- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
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.
But then our concerns are compounded when we see stories like Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Sunday Washington Post piece on the weakening of requirements to USAID recipients to advance specific women’s rights goals in Afghanistan. The explanation for backing off of the requirements that U.S. dollars produce measurable gains in the area of advancing basic rights of half the population of Afghanistan is that it’s just too darn hard to do and so if we ever want to get out of there, we might as well just drop the subject. Or in the words of a USAID executive quoted by the Post:
The women’s issue is one where we need hardheaded realism. There are things we can do, and do well. But if we become unrealistic and overfocused … we get ourselves in trouble." Or as another official put it, "Gender issues are going to have to take a back seat to other priorities. There’s no way we can be successful if we maintain every special interest and pet project. All those pet rocks in our rucksack were taking us down."
There’s a classic "realistic" message to the women of a country to which we’ve laid waste and to the world for that matter: fundamental liberties are "pet rocks" to be tossed aside if they impede our departure from Afghanistan. If we went in, slammed the Taliban and al Qaeda and got out, we might justify our intervention as being purely punitive, retribution for 9/11. But once we spend a decade in a country, tout ourselves as champions of democracy, even double down with a goal of leaving the country better than we found it, then the standard changes. But take our willingness to buy into sham democracy and shrug off women’s rights and it guts our endeavor of any pretense of service to the greater good at all, our noble rhetoric and patriotic hoopla aside.
Which makes the U.S. apology for the deaths of nine Afghan boys, aged 12 and under, by coalition helicopters ring so nauseatingly hollow. Imagine if nine American boys 12 and under were killed by some foreign power. Imagine if all that power could offer was a "sorry." Just what exactly justifies such killings? The pursuit of an unachievable goal against our enemies? Our alleged desire to help improve life in Afghanistan? Even as we lean toward embracing the Taliban? Even as we tolerate corrupt leaders and perverted electoral processes? Even as we dismiss the rights of Afghan women as a "pet rock" to be tossed aside?
The answer is that there is no longer any justification in the name of the greater good or otherwise for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. We can achieve neither our narrow nor our broader goals, neither our selfish ones nor our selfless ones. We are lying at the foot of the slippery slope in a murky sludge of our own compromises and hypocrisies.
Postscript: Those hypocrisies were thrown into stark relief last night as some of Washington’s most famous denouncers of dictators and engines of righteous indignation gathered over embassy row cocktails to hiss and spit in little Armani-clad conversation klatches over Qaddafi, over how hard the United States should come down on him and to ponder how we got into the mess we are in AfPakia. Then, of course, they posed for pictures sporting ear to ear grins as they toasted their hosts: the Kingdom of Kuwait, where today demonstrators are taking to the streets in protests demanding that the emir force the resignation of his nephew as prime minister. Damn the autocrats, they insisted to one another, and please pass the champagne provided by yet another Middle Eastern "friend" regime that mistreats its women, is accused of serious human rights violations against foreign nationals who are living within its borders as second class citizens, conducts a democracy in which the ruling al-Sabah family definitely has their thumbs on the scales of justice and in which the inherent brutal instincts and disregard for due process of the elites was reflected in recent Wikileaks revelations.
Smiling, the bitch-goddess swilled down another cosmo and headed for the exit, her work done for yet another evening in the Capital of the Free World.