In the past two years I've done several posts on sports, focusing on how athletic contests can sometimes (improbably) affect world politics. My top ten list of "foreign policy sporting events" is here, and some readers may recall I was rooting for the "Indo-Pak" express (the men's doubles team of Rohan Bopanna of India and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan) at the U.S. Open last year.
We might be seeing a new entrant into the list of sports events that helped shape the foreign policy agenda. India and Pakistan played a semi-final match in the cricket World Cup today, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India invited Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani to watch the match with him. Thus, while over a billion people obsessed about spinners, fast bowlers, fielding miscues, and the bumpiness of the pitch, the two leaders had a chance to exchange some friendly words and establish a bit of personal rapport.
The issues dividing India and Pakistan are deep and enduring, and a cricket match obviously won't resolve them. Unlike the U.S. and China in the era of ping-pong diplomacy, there aren't powerful geopolitical forces pushing the two states toward a rapprochement. But it would be highly desirable if relations between the two countries improved, and if their leaders developed a greater sense of trust and mutual regard. So I hope the meeting went well.
In the end, India won by 29 runs. I tried to follow the match online, and I confess that none of it made any sense to me at all. I'm not proud of that fact, however, so I also hope somebody will stop by my office one of these days and explain cricket to me.
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I wouldn't call it a "shellacking," but President Barack Obama's trip to Asia wasn't a stunning triumph either. He got a positive reception in India -- mostly because he was giving Indians things they wanted and not asking for much in return -- and his personal history and still-evident charisma played well in Indonesia. But then he went off to the G-20 summit in Seoul, and got stiffed by a diverse coalition of foreign economic powers. Plus, an anticipated trade deal with South Korea didn't get done, depriving him of any tangible achievements to bring back home.
What lessons should we draw from this? The first and most obvious is that when your own economy is performing poorly, and when you are still saddled by costly burdens like the war in Afghanistan, you aren't going to have as much clout on the world stage. After half a century or more of global dominance, some Americans may still expect the president to waltz into global summits and get others to do what he wants (or at least most of it). But that is harder to do when you've spent the past ten years wasting trillions (yes, trillions) in Iraq and Afghanistan while other states were building their futures, and have dug yourself into a deep economic hole.
Second, the geopolitics of the trip are important, as Robert Kaplan lays out in a good New York Times op-ed this morning. I don't agree with everything he says (in particular, I think getting out of Afghanistan would reduce the need to accommodate Pakistan and simplify efforts to forge a closer relationship with India) but most of his points ring true to me.
Third, the other event this week was yet another flap between the United States and Israel, and it's not as unrelated to the situation in Asia as you might think. At about the same time that Obama was making yet another eloquent speech about the need to improve relations between the United States and the Muslim world, Israel was announcing still more construction in East Jerusalem. Just what Obama needed, right?
When Obama said this step was "counterproductive" (now there's tough language!), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retorted that "Jerusalem is not a settlement; it is the capital of Israel." In fact, Israeli construction in East Jerusalem is no different than a settlement in the eyes of the rest of the world, because no other government recognizes Israel's illegal annexation of these lands.
And then what happened? Netanyahu sat down for nearly a full day of talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who proceeded to say (for the zillionth time), that the U.S. commitment to Israel's security was "unshakeable." She then declared that the U.S. position on future talks will seek to "reconcile the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements" (my emphasis).
Translation: the Obama administration is back in business as "Israel's lawyer," and the man who first coined that phrase -- former U.S. negotiator Aaron Miller -- said as much, referring to Clinton's statement as "the beginning of a common U.S.-Israeli approach to the peace negotiations." Given that Netanyahu has made it clear that East Jerusalem is not negotiable and that his own vision of a two-state solution is a set of disconnected Palestinian statelets under de facto Israel control, this is not an approach that is going to lead anywhere positive. And like his Cairo speech, Obama's remarks in Indonesia will soon be dismissed as more empty phrases.
So where's the connection between this issue and our strategic position in Asia? Indonesia is a potentially crucial partner for the United States (if you want to see why, take a look at the sea lanes in Southeast Asia), and it is also a moderate Muslim country with history of toleration. Yet the Palestinian issue resonates there too, and makes it harder for the Indonesian government to openly embrace the United States. As Kaplan notes in his Times op-ed, "China also plays on the tension between the West and global Islam in order to limit American influence there. That is why President Obama's mission to rebrand America in the eyes of Muslims carries benefits that go far beyond Indonesia and the Middle East."
What Kaplan doesn't say is that the United States' one-sided support for Israel against the Palestinians is an important source of the "tension" that China is exploiting. As the deputy chairman of Indonesia's largest Islamic group, Masdar Mas'udi, put it last week: "The solution of the Palestine problem is key to many problems between the West and the Muslim world… Our hope as Muslims to Obama and the U.S. is not unreasonable: If the Palestine problem could be resolved, it would be more than enough."
So the next time you read about some senator or congressperson denouncing any attempt to use U.S. leverage on both sides to bring about a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, ask yourself why they are trying to undermine the U.S. effort to bolster its strategic position in a region that ultimately matters far more to U.S. security and prosperity. And by making it harder to achieve a workable two-state solution that would preserve its democratic and Jewish character and enhance its international legitimacy, they aren't doing Israel any favors either. Indeed, the remarkable thing about these zealots is that they are managing to undermine the United States' security and Israel's long-term future at the same time.
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With one caveat, I'll give Obama's team credit for the deft endorsement of India becoming a permanent member (with veto powers) of the U.N. Security Council. It was a smart move because it appealed to India's sense of national pride, and because it didn't cost the United States much. Washington's opinion on this issue matters somewhat, but it doesn't get to determine the composition of the SC by itself and so Obama's endorsement of Indian membership was a bit of cheap talk that nonetheless managed to delight his Indian hosts. If it helped convince the Indian government to back the U.S. position at the upcoming G20 summit in Seoul, then that's a pretty smart deal.
In fact, reforming the U.N. Security Council would be a major undertaking, and it's not going to happen anytime soon. Other P-5 members will be wary of having their own influence and status diluted by the addition of new members, and China wouldn't be thrilled either. There are also plenty of other aspirants -- Germany, Japan, Brazil, South Africa, etc. -- who would be more than a little irritated if India got in and they didn't.
So the only real objection to Obama's endorsement is that it might annoy these countries (and Pakistan, of course, which has already expressed its opposition to the idea). My caveat, therefore, is to wonder whether the good will won in India is outweighed by irritation in other quarters. I'd bet not, if only because SC reform is not exactly a burning issue on anybody's agenda.
The other issue that is becoming clearer, however, is the fundamental strategic contradiction in America's South Asia policy. On the one hand, because we are deeply mired in a war in Afghanistan, and because the Taliban and other extremist groups operate in and out of Pakistan, we have to try to work with the Pakistani government despite its many problems and our growing unpopularity in that country. At the same time, there are larger strategic imperatives pushing the United States to move closer to India. Indeed, Obama even referred to U.S.-Indian strategic partnership as an "indispensable" feature of the 21st century. But a deeper U.S. partnership with India drives Pakistan crazy, encourages some parts of the Pakistani government to hedge bets by backing the Taliban, complicating the U.S. effort to make progress in Afghanistan. One can even imagine some Pakistanis wanting to prolong the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, precisely because our military presence there makes us more dependent on them and thus gives Islamabad some degree of influence and leverage over us.
Notice, however, that this problem would diminish significantly if the United States were not stuck in a costly counter-insurgency and nation-building exercise in Central Asia. If we weren't trying to build a effective centralized state in Afghanistan, while simultaneously attacking militants in Pakistan's fronteir provinces, then we would be free to move closer to India without facing potential blowback elsewhere. And if we weren't constantly interfering in Pakistan too, we might actually discover that they resented us less. In other words, if we were acting more like an offshore balancer, and less like an post-colonial nation-builder, it would be a lot easier to design a less tortured South Asia strategy. Add that to your list of reasons to find a new way forward in our Afghan misadventure.
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More than a year ago I did a post on sporting events that had a significant impact on world politics, and I wonder if we might be seeing another one at the U.S. Open tennis tournament today. I refer, of course, to the men's doubles team of Rohan Bopanna of India and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan, who will be playing the favored team of Bob and Mike Bryan of the United States this afternoon. Bopanna and Qureshi view their partnership as symbol of the possibility of improved relations between their two countries -- among other things, they sometimes wear t-shirts reading "Stop War, Start Tennis" -- and their success at this year's tournament even got the two countries' U.N. ambassadors to sit together at one of their recent matches.
This isn't the sort of thing that realists consider all that important, and it is hard to imagine that their example could overcome all the other barriers that have marred relations between India and Pakistan since independence. But who cares? One can only applaud what they are trying to do, and I'll be rooting for them today.
UPDATE: Alas, the "Indo-Pak Express" went off the rails against the Bryan Bros., although the match was in fact pretty close (7-6, 7-6). Not quite the inspirational outcome I was hoping for, but it takes nothing away from their laudable effort to show that Indians and Pakistanis are not fated to be rivals forever. And congrats to the Bryans, who may well be the best doubles team of all time.
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As we all know by now, President Obama and General Petraeus hope to win the war in Afghanistan through a strategy of escalated counterinsurgency warfare. Yesterday, I suggested that they ought to be thinking about a Plan B in case (or when) their approach fails. With splendid timing, on Wednesday the New America Foundation will provide that Plan B, in a report entitled "A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan." (You can watch a press conference on the report at 12 noon on Wednesday here, or read study director Steve Clemons' summary here.)
Full disclosure: I was a member of the Study Group, so you won't be surprised to hear that I agree with most of its contents. But don't let that stop you from reading the report and pondering its arguments carefully.
To whet your appetite, here are the Study Group's five main recommendations:
But wait, there's more! The Study Group also identified eleven important "myths" in the current debate on Afghanistan. Here they are (I've omitted the Group's assessment of what the reality on each one is):
If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll know why I think a lot of these claims are mistaken. If you want to know what the realities are, read the full Study Group report. And kudos to Steve Clemons and the other members of the Study Group for providing the administration with an alternative approach. We're going to need one.
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I wasn't able to follow the fallout from Obama's message to Iran in much detail while traveling, but the magic of the internet allowed me to catch up a bit this afternoon (Monday in Singapore). A few quick thoughts:
First, having called for a more accommodating and open approach to Iran, I can only applaud Obama's New Year's message. It showcased his strengths as a leader: confidence, a ready willingness to abandon failed policies, and an ability to see how things might look to the other side. If we follow up with clear, resolute, and disciplined diplomacy, and if we have the patience to realize that you don't unwind thirty years of animosity overnight, we may succeed in defusing a serious problem, and maybe even turn Iran from an adversary into an asset over time.
Second, I though Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's response (given in a speech to a gathering at a shrine in Mashhad) was about what we should have expected, and not discouraging at all. Juan Cole has provided a translation on his website here, and I agree with his analysis here. Stripped of the somewhat harsh rhetoric, Khamenei was making the wholly sensible point that the key to changing the relationship lies in what each country does, not just what it says. After all, how would we respond if some adversary's leader made a friendly speech? We would welcome the words but we'd make it clear that real change would depend on actions, which is essentially what Khamenei did. And I had to love this passage of Khamenei's speech:
Regarding our vital issues, we are not sentimental. We do not make decisions based on emotion. We make decisions through calculation.
Who'd have thought that the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran was a realist? Well, me, but also someone like Trita Parsi, who knows a lot more about Iran than I do. And when you think about it, Khamenei's response was a lot more encouraging than the U.S. reaction when Iran offered to negotiate a "grand bargain" with us back in June 2003. The Bush administration rejected the overture out of hand, and look where that got us.
So I'd call this a good first step. But I'd remind everyone that this journey will be a long one, and if history is any guide, there will lots of opportunities for both sides to stumble.
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Historians a century from now will probably still be trying to explain how the United States got itself bogged down in southwest Asia, engaged in a fruitless effort to construct stable and more-or-less democratic orders there. They may understand the process, perhaps, but they will still wonder why the United States failed to learn from the costly and painful experience of great powers like Great Britain and the Soviet Union that came to grief there.
We learned yesterday that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent part of her weekend making phone calls to Pakistani President Asif Zardari and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, in an effort to head off a looming showdown. The immediate crisis seems to have been defused when Zardari backed down and reappointed the former chief justice to the country's Supreme Court, but there is no reason to be optimistic over the longer term. In other words, the top American diplomat has been busy trying to manage the internal politics of a country of some 178 million people that is riddled with corruption and conflict, even though Americans have scant understanding of Pakistan's internal dynamics, little credibility with its key groups, an abysmal public image there, and few, if any, levers to pull. It is hard to think of another job for which the U.S. foreign policy establishment is less well-suited, yet we now find ourselves trying to do social engineering in Pakistan.
And if I'm reading the tea leaves right, we are probably going to get in deeper in the months ahead.
How did we get into this mess? Answer: one step at a time. Revisiting the origins of this sorry situation reminds us that great powers usually walk into debacles with their eyes wide open. Wide open, but still blind.
Mind you, I'm no expert on the politics of southwest Asia, and I don't consider myself an authority on U.S. policy there. So feel free to take the following summary with a few grains of salt. But with that caveat in mind, here's my reconstruction of the steps that led us to where we are today, and the main lesson we ought to draw from them.
Step 1 was the U.S. decision to back the Afghan mujahidin following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. This step made sense at the time, given the U.S. goal of containing and eventually toppling the Soviet regime. However, the policy also involved pouring lots of money into Pakistan, which fueled corruption. Washington also turned a mostly blind eye towards Pakistan's nuclear program, because its cooperation was essential to the war against the Soviet occupation. Saudi Arabia backed the American effort with money and people (with our encouragement), and used this opportunity to fund religious schools and spread Wahhabi doctrines. As a result, the Afghan war became the crucible in which al Qaeda and other forms of jihadi terrorism were forged.
Step 2 was the policy of "dual containment," first enunciated by Martin Indyk (who was then a special assistant to President Bill Clinton) in a speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (which Indyk helped found) in 1993. This policy committed the United States to containing both Iraq and Iran, even though both countries were hostile to one another, and it required the United States to keep significant air and ground forces in Saudi Arabia. According to both Kenneth Pollock and Trita Parsi, "dual containment" was mostly intended to reassure Israel about a possible threat from Iran, thereby facilitating Israeli concessions during the Oslo peace process. Unfortunately, not only did we mismanage the peace process, but the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia became one of Osama bin Laden's main grievances and helped inspire his decision to go after American forces in the region and to attack the U.S. homeland on September 11, 2001.
Step 3 was the decision to invade Afghanistan and topple the Taliban in the wake of al Qaeda's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We obviously could not permit our homeland to be attacked with impunity and we certainly had ample reason to track down Bin Laden and his henchmen and bring them all to justice. But the Bush administration muffed the job. The Bush administration also committed the United States to the construction of a new Afghani political order, a challenging task which it clearly was not up to, and which maybe no U.S. administration could have accomplished.
Step 4 was the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq in March 2003, which reduced the resources and attention devoted to Afghanistan, allowed Bin Laden to remain at large, and enabled the Taliban to reemerge as a major actor. At the same time, our post-9/11 embrace of President Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorial regime made us increasingly complicit in Pakistan’s internal affairs, at a moment when its political system was beginning to unravel again.
Lastly, Step 5: The apparent tactical success of the "surge" in Iraq and the 2008 Presidential election combined to put southwest Asia back on the front burner. The idea that "the surge worked" convinced many people that a similar approach would work in Afghanistan, even though the surge has failed to produce the all-important political reconciliation essential to genuine success in Iraq, and even though the circumstances in Afghanistan are fundamentally different from Iraq. Barack Obama, of course, took a hawkish line on Afghanistan during the campaign, mainly because doing so enabled him to criticize the Bush administration's handling of Iraq while still appearing strong on national security. Unfortunately, it also committed the new president to a foolish course of action.
The lesson is clear: we have gradually waded into the southwest Asian "Big Muddy" not as the result of a coherent strategic plan, but rather through a set of reactive and essentially tactical decisions extending back several decades. Apart from the invasion of Iraq, which was an obvious blunder, each of these other decisions might be defensible on its own. Taken together, however, they add up to a costly strategic misstep. And things could get much worse if we are not careful.
What we need to do at this critical juncture is to stop, take a deep breath, and ask the bedrock question that underpins any grand strategy: what are our vital interests in this part of the world? As I've suggested before, our interests in southwest Asia are minimal, and they are not likely to be furthered by a large-scale and protracted U.S. military presence. Specifically, we don't want terrorists using this territory to organize attacks on U.S. soil, and we want whoever is governing Pakistan to keep its small nuclear arsenal under lock and key. As Leslie Gelb convincingly argued in a recent op-ed, achieving those two goals does not require extensive social engineering in either country. Wading deeper into Afghanistan and Pakistan is a fool's errand, and one that Obama will one day regret.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.