State

Afghanistan Escalation: We just can't afford to build anybody else's nation now

Let me start with the bottom line and then tell you how I got there: I can't agree with President Barack Obama's decision to escalate in Afghanistan. I'd prefer a minimalist approach, working with tribal leaders the way we did to overthrow the Taliban regime in the first place. Given our need for nation-building at home right now, I am ready to live with a little less security and a little-less-perfect Afghanistan.

I recognize that there are legitimate arguments on the other side. But here is the broader context in which I assess all this: My own foreign policy thinking since Sept. 11 has been based on four pillars:

The Warren Buffett principle: Everything I've ever gotten in life is largely due to the fact that I was born in this country, America, at this time with these opportunities for its citizens. It is the primary obligation of our generation to turn over a similar America to our kids.

Many big bad things happen in the world without America, but not a lot of big good things. If we become weak and enfeebled by economic decline and debt, as we slowly are, America may not be able to play its historic stabilizing role in the world. If you didn't like a world of too-strong-America, you will really not like a world of too- weak-America — where China, Russia and Iran set more of the rules.

The context within which people live their lives shapes everything — from their political outlook to their religious one. In the Arab-Muslim world, that was best summarized by the U.N.'s Arab Human Development reports as a context dominated by three deficits: a deficit of freedom, a deficit of education and a deficit of women's empowerment. The reason India, with the world's second-largest population of Muslims, has a thriving Muslim minority (albeit with grievances but with no prisoners in Guantánamo Bay) is because of the context of pluralism and democracy it has built at home.

One of the main reasons the Arab-Muslim world has been so resistant to internally driven political reform is because vast oil reserves allow its regimes to become permanently ensconced in power, by just capturing the oil tap, and then using the money to fund vast security and intelligence networks that quash any popular movement. Look at Iran.

Hence, post-Sept. 11 I advocated that our politicians find sufficient courage to hike gasoline taxes and seriously commit ourselves to developing alternatives to oil. People do not change when we tell them they should; they change when their context tells them they must.

To me, the most important reason for the Iraq war was never WMD. It was to see if we could partner with Iraqis to help them build something that does not exist in the modern Arab world: a state, a context, where the constituent communities — Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — write their own social contract for how to live together without an iron fist from above. Iraq has proved staggeringly expensive and hugely painful. The mistakes we made should humble anyone about nation-building in Afghanistan.

Still, the Iraq war may give birth to something important — if Iraqis can find that self-sustaining formula to live together. Alas, that is still in doubt. If they can, the model would have a huge impact on the Arab world. Baghdad is a great Arab capital. If Iraqis fail, it's religious strife, economic decline and authoritarianism as far as the eye can see — the witch's brew that spawns terrorists.

Iraq was about "the war on terrorism." The Afghanistan invasion, for me, was about the "war on terrorists." It was about getting bin Laden and depriving al-Qaida of a sanctuary — period. To now make Afghanistan part of the "war on terrorism" — i.e., another nation-building project — is not crazy. It is just too expensive, when balanced against our needs for nation-building in America, so that we will have the strength to play our broader global role. Hence, my desire to keep our presence in Afghanistan limited.

That is what I believe. That is why I believe it.

THE NEW YORK TIMES

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