asia). Massive war, genocide or humanitarian disaster(s) in Africa on Obama's watch may damage his grade. Sadly, it only ever takes maintaining the unhappy status quo there for American presidents not to be graded on their performance there at all. Bush probably did better there than most recent presidents and it didn't help his grade one bit. Finally, if the world continues to love us...or the president...or his powerful secret weapon, Michelle...which is the area in which perhaps the most progress has been made in the first three months, he'll also get extra credit.
So, that's my take. Now start studying Mr. President. There will be a test tomorrow. And every day you remain in office.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
President Obama is now coming to the end of the candyman phase of his presidency. That's the part where he can play to core constituencies and those whose support he would entertain with big gifts -- stimulus money, tax cuts, and promises of policy changes. It's the part where the booty of an election win is spread around -- jobs are given to loyal supporters, and foreign policy victories are scored simply by telling a once-disgruntled ally what they've long been waiting to hear.
But now starts the hard part. Now, the president must grapple with the tough part of leading -- where friends don't get what they want, where allies are pushed and prodded and threatened and punished if they don't fall into line. When force is required, and all eyes are on the United States and the policy initiatives that are under fire can no longer be blamed on the last president.
To help prepare for this period, here are 10 tough decisions that Obama will face in the very foreseeable future.
Will he soon be forced to sacrifice putting a price on carbon for political expediency? Will he actually be willing to trade cap and trade for health care as current conventional wisdom would have it...and then enter into a midterm election year when doing a cap and trade deal may be even harder? Will he be willing to use the classification of carbon as a pollutant as a regulatory bludgeon on this issue hard... and necessary... as that may be on many industries?
2. Failing economy
When the U.S. economy underperforms estimates in the next few years, will he be willing to increase taxes on middle class taxpayers... or exacerbate class tensions by continuing to place all the burden on the most affluent Americans? Where is he willing to make meaningful cuts? Defense? Entitlements?
3. Necessary roughness
He won't use force in Iran to stop proliferation; that already seems clear. But will he use it to stabilize Pakistan's nuclear arsenal should it come under siege? Or to stop massive slaughter in Central Africa? Where will he be willing to use force in a place that the U.S. is not already engaged in a conflict?
4. Walking the walk
Europeans love hearing a U.S. leader talk multilateralism, but they don't yet seem to realize that when he talks the talk, they have to walk the walk. Will he be willing to confront and pressure them to step up in a way they did not at the last NATO meeting?
5. Open trade vs. U.S. jobs
How and when will he reconcile his promises to the world to maintain open trading systems and his promises to unions to protect American jobs? Since he can't, who is he willing to anger when he backs off his competing pledges?
6. When the bailouts only go so far...
What will happen when it is clear that GM can't be saved in its present form and the resulting dislocation will knock tens of thousands of people out of work?
7. An uncooperative Israel
What happens when ultimately his desire to mediate in the Middle East and to reduce tension runs up against an ally, Israel say, who is not cooperative? Is he willing to pay the political consequences of confronting the Israeli government? What if they are in the right and Hamas or Iran is clearly the problem? Is he willing to pay the political consequences of getting tough on them?
8. China & Russia
Is the United States willing to accept growing Chinese or Russian influence in the Western Hemisphere due to their engagement and our disengagement? What happens when resource pressures force the United States to say no to big international aid programs at precisely the moment when he and his team want to give more? Is he willing to be unpopular overseas to maintain support at home?
9. Wall Street
If it is clear that Wall Street firms can't recover without paying Wall Street salaries... or that the administration can't function without actually hiring lobbyists... is he willing to back off his completely understandable but perhaps impractical populist stances on these issues, admit he was wrong and defend a course of action that is unpopular but necessary?
10. No more Mr. Popular
On what issues is he willing to actually be unpopular? Thoughts? (This is only a partial list of course, and your suggestions are welcome.) Personally, I'm willing to bet that he rises to the test and sooner than you would think.
One good sign from my perspective: the apparent decision to hire Harold and Kumar, Van Wilder and "House" star, Kal Penn, to join his public liaison team. After all, who better to get down into the weeds of an issue or to help the president achieve the high highs promised in the campaign than Kumar? Next up: Neil Patrick Harris for surgeon general (why put all that valuable Doogie Howser experience to waste?)
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
But back to skepticism, here are a few questions that linger in my mind listening to the president describe his new AfPak plan:
But, other than that, a pretty good policy launch by the Obama national security team.
If there's one thing you've got to love about tough times is: they're tough on everyone. These days, it's not easy even for those who have taken historically proven paths to amassing wealth, fame, power, social acceptance and happiness -- like becoming a billionaire or pope or U.S. Treasury secretary or an Austrian sadist. Admittedly, it's hard to work up too much sympathy for most of these mighty who have fallen, but sympathy is not the only reason to reflect on their fates. There are also the cautionary lessons offered up by their Icarus-like descents. Nah, who are we kidding? That's for some other blog. There are only two real reasons to revisit these stories. It's fun to watch the bastards squirm. And because recently the headlines have been filled with so many prominent people who for one reason or another are royally screwed, we want to know: Who's the most screwed? Which of these figures who have chosen a well-worn path to the limelight, has done the most damage to their own reputations and the lives of those around them?
Here are thirteen choices from this month's headlines ranked by just how little sympathy we should have for them:
13.) Edward Liddy
The only reason this guy is on the list is that his career is probably finished simply because most people will forever associate him with A.I.G. But while the company has already joined Enron, Long Term Capital Management, Drexel Burnham Lambert and Blue Horseshoe in Wall Street's Hall of Infamy, Liddy himself is something like a hero, coming to work for a dollar a year as a public service in the most thankless job in the global business community. (And what is Blue Horseshoe? Hint: "Blue Horseshoe loves Anacot Steel.")
According to Forbes, the official magazine of Wall Street greed, the world's billionaires managed to misplace $1.4 trillion in the past year, their ranks thinning from 1125 to 793. Their average net worth has fallen by almost a quarter to only $3 billion. Both Warren Buffet and Carlos Slim each lost $25 billion. One, Adolf Merckle, ended up killing himself. Former Wall Street titans like Hank Greenberg and Sandy Weill fell completely off the list as did Facebook wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg. But Zuckerberg is only 25 and still has $900 million left. So as far as sympathy goes this is pretty much a mixed bag. The reality is that these days even a few hundred million gets you pretty far so let's not lose too much sleep over them. (The reason they are this low on the list is not because I feel sympathy for them... it's because I feel considerably less for everyone else on the list.)
11.) Eliot Spitzer
Poor Eliot. If only he had kept it in his pants, this would have been his moment. One can hardly imagine what is making his life worse right now, the fact that the A.I.G. scandal and the collapse of Wall Street could have been his apotheosis, the moment the howling dogs of ambition in his breast might have finally gotten enough red meat of press exposure... or the fact that his wife Silda has stood by him and thus will have the moral high ground in his marriage until he dies. Admittedly, while Spitzer unzipped his own career, his worst violation did not come against the public but against his family.
10.) Gordon Brown
It's hard to hate Gordon Brown. In fact, it's hard not to feel bad for the guy. This is due in part to the fact that he is Britain's first prime minister who is also part basset hound. Also, he had to follow Tony Blair who was quite telegenic and appealing, particularly in that phase of his career when he was being played by Michael Sheen. (Less so later when he was being played by one of George W. Bush's hand-puppets.) Still, Gordon did accept the job of PM, did screw it up to a fare-thee-well and now is on the verge of blowing his last big moment on the public stage as he prepares to host a G20 Summit that is very likely to realize somewhere between zero and few of his grand ambitions for it.
9.) Bibi Netanyahu
The fact that a man President Clinton's White House spokesman once called "one of the most obnoxious individuals you're going to come into -- just a liar and a cheat" has managed to bring himself to the verge of returning as Israel's prime minister is something of an amazing feat. Although perhaps not so much if you are familiar with what people in Israel euphemistically call politics. But Netanyahu assured that he was lost before he even took office by teaming up with racist boor Avigdor Lieberman. Together the two may fight so hard to protect Israel that they irreversibly weaken it.
8.) A.I.G. Bonus Babies
The NY Times writes, "Residents who had been pillars of Connecticut towns are finding themselves the focus of populist rage." But shouldn't we have hated them already for even wanting to be pillars of Connecticut towns? I mean, these people actually chose to become insurance executives and live in John Cheever hell just to become wealthy? Didn't they see The Ice Storm. Oh, the humanity! I hate them for their stale dreams more than I do the fact they squandered one of the great names of Wall Street while gaming both global financial markets and the American taxpayer.
7.) Ben Bernanke
In ancient societies, dark uncontrollable forces were placated by throwing virgins into volcanoes. In Washington, the ritual involves throwing officials under the bus. (The bus is implacable but near-sighted. As it approaches one victim, it will be at least temporarily satisfied if that victim throws someone else in its path.) Edward Liddy was in front of the bus this week during Congressional hearings and at the last minute, threw Bernanke in its path by saying the Fed knew everything A.I.G. was doing re: bonuses. But later the bus claimed other more delicious victims and Bernanke escaped... then he announced the U.S. government was going to print a trillion dollars in monopoly money to stem the crisis. Inflation was a near certainty before... now it will be Bernanke's inflation. No one will even remember he had anything to do with A.I.G. ... and that won't be a good thing.
6.) Tim Geithner
Sadly for Tim Geithner, he even looks like a sacrificial lamb. Earnest, brilliant, trying his best, he will never be able to escape the fact that he is one of the few who will get the blame for both the misguided Bush era bailouts and the false-starts of the Obama administration. Every time there is a mistake, the bus will head in his direction. Obama says he has confidence in Geithner. That is exactly what they said about Tom Daschle before they pulled the plug on him. Heck, Obama said he would no sooner disown Jeremiah Wright than his own grandmother shortly before he disowned him, as they say, with prejudice. Geithner might survive, but he has been wounded. The good news for the economy: sometimes they say people who have been through near death experiences actually develop psychic powers.
5.) Asif Ali Zardari
Zardari was known to be a bad guy long before he became Pakistan's president. Many of the closest friends of his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, could not stand him. Now, as it turns out, neither can most of the Pakistani people. Locked in a bitter struggle with opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, Zardari showed his weakness by capitulating to demands to reinstate Pakistan's former Chief Justice per Sharif's demands. Now in a desperate attempt to reassert control of his own party he may be plotting the ouster of his Prime Minister according to Indian press reports. He's on the ropes, his opposition is gaining strength, and meanwhile fraught, dangerous, complex Pakistan is hardly being governed at all.
4.) Chris Dodd
The Nutmeg State's longest-serving senator got his job the old-fashioned way, he [effectively] inherited it from his father, Sen. Thomas Dodd. He is also now virtually certain to lose it the old-fashioned way, as a result of a combination of arrogance, corruption, lying, and misreading the mood of the times. From his questionable home-mortgage finances to the comedy of errors this week when he denied having anything to do with legislative provisions allowing the A.I.G. bonus then blamed it on his staff then blamed it on the Treasury, Dodd is serving himself up on a silver platter to his opponents. And none of that even addresses the issue that as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee he was at the center of a fat-donations-from-Wall Street-equals-zero-oversight-from-Congress culture that helped get the world into this mess in the first place.
3.) Bernie Madoff
What more can you say about Bernie? For a decade and a half he went to bed every night knowing that he was lying, cheating, faking trades, committing fraud, and putting his and countless other families at grievous risk. And yet he lived his life like a king, like the former chairman of the National Association of Securities Dealers that he was, with yachts and mansions in the Hamptons and Mayfair. In fact, noted judge of character and bankruptcy-addict Donald Trump said "he was a pretty respected guy." That says it all.
2.) The pope
To non-believers he may be just a creepy old ex-Hitler Youth member who wears funny clothes and has appalling values, but to Catholics he is so much more than that. For example, according to one Vatican insider quoted in the U.K.'s Daily Telegraph newspaper, "he's out of touch with the real world" and his papacy is "a disaster." Another is reported to have said he "is isolated and fails to adequately consult his advisors." At least. His Africa trip pronouncement that condoms not only don't help the fight against AIDS but that their distribution actually "aggravates the problems" is not just a PR nightmare for the Holy See; delivered on the continent where both AIDS is most rampant and the Church is growing fastest, it is a formula for massive death and suffering.
1.) Josef Fritzl
Back in the good old days, when Joseph Alois Ratzinger was a little boy, being an Austrian sadist was a surefire path to the top, it could lead anywhere, perhaps even to world domination. But today, Austrians are outraged that one of their own could have locked his daughter in the basement, made her his sex slave, and killed one of the seven children he had with her. Which is really bad. Austria has changed, you see. There is no tolerance for twisted brutality there anymore. Well, less. In fact, fewer than a third of Austrians voted for the hate-spewing, neo-fascist extreme right parties like the Freedom Party and the Alliance for the Future. And while cynics (Jews or Muslims) might point out that this was the same proportion of the population who voted for Austria's leading party, the Social Democrats, their point is undercut by the fact that it was only a relatively few Austrians who honor Nazi heroes in public ceremonies on the anniversary of Kristalnacht or who have participated in nasty little rituals like the recent unfurling of a Nazi flag in Hitler's hometown of Braunau. No, there is no place for a Fritzl in modern Austria and so he will be sent to a psychiatric prison for the rest of his life. But one must wonder, is the outrage because of his crimes, because they were against fellow Austrians or because he thought so small?
This post has been modified since posting.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images; ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images; Mario Tama/Getty Images; Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Remember when "we live in a world without borders" was a good thing? Now, in the places where tearing down or transcending borders was a matter of choice, as in global financial markets, leaders are now grappling with the massive challenges of regulating and even tracking cross-border capital flows and transactions. And in the places where there are no borders as a consequence of history, geography, or the failure of the states that are supposed to maintain them, the problem is even bigger.
Nothing brings this problem into focus like Afghanistan. In a simplistic, substance-lite op-ed in the Washington Post, John McCain and Joseph Lieberman call it "Our Must Win War." They argue against "minimalism" in our approach to fighting in that country and worry aloud about "loose rhetoric" that will imply that "the United States will tire of this war and retreat." Quite apart from the obvious mistake of seeking to deny the deeply salient fact that inevitably we actually will tire of this war and retreat (or "strategically redeploy"), the article is as confused as is most of the thinking about this conflict. It sets as a goal "a stable, secure, self-governing Afghanistan that is not a terrorist sanctuary." Of course, we can't permanently assure Afghanistan's stability, security, or its self-governing status. We can try to help in those areas, but we haven't been terribly successful in that regard thus far and more importantly, those aren't actually our real objectives. Our real objective is simply to eliminate its use as a terrorist sanctuary and, not unimportantly, to get rid of some of the terrorists who actually remain there.
But here's where borders come in. Afghanistan doesn't really have a border with Pakistan. Not one that is patrolled or even enforceable. So every time we go after terrorists in Afghanistan, they attempt to cross into Pakistan and often they succeed. And while the Pakistanis are allegedly our allies, they often don't push back. Indeed, in many mountainous parts of the border region, they can't. So we are left squeezing the balloon -- apply pressure here and the only result is that the problem moves over there.
With the rise in importance of conflicts with terrorists, war lords, tribal groups, and drug cartels within the not-so-confining confines of weak or failed states with porous borders, this issue has become a central problem for U.S. policy and for international security more broadly. The bad guys have used modern technologies to become more mobile and we end up in futile balloon-squeezing exercises worldwide. Success against rebels and drug cartels in Colombia create problems in Peru and Ecuador. What progress the Mexican government has made against drug cartels in that country is starting to produce dangerous spill-over into Guatemala and the United States. Permanent wars rage throughout Africa drifting across borders from Rwanda to Congo, through East and West Africa.
Further, the wars produce refugee flows and are fed by drug and weapons flows. And if the richest nation in the world can't secure our own borders, how will poor ones fix theirs? The choice is fairly simple: massive spending on infrastructure, technology, and manpower to close the borders and seal off the fights where they occur or finding another strategy...like limiting ourselves to achievable goals abroad and doing what we can to minimize international problems by reducing demand for drugs, the reasons for terror, hitting offenders hard and increasing security here at home and along our own borders.
DAVID FURST/AFP/Getty Images
One area in which the Obama administration is carrying forward a long tradition has to do with the vital issue of national security memo naming and acronym establishment (NSMNAE). Administration after administration has felt it was absolutely vital to discard the memo names and acronyms established by their predecessors in order to make their mark with brand new and different memo names and acronyms that communicate that it is a new day in America, a safer day, a more powerful day.
In Washington, everything tastes better wrapped in a new acronym. In Presidential Security Directive 1, President Obama memorably asserts:
This document is the first in a series of Presidential Policy Directives that, along with Presidential Study Directives, shall replace National Security Presidential Directives as instruments for communicating presidential decisions about national security policies of the United States."
So now, knowledgeable insiders will refer in short-hand to PPDs and PSDs instead of outré and so-five-mintues-ago NSPDs or even more outmoded Clinton Era Presidential Decision Directives (PDDs) and Presidential Review Directives (PRDs). Not to mention the antiquated National Security Decision Directives (NSDDs), National Security Decision Memorandums (NSDMs), National Security Presidential Directives (NSPDs), National Security Study Directives (NSSDs) or National Security Study Memorandums (NSSMs) or Presidential Review Memorandums (PRMs) of the past. Clearly, we are all, deep inside, the children we once were and this whole memo-naming exercise is a message from each President to the world that "it's my NSC and I will play with it any way I want to."
Of course, PPD 1 does more than just carry forward this great American tradition of leadership. Like other such establishing memos, it importantly determines who will have their seat at the situation room conference table reserved for them by a small nameplate that whispers (authoritatively) that they are a member of the inner circle. At least, that's what they think it whispers. In the case of this NSC, maybe not so much. Because the most notable take-away from PPD 1 is that the Obama administration is going to be really inclusive. Too inclusive, in fact, to work as laid out in the memo.
The NSC shall have as its members the President, Vice President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and Secretary of Energy, as prescribed by statute. In addition, the membership of the NSC shall include the Secretary of the Treasury, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Representative of the United States of America to the United Nations, the Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff (Chief of Staff to the President), and the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (National Security Advisor). The Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as statutory advisers to the NSC, shall attend NSC meetings. The Counsel to the President shall be invited to attend every NSC meeting, and the Assistant to the President and Deputy Nation Security Advisor shall attend every meeting, and serve as Secretary.
When international economic issues are on the agenda of the NSC, the NSC's regular attendees will include the Secretary of Commerce, the United States Trade Representative, the Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, and the Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. When homeland security or
counter-terrorism related issues are on the agenda, the NSC's regular attendees will include the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counter-Terrorism. When science and technology related issues are on the agenda, the NSC's regular attendees will include the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The heads of other executive departments
and agencies, and other senior officials, shall be invited to attend meetings of the NSC as appropriate."
That's quite a group. But if history is any indication, official meetings of the NSC will take place infrequently at first and then become even less frequent. Principals Committee meetings (which are meetings of the NSC at which the president is not present and where the National Security Advisor chairs) happen more often and in the Obama years, these will also include, in addition to everyone cited above, the participation of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Deputy Secretary of State and the Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs.
They may have to add stadium seating in the situation room. Now, bloating the membership of the NSC is not an Obama administration innovation. (And it is getting pretty bloated, particularly when you consider that the NSC's statutory membership started out as the President, Vice President, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense.)
The group has, over time, consistently gotten steadily bigger, even as specifics ebbed and flowed with each administration. As a consequence, what also has happened over the years, as the group gets bigger and bigger, is that these bigger formal structures have proved unwieldly and the really key work has been done in smaller groups whether they are informal lunchtime conversations with the President or small regular phone groups between the National Security Advisor, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense, which have been a common feature in recent administrations.
The other group where the heavy lifting of policy making is done is the Deputies Committee. As in the past, this memo indicates that this group will consist of Deputy Secretaries and agency heads, but it won't. Soon under secretaries and others who actually know the briefs being discussed will work their way in and ultimately will be far more regular attendees at most of these meetings.
Reading between the lines, this memo further underscores what is already becoming apparent -- this is very much a White House centric administration. Obama, Biden, Jim Jones, Rahm Emanuel, Greg Craig (who one imagines might be behind the language that specifies the White House Counsel "shall be invited to attend every NSC meeting"), and Jones Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon will be fixtures at every meeting. Then, given the nature of the world, the heads of the big White House economic team will also be in many. Notably, also, the PPD also sets up Jones to be the real driving force behind these processes which puts him in a position to be, after Obama, the single most important voice in shaping U.S. national security policy. (A role he is strengthening via his shrewdly managed lowish profile, emulating the gold standard among National Security Advisors, Brent Scowcroft.) Adding U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, formerly one of the President's top campaign advisors, and some of these other White House voices to the mix while also firmly establishing Jones's primacy in terms of process coordination might be seen as something of a dilution of the power of the Secretary of State who is certainly one among many in this throng. While you might say the same about the voice of DoD, with Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen and two former four-stars, Jones and Denny Blair, in every meeting you imagine the voices of the defense community will be heard.
In a related development, the White House has also produced its first Presidential Study Directive (PSD-1), launching an internal review to be run by counter-terror advisor John Brennan designed to evaluate whether or not to trash can the Homeland Security Council and fold its operations into the NSC where they belong. This is kabuki theater designed to protect the White House from anti-terror zealots who will inevitably criticize them for being soft on terror when they do the right thing and get rid of this duplicative council. Nobody, including some of the folks who served on the council with whom I have spoken, thought it added much value (beyond the appearance of elevating the issue) and the idea of separating overseas threats (most of which are covered by the NSC) from defending the homeland is, well, absurd and rather dangerous.
Back to Pakistan's "get out of jail free" card for Khan, I was left again with that nagging feeling that we are headed down a familiar road for the United States, where allies we embrace for seemingly pragmatic reasons ultimately become our worst nightmares.
In fact, making a list of America's worst allies reveals a trend that suggests that the world's hyper power could easily have been cast alongside Jennifer Aniston and Scarlett Johansson in He's Just Not That Into You as one of those prototypical women who buys the line of every sweet-talking guy in town and wakes up in the morning wondering why she feels so used. Seriously, we ought to be taking relationship advice from Anne Hathaway at this point.
Let's make the list. Pick the five worst allies the United States has had in the past 100 years. Set up some reasonable criteria, things you look for in a good ally. So for example, one criterion would be advancing our national interests (or, alternatively, not dedicating themselves to our destruction). Another would be constancy (or, alternatively, not using us and then ditching us when the next best looking cause glides into town). Another, since this is a list of worst allies (all alliances, like all marriages, are imperfect and require work), would be to measure the degree of the damage they did to us or sought to do to us.
Finally, other guidelines probably need to be used -- for example, if a country underwent a coup or a revolution that changed completely its political orientation it probably ought not to be included on a list of allies who turned against us while under the same leadership that created, sought or supported the alliance.
Before listing the very worst cases of turnabout, it is worth noting a few of the countries that were candidates for various reasons. (My candidates follow, but please, offer your own suggestions.) Certainly some of you will nominate the likes of France for being allies who made it difficult for the Atlantic alliance to get anything done and which -- often for little more reason than modest economic gain -- undermined embargoes and other measures to pressure bad actors into behaving. I have no doubt that others will suggest that Israel has actually put us and our interests at risk by allowing the settlement of the West Bank and heavy-handedly keeping the Palestinians down. Some may feel that the embrace of Taiwan has caused more problems than it was worth, though it is undeniable that they were doing what many in the United States thought was in our collective interests. Still others might contend that the billions spent in Egypt or Colombia resulted in abuses or supported regimes whose interests were not always well aligned with ours. Suharto was a good "friend" except to the extent that he was behind the genocide in Timor or was breathtakingly corrupt. The Shah of Iran was a good ally for years, modernizing that country, but it can be argued that between the abuses of SAVAK, his secret police, and his lavish spending, he provoked a revolution that has upset the balance in the Middle East for years. Venezuela was once America's best friend in Latin America but now, not so much. The list goes on.
So who are the worst in modern U.S. history?
While they are not guilty of undercutting American interests in ways that are anything like the four other countries cited on this list (all of whom have gone or seem ready to go from being allies to actually being enemies), France has earned a special place on America's frienemies list for being so relentlessly difficult to deal with. They might call it tough love, but for as long as the Atlantic Alliance has existed they have been a drag on it and in numerous cases in the emerging world they tacitly or directly supported our adversaries or undercut American interests. To be fair, it is tough to pick on them for undercutting us when, especially for most of the past eight years, our policies have often been so worthy of undercutting. And furthermore, it would be unfair not to acknowledge that there has been a thaw in the air of late thanks to the more pro-U.S. attitude of President Sarkozy. Still, it is clear that the country that coined the term hyperpower hasn't quite gotten over the fact that the little band of colonies it helped midwife into existence as a nation long ago passed it in influence politically, militarily, economically and, culturally. So, in the end, they earn the special distinction of being the most dysfunctional of our more high functioning alliances.
Pakistan is number four with a bullet. (For those of you outside the record industry, that means number four but moving up the list.)
This is a country that we have supported and to which we have provided copious aid that nonetheless has become a haven for our worst enemies, a violator of the most fundamental interests of the modern world (against WMD proliferation), a host for terrorists that strike out against other allies and which seems increasingly to be a coup away from fulfilling its long-touted promise of being the most dangerous place in the world. Few countries can match their record of being so anti-American even as they were still ostensibly our allies. One of the worst foreign policy errors made in modern history was the decision post 9/11 to look the other way on the emergence of Pakistan's nuclear program and lift sanctions associated with it in order to gain tactical "advantage" in our war against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan by shutting off escape routes into Pakistan.
Only problem: not only is it impossible to shut off those routes, but big portions of the Pakistani intelligence service and the Pakistani population were actively allied with the Taliban and al Qaeda. So much so that now they call our ally home.
3. Saddam Hussein
We made Saddam. We sought him as a counter-balance against the power of revolutionary Iran. We gave him aid, looked the other way when he used chemical weapons and brutally murdered and abused his people and generally wrote off the ugliness to realpolitik. Then, he literally became our enemy entering in effect a constant state of war with the United States for a decade and a half. He ultimately cost us trillions, strengthened our enemies, and invited us into a conflict that has deeply undercut our stature in the world and sapped our military strength. As in all of these twisted alliances, we bear plenty of responsibility for making the situation worse. But as ungrateful, self-serving, twisted, bad allies go, Saddam is certainly headed for a place in the Hall of Fame.
2. The Mujahideen of the Soviet-Afghan War
Yes, with our help they managed the only major defeat suffered by the Soviet Army and in so doing they probably help precipitate the decline and fall of the Soviet empire. Yes, they fought heroically against a much more heavily armed foe that employed horrific tactics. But in the end, many members of the Mujahideen kept the weapons and turned their anti-Western attitudes against the United States. From these groups came both the Taliban and al Qaeda. Among them was Osama bin Laden, who used the skill sets he developed as a U.S.-backed fighter to build the terror organization that ultimately conducted the most deadly attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor. As he remains our number one enemy and a symbol to a movement that still threatens us worldwide, his place high atop this list can't be disputed.
1. The Soviet Union
There are few examples of the backfiring of the playing the enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend card that will ever rival this one. The Soviets not only went from by our indispensible ally in defeating the Nazis to being the Evil Empire with which we were locked in a death struggle for almost half a century, but they for a while, they were clearly both. As World War II drew to a close, it was already clear that battle lines were being drawn for a potential future conflict with the Russians. Joint victory celebrations, laden with tension, became opportunities to divide up Europe into what would instantly become its Cold War boundaries. In the name of the "cold" conflict that followed, hot wars bled the world for decades and the planet was at the precarious edge of self-inflicted extinction throughout.
But as I say, these are off the top of my head coming out of the weekend. Better ideas are welcome, especially since I don't really like lumping France in with these really bad relationships. (Although it's always fun to tweak them.) And it feels wrong to leave out Asians or Latins.
So... suggestions anyone?
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
Reading about the Pakistani government's decision to free notorious nuclear weapons technology proliferator A.Q. Khan, it was hard not to wonder if we had any enemies in the world more dangerous than some of our "friends." That Khan's misdeeds have not yet resulted in the use of a nuclear device by a terrorist group or a rogue state is fortunate but almost irrelevant in that someday they almost surely will contribute to just such a tragedy. The likes of Khan should not be walking the streets.
Last week, Dick Cheney worried aloud in an interview that the United States would in the not-too-distant future be attacked by terrorists armed with WMDs. He characterized such a threat as "high probability" and said "That's the one that would involve the deaths of perhaps hundreds of thousands of people, and the one you have to spend a hell of a lot of time guarding against." He went on to say: "Whether or not they can pull it off depends whether or not we keep in place policies that have allowed us to defeat all further attempts, since 9/11, to launch mass-casualty attacks against the United States."
While there is certainly a strong element of legacy-defending in such statements and more than a hint of that dark Cheney worldview that fed into so much Bush era malfeasance, to paraphrase my pal Tom Friedman, just because Cheney says it doesn't mean it isn't true.
Sitting opposite a senior national security type who is close to President Obama the other day, I asked what he thought about the comments. His response was fairly dismissive. "Yes, well, it's a high probability event if you mean sometime in the indefinite future."
While this was a serious, thoughtful guy, I certainly hope he was not providing a glimpse into the current administration's worldview. The stakes are too high for complacency on any level including the fact that if the president gets everything else right and this wrong, he will be judged a failure -- especially given the warning delivered on September 11, 2001.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
So, President Obama is on the verge of making the decision to commit more troops to Afghanistan this week.
A new Pentagon report, as described at Politico.com, wisely seeks to narrow our objectives. But even if the recast goals Obama adopts are (as the new recommendations allegedly suggest) focusing on regional stability and clearing out Taliban and al Qaeda strongholds in Pakistan, it seems highly likely that this will largely prove to be an exercise in futility. Besides the fact that no one since Alexander the Great has won a lasting victory in that part of the world, despite whatever wisdom we may have gleaned from Rudyard Kipling and the Russians about what not to do, besides the fact that it was our own short-sighted efforts there that led to the emergence of Osama bin Laden as a threat, this is a part of the world that makes the similarly asymmetric conflicts in Vietnam and Colombia look like a piece of cake.
Do we really think we can permanently snuff out the Al Qaeda and Taliban threat in the mountains? Aren't we really signing up for a hugely costly and never ending game of whack-a-mole? Do we really think that any number of U.S. troops will be a stabilizing force in the region? And, given the challenges associated with even these narrower missions: What's the exit strategy? If the disease is chronic, are we really willing to become an extended-care stabilizer?
No, those goals aren't really achievable (which is not to say we can't achieve periodic triumphs, rather that they are likely to be short-lived). So is the real goal something different? Is it really just to send the message that as the U.S. withdraws from Iraq we are not disengaging completely and in fact, are willing to use force somewhere? Or is it that we think it's probably a good idea to keep a decent size deployment of special forces not too far from the Pakistani border for when the balloon goes up there and we are scrambling to put a lid on their nukes?
History is against us, the terrain is against us, many of the people are against us, the corruption of our local allies is against us, the constraints on our own power are against us, the likely patience of the international community is against us -- we are just being carried forward on the residual waves of anger over a terrorist attack that took place almost eight years ago. We shouldn't forget it, but unless we are willing to adopt and fully own the evolving strategy of missiles and unmanned aircraft being sent after suspected bad guys wherever we find them without regard for borders while we all the while inflame the locals, our "allied governments", and periodically produce very unfortunate collateral damage -- this will be bloody, costly and frustrating.
Oh, and while we're at it, let's stop kidding ourselves about the most basic elements of how we think about this war. We call it Afghanistan. But Afghanistan is only the front porch of this conflict. Read between the lines in the summary of the Pentagon report: The real meat of the mission -- whether it is hunting down Al Qaeda or the Taliban, combating destabilizing forces in the mission, or keeping a lid on nukes -- is in Pakistan. As we escalate, it is worth keeping in mind that what we are really doing is getting deeper and deeper into a conflict in a nuclear nation with more than 170 million inhabitants, four-fifths of whom have decidedly anti-American views and whose country is locked in a 60-year-old conflict with the billion-person nation on its other border.
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.