- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
I’m still swamped with grading papers and with preparations for our annual New Year’s Eve potluck (about which more in a day or two), but I hope everyone takes a look at the Times piece on China’s commercial activities in Afghanistan. While we’ve been running around playing whack-a-mole with the Taliban and "investing" billions each year in the corrupt Karzai government," China has been investing in things that might actually be of some value, like a big copper mine.
As the article suggest, it’s not like U.S. troops are "guarding" China’s investments. Rather, there’s a tacit division of labor going on, where "American troops have helped make Afghanistan safe for Chinese investment."
The rest of the article makes depressing reading, however. Here’s what one Afghan contractor had to say:
"The Chinese are much wiser. When we went to talk to the local people, they wore civilian clothing, and they were very friendly," he said recently during a long chat in his Kabul apartment. "The Americans – not as good. When they come there, they have their uniforms, their rifles and such, and they are not as friendly."
The result? According to the Times:
"the Chinese have already positioned themselves as generous, eager partners of the Afghan government and long-term players in the country’s future. All without firing a shot."
The point is not that somehow those wily Chinese have fooled us into squandering a lot of money and lives and annoying lots of people in Central Asia, while they make profitable investments. Rather, the broader lesson is that the entire thrust of U.S. policy towards a large part of the world has been fundamentally misplaced for a long time. If we think we are somehow trapped in an endless cycle of intervention in the Muslim world-Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, now Yemen-it is because our policies towards the entire region have generated enormous animosity and to little good purpose. And when that animosity leads to direct attacks on the United States, we respond in ways that guarantee such attacks will be repeated.
To be sure, some of this situation is due to America’s position as the sole superpower, which means that it gets blamed for things that aren’t always its fault. Plus, a dominant power does tend to end up with a disproportionate role in providing certain collective goods while others free-ride. (If China ever does supplant the U.S as the dominant world power, the same thing will undoubtedly happen to them.) But it also reflects specific decisions that we’ve been taking for a long time, in the mistaken belief that they would never blow back and affect us here at home. That’s why we ought to thinking very strategically about our overseas involvements, and trying to shift those burdens onto locals whenever we can. Unfortunately, the predominant view in Washington still favors an "America First" approach to solving most global problems, even when it’s not clear we have any idea how to do that.
Don’t forget: we are fighting in Afghanistan because a radical anti-American terrorist movement-Al Qaeda-located there in the 1990s and then attacked us on September 11. Al Qaeda attacked the United States for a number of different reasons, including its support for various Arab monarchies and dictatorships, its military presence in the Persian Gulf, and its "special relationship" with Israel (which is oppressing millions of Palestinians and consolidating control of Jerusalem). Al Qaeda also wanted to strike at the world’s strongest power, in the vain hope that a dramatic act like that would win them lots of new supporters. They also hoped that they could goad us into doing a lot of stupid things in response, and that achievement may be their only real success to date. We are also bogged down in Central Asia because our earlier support for anti-Soviet mujaheddin there helped create a bunch of well-armed warlords and religious extremists who proved impossible to control later on.
But the key lesson is that the current situation is not immutable. We don’t have to keep implementing the same policies that led us to this situation; instead, we need to start working on strategic approaches that will minimize our involvement in these regions without sacrificing our vital interests (mostly oil) or endangering the security of key allies. One step would be to do what President Obama promised to do in his Cairo speech and then abandoned: namely, get serious about a two-state solution. A second step would be to stop trying to reorganize vast chunks of the Arab and Islamic world, and focus our efforts solely on helping local governments capture or neutralizing violent anti-American terrorists. A related step is to move back to an "offshore balancing" strategy in the region, and rely more on naval and air forces and less on on-shore intervention.
And maybe a fourth element of a new approach would be to remember that the United States rose to its position of great power by letting other major powers do the heavy lifting, while Americans concentrated mostly on building the world’s biggest and most advanced economy and building influence with lots of other countries. For the most part, we also kept our fiscal house in order, which gave us the resources to maintain and expand productive infrastructure here at home and made it possible to act overseas when we really had to. This isn’t the 19th century and we can’t just rewind the clock, but there’s still a lot of wisdom in much more selective approach to the use of American power. You know, sorta the way that Beijing seems to doing it.