The Land of No Good Options
The WikiLeaks cables show a U.S. diplomatic corps adept at diagnosing the big problems of American foreign policy -- and a country hopeless at solving them.
When I arrive in a foreign country to write a piece, I ask journalistic colleagues, NGO types, and whatnot which diplomats are worth talking to. If it’s a country in the developing world, I usually get directed to the embassy of the ex-colonial master and often to the Brits, even outside the Commonwealth. (British diplomats have a reputation for acumen which might mostly have to do with their accent and air of amused detachment.) As for the United States, people will say, “There’s a political attaché who’s been here for years and really gets around.” What about the ambassador? “Only if you feel the need to touch base.” The feeling is that the U.S. ambassador is so swaddled in security and bureaucracy, so restricted to the la-di-da realms of the country, that he or she might as well be living in the clouds.
WikiLeaks has done U.S. ambassadors a favor by allowing us to read their homework. And it turns out that there’s more to be said for the privileged perch they occupy than I had realized. None of the cables I’ve read so far sound like George Kennan, much less John Quincy Adams, whose dispatches from the Court of Prussia at the turn of the 19th century were devoured back home, including by President George Washington in retirement; either U.S. diplomacy no longer attracts literary intellectuals, or they keep it to themselves. But they do show a high level of clarity, of analytical rigor, even occasionally of amused detachment.
The chief flaw the embassy officials exhibit in the documents is one to which journalists, too, are very much prone: the tendency to give too much credence to the people you like. The diplomats in Tbilisi who, as the New York Times points out, swallowed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s version of the 2008 war with Russia whole, may have been guilty of believing what they wished to be true. So, in a very different way, was the departing U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, Christopher Dell, who in 2007 optimistically predicted President Robert Mugabe’s impending demise. But none (so far) are clueless; as yet there’s no Ellsworth Bunker reporting from Saigon on the battle for hearts and minds. The cables may have the unexpected effect of countering the stereotype of diplomats as lickspittles with a mastery of etiquette.
I can think of no better example than Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan until this past October. Patterson was a career diplomat; I first met her when she was acting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2004 to 2005, and then again in Pakistan in 2008. Our conversation in New York had been notably bland, and in Islamabad she seemed quite comfortable defending — off the record, of course — the George W. Bush administration’s unwavering support for Gen. Pervez Musharraf in the midst of massive demonstrations calling for civilian democratic government, a policy that had come to seem increasingly tone-deaf.
Why expect otherwise? The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, like most U.S. embassies in trouble spots, is a big, ugly installation (an earlier iteration had been bombed) located on a lonely road behind a series of gates. Security was so tight that I had to provide, in advance, my cab driver’s name and license number. Diplomats only ventured out in convoys. Patterson, in short, operated from a bubble.
And yet it turns out you can learn a lot in a bubble. On Sept. 23, 2009, Patterson sent a cable in response to an inquiry from an unspecified source in the National Security Council. The debate over AfPak strategy inside the White House was then at its height. The military brass were pushing a full-bore counterinsurgency strategy calling for 40,000 troops; Vice President Joe Biden and other senior officials were arguing for a more modest program of counterterrorism in Afghanistan paired with a much greater focus on Pakistan. It wouldn’t work, Patterson said: “It is not/not possible [the double “not” appears to be a peculiar convention of the diplomatic cable] to counter Al Qaeda in Pakistan absent a comprehensive strategy that 1) addresses the interlinked Taliban threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2) brings about stable, civilian government in Afghanistan, and 3) reexamines the broader role of India in the region.”
Pakistan’s fears of India’s ambitions in Afghanistan, “justified or not,” Patterson wrote, meant that it would not tolerate any vacuum in Kabul that could be filled by a pro-Indian regime. “General Kayani,” she wrote, referring to Pakistan’s army chief and effective ruler, “has been utterly frank about Pakistan’s position on this. In such a scenario, the Pakistan establishment will dramatically increase support for Taliban groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” Patterson cautioned that “discussion of deadlines, downsizing of the American military presence or even a denial of the additional troops reportedly to be requested by Gen. McChrystal” could trigger this response.
Patterson also signed a cable from January of that year, when Biden, then vice president-elect, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) came to Islamabad for a heart-to-heart with Kayani. Patterson recounted Kayani’s reassurances of support that U.S. counterterrorism efforts; he just needed more money to take on the insurgents. In answer to a blunt question from Biden, Kayani and Pakistani intelligence chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha promised to take on the Pakistani Taliban first, and then the Afghan branch. “[They insisted that] nobody was protecting the bad guys Graham said that he would support development assistance to Pakistan, but needed to know that the aid would produce a change in Pakistani behavior. Kayani replied that Pakistan and the U.S. had a convergence of interests.”
This was an important meeting, for it may have helped persuade Biden that the United States could make more headway in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. The cable makes no judgment about Kayani’s sincerity, perhaps because diplomats are disinclined to report that the local strongman has pulled the wool over the eyes of two visiting senior statesmen. But at least by September, Patterson knew that Kayani had been telling his visitors what they came to hear. “There is,” she wrote in the later cable, “no chance that Pakistan will view enhanced assistance levels in any field as sufficient compensation for abandoning support to these groups, which it sees as an important part of its national security apparatus against India.” Patterson suggested that the United States seek to lower tensions between India and Pakistan and use its civilian aid to “extend the writ of the Pakistani state into the FATA” — the frontier area where the extremists seek sanctuary — “in such a way that the Taliban can no longer offer effective protection to Al Qaeda from Pakistan’s own security and law enforcement agencies in these areas.”
Of course, saying that the United States must help Pakistan create legitimate governance in the frontier region and must help Afghanistan do so all over the country is useful advice only if it’s possible. And in fact later that fall, Patterson’s counterpart in Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry would write a memo of his own arguing that such a strategy almost certainly wouldn’t work. He appears to have been absolutely right. Nor have U.S. aid efforts made much headway in FATA so far, though Patterson was careful to warn in the September cable that doing so would “require a multi-year, multi-agency effort.” The embassy in Pakistan didn’t, and perhaps couldn’t, supply the White House with a better answer; rather, the cables may have forced policymakers to think twice about the appealingly modest alternative Biden and others were proposing.
You can imagine Obama reading the Patterson cable, smacking his forehead and saying, “So I can’t go small, like Joe wants, but I’m not convinced I can win by going big. What do I do?” In the end, Obama tried to square the circle by limiting the goal of the war in Afghanistan to “disrupting, dismantling and defeating Al Qaeda and its extremist allies” rather than crushing the Taliban; accepting that the central threat was not Afghanistan but Pakistan; but nevertheless ordering in 30,000 more troops and the ambitious civilian effort required to bring “stable civilian government to Afghanistan.” Maybe he heard Patterson’s message.
The WikiLeaks documents in general show that U.S. diplomats are quite adroit at analyzing problems like this, ones that their government turns out to be unable to resolve. This shouldn’t come as shocking news, but I suppose it would to Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, who must have thought that the documents would expose American imbecility, or hegemony, or both. He has, at any rate, probably done a good deal less damage than he had hoped.
James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea. Twitter: @jamestraub1
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