Stephen M. Walt

“To Encourage the Others”

One of the many dubious arguments now being invoked to justify an open-ended U.S. commitment in Afghanistan is the idea that withdrawal will damage U.S. credibility and cause other U.S. clients to doubt our staying power. It’s possible that getting out would cause a few weak and vulnerable leaders to reconsider their reliance on the ...

By , the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.
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KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - OCTOBER 20: President Hamid Karzai shares some thoughts with US Senator John Kerry October 20, 2009 in Kabul, at the presidential palace for a joint press conference announcing that there will be a run-off election on November 7th. President Hamid Karzai officially stated that he fell short of a decisive victory with 48% in Afghanistan's disputed presidential election after intense international pressure to solve the problems of fraud surrounding the troubled elections. (Photo by Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

One of the many dubious arguments now being invoked to justify an open-ended U.S. commitment in Afghanistan is the idea that withdrawal will damage U.S. credibility and cause other U.S. clients to doubt our staying power. It’s possible that getting out would cause a few weak and vulnerable leaders to reconsider their reliance on the United States, but is that necessarily a bad thing? The United States has been obsessed with maintaining “credibility” for decades, but we tend to forget that our credibility is more our clients’ problem than it is ours. That’s one of the nice things about being a superpower: even when our interests are partly tied up with the fates of others, most U.S. allies need our support a lot more than we need theirs.

In the case of Afghanistan, we are fighting on behalf of a corrupt and ineffective government that has resisted repeated calls for reform. If we were to stop throwing resources at it and it subsequently collapsed, we would be sending a powerful signal to other U.S. clients around the world. The message? Don’t expect Uncle Sucker to back you forever if you can’t or won’t shape up. Among other things, it might have a salutary effect on the government of Pakistan, and relieve us of the burden of constantly meddling in their affairs, which only makes us less popular there. (On that front, I’m beginning to think someone ought to filch Richard Holbrooke’s passport; the more he visits the region, the more the Pakistani people seem to hate us). 

Instead of signaling a loss of American will, getting out of Afghanistan would remind other governments that the United States is not a philanthropic organization. Americans are willing to support competent and effective leaders whose interests are compatible with ours, but we are not in the business of endlessly subsidizing incompetence. In other words, we would telling friends and foes that we back winners, and we aren’t inclined to waste resources on losers. So if you want our help, get your act together.  What’s wrong with sending that message?

Paula Bronstein /Getty Images

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