Much has been made of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s loose talk about joining sides with the Taliban and/or sidling up to Tehran, and it’s indeed distressing to hear Karzai speak that way after all we’ve done to prop him up. But Fouad Ajami explains in The Wall Street Journal today that, while Karzai “may be unusually brazen and vainglorious in his self-regard….
Forgive Mr. Karzai as he tilts with the wind and courts the Iranian theocrats next door. We can’t chastise him for seeking an accommodation with Iranian power when Washington itself gives every indication that it would like nothing more than a grand bargain with Iran’s rulers.
In Afghanistan, and throughout the Middle East, populations long in the path, and in the shadow, of great foreign powers have a good feel for the will and staying power of those who venture into their world. If Iran’s bid for nuclear weapons and a larger role in the region goes unchecked, and if Iran is now a power of the Mediterranean (through Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Beirut), the leaders in Kabul, whoever they are, are sure to do their best to secure for themselves an Iranian insurance policy.
The problem, Ajami writes, is that the Afghan war “increasingly has to it the mark of a military campaign disconnected from a bigger political strategy.”
From the very beginning of [President] Obama’s stewardship of the Afghan war, there was an odd, unsettling disjunction between the centrality given this war and the reluctance to own it in full, to stay and fight until victory (a word this administration shuns) is ours.
Consider the very announcement of the Obama war strategy last November in Mr. Obama’s West Point address. The speech was at once the declaration of a “surge” and the announcement of an exit strategy. Additional troops would be sent, but their withdrawal would begin in the summer of 2011.
The Afghans, and their interested neighbors, were invited to do their own calculations. Some could arrive at a judgment that the war and its frustrations would mock such plans, that military campaigns such as the one in Afghanistan are far easier to launch than to bring to a decent conclusion, that American pride and credibility are destined to leave America entangled in Afghan troubles for many years to come. (By all indications, Mr. Karzai seems to subscribe to this view.)
Others could bet on our war weariness, for Americans have never shown an appetite for the tribal and ethnic wars of South Asia and the Middle East. The shadow of our power lies across that big region, it is true. But we blow in and out of these engagements, generally not staying long enough to assure our friends and frighten our enemies.
In other words, Karzai realizes what it means to see a war premised on both necessity — attacking the people who attacked us on 9/11 — and philosophy — replacing a theocracy with something approaching democracy — overtaken by the cloudier approach of realism. And he is responding with his own brand of realism. This is a prime example of why it’s such a bad idea to set a deadline for ending a conflict while its outcome is still very much in doubt.
It also reflects the mistake in Obama’s new shift in our nuclear doctrine. It may well be true that, in the highest levels of government, our leaders knew all along that we would not nuke a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signatory country that had attacked us with biological or chemical weapons. It doesn’t even matter whether this forbearance is the right policy. The value in maintaining some degree of ambiguity was the ambiguity itself. Call it the Clint Eastwood Doctrine: Do you feel lucky? There is value in making bad people fear us. Now that fear is gone.
In the age of terrorists not restricted to operating from any particular country, we’ve removed a powerful incentive for governments, particularly ones that are already weak, to deny terrorists shelter. Our conventional weaponry remains a strong deterrent, but it is a less immediate deterrent — one that requires more time and planning to execute, and therefore affords our potential targets more time and planning to avoid it. It evokes fear, but a different brand of fear.
And what did we get in return for giving up this ambiguity? Not a single thing. The two countries we are arguably most worried about today, North Korea and Iran, do not abide by the NPT. And they are not going to start abiding by it anytime soon, because a) paranoid, addle-minded communist dictators are not going to get over their paranoia or muddled thinking just because we re-emphasize our commitment to a four-decade-old treaty; and b) hegemony-minded mullahs want to have a couple of ballistic nuclear weapons not so much to fend off our arsenal as to bully their neighbors.
Even if either Pyongyang or Tehran suddenly were to commit anew to the NPT, their track record of breaking their word on all matters nuclear would render that new promise worthless.
The alleged pragmatism of Obama’s foreign policy turns out not to be so practical after all: Give up an advantage, get nothing in return. Being transparent with our enemies does nothing to improve their own trustworthiness.