Stephen M. Walt

Confidence game

If you read today’s New York Times story on Obama’s meetings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, you got more evidence that the Obama team still hasn’t figured out what its overall strategy is. This is not a good sign, particularly when President Obama keeps upping the rhetorical stakes. Obama ...

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If you read today’s New York Times story on Obama’s meetings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, you got more evidence that the Obama team still hasn’t figured out what its overall strategy is. This is not a good sign, particularly when President Obama keeps upping the rhetorical stakes.

Obama did what most Presidents do with weak and faltering clients: he tried to buck them up by reiterating how much we care about their situation.  He declared that “no matter what happens, we will not be deterred,” and reiterated that “our strategy (which he didn’t spell out) reflects a fundamental truth. The security of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States are linked.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chimed in too, describing the meetings as part of the “confidence-building that is necessary for this relationship to turn into tangible cooperation.”

But the rest of the article suggests that little “confidence” is warranted. Zardari’s meeting with the House Foreign Affairs Committee seems to have reinforced Congressional skepticism, with chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) complaining that Zardari “did not present a coherent strategy for the defeat of the insurgency.” 

As for the White House, having pushed the Pakistanis to do more against Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents in the western provinces, senior administration officials admit that “they’re fundamentally not organized, trained or equipped for what they’ve been asked to do….They’ll displace the Taliban for awhile. But there will also be a lot of displaced person and a lot of collateral damage. And then they won’t be able to sustain those effects or extend the gains geographically.”

Yet according to the Times, “none of this was said publicly on Wednesday,” because U.S. officials (including the president) “sought to strike an optimistic tone.” 

Excuse me, but haven’t we learned that refusing to acknowledge unpleasant realities in public tends to get us into trouble, whether one is talking about toxic loans, GM’s long slide towards bankruptcy, or the Bush administration’s head-in-the-sand approach to the Iraqi insurgency? Isn’t plain talk better than happy talk? The unpleasant reality is that our entire approach to Central Asia is still filled with unanswered questions and unresolved contradictions, yet we continue to wade deeper into a potentially open-ended commitment.

If President Obama keeps acting like the head cheerleader for this war, he’ll find himself trapped by his own rhetoric and unable to cut our losses if it starts to go south. Of course, if you’re the leader of a weak and corrupt government that is dependent on continued American largesse, that may be just what you’re hoping for.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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