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Against Spite-Based Foreign Policy

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Against Spite-Based Foreign Policy"

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Bruce Riedel, who led the Obama administration’s AfPak policy review, apparently said the following at a Brookings event earlier this week:

The triumph of jihadism or the jihadism of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in driving NATO out of Afghanistan would resonate throughout the Islamic World.This would be a victory on par with the destruction of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. And, those moderates in the Islamic World who would say, no, we have to be moderate, we have to engage, would find themselves facing a real example. No, we just need to kill them, and we will drive them out. So I think the stakes are enormous.

“This is not a rationale you often hear from the administration and its defenders,” observes Michael Crowley, but “given the murkiness of other arguments for a prolonged engagement, I suspect this rationale carries more weight at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. than people realize. ”

This reminds me of something I ran across on Nexis yesterday, a fall 2002 Peter Beinart column about Ted Kennedy:

The third way a war in Iraq could undermine the war on terrorism, according to Kennedy, is by “swelling the ranks of Al Qaeda sympathizers and triggering an escalation in terrorist acts.” But while Al Qaeda might be stronger during a war with Iraq, it would probably be weaker after one. Take the war in Afghanistan as a model. U.S. bombing sparked anti-American protests in much of the Muslim world. But once the U.S. toppled the Taliban, the protests diminished dramatically. For one thing, would-be Al Qaeda recruits saw the hopelessness of confronting American power. For another, they saw that the people of Kabul weren’t on their side.

An American victory in Iraq would probably have a similar effect. Once we win–which pretty much everyone concedes we will–the anti-American protests will end. The image of the United States as a paper tiger, which animated Islamists in the 1990s, will be dealt another blow. And the image of the United States suffocating the Iraqi people through sanctions, long a staple of Al Qaeda propaganda, will likely be replaced by images of American GIs being welcomed as liberators. It’s true that over time the euphoria might dissipate, and an American peacekeeping force in Iraq could generate Arab resentment. But with Saddam out of power, the United States might be able to withdraw its troops from another part of the Middle East: Saudi Arabia. And given that it is the presence of U.S. troops near Mecca and Medina that led bin Laden to turn against the United States in the first place, an American withdrawal from Saudi Arabia would probably do more to undermine Islamist recruiting than an American occupation of Iraq would do to fuel it.

So that was pretty wrong. And really I draw the conclusion that it’s just a big mistake to make decisions of war and piece in terms of their purported impact on the subjective mental state of Islamic radicals. This is just all very inherently unpredictable.

The other thing is that the reasoning winds up being incredibly circular. This amounts to saying that we can’t leave Afghanistan until we kill every last Afghan who wants us to leave. Anything less would be appeasement. On one read, this means the Taliban should just agree to “surrender” and leave us alone for six months while we withdraw. On another read, this means that every Afghan who doesn’t want to see his country permanently colonized by the United States needs to start trying to kill our soldiers right now since we’ve bizarrely defined “victory” in Afghanistan in terms of spiting people’s desire to not live in countries under foreign military occupation. In general, this kind of spite-based foreign policy is, as Ezra Klein says, “quagmire thinking.” Indeed, I think one way to think about David Petraeus’ achievement in Iraq is that he scored a huge victory against this kind of quagmire thinking and got us out of the cycle of spite by, in essence, redefining victory in radically less ambitious terms.

If we really want to worry about the impact of Afghanistan on our reputation the thing to do is make sure we define our objectives as things that are relatively easy to achieve.

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