It’s good to be back….

I had a very pleasant R & R — thank you — and I’m grateful to Justin Logan for filling in with such clear and well-argued pieces on unipolarity and Iran’s nuclear program. I would only add that I’m a big fan of the work that Bill Wohlforth and Steve Brooks have done in recent ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
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582476_090807_waltb2.jpg

I had a very pleasant R & R -- thank you -- and I'm grateful to Justin Logan for filling in with such clear and well-argued pieces on unipolarity and Iran's nuclear program. I would only add that I'm a big fan of the work that Bill Wohlforth and Steve Brooks have done in recent years, despite my various disagreements with some of what they've written, and I'm glad that Justin put their work up in bright lights.

I managed to avoid the Internet almost entirely while I was away, and even skipped the New York Times most days. So I'm playing catch-up on the week’s events, and have only a few thoughts on recent developments.

I had a very pleasant R & R — thank you — and I’m grateful to Justin Logan for filling in with such clear and well-argued pieces on unipolarity and Iran’s nuclear program. I would only add that I’m a big fan of the work that Bill Wohlforth and Steve Brooks have done in recent years, despite my various disagreements with some of what they’ve written, and I’m glad that Justin put their work up in bright lights.

I managed to avoid the Internet almost entirely while I was away, and even skipped the New York Times most days. So I’m playing catch-up on the week’s events, and have only a few thoughts on recent developments.

On North Korea: The freeing of the two journalists strikes me was a clear case of pragmatic realism in action, and President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton deserve points for their calm, clear-eyed approach to a vexing but ultimately not-very significant problem. They achieved the U.S. goal — getting the two women out — and Kim Jong Il got a photo op but nothing more. Even getting a former president to drop in isn’t all that significant these days, because North Korea has welcomed former presidents before. True, North Korea got Bill to visit without having to pay his normally whopping speaker’s fee, but they also didn’t get a speech. Indeed, the fact that they seem to place so much value on a brief drop-in by an ex-president reveals a lot about the regime’s pathetic need for attention. As for the former president, he deserves credit for staying on message and not grandstanding while he was there, though the real work was almost certainly done behind-the-scenes and he didn’t have to do any actual negotiating.  

In the end, the whole business was not that big a deal (except for the two journalists and their families, of course), and I think it confirms the value of not over-reacting every time Pyongyang does something annoying. Being annoying is its only diplomatic asset these days, but our best course is to treat them as a minor irritant and reserve most of our attention for more important problems. And it’s probably good for Hillary if Bill has something constructive to do every now and then.

So props all around, and I would love to hear how conservative critics of the administration’s handling of the problem would explain their positions to the journalists or their families.

On Afghanistan:
The Times reports today that the Obama administration is still trying to come up with suitable “benchmarks” to measure progress in Afghanistan. Taking time to develop meaningful yardsticks for success or failure is a good idea in theory, but such measures are usually elusive in the context of counterinsurgency warfare. Body counts are a terrible measure, for example, because rising counts may simply reflect greater insurgent activity (and recruitment), and signs of diminished insurgent activity may simply mean that they are lying low. Testimony from civilians is also suspect, because they have obvious incentives to tell whoever is currently in charge of their village or region whatever they think the occupier wants to hear. Remember what a South Vietnamese general told a U.S. official back in the 1960s, in reference to the late Robert McNamara: “Ah, les statistiques! Your Secretary of Defense loves statistics. We Vietnamese can give him all he wants. If you want them to go up, they will go up. If you want them to go down, they will go down.”

More broadly, the fact that Obama’s team is having a tough time devising good measures is another sign that we don’t really know what we are doing there. And I mean that in two senses: 1) what are we trying to accomplish, and 2) what ARE we doing there? I’d also remind everyone that the Bush administration spent a lot of time laying out various “benchmarks” in Iraq, and then focused primarily on the ones where there was progress.

Via Matt Yglesias (linking to Mark Kleiman), we’ve also learned that the U.S. expenditures on Afghanistan are now more than five times greater than the country’s entire annual GDP. That allocation of resources might make sense if we were trying to corner the opium market and sell it ourselves, but otherwise, it suggests that we aren’t thinking very clearly about our strategic priorities. It was reasonable to spend a lot of money deterring Soviet expansion in Europe during the Cold War, and one can make a similar case for spending money to preserve a balance of power in the Persian Gulf, because Europe was a “key center of industrial power” and oil is the lifeblood on which the world economy runs. But spending five times more than it would cost to buy up everything a country produces (and committing the U.S. to do so for many years to come), is like putting an elaborate burgler alarm on a tar-paper shack, and then hiring an expensive security service to guard it for the next decade. Not smart.

KNS/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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