I'll spare you the back story, but first thing this morning, in an effort to denigrate New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, one of my colleagues offered up the observation that not only was Brady overrated but that so too was his wife, Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen. Apparently, in the eyes of my colleague (which clearly require medical attention), Bundchen looked quite average without her makeup on. Pressed on this subject, he went further, asserting that the women he runs with are much better looking and that he simply wouldn't be interested in Bundchen.
While I know I run the risk of devastating Ms. Bundchen by posting this story, within minutes after the discussion, it crossed my mind again when I read this weekend's sttement by Afghan President Hamid Karzai that, "God forbid, if ever there is a war between Pakistan and America, Afghanistan will side with Pakistan."
Whew, I'm glad that's settled. My sense is that the prospect of having to contend with the opposition of an opponent of the strategic vision, credibility, and power of Karzai will have roughly the same effect on the United States that the prospect of doing without my colleague will have on Gisele Bundchen. These are both people who are clearly delusional about the impact their derision may have on their intended targets.
The biggest difference of course, is that whereas Gisele Bundchen will never feel the sting of being dissed by my friend because he is utterly invisible to her (with or without his makeup) the United States has once again gotten loud and clear the message from Karzai. He is working hard to win a place among the worst allies America has ever chosen, which is really saying something considering the rogue's gallery of losers and bad guys that the United States has thrown in with -- a list that includes Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, the Shah of Iran, and Josef Stalin. Tellingly, also vying for a spot on that list are at least some members of the Pakistani government with whom Karzai is vowing to work.
Naturally, all this once again sends the message loud and clear that Karzai is part of the problem, not part of the solution in Afghanistan. More importantly, it also reinforces the urgency with which the U.S. approach its principle task in Afghanistan which is folding up its tents, shutting down its bank accounts and getting the heck out of Dodge. If we happen to shut down all forms of financial and other support for Karzai's security first, well, all the better. Once upon a time, he was a necessary evil. Now, having declared himself an enemy of the United States and having demonstrated a marked incapability of ruling within any standards of efficiency, morality or even decency, it's time to cease any pretense of supporting this stooge and simply do what we can to build ties elsewhere in the leadership of this fragmented, tribal society so that once we are out, we have good contacts, useful intelligence, and conduits with whom we can work going forward.
We can then return to paying precisely as much attention to Karzai as he deserves ... which happens to be identical to the amount my buddy is likely to be receiving from Gisele Bundchen or anyone in her aesthetic zip code at any time in the near future.
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We can't blame the moral failures of today on someone else.
It's not Bush this time. It's not a prior generation betraying a trust. It's not another country failing to live to the standards of civilization. We're not even able to defend ourselves by saying we were ignorant of what was happening or by feigning that we were looking the other way.
This time, it's us. American liberals have the reins of U.S. foreign policy right now and we are embracing a course in which we are the ones who condone torture, turn our back on genocide, sidestep the rule of law. We operate Guantanamo and defend using extreme measures with terrorists. We ignore national sovereignty. We acknowledge the deaths of thousands upon thousands at the hands of weak, brutal regimes and we say, "not our problem" or "to intervene would be too hard." Then we go off and weep and some other movie of the Holocaust and walk out wondering how any generation could allow such a thing to happen. But we are demonstrating that evil exists in the world not because of the occasional rise of satanic bad men but because of the enduring willingness of average people tolerate what should be intolerable -- apathy has killed more people than Osama or Saddam ever did.
(And before all the "yes, buts...": It is too easy to say Obama is not "really" a liberal. He is in fact, the distilled essence of the liberal ideal in America over the past couple decades, the product of liberal movements, the liberal establishment, an espouser of liberal ideals, the most open and clearly liberal political candidate to be elected to high office in the United States since the middle of the last century -- more so than self-described "centrists" like Clinton, Carter or Kennedy. He may have checked his liberal ideals at the door of the White House situation room, but that's not a counter-argument, that's the point.)
All of us who embrace in any way any part of the idea of liberalism need to own up to the current situation, to remember our past righteous condemnations of others and to ask how we got here. We need to examine why we apply our values so sporadically -- if any beliefs that are so haphazard and so selectively applied can be called a values system at all.
Look at the story running in today's New York Times and elsewhere on the new U.N. report on torture in Afghanistan. Based on hundreds of interviews, the conclusion is that America's Afghan allies regularly employ torture against prisoners linked to that country's insurgency. According to the Times "It paints a devastating picture of abuse, citing evidence of ‘systematic torture' during interrogations by Afghan intelligence police officials even as American and other Western backers provide training and pay for nearly the entire budget of the Afghan ministries running the detention centers." It would be preposterous to suggest the United States, bankrolling these operations, did not know what was going on. It is clear that despite our vast military presence in Afghanistan, we did nothing to stop it. It is also, as it happens, illegal for the United States to provide aid to police organizations embracing torture but that little issue seems to have been set aside. That these governments we support also abuse their female citizens or institutionalize intolerance only compounds the wrong.
Or, alternatively, look at the discussions surrounding the decision by this administration to authorize the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen. CNN reported yesterday that U.S. may release its memo authorizing the decision to kill the terrorist leader. The objective is to demonstrate the legal basis for the attack which also killed another U.S. citizen. While Awlaki richly deserved to die, the question as to whether U.S. officials have the right to summarily order such an attack raises important ethical questions about the nature and conduct of modern warfare and the decision processes by which public officials arrogate onto themselves roles traditionally left to judges and juries.
Another dimension of the ethical issues raised in the Awlaki attack has to do with the broader question of drone warfare. Scott Shane's "Coming Soon: The Drone Arms Race" in the Sunday Times raised the specter of this issue growing and, as I have argued before, before it does, we ought to be having a vigorous discussion about why it is we think having the technology to violate the sovereignty of other nations with impunity grants us the right to do so. The implication of Shane's piece, of course, is that sooner rather than later, the shoe is going to be on the other foot. We will be targeted. Our officials may be cited as direct threats to some other nation ... perhaps even reasonably cited as such. And then what?
Further, as important as are the issues raised in such stories, equally important are the issues raised by the instances where there are few if any stories at all. We don't hear much about Guantanamo any more. We don't debate much those wars and social catastrophes in which we don't intervene despite the huge human costs. We are essentially silent about the moral consequences of postponing discussion on tolerating an economic system that promotes inequality, puts the weakest at risk due to the greed of the most powerful or threatens the planet's environment.
Some might call the approach America today embraces as realism. Others might say it is justified by circumstances. Both may be true and the tough hard realities of the world may be what directs all American presidents into the mainstream of compromise and pragmatism. But what it is also is frequently morally indifferent and occasionally indefensible.
We have to acknowledge that we have become that which we condemned. We have demonstrated through our actions that we too feel morality is just for speeches and or to be used as a cudgel with which to attack the opposition. And we have to ask, can there be such a thing a liberal U.S. foreign policy or is our national character so corrupted by a sense of self-righteous exceptionalism that there is no place in our policies for solid values consistently applied?
One of the primary ways the attacks of September 11, 2001 were supposed to have changed the United States was by revealing to us our vulnerability within our own borders to terrorist attacks. But of course, we had seen many terrorist attacks before then.
We had seen them throughout American history -- shootings and hijackings and bombings. The destruction of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988 remains an open wound today. The 1995 Bojinka plot of Ramzi Yousef and his uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to blow up 12 airliners en route to the United States and possibly kill as many as 4,000 people was a contributing factor leading to a major heightening of airport security by the Clinton Administration a year later. The Oklahoma City bombing, also in 1995, is still regularly invoked as a sign of our vulnerability to domestic terrorists. Indeed, it was in 1995 that I first remember Richard Clarke, then a colleague in the Clinton Administration and a man who had been both prophetic and evangelical in his warnings of the al Qaeda threat, first describing to me what he sensed that threat to be.
Even just two years before 9/11 we went on high alert on the eve of the millennium, stopping a well-formed, multi-pronged terror threat aimed at our West Coast.
The 9/11 attacks were not even the first attack on the World Trade Center, that having taken place in 1993, also having involved Yousef, Mohammed and a half dozen or so others. In fact, several years before 9/11, I participated in a conference co-sponsored by the Naval War College that was entirely focused on terrorist threats on Wall Street. It took place on the top floor of the World Trade Center. Among those helping to support the event was Howard Lutnick, the chief executive of Cantor Fitzgerald. Many of his team from the company attended the event which considered a variety of potential ways terrorists might target the U.S. financial community including bombings using trucks or aircraft. And a few years later, some of those from Cantor Fitzgerald who attended the event would die when their offices in the World Trade Center were consumed in the attacks we have spent much of the past few weeks commemorating.
The morning of Sept. 11, I was to have met with an admiral whose office was adjacent to the wing of the building that was destroyed. But at six o'clock the night before my office received a call saying that he would have to reschedule the meeting. I was pretty put-off. For almost 15 hours.
As a consequence of the postponement of that meeting, I was in my office on the morning of Sept. 11. I was on the phone with a friend who lived in Lower Manhattan a little before 9 a.m. Suddenly, he became agitated and said, "Oh my God, oh my God." I asked what was wrong and he described for me what he had just seen, a plane flying into the north face of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He suggested that I turn on the television in my office, which I did.
Soon after, I walked into the office next door which was occupied by my business partner at the time, former U.S. National Security Advisor Tony Lake. We were joined by another colleague, former Deputy CIA Director John Gannon. It was there that we saw the second plane hit the tower. At that moment, Tony said, "Al Qaeda" softly to himself. John nodded. It was, at that point, only a well-informed guess. But again, both men had been involved for most of the past decade in a growing effort to understand and contain the threat posed by al Qaeda and other similar groups.
Al Qaeda had officially "declared war" on the United States in 1996 and that the Clinton Administration, that had been tracking Bin Laden and his associates since almost its very first days had made him a principle target of its intelligence and counter-terror efforts years before 9/11. In 1998, for example, the Central Intelligence Agency had reported that al Qaeda was planning attacks on the United States and that personnel were being trained to hijack aircraft. In August of that year, our embassies in East Africa were attacked.
We went to lunch that day at an outdoor café near our offices, joined by another colleague, Susan Rice, today the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. I remember a meandering, vaguely surreal conversation touching upon what that day's events might mean and semi-deserted streets over which periodically could be heard jet fighters rushing overhead through the bright blue skies. There was a sense that threats which had been underestimated by many in Washington might now be taken more seriously, but even then there was also a sense that we would need to be careful to succumb to the temptation to over-reaction. As John Gannon would later often say, "the terrorists are not twelve feet tall," meaning that we should not succumb to the temptation to overstate the threat from them. And yet, of course, he was at the vanguard of those who also worked tirelessly to identify and contain the very real threats that existed.
As profound and horrifying a tragedy as it was therefore, 9/11 was not new but part of a pattern, not the beginning of a threat but in fact, one of the few instances in which the threat was realized by a small hate group with limited, sporadic capability to successfully follow-through on its grandiose, malevolent plans.
Nonetheless, due to the gravity of what happened a decade ago, we have had a tendency to set aside the historical context. It helped with the healing and indeed, it seemed respectful to those who were lost to frame the attacks as though they were something new, the act of a great enemy, a piece of a much grander struggle akin to past conflicts that took a high toll. I know when I think of those that were lost, personalizing it as we all do to the stories closest to us -- the kid who grew up across the street from me who was killed in Tower Two or my tennis partner whose sister in law was a flight attendant on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon -- there is some comfort from such an approach.
But comfort aside -- and it's no small thing, comfort, in the face of such grief -- the view is wrong. 9/11 was one of the few realized plots of a small band of outcast criminals. Such plots and such groups will always exist and we are within our rights and indeed, it is our responsibility to civilization, to eradicate such groups and take all reasonable steps to minimize such threats. But it does no one any good to overstate the risks and indeed, as we have seen, it has done us great damage to do so ... even as it has done service to the goals of al Qaeda and other radical extremists.
A decade later the attack has changed us because it touched us and altered irrevocably millions of lives here and across the Middle East. But if you look at the great issues before the United States in 2011, terror is no greater a threat nor any greater an issue today than it was throughout the 1990s. It is important, but our great challenges are the reinvention of our economy, the education of our children, the protection of our environment, the rise of new great powers and a rapidly changing global order, and the implications of participating in an interconnected, risk-filled, under-regulated, untransparent global economy.
9/11 was a heartbreaking event, an important chapter, but it was neither a beginning nor an end, not redefining nor an appropriate lodestar for future policies. As a consequence, tributes having been appropriately paid, memories having been rekindled, it is time to realize that the biggest threat posed that day comes from misunderstanding it and that the best way to contain the risks posed by the men who orchestrated it is to put them and their actions in the right historical context.
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Sept. 11, 2001 marked the beginning of a decade in which the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy was "the war on terror." As we approach Sept. 11, 2011, it is clear that America's foreign policy priorities have changed.
Not only has the United States achieved our principle goal of decapitating al Qaeda and degrading its capabilities, we have hardened our assets, enhanced our intelligence capabilities, developed better networks of international cooperation and, above all, recognized that there are other issues of far greater importance to our national interests that should take precedence. Even the term "war on terror" has thankfully fallen into disuse, a sign that while combatting threats from extremists remains an important element of our national security mission, we no longer seek to equate tactical responses to isolated threats with past conflicts in which our strategic interests were at stake. Instead, we are now appropriately addressing such broader strategic questions such as the rise of new powers like China, India, and Brazil, collaborating to manage the global economy, and containing important regional threats that include but are far from limited to the risks associated with terror.
Nowhere is this shift more striking than in the Greater Middle East, the source of not only the 9/11 attacks but of many of the most serious terror threats of recent memory. Recent events in Libya only underscore that America's number one issue in the region is now supporting the transition of a large number of important regional governments from autocracy to more inclusive forms of government and from top-down, crony states to more open, opportunity-rich economies. In the Middle East we have gone from the war on terror to a new campaign focused not on destruction but on building, not on sidestepping our ideals in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo but on promoting them consistent with the spirit of places like Tahrir Square.
In Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan, while the individual situations are different as is our involvement, our missions are consistent and mutually reinforcing. In the near future, it is to be hoped that similar missions will exist in Syria and in Palestine. Related reforms in countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and even Jordan -- no one like the other, but all sharing a need to evolve to reflect new economic, political, social, and technological realities -- are also likely to grow ever more important to our overall goals in the Middle East.
Of course, the initiatives we support -- those that enfranchise citizens and create opportunities for self-sufficiency and advancement -- are also far more effective tools to combat the spread of terror than have been many of our military and political initiatives of the recent past. That's not to say that there is not an important dimension to that on-going fight that will require swift, decisive use of force -- sometimes even unilateral use of force. But among the best elements of this new approach in the region is that it can only be done through effective multilateral cooperation in conjunction with a broad array of other supporters and international institutions.
Anniversaries like 9/11 are important because they help us remember. But they are also important because they provide needed punctuation marks, allowing us to bring to an end dark chapters like the "war on terror."
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President Obama announced Wednesday that 33,000 American soldiers would be coming home from Afghanistan by next summer. The address was carefully calibrated. There was something in it for left and right, hawks and doves. Accordingly, in the wake of the speech, everyone grumbled. John Boehner asserted that Congress would hold the president accountable if progress were reversed because we were pulling out too precipitously. Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz complained the draw down was not fast enough. Vali Nasr, formerly an aide to Richard Holbrooke at the State Department, doubted whether real progress could be made on security issues at any speed and wished there were more focus on diplomatic solutions.
While my own preference would be for a faster exit than described, the specific number chosen will, in the long run be forgotten by history. It is only an indication of a temporary, transitional condition. Instead, we should look to the bigger implications of the speech -- its larger messages.
First, more important than the specific number the president chose is the trend it reflects, the bigger policy decision that has been taken. The die is cast. The troops are coming home. America's longest war will come to an end soon. The president ratcheted up the forces, they are at peak strength now, and that will soon start to change. A decade of major wars is coming to a close.
This is tied to the Obama's second major point: America's attention must now turn to nation-building at home. The president seemed at greater ease with the message he was delivering in this section of his speech; it seemed to flow more naturally than the justifications concerning troop strengths. It was clear he understands that our most crucial national security concerns lie within our own borders -- not threats from fundamentalists... but from lousy economic fundamentals.
This point is even more important than the first, as it is indicative of a crucial fact: America's foreign policy from this day forward is more likely to be driven the consequences of the economic crises of the past several years than it is by those associated with 9/11.
Finally, there was one more major message in Obama's speech that was highlighted to me in a conversation with a senior White House official shortly after it concluded. The president, he observed, was keeping his word. As he had done with Iraq, as he had done with regard to shifting our security focus in the region to Afghanistan and Pakistan, as he had done with regard to his promise to do whatever needed to be done to get Osama bin Laden, Barack Obama was sending a message to allies and enemies alike: He keeps his word. He does what he says he is going to do.
The president rightly recognizes that America's influence around the world depends more on his credibility than it does the precise number of troops we have deployed anywhere. That credibility has been under siege for years. It was not helped by the misrepresentations of the George W. Bush years or the failures of our economic system during the recent crisis.
And while "Goldilocks solutions" like a troop withdrawal that is not too high or too low tend to leave major segments of the population disgruntled, nothing does the kind of damage that lies and deception do. The wars that are now ending in the Middle East were started by lies and prolonged by misstatements. They are now being ended by a guy who was elected to bring them to conclusion.
Try as the president's opponents in next year's elections might to quibble with his tactics, they will find that this last point -- in conjunction with the shifting priorities reflected in the other aspects of last night's speech -- may prove to be this president's most formidable advantage.
Imagine: a president who actually does what he said he was going to do. It's the kind of thing that makes withdrawals, like those announced Wednesday night, a sign of strength.
Nothing teaches skepticism of the advice of military leaders like the experience of warfare. President Lincoln discovered it. Roosevelt did too. So did Truman, Kennedy and Johnson. It was not unpatriotic for them to challenge their generals. On the contrary, by the end of World War II, an entire generation, well-versed in the fallibility of their commanders, sought out government officials who wouldn't hesitate to challenge them.
Recently, in the United States, a different phenomenon has been in play. It is considered almost sacrilege to publicly question the top brass. "Trust the generals" is almost a mantra among the current crop of Republican candidates for commander-in-chief (with the notable exception of the sporadically acute Ron Paul, who seems to have a somewhat firmer grasp on the concept of the chain of command and the reason for civilian leadership of our defense establishment).
Some of this reflexive deference is no doubt a product of genuine respect. But some is a product of the post-9/11 outbreak of jingoism that has distorted U.S. political debate and national security thinking for the past decade.
Generals and admirals are, of course, a diverse lot and the U.S. is fortunate to have some leading our military who are not only among their profession's best worldwide but who are also among the first tier of all public servants anywhere. But some are, naturally, not up to snuff, and furthermore, the military, like other branches of government, is susceptible to group think and to rendering decisions too colored by their own culture or self-interests.
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In anticipation of President Obama's announcement of his plans to draw down U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the punditocracy is once again indulging its predilection for foreign-policy numerology. What number, they buzz, will he choose?
Will he go for 30,000 troops … but set the goal for having them out as the end of next year? Will he go with a smaller number, 15,000 maybe? How fast will the drawdown go? Will there be interim targets? Will he include wiggle room for himself by saying the speed of withdrawal will depend on conditions on the ground?
Despite the focus on numbers, there is no more science to this than there is to the numbers being used to balance the federal budget. Every number is merely a symbol that means something different to a specific constituency. Tomorrow, the lower the number and the slower the rate of withdrawal, the greater deference the president will be seen to be showing to the generals. The higher the number and the faster and more certain the withdrawal targets, the more he will be seen to be responsive to the growing number of Americans who feel it's time to wrap up America's longest war.
But no one knows for sure what the "right" number is because there is no clarity about what our objectives are. And that is what the president's remarks tomorrow night really need to be about. If we are going to leave one more soldier in Afghanistan for one more day, we ought to have a very clear reason for doing so.
For the numbers to have any meaning -- indeed for the president's remarks to do so -- he needs to describe more clearly than he has to date his vision for what he hopes to achieve during the remainder of our stay there and what Afghanistan and the region will look like afterward. Al Qaeda is effectively degraded according to all reports. What more can we achieve fighting an original enemy who is no longer there? How will staying longer reduce the likelihood Afghanistan again becomes a haven for extremists? How will it help produce a government more sympathetic to our interests? Which of these goals are most important?
The metrics we use for determining success are thus much more strategically and politically significant than the mere calculation of our troop strength. That said, the most important number of all is already known to all. That is 2014, the date by which we are committed to leaving. Because our adversaries … and our "friends" who really don't like us very much … all know we will be out by then, and therefore they also know that what happens in the next couple of years is pretty much meaningless. They have been dealing with foreign interlopers for eons in that rough part of the world, and they know that time is always on their side, that clocks beat armies every time.
That makes the president's job that much tougher, of course. If his announcement is to be more than a mere political gesture, it must make the case what crucial U.S. national interests will be advanced by spending hundreds of billions more and putting tens of thousands of U.S. lives at risk in a country that we know we will be more or less out of in three years or so. What can be achieved by being "at strength" through another "fighting season" or two? What specifically? Where? What are our political goals? What does success look like? How will it look different in 2014 from what we see on the ground today? How about in the years after that?
Ten years in with over 2,400 coalition casualties and approaching half a trillion dollars spent, one thing is certain. We know that success does not look like any of the numbers we have compiled thus far.
Robert Gates may well be the best secretary of defense the United States has ever produced. He has had an extraordinary national security career, distinguishing himself not only in terms of its duration or the number of senior positions he has held but even more so in terms of the quality of his service. He is capable, exceptionally intelligent, and an unhesitating truth-teller to presidents.
That is why it is important to very carefully weigh his statement on Monday that in Afghanistan "we've still got a ways to go and I think we shouldn't let up on the gas too much, at least for the next few months." Clearly, it reflects a belief on his part -- days before his departure from office -- that continued application of U.S. military force at present levels of intensity could speed the movement of the Taliban to the negotiating table and thus make reconciliation talks and potential stability in that country more feasible sooner.
He is in a better position than almost anyone to make that judgment given the constant stream of intelligence and feedback he gets from his generals on the ground. That his view is apparently shared by General David Petraeus, America's top commander there, adds credence to it.
"If we keep the military pressure on through this winter," he was quoted as saying in the Washington Post, "and we are able to hang on to what we've taken away from these guys over the last year to 18 months...then it may be that sometime around the end of this year these guys decide maybe we ought to start talking seriously about reconciliation. That certainly is my hope."
It is an understandable hope for a man who has devoted so much time to finding the best possible outcome for the United States in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, in this instance, Gates has it wrong. First, there is the issue of who he means by "these guys." While some elements of the Taliban and other anti-government forces in Afghanistan might be coaxed to the negotiating table as a consequence of further applied pressure from the U.S. military, it is almost certainly the case that these will neither be representative of the whole of anti-United States, anti-Karzai-government opposition nor will they be drawn from the most extremist and potentially disruptive elements from among our current enemies.
Further, even if such a group were to come to the table there is neither any guarantee that talks would be productive nor is there any that winning an extension in power for Karzai or some power-sharing government would actually ultimately make Afghanistan any more stable or any less likely to become a haven for terrorist groups. Given that the United States and our allies are unwilling to stay indefinitely and that we have set a deadline of 2014 for departure, a deadline so close as to virtually guarantee we can not know the viability of any regime established in the next year or two, we will have little long-term leverage to ensure the outcome Gates believes we should wait longer to attempt to produce.
Finally, most importantly, 2014 is effectively now. If you are in the Afghan opposition -- a Taliban or a restless warlord or mischievous Pakistani ISI officer with an agenda -- Gates' message sounds a lot different to you than it does to American audiences. To Americans it sounds like "let's get out slowly." But to the committed extremist all they hear is "let's get out." What's a few more months when you have been fighting for a decade...longer still since many of those fighting see this as a continuation of a war with the Russians that began more than three decades ago?
Go slow or go fast, they think, in three winters the invaders will be gone and the rules will change rapidly.
It is unreasonable to think that if ten years of waging this war have been so unfruitful that six or nine more months of perhaps 10,000 or 15,000 more troops will make much of a difference. And indeed, in the long run it will not and by leaving the troops there a little longer, by withdrawing a little more slowly, President Obama can say he listened to his generals, gave it every chance, and only then drew down more rapidly.
But lives will be lost in the interim. And every American troop on the ground costs roughly $1 million a year, so even a few thousand troops makes a difference of billions in expense to a strung-out U.S. budget. But more importantly, whatever the expense is, it is extremely unlikely to be effective and staying longer is likely to only have utility as a political exercise. The troops should go now, as fast as we can draw them down. We should not start with 5,000 troops, but a multiple of that. The New York Times piece today suggesting a group was emerging within the National Security Council advocating a more aggressive withdrawal is encouraging.
What seems likely to happen is that the president will stick with Gates and Petraeus on this but will try to send a message by announcing larger interim targets. It would be the kind of effort at balancing conflicting views with which the president has seemed most comfortable in the past. One set of headlines might read: the president sticks with military pull-out approach in the near-term while another says, the president will be more aggressive in getting out in the medium term.
Whatever the decision, the one thing that is certain is that for the United States, there is no long term in Afghanistan. This one is done. To paraphrase the old joke, we've already established whether this war is successful or not, now we're just haggling over the final price.
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.
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There was a quote yesterday in the Washington Post from that ever-talkative "unnamed official" who is responsible for much of the news that comes out of the White House. It was regarding the national security personnel shuffle. Mr. Chatty Facelessness referred to the new picks as "The strongest possible team to exercise our strategies and polices. I stress the word team."
You can see why he wanted to be on background on that. He was really sticking his neck out.
Of course, even an anodyne self-serving observation can be a bit of a minefield when the terms it uses and the ideas it references are so full of unintended meaning and consequence.
First, there is the reference to "the strongest possible team." While the uninitiated might think the operative word there was "strongest" it is clearly "possible." Because by no means is this the strongest group of appointees on which the president could have settled. While I think the choices are very solid ones, neither Panetta nor Petraeus has any appreciable experience in the agencies they are being asked to run, nor even in the fields associated with those agencies. Suggesting that somehow military affairs and intelligence matters are substantively the same because they are both associated with national security is like suggesting the culture within the Pentagon is the same as or compatible with that inside CIA headquarters because they both happen to be on the opposite side of the Potomac River from the rest of the Washington bureaucracy. There are clearly other choices who would have brought more directly relevant experience to the jobs in question.
But the president wanted continuity, he didn't want battles with the Congress, he didn't want to risk bringing in a complete outsider, he doesn't have a huge network of acquaintances with much experience in either area, his close advisors were distrustful of being too adventurous with the choices and so among the available, vetted, and capable within the Obama-verse, these were "the strongest possible." Of course that suggests that Hillary Clinton either would not have been a "stronger" choice at Defense or that she was not a "possible" choice and I will leave it to you to ponder why that might be so.
In fact, for those following the machinations of the Obama national security team closely, that last point brings us directly to the rhetorical flourish that lies at the heart of the bland but nonetheless unattributed observation: "I stress the word team." It is clearly intended to emphasize the high premium the president places on effective "no drama" collaboration within his administration. On this, it can be taken at face value as this is a real priority for Obama who is notoriously uncomfortable with discord in meetings in which he participates. But the subtext for observers of this team and this smooth process is that for all the merits of such a well-managed approach to problem solving is that process alone is not enough.
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The tsunami and earthquake that tragically struck Japan today could not come at a worse moment for the Japanese. The economy has been struggling for almost two decades to recover and seemed poised to make progress, but now has suffered yet another bitter blow. The costs of rebuilding will add to already high deficits and high anxiety. It is only fortunate that there is perhaps no other country in the world as well prepared to deal with earthquakes and their consequences as Japan.
That said, the disaster also resonates in many ways with what is happening elsewhere in the world. It reminds us that "black swans" are not rare events. Indeed, the first few months of this year have demonstrated yet again that nothing in this world is as commonplace as the unexpected. That is no doubt more a commentary on the way we arrive at expectations than it is on the nature of life on the planet. In just the past 10 weeks alone, we have seen revolutions, earthquakes, major economies downgraded by credit ratings agencies, spiking energy and food prices, and the usual accompanying market roller coaster rides that bespeak the fact that we are collectively spun around by events more often than your average weathervane is by the daily breeze.
Another way the tsunami resonates is with the images we have already seen on the television of it sweeping ashore -- a great black wave of destruction -- causing havoc and then retreating to the sea. As I watched I couldn't help but wonder if that was not how we were ultimately going to view the upheaval that has rocked the Middle East this year. There came a wave and great drama and then, almost as quickly, the wave withdrew and was forgotten.
Certainly, we are at risk of such an outcome at the moment. If Qaddafi succeeds in pushing back the rebels during the next couple of days, the world may well conclude -- if it has not done so already -- that supporting the Libyan opposition may be a losing proposition. And if Qaddafi wins and reestablishes his control on the country through brutality, it will send a strong message to other regimes across the region that the right response to rebellion is to be both ferocious and merciless.
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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.
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While it is often ruefully noted that you can't pick your relatives, there is an expectation in life that you can pick your partners. Barack Obama is discovering that when you are president of the United States, that's just not the case.
In fact, if there is one theme that runs through every corner of the Obama presidency it is that he has been forced into partnerships that are so complex, difficult, and undependable that it must leave him yearning for the relative simplicity of good old fashioned enmities. This was illustrated yesterday as the president made the short walk across Lafayette Park to visit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, symbolic headquarters of the U.S. business community, a group with which the president has come to realize he must work more closely going forward.
But in and amid all those complicated relationships, which are the most difficult? Naturally, there are many ways to measure this but we'll stick with one: Which among the most difficult are most likely to blow up in his face during the next two years?
Here's the verdict:
This, the most important international bilateral relationship, is both difficult and likely to be relatively stable because it is so complex. There is so much economic co-dependency here that the political issues are likely to work themselves out. Over the next two years trade and currency tensions may grow, but it is unlikely that either side will flirt with a big blow up prior to the 2012 leadership change in China or the presidential elections that same year in the U.S.
China is likely to be the U.S. most important international counterpart in the decade ahead but Russia remains the wildcard among the major powers. Stephen Cohen summed it up well on "Morning Joe" this morning: Russia's the biggest country in landmass, the leader in energy output and it has all those nuclear weapons. It also has a massive Muslim population, related challenges in its near abroad, memories of empire and what might politely be called a mischievous streak when it comes to international challenges. Oh, and it is undergoing a demographic meltdown and it is suffering from a divided less-than-dependably friendly political leadership. It's at the bottom of this list primarily because of the "next two years" focus of our metric.
Israel is the United States' most dependable friend in the Middle East and a vital ally. That said it is also facing massively unsettling changes from within and without that are creating enormous pressures on its political leaders. The Bibi-Barack marriage was never exactly made in Heaven but as the Israelis face demographic pressures at home, the Hezbollah take-over of Lebanon, instability in Jordan and Egypt, the prospect of a nuclear Iran, growing international pressure to cut a deal with the Palestinians and seeming growing inability of the Palestinians to cut a deal due to their own internal divisions ... what was difficult is going to get any easier. While many expect Netanyahu to offer his own concessions and a roadmap to progress sometime soon, there is real concern even among his supporters whether he can go far enough to break the logjam in the peace process. If he can't, pressure will build in this already fraught partnership.
Egypt nudges out Israel only because it is so volatile right now and we don't know where the current unrest now heading into its third week is likely to head. One thing we do know, there are almost no circumstances in which the relationship will be easier for the United States. If there are massive reforms, a more pluralistic Egypt will be harder to deal with than an autocracy with a fairly dependable ally at the helm. If the current regime holds, they will never trust the U.S. in the same way as they did prior to this crisis.
6. Democrats in the Congress
Will Rogers said, "I'm not a member of any organized party, I'm a Democrat!" And as far as we know he never sat at a cocktail party between bickering leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer or Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer. (Although, Pelosi clearly had a little celebratory sip of champagne last night to celebrate the departure of Jane Harmon, a longtime thorn in her side.) Pick an issue from fighting the deficit to rationalizing our regulatory framework to investing in energy infrastructure, you'll find both Obama's biggest supporters and some of his most difficult opponents in his own party.
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How can America take a principled stand alongside Egypt's protestors and still support Hamid Karzai?
The courage of ordinary Egyptian citizens as they stand up to a corrupt regime that has denied them of their most basic rights is hard for most Americans to resist. It speaks to something that is ingrained in all of us because it so resonates with our own national story. We recognize that even though what comes next is hard to predict and change carries big risks, even though Hosni Mubarak has been a dependable ally, that we have an obligation to walk the walk when it comes to our most fundamental national principles.
Mubarak's crony state has stolen, empowered the few, imprisoned its enemies, and even while appearing to be a bulwark for our interests actually made the region much more dangerous thanks to its repeated disregard for our insistent calls for reform. They have embraced the age old hypocrisy of some of our most noted frenemies throughout history: taking American money is fine, taking American military equipment and training is fine, but taking American advice about how to treat their people? That's American meddling and they don't mind telling us to buzz off.
Now go read the front-page story of Sayed Mussa in the Sunday Times of London or the piece by Ray Rivera called "Afghan Rights Fall Short for Christian Converts" in the Feb. 5, New York Times. Mussa is now being imprisoned by the Afgahn government. He has been sentenced to death and reportedly regularly beaten and tortured while in prison. His crime, according to the Times, is that he converted to Christianity. While the Afghan constitution promises something like religious freedom, it also allows the enforcement of Shariah law by the courts. And according to the interpretation of Shariah law being used against Mussa, leaving Islam is an offense punishable by hanging. He was arrested as part of a systematic effort by Hamid Karzai to cut off what the president, our ally, the man we put in office, saw as a terrible threat: the spread of Christian baptisms. Mussa's job prior to his arrest? Rehabilitating landmine victims like himself.
According to the Sunday Times of London, Western advocacy groups have sought not to raise a public outcry because they are afraid it will inflame a government that "increasingly blames foreign interference for the country's woes." The New York Times noted that two Republican congressman have pressed the U.S. government for stronger action.
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.)
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Scrooge. The Grinch. Critics calling out the cinematic deficiencies of "Love Actually." Christmas humbuggery is a cliché.
I however, am a New Year's curmudgeon. The holiday is a fraud celebrated by idiots. Our arbitrary slicing of time into comprehension-sized chunks and then celebrating the false distinctions between December 31 and the first of January is a big honking nonsense.
The fact that this ersatz holiday then motivates people to put on silly hats and drink to excess to celebrate the non-event event compounds the ridiculousness of it all and makes it dangerous to leave the safety of your couch. The only thing that adds any gravity to the activity at all is America's tradition of spending part of the evening watching Dick Clark slowly losing body functions on live national television. (I sympathize with the man and admire his courage. But he seems to be crowning a lifetime of cashing in on his bad taste with an ultimate grotesqueness: a multi-year, hard-to-watch reality show about his own demise.)
That said, you don't have to be a drunken lunatic who spends 10 hours trapped in the freezing cold in Times Square waiting for Snooki to be dropped in a glass hamster ball to add to the absurdity of this annual ritual about nothing. No, even very serious types like commentators and still grave but less credible types like bloggers regularly mark the holiday in ways that make them bigger laughingstocks than the insurance salesmen with lampshades on their heads who made the holiday famous: They make predictions.
Invariably the predictions do not come true. There is a charming irony in this: celebrating a non-event through the ritual listing of other soon-to-be non-events. (The New York Times has even run an entertaining discussion forum this week on why we seem to need predictions and how hard they are to make.) It is all a cousin to our penchant for marking the "new" year with resolutions to distinguish the year from that which came before it -- and which are all soon forgotten in ways that should remind us of the falseness of such distinctions.
But while I may condemn the holiday -- which is why on New Year's Eve I will sit here in Paris in our rented digs in the Sixth Arrondissement listening to the nearby revelry on the Boulevard Montparnasse and the Boulevard Raspail while quietly sipping Diet Coke and irritating my very patient wife just as I do each and every other night -- I am not so egotistical as to think my protests can undo the culturally embedded traditions of the season. I also don't think I can ignore the requests of the editors at FP any longer. So I too will now offer some New Year's predictions.
However, in an effort to avoid the kind of pitfalls of which I am critical, I will skip right over the dubious maybes of most pundits and cut right to what you want to know the most: I will list only those things that are absolutely certain to happen in 2011.
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So, let's take a look at the papers and see how all that foreign policy is going for us, shall we?
In a move that was either just ill-considered -- or worse, too carefully calculated -- President Barack Obama's administration waited until he got to the other side of the world to let slip that they were officially punting on their self-imposed exit timetable for Afghanistan. Has any major U.S. foreign policy initiative involved so much careful White House deliberation, debate, and then apparently never ending reconsideration and recalibration? What's more you would think that with all that rumination and revision sooner or later we would get to a better policy but in this case, the quicksand does its thing and the struggling victim does his.
So now, thanks to statements made by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen in Asia, the United States fully expects to be staying in Afghanistan through 2014. And that means, despite the volatility and confusion that seems to reign supreme on this strange little planet, we actually know a few things with great certainty about the next four years.
For example, we know that terrorist threats to the United States will continue to grow in places like Yemen, the Maghreb, the Horn of Africa, Pakistan, and from within the United States and Europe… and we will continue to be spending billions of dollars and losing too many precious lives every month, working toward what will certainly be a frustrating and unsatisfactory conclusion of at least a decade and a half of U.S. fighting and dying in Afghanistan.
We know that due to huge stresses on our budget we will consider defense cuts, entitlement cuts, a shift in the retirement age, and probably a value-added tax… and we will continue to be spending billions of dollars and too many precious lives every month, working toward what will certainly be a frustrating and unsatisfactory conclusion of what will be at least a decade and a half of U.S. fighting and dying in Afghanistan.
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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.
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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.)
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It can be argued that one of the several ways in which most states have lost power during the past several decades is associated with the declining inclination and ability of most to go to war. Hard as this may be to accept in a world in which wars dominate the headlines, it is a fact and it has several origins.
First, fewer than 20 countries really possess the power to project force beyond their borders in any meaningful way. Further, only about a dozen have nuclear capability, and fewer still have any long-distance missile capability. And only one really has the capability to wage global war from space, land, sea, and air. (And that one seems stretched waging two regional conflicts in the Middle East.)
Further the costs associated with modern warfare are too high. The 20th Century delivered this message in devastatingly clear human terms and the economic costs were also proven to be immense. War went from being an all too regularly used form of diplomacy by other means to being madness.
Major powers were forced not by goodness but by a rational calculus to find other ways to resolve disputes. Not always...but with greater regularity than in the past. To take just one example, Europe, once addicted to war, effectively swore off the continental conflicts that defined its history. For the most part, war became an affliction of failed or failing states or a very regionalized phenomenon. The big powers for the most part took on much weaker adversaries or engaged in proxy conflicts. And even those engagements have grown intolerably costly as advanced technologies were demonstrated to combine well with unconventional tactics on the part of weaker states engaging stronger ones.
While risks still abound, long term trends have been encouraging...Until now.
Take three news stories from the past week. The first is the piece in today's Times indicating that U.S. commanders are contemplating increasing drone attacks in Pakistan due to concerns about inaction by the Pakistani military. The second concerns reports of a computer worm targeting the Iranian nuclear program. And the last is associated with the statement by Hugo Chavez that Venezuela, though sitting on an ocean of oil, needed to seriously explore "peaceful" nuclear technologies.
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Update, 9/12/10: In the following post due to a mistake regarding which draft I submitted to be posted, a couple of key words were dropped that have been noted by several commenters. They refer to the paragraph regarding the mosque project in Lower Manhattan. What I intended to write (and had actually written in the draft that I mistakenly did not submit) was not "It is odious..." but instead "It may seem odious to some, but if our freedoms..." I appreciate those who noted the incongruity of the remark given that I was early and strongly on the record supporting the right of those supporting the Islamic Cultural Center to build it wherever they wanted to. As should be clear to anyone who reads this blog, I find the objections and efforts to block the cultural center to be what is really odious and that is the point that I would have made here were it not for my typo. Apologies.
A week ago, Fareed Zakaria wrote a piece for Newsweek entitled "What America Has Lost." It was subtitled "It's clear we overreacted to 9/11." As is typical for Zakaria, it is exceptionally thoughtful and well-argued. Its timely focus is on the enormous costs associated with building up the massive U.S. security apparatus that targeted a terrorist threat that was and is clearly overstated. Zakaria makes reference to the landmark Washington Post "Top Secret America" series that outlined how, in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, the United States has "created or reconfigured at least 263 organizations to tackle some aspect of the war on terror. The amount of money spent on intelligence has risen by 250 percent to $75 billion (and that's the public number, which is a gross underestimate.) That's more than the rest of the world spends put together."
Even today, nine years after 9/11, it took considerable courage for Zakaria to argue that we overreacted to the horrific events of that day. Given their scope and visceral impact on every American, it seemed in the days after the blows were struck that overreaction was impossible. But in the years that followed, the feelings seem hardly to have ebbed at all, and critiques of our national reaction are, with the exception of the near consensus that invading Iraq was wrong, considered almost unpatriotic -- nearly sacrilegious, in fact.
Yet I believe that Zakaria's column understates the problem. I attribute this to its appropriately limited focus rather than any narrowness of his perspective. It was, after all, just a single column in which he focused on making an important point about America's security priorities and the opportunity costs associated with our strategic overreaction. That said, the damage done by letting emotion and adrenaline get the best of us in the months and years after the attacks extends far beyond the distortion of foreign policy priorities or the impact on the U.S. federal budget.
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Think tanks being what they are -- large meat lockers in which future government bureaucrats are stored until needed -- the reports they produce tend to be little more than exercises in reputation management. They state the obvious, then slather it in a bland, nutrient-free sauce of quasi-academic qualifications that seek to explain why they are really not saying anything new or practical. The best of them offer course corrections that are minuscule at best, and new ideas are as hard to find as honest politicians in the Karzai administration.
Which brings us to the latest such report to be issued, one that proves to be the exception to the rule. That report is "A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan" from the New America Foundation. It is one of the very few such documents that I have recently read and found myself nodding at almost every turn of the page. It is so good that it almost restores my youthful belief in the potential benefits of putting smart people around a table and letting them cogitate and argue and bullshit and grapple with tough problems. Produced by a glittering group of wonks, it contains real thoughtful insights into America's situation in Afghanistan and comes to sound, generally implementable conclusions about what the United States should do to avoid making a very bad situation even worse.
The report is well summarized in an article by Steve Clemons, one of its architects, that appears in Politico. In short, it makes the case that spending $100 billion a year to fight a war we can't win in Afghanistan is just one of several reasons that America's policies are misguided and demand immediate correction. He writes, "Though Obama is more likeable, and often more inspiring, than the fictional captain in the Melville novel, Afghanistan has now become the Moby Dick to Obama's Ahab."
The report begins by revisiting the forgotten territory of America's initial reasons to be involved in the region in the first place. It correctly notes there are only two: preventing Afghanistan from being a staging ground for further terrorist attacks against the United States, and doing what we can to reduce the threat that Pakistani weapons of mass destruction might fall into the wrong hands. It argues correctly that if we focus on these two goals, then our mission, military and diplomatic presence in the region would and should look very different.
It makes five key recommendations. The first is promoting power sharing and political inclusion in a more decentralized Afghanistan: In other words, trying to work with rather than against the historical and cultural tides in the country. Second is downsizing and ending military operations in southern Afghanistan and reducing the military presence there. Third is focusing the military's attention on Al Qaeda, which is no longer really present in Afghanistan but remains an issue in Pakistan. (Notably, the New America group suggests using the cost-savings the drawdown would produce to bolster U.S. domestic security and contain the spread of weapons of mass destruction worldwide.) Fourth is encouraging the promotion of economic development, while emphasizing that this should be an internationally rather than U.S. led effort. (Hallelujah to that.) Finally, it recommends collaborating with influential states in the region to ensure Afghanistan is not dominated by "any single power or being permanently a failed state that exports instability." The report notes that those states -- Pakistan, India, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia -- aren't the best of pals, but suggests correctly that there are ways to work with each or even small clusters of them to promote these outcomes that are, for the most part, in their interests.
Point five is a bit of a stretch. Point four is more or less boilerplate, though worthy of emphasizing. The reality is that Afghanistan will become a strongman dominated quasi-failed state, but that as long as our core goals in the region -- the two mentioned above -- are met, then we should be less concerned with whatever structure produces an outcome supportive of them.
Personally, I think the international community needs to be involved actively in ensuring that whatever successor state emerges, the rights of all Afghans -- and notably women and tribal minorities -- are respected and protected. It is also true that Pakistan is the real problem and appropriate subject of U.S. attention in this region, and that this requires forthrightly addressing what diplomatic and force structure is required to promote stability and contain threats within that country.
But this report is clear-eyed, direct, well-argued and in its tone even more than its substance sends a message that the only door we should head for in that country is the one with the exit sign over it. In Clemons article he notes that the United States spends seven times Afghanistan's own GDP on our involvement there -- an amount equal to the cost of the recent U.S. health care legislation, and one that if saved could pay down the U.S. deficit in 14 years. The recklessness and irresponsibility of such a costly involvement, given America's other urgent priorities and the true nature of the threats within Afghanistan, makes the blood boil.
It does no dishonor to our military to wish their lives and services were available for other missions. Reports like this raise the hope that opinion is shifting in ways that may lead us to just such a desirable outcome.
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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.
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News from around the world this weekend:
In Israel, during a sermon, 89 year-old Rabbi Ovadia Yousef, spiritual leader of Israel's ultra-orthodox Shas political party, attacked the Palestinian people and their President Mahmoud Abbas, calling them "enemies and haters." Then, he went on to call for their deaths, saying, "May they vanish from the world, may God smite them with the plague, them and the Palestinians, evil-doers and Israelhaters." The Israeli government soon after issued a statement asserting that "These words do not reflect the approach of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu nor the position of the government of Israel." This distancing from a key player in a party that is an important part of the current coalition government, holding four seats in the Israeli cabinet, seems pallid in the face of such repugnant remarks that were clearly designed to cast a shadow over the imminent resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. As one Israeli Knesset member argued, "If God forbid a Muslim religious leader would express similar sentiments toward Jews, he would immediately be arrested."
In Afghanistan, five campaign workers supporting the efforts of a female candidate for the country's parliament, were gunned down. The murders, in Andraskan district of Herat province, followed the kidnapping of the five men on Thursday.
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The White House Situation Room is famous for the clocks on its wall. They once told the time in different world capitals. Today, when the discussions turn to Iraq and Afghanistan, and the international concerns of the United States, the clocks show time zones that are less traditional. In fact, these clock run in reverse, revealing not what time it is now, but how much time we have left.
One is set to say "Beltway time," keeping track of the hours remaining until the next election. Another, the "budget clock," shows how long it will take us to run out of resources. And the third shows just how much time is left before we’re drained of the political will necessary to maintaining our costly engagements in these countries. With every tick these clocks grow louder, sometimes drowning out all other conversation in the room.
Understand the role that these clocks play and it is easy to determine what actions America will take.
For example, take the situation in Afghanistan. The story of this week concerning that country has to be the series of revelations about Afghan officials who were or are on the CIA payroll. Kudos for the scoop go to the New York Times with their insight that one of the top aides to President Hamid Karzai targeted in a corruption probe, Mohammed Zia Salehi, chief of administration for the Afghan National Security Council, turns out to be on the payroll of the CIA. The Times story in which this fact was revealed goes on to suggest that Salehi’s “ties underscore doubts about how seriously the Obama administration intends to fight corruption here." This is a charmingly polite way of framing the clear contradiction between America’s public and operational stances in Kabul. Finding that a Karzai aide is corrupt or that the CIA might have found it necessary to work with corrupt assets in Afghanistan is roughly as surprising as finding out that some members of the Taliban opposition are on the payroll of our allies, the Pakistanis' intelligence services or that an American politician might play golf with a lobbyist.
But the question the Times's innocently frames (I seriously doubt it was offered as naively as it might sound), is whether the United States will ultimately push harder for clean government in Kabul or, alternatively, we will tolerate something less than clean if it looks like it will be robust enough to survive and assume meaningful responsibility for keeping a lid on the country?
The clocks on the wall speak the answer.
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Reviewing the results of General David Petraeus's media blitz this weekend, you have to wonder if the folks in the White House might be wishing they were back in the good old days of the boneheaded media missteps and ham-fisted leaks of General Stanley "Got My Picture on the Cover of Rolling Stone" McChrystal.
(And if they don't understand why they should be ... then, well, you just have to wonder ...)
In particular, you would think they couldn't help but notice the tactical genius behind the general's latest -- media -- surge. Take one of its spotlight moments, the lead story in Monday's New York Times. Take the way he makes the case for resisting the impulse to pull out of Afghanistan:
General Petraeus said that it was only in the last few weeks that the war plan had been fine-tuned and given the resources it required. ‘For the first time,' he said, ‘we will have been working to put in place for the last year and a half.'"
The Times goes on to note that on "Meet the Press" the general even "appeared to leave open the possibility that he would recommend against any withdrawal of American forces next summer."
Let's consider: "...only in the last few weeks that the war plan had been fine-tuned." Really, general? So what was that yearlong policy review about? The past nine years of effort by U.S. military planners -- the last several of which have involved your active participation and supervision? This is the Charlie Sheen approach to military planning: just give me one more chance, please, just one more and I promise I'll get it right this time.
Let's consider: "...and given the resources it required." I see, you're saying that we've only now finished ramping up. But certainly the president, acting on your advice, recognized this moment was coming at the conclusion of that policy review, right? Or when he and others in his administration repeated promises that the drawdown would take place since then? In fact, wasn't the whole point of the president's new Afghan strategy that we would ramp up and then almost immediately transfer responsibilities to the Afghans and get out? Either you are suggesting that process, in which you played such a central role, was bungled or you are suggesting that the president and his advisors knew that the escalate-withdraw one-two punch of the articulated strategy was a have-it-both-ways scam.
In either case, what's up with generals discussing what their private advice to the president might be prior to discussing it with the president? What's up with generals seeming to make or "fine-tune" policy that might in time make things very awkward for the president? Petraeus is no doubt being honest about his views. But here's the point: Unlike McChrystal, he is a key validator for the president and thus has political heft that few others have. Especially after the McChrystal debacle, Petraeus' weight in the policy-making apparatus has gone up, particularly if he is as willing as he seems to be to conduct his efforts via the media.
What? You think the White House approved all this? OK, it's possible, I suppose. But let's go back to that "it's only in the past few weeks that the war plan has been fine-tuned." That would mean the White House okayed a statement that suggested that, 20 months into this administration, they were just now getting around to finalizing their plan for what is certainly their signature foreign policy initiative. Do they -- or the general -- really think that this "just give us one more try" approach is going to work with the American people after almost a decade of tragic losses and mind-boggling expense? In a war that can't be won?
Petraeus's behavior shouldn't come as that much of surprise. (In fact, I have said since he took on his new job that he would ultimately prove to be a much bigger challenge for the White House than McChrystal ever was -- in large part because of his stature, intellect, and candor.) After all, this is the man who appeared before Congress and said of the last war he was in charge of, "I don't know if war in Iraq makes Americans safer." Was he right to doubt it? Sure. Did his articulating that position help his civilian bosses? You can ask them if you can find them on their various book tours and other retirement activities.
Of course, the buzz over the general's weekend blitz through the nation's capital is secondary to a host of bigger issues here. To take just one example, it pales in comparison to the recent study done by the military examining the mind-boggling, heart-breaking fact that suicides exceed battlefield deaths among American Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. As the study concluded: "Simply stated, we are often more dangerous to ourselves than the enemy."
It's a tragedy that warrants much closer attention than it has gotten. It bespeaks a horrific breakdown in our system of caring for our veterans. But in wars like these -- with impossible, constantly shifting objectives, allies who are enemies and leaders who are constantly second-guessing either themselves or each other -- is it any wonder that we are the source of greatest danger to our own troops?
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Over time, I have come to the conclusion that responding to reader comments or other bloggers' observations concerning a post that I have written is, more often than not, a mistake. Such efforts get circular very quickly and typically the parties involved really didn't actually want a dialogue in the first place but were just using something I'd written as springboard to make a point they'd had in mind for a long time ... or because their therapist suggested that they find harmless ways to cope with those barking voices they hear in their brains all night long.
Nonetheless, sometimes a clarification is in order. That is the case with regard to my last post, "Women and Islam: The Real Test of Our Values." Because so many people seem to have mistaken my sense of urgency for dealing more effectively with the systematic and wide-spread abuse, murder, and denigration of women around the world with an argument that the United States remain in Afghanistan in order to protect the women of that country.
Certainly, I believe that while the United States does have a presence in Afghanistan that we should do whatever is in our power to combat the violations of the basic rights of women. This should include intervening to stop it, opposing political leaders and factions of every sort that promote it or tolerate it and working hard to support initiatives that combat it and educate and empower women. We can argue about whether we are there on a counterinsurgency mission (we say we are but we're not) or a counter-terror mission (we are but it's over) but if we are anywhere, it is our obligation to promote and protect the most fundamental human values in which we and all civilized societies believe.
That said, I want to be absolutely clear about this -- which I thought was unnecessary because I had been clear about it in the past. We should be getting out of Afghanistan as quickly as we possibly can. As I have frequently written before, the real threats we face in the region are largely in Pakistan where containment and isolated often covert or unmanned strikes are the appropriate response. Counter-insurgency is effectively if not intentionally a code-word for a nation-building mission that is unachievable in any time frame that is tolerable to the American public. Our partners are corrupt and incompetent. Our enemies are infinitely more patient than we are. And perhaps most importantly, we have already achieved all we could have hoped to achieve following the post 9/11 strike that would inevitably have come from any U.S. president regardless of party. The Taliban regime was pushed out. Al Qaeda was degraded to the point our own CIA director has said only 50-100 remain in the country. And we have established some forward presence in the country that we should attempt to maintain after the bulk of our troops have left. (If the cost of maintaining that is continuing aid efforts that actually help improve social and economic conditions in the region, then that is a net good in my view.)
Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
The Wall Street Journal runs a story entitled "TV Host Targets Afghan Women's Shelters." It describes an effort by a 27-year-old Afghan TV personality named Nasto Nadiri to promote shutting down shelters for women, which he argues "are not acceptable for our people who have fought 30 years to put the word 'Islam' in front of Afghanistan." He resents that "some NGOs come and want to make another way for our country." Many of the women are in shelters seeking protection from death threats from their own families, families who condemn their daughters for "immorality" for running away from arranged marriages.
Time magazine a week earlier runs a cover featuring the image of a woman brutalized in the name of Islam and arguing that should we leave Afghanistan, countless other women will suffer her fate. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argues we will not forget the women of Afghanistan -- that they are one of the reasons we are there. The government of Brazil makes a fumbled effort to offer sanctuary to a woman sentenced to stoning under Islamic law. The same fate and worse affects women across the Islamic world who violate religious precepts and are treated as second-class citizens according to the dictates of local clergy turned lawmakers.
For policymakers and for people who care about the moral and ethical underpinnings of policy, there is a dark and difficult conundrum presented here. If we embrace tolerance, celebrate diversity and promote religious freedom, what do we do when a religion or a subset of its practitioners or a culture promotes a view that is fundamentally inconsistent with the most basic, most universally acknowledged principles of human rights?
To answer this question honestly requires considerable courage. To live by the implications of that answer requires even more.
The fundamental human rights of women trump the teachings of any religion. To denigrate, abuse, or devalue in any way the majority population of the earth -- mothers, daughters and sisters -- is either an affront to God or alternatively, if it is argued that it is the will of God, it is an affront to decency.
For the United States, embroiled in a war in Afghanistan and entangled with allies and others throughout the world who promote or tolerate policies that are unfair or cruel to women, the challenges are great. As Time asks, "Do we leave if by leaving we sentence women to decades or centuries more of enslavement, compromise and debasement in the name of religion and cultural history?" Would we do so if the reasons for the abuse were that they were black or Jewish or Christian?
History suggests that the answer is, sadly, yes. And frankly, a prolonged stay in Afghanistan is neither in the U.S. interest nor, in fact, is it moral on its own because it produces an appalling waste of life and resources and much suffering in pursuit of an unachievable goal. (Regardless of how small the president argues that ever-shrinking goal has become.)
But we cannot leave Afghanistan nor can we continue to pursue our goals in Pakistan or develop our relations with the Saudis or consider the future of our relations with the Iranians...nor can we appropriately contemplate relations with any nation and at the same time turn a blind eye to the systematic abuse of women and its justification by friends, enemies and whatever it is you might call the Afghan or Pakistani governments.
Should we be providing aid of any sort to any nation that doesn't honor the most basic tenets of the universal declaration of human rights? Should we be allied with or, worse still, should we protect with the young men and women of America any society that seeks to treat women as property, sets double-standards for "moral" behavior, punishes violation of those standards with torture, stoning or legalized murder?
Does realpolitik give these societies a pass? Does "honoring Islam"?
The answer should be no and no. What is going on in these countries is a disgrace every bit as grand and incomprehensible and awful as the Holocaust -- only it is much bigger, much more ancient, and if possible, much more evil if only due to the extent of its reach and the breadth of our acceptance of what has happened.
We need a new international understanding on these issues, one that will produce a coalition of nations that will strictly enforce a ban on aid to countries that abuse women -- and one that will introduce sanctions on those countries until they comply with what must be the most basic entry-level rules for participating in global society. No one has been more tireless or vocal in pursuit of these goals than Clinton and one hopes that the experience of Afghanistan and her increased exposure to the region will produce something beyond the heart-felt rhetoric and halfway measures we have seen on these issues.
We can't be a moral society and turn a blind eye to this. Nor can we call ourselves honorable and ally ourselves to those who tolerate or empower the abusers. Our geopolitical objectives in the Middle East are not greater than the rights of women everywhere. Fighting terror is not greater than our obligation to those women. And no religion, nor any government that acts "in the name of religious values" that promotes the abuse of anyone, is worthy of our tolerance.
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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.
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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.