Buying Central Asia

29 Jul

The Wikileaks document dump has caused consternation throughout the federal government for revealing previous “secrets.” What the documents prove as a collective, however, is not at all a secret: what a confusing place Afghanistan is, especially to the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines on the ground actually fighting the war.

Such confusion should cause rational observers to occasionally ask the most basic of questions: how did we get to this point, and why are we still there? All too often, such discussion uses as background and perspective only the last national election and the previous month’s worth of news article and Woodward-esque books. Even the exhaustive and exhausting policy review conducted by President Obama used as a starting point the campaign slogan that Bush took his “eye off the ball” of Afghanistan, without ever asking what the ball was.

Sometimes new ideas for looking at an old problem come from the strangest places. Enter former Secretary of States Madeleine Albright and George Schultz, who recently spoke at a forum at the Commonwealth Club in California. Reagan dinosaur Schultz had the freshest ideas on the Middle East, by reflecting on a very basic truth: our goals in the Middle East and Central Asia have been met with they have coincided with the goals of the local people we have partnered with. They fail when they don’t.

Allow me a quick rehash of the last ten years. We invade Afghanistan in October of 2001, and in the space of two months, have routed the Taliban and killed a large portion of the Al Qaeda leadership, though we missed the biggest fish. In the next two years, additional leadership in Pakistan is captured, Libya gives up its chemical, biological and nuke programs, Iran starts to make nice again, and the Phillipines begin an eradication of Abu Sayyaf. Over the next several years, as we get mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, Indonesia roots out Jemaah Islamiyah after the Bali bombings, and Saudi Arabia does such a good job cleaning up Al Qaeda on its own soil that the local franchised AQ outfit changes its name to the more inclusive “Al Qaeda of the Arabian Penninsula,” reflecting the fact that it has been reduced to a single enclave in Yemen. 

Those successes are obviously in contrast to our failures with Iraq, Iran and (since 2002) Afghanistan. Schultz believes the difference is the mirroring of our goals. The Northern Alliance wanted the Taliban gone, and we helped them. Pakistan did not want to be invaded by the United States, and helped us nab KSM, etc immediately. Libya likewise saw the writing on the wall, and thought it safer to cough up its secret programs on its own. Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and the Phillipines saw a genuine internal threat, and snuffed it out (and we didn’t ask them how). 

We have since failed because it is no longer in Pakistan’s interest to avoid our wrath (that they know is not coming), Iran sees it can act without significant consequence (see: War, Lebanon, 2006), and, most importantly, forming a secular democratic government was never a goal of the Iraqi or Afghan people. With all this in mind, allow me the following revisionist history for discussion:

The failure of the Bush Presidency since 2003 was not misinvading (to coin a Bushism) Iraq, lying to the American people about WMDs, poor reconstruction planning, or taking any eyes off any balls in Afghanistan. The failure of the Bush Administration was buying into the Friedman-coined and Secretary Colin Powell-implemented Pottery Barn Policy.

The “You Break It You Bought It” philosophy has poisoned policy debate by being an unexamined assumption, a starting condition, for every military action, planned or conducted, since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is ironic that Secretary Powell would have espoused it when his greatest military success in uniform, the First Gulf War (when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs), was conducted in an opposite manner by the first President Bush.

The Pottery Barn policy indicates that when you defeat a country, you are responsible for its reconstruction, reform, remaking, and rebirth. The removal of a dictator necessitates the building of a pluralistic democratic government, not only where none has ever existed, but where one may not be wanted. The Pottery Barn policy has been espoused by nation builders on the Left and American Exceptionalist democracy spreaders on the Right. It is equal opportunity failure, and has not only mired us in Iraq, but confused the far more complicated Afghanistan and limited all talk on Iran to a false dichotomy of Economic Sanctions or Bush Nation Building War #3 choices. Former Secretary Schultz noted that in the 1980’s, when Iran was plugging up shipping in the Persian Gulf and attacking Kuwaiti boats, the US Navy captured an Iranian ship, sank it, detained its sailors, and told the Iranians to knock it off, with great success. The unspoken and unacknowledged infestation of the Pottery Barn rule into all our current policy debate ensures such options are never brought to the table for consideration, much less taken. Despite Powell’s well publicized complaints that he was not listened to within the administration at the time, he appears to have had the longer lasting policy impact. Exhibit #1: Obama’s current unimaginative Afghanistan policy.

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