Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Returning to a reality-based foreign policy

I have my reservations about the so-called Realist school of foreign policy thinking. Its advocates generally present it as a pragmatic, hard-nosed, clear-eyed view of foreign policy. And in my mind the biggest virtue of the Realist outlook is that its practitioners often do focus on realism in their analysis and are less likely to be distracted by ideological pronouncements of a regime which may not fully reflect its willingness to deal with other countries on a practical basis.

George Kennan would be one of the more famous examples of this. On the one hand, he looked at the Soviet Union's willingness to promote revolutions in other countries through affiliated Communist parties as one of the aspects of Soviet policy that had to be taken fully into account. On the other hand, he also recognized that Soviet foreign policy was not dictated by some Trotskyist-style doctrine of always and everywhere promoting immediate revolution, a notion which some enthusiastic Cold Warriors were eager to promote to justify their own demands for aggressive American military policies.

But there is also a heavy temptation among the Realist school to discount international law as a superficial "ideological" consideration. And Realism also lends itself to policies that place excessive reliance of military force. Kennan was considered the author of the "containment policy" adopted by the Truman administration, which he elaborated in his famous "Mr. X" article in Foreign Affairs and in what became known as the "long telegram". Yet he was also highly critical of how it was implemented beginning with the Truman administration, arguing that in practice the military aspects of containment were over-emphasized at the expense of diplomatic and ideological aspects.

Stephan Walt is one of the leading figures today in the Realist school. In Hints of Realism? 03/09/09 at his Foreign Policy blog, Walt praises the seemingly pragmatic approach of Obama's and Hillary Clinton's foreign policy to date, including their dealings with Russia and Syria.

Walt also emphasizes something that probably hasn't gotten the recognition it deserves in public discussions of the Iraq War:

Obama has put down a marker on Iraq, indicating that he will in fact carry though on his pledge to get all U.S. forces out by the end of 2011. By stating this commitment as clearly as he could (with one senior official ruling out a Korea-like long-term commitment), and by lining up a lot of prominent support for it, he has made it more difficult to renege even if the situation in Iraq becomes more violent as U.S. forces withdraw. Such a development would be unfortunate, even tragic, but as Andrew Sullivan noted, it is not a reason to stay. Obama is enough of a realist to know that if he doesn’t get us out of there, Bush's 2003 mistake will be a deadweight for his entire presidency. [my emphasis]
Antiwar activist Tom Hayden also has picked up on this aspect of Obama's Iraq War policy (see A Peace Movement Win Huffington Post 03/03/09 and Proposed Focus of Congressional Hearings on Afghanistan and Pakistan TPM Cafe 03/09/09).

Exiting Iraq is not going to be a "cakewalk", as neoconservative Ken Adelman famously predicted the war would be. For an early example of how some people could quickly recognize how cockeyed optimistic such predictions had been, see Cakewalk by Hendrik Hertzberg New Yorker 04/14/03. That article is from April, 2003; the invasion of Iraq was in March, 2003.

As McClatchy reports, Iraq has not yet become an oasis of peace and tranquility: Ethnic tensions in Kirkuk turn U.S. military into mediator by Trenton Daniel 03/09/09; Second big blast in three days kills at least 33 in Iraq by Matthew Schofield 03/10/09.

Walt also praises at least one aspect of Obama's approach in Afghanistan:

There are now hints of a U.S. willingness to talk to "moderate" elements of the Taliban. This is realistic in two senses: First, it recognizes that the Taliban is not a unified, centralized movement with a single headquarters and a strong governing ideology; rather, it is a loose collection of groups with certain common beliefs but lots of internal divisions. Alignment and realignment of various tribes and factions is a recurring theme in Afghan history, and this approach reflects an awareness of that core principle. Second, it recognizes that the United States has no vital interest in determining who actually governs in Afghanistan, provided that the government does not let Afghan territory be used to organize attacks on U.S. soil (or other core interests). Co-opting any moderate elements can be won over will make our task easier; waging war on all of them at once merely reinforces their fragile unity. Reaching out to the moderates may not work, of course, but there’s little risk in trying and potentially much to gain. [my emphasis in bold]
Juan Cole has been reminding up for a while that what the Pentagon and the press call "the Taliban" isn't identical to the Taliban movement that became the government of Afghanistan. Actually, many of them are Pushtun groups in rebellion against the current American-backed and pro-Indian government of Hamid Karzai.

His comment that "the United States has no vital interest in determining who actually governs in Afghanistan" is one in which I see both the strength and weakness of the Realist approach. On the one hand, I agree that in this situation, the US interest in Afghanistan is primarily to get whoever governs Afghanistan not to willingly allow their country to become the source of terrorist attacks on the United States, as with Al Qa'ida's 9/11 strikes.

The mission creep in this war has been major. At least in theory, the Taliban government as such was never the main target of the 2001 US intervention to begin with: neutralizing Al Qa'ida was. In practice, though, Cheney and the rest of Bush's foreign policy team conceived terrorism in the context of terrorism backed by states. So a conventional war against the national government was the way they approached it. But in 2009, waging a counterinsurgency war against Pashtun militants - even if some of them are from the old Taliban - is not in the vital interests of the United States. Nor is military control of that country likely to be achievable at anything like an acceptable level of lives, effort and expense.

But while I agree with Walt's statement that "the United States has no vital interest in determining who actually governs in Afghanistan" is one with which I agree, I also have some reservations about that assertion on its own. As the United States hopefully returns to being a defender of international law and human rights in the world, the US does have a real interest as a part of the international community in seeing a government in Afghanistan that observes basic acceptable standards of conduct. And that fact isn't changed by the horrible torture policy of the Cheney-Bush administration.

But even if our credibility on those issues hadn't been wrecked by the Cheney-Bush administration, those are no justification for carrying on an even longer - and not very hopeful - counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan. As Walt says in his post, "Realists also worry that idealistic moral objectives too easily become crusades, thereby causing more human suffering than the ills they were meant to stop."

The feasibility of our war effort in Afghanistan is questionable at best. McClatchy columnist James Galloway asks if we are Doomed to repeat history in Afghanistan? 02/26/09. He writes:

If the new American team has some new ideas about how to succeed in Afghanistan, now would be the time to lay them out. Nothing that Alexander the Great, Queen Victoria or Leonid Brezhnev tried in their attempts to subdue the quarrelsome Afghan tribes worked, and nothing we’ve tried in the last eight years has, either.

While we're waiting for a new strategy, perhaps we should break out some old Kipling:

"When wounded and left on Afghanistan's plain

"And the women come out to cut up your remains . . . ."

Etc., etc.
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