A cure for foreign policy dyslexia…

After all this hoopla about a transformational election, it turns out all this country needed was a good pair of glasses. The Bush administration as it turns out had a focus issue. It wasn’t that they had so much trouble focusing on things, although I always thought the president had a bit of that ADHD ...

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587397_090327_plan12.jpg

After all this hoopla about a transformational election, it turns out all this country needed was a good pair of glasses. The Bush administration as it turns out had a focus issue. It wasn't that they had so much trouble focusing on things, although I always thought the president had a bit of that ADHD feel to him. It was that they tended to focus on the wrong things. It was a kind of foreign policy dyslexia that caused us to misread maps and regularly miss the things that should have been our targets by quite bit, say, a country or two.

So, we went to war to stop a WMD program in Iraq and as it turned out, the program we should have been worrying about was a country away in Iran. Also, as it turns out, there was another one a country away, in Syria. We went to war in Afghanistan and it turns out the war was actually in Pakistan. In the waning months of the Bush administration, we started to worry about the situation in Mexico but as it turned out...and as in each of the cases as we should have recognized all along...the real serious problem was right here in the United States.

After all this hoopla about a transformational election, it turns out all this country needed was a good pair of glasses. The Bush administration as it turns out had a focus issue. It wasn’t that they had so much trouble focusing on things, although I always thought the president had a bit of that ADHD feel to him. It was that they tended to focus on the wrong things. It was a kind of foreign policy dyslexia that caused us to misread maps and regularly miss the things that should have been our targets by quite bit, say, a country or two.

So, we went to war to stop a WMD program in Iraq and as it turned out, the program we should have been worrying about was a country away in Iran. Also, as it turns out, there was another one a country away, in Syria. We went to war in Afghanistan and it turns out the war was actually in Pakistan. In the waning months of the Bush administration, we started to worry about the situation in Mexico but as it turned out…and as in each of the cases as we should have recognized all along…the real serious problem was right here in the United States.

Say what you may about the muddled economic policies of the Obama administration, the national security team has its glasses on and the result is a president who is offering a much improved vision of what America’s foreign policy priorities ought to be. Nothing illustrated this quite so well as today’s presidential announcement of our new policy in “Afghanistan”– although Hillary Clinton’s acknowledgement of the drug demand factor in fueling Mexico’s violence and the overall effort to wind down operations in Iraq and to initiate new diplomacy with Iran also suggest we are finally doing the obvious and attempting to deal with the real roots of the challenges we face.

What set the new Afghanistan strategy apart was that it clearly acknowledged that our real problems lie with in Pakistan and that we were dealing not so much with countries but with a wild, borderless region. The Afghan side of the strategy was focused on stabilization — helping to substantially build Afghan army and police forces and thus their  ability to manage Afghanistan’s internal issues, and on deploying legions of teachers, lawyers and engineers to help them build the country. While the Pakistan side of the equation did include elements of assistance to support that country, the rational for the aid was clearly different (though this is not something the administration would ever acknowledge.) The Afghanistan money is to promote a more stable society and to make that problem go away (or at least make our exit a little easier when we ultimately pull out.) The Pakistan money — $1.5 billion a  year for 5 years — is a bribe…or maybe a multi-stage bribe. On the one hand, it is a public display of friendship to a country whose people don’t much like us and on the other it is cash for our friends in Pakistan to use (assuming they actually get their hands on it) to bid for the loyalties of other Pakistanis currently leaning toward our enemies. 

Importantly, Obama was very clear that our target is still al Qaeda and he made one of his most forceful statements to date of the perceived on-going threat from that group. Beyond reiterating that we are there for the same reason we went in originally…to get the guys who did 9/11…this did two important things. First, it separated out the Taliban, consistent with the current strategy of seeking to find an in to them and peeling them off. Second, it said, the real meat of this problem is in Pakistan because the Taliban are in Pakistan. 

As I have said before, I am skeptical that we can achieve much of lasting value in this part of the world as problems there are so amorphous, ingrained and have such strong regenerative features that I feel we will spend much of our effort just pushing our food around on our plates. That said, the only chance for real progress is the kind of narrowing focus, realism and intensification of pressure on the truly bad guys implied by this plan.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

David 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. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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