By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN, The New York Times
I’ve been thinking lately of starting a new school of foreign service to train U.S. diplomats. My school, though, would be very simple. It would consist of a single classroom with a desk and a chair. At the desk would be a teacher, pretending to be a foreign leader. The student would come in and have to persuade the foreign leader to do something — to pull this or that lever. At one point, the foreign leader would nod vigorously in agreement and then reach behind him and pull the lever — and it would come off the wall in his hands. Or, he would nod vigorously and say, “Yes, yes, of course, I will pull that lever,” but then would only pretend to do so.
The student would then have to figure out what to do next.
I’m wondering if President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton aren’t those students, trying to deal with the leaders of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea. I say that not to criticize but to sympathize. “Mama, don’t let your children grow up to be diplomats.”
This is not the great age of diplomacy.
A secretary of state can broker deals only when other states or parties are ready or able to make them. In the cold war, an age of great powers, grand bargains and reasonably solid client states, there were ample opportunities for that — whether in arms control with the Soviet Union or peacemaking between our respective client states around the globe. But this is increasingly an age of pirates, failed states, nonstate actors and nation-building — the stuff of snipers, drones and generals, not diplomats.
Hence the déjà vu all over again quality of U.S. foreign policy right now — the sense that when it comes to our major problems (Afghanistan and Pakistan and North Korea and Iran), we just go around and around, buying the same carpets from the same people, over and over, but nothing changes.
“We are dealing with states and leaders who either cannot deliver or will not deliver,” notes the Johns Hopkins University foreign policy professor Michael Mandelbaum. “The issues we have with them look less like problems that can be solved and more like conditions that we have to manage.”
The ones who can’t deliver — the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan — are the ones who promise to do all sorts of good things, and pull all sorts of levers, but at the end of the day the levers come off the wall because the governments in these countries have only limited powers. The ones who won’t deliver — Iran and North Korea — time and again tell us: “Yes, we need to talk.” But at the end of the day, their hostile relationships with America or the West are so central to the survival strategy of their regimes, so much at the core of their justifications for remaining in power, that it is not in their interest to deliver real reconciliation, but just to pretend to deliver it.
The only thing that could change this is a greater exercise of U.S. and allied power. In the case of Afghanistan and Pakistan, that power would have to be used to actually rebuild these states from the inside into modern nations. We would literally have to build the institutions — the pulleys and wheels — so that when the leaders of these states pulled a lever something actually happened, and the lever wouldn’t just break off in their hands.
And in the case of the strong states — Iran and North Korea — we would have to generate much more effective leverage from the outside to get them to change their behavior along the lines we seek. In both cases, though, success surely would require a bigger and longer U.S. investment of money and power, not to mention allies.
Instead, I fear that we are adopting a middle-ground strategy — doing just enough to avoid collapse but not enough to solve the problems. If our goal in Afghanistan and Pakistan is nation-building, so they will have self-sustaining moderate governments, we surely don’t have enough troops or resources inside devoted to either. If our goal is changing regime behavior in Iran and North Korea, we surely have not generated enough leverage from outside. North Korea’s defiant missile launch and Iran’s continued development of its nuclear capability testify to that.
So, in sum, we have four problem countries at the heart of U.S. foreign policy today that we don’t have the will or ability to ignore but seem to lack the leverage or the allies to decisively change. The big wild card — a critical mass of people who share our aspirations inside these countries, rising up and leading the fight, which is ultimately what tipped Iraq for the better — I don’t see. As such, I fear we are sliding into commitments in Afghanistan and Pakistan without a real national debate about the ends or the means or the exits. That is a recipe for trouble.
Given all that is on his plate, you cannot blame President Obama for looking for a middle ground — not wanting to abandon progressives and women in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but not wanting to get in too deeply. But history teaches that the middle ground can be a perilous place. Think of Iraq before the surge — not enough to win or lose, but just enough to be stuck.