President Obama is no piker. It's probably a good thing that he has made some big wagers given the nature, magnitude and urgency of our economy's problems. Two weeks ago he made another roll of the dice, this time in foreign policy. Beyond world economic reform, Obama put AfPak at the center of his international agenda. It will likely define his foreign-policy legacy.
Obama makes the case that his approach to AfPak differs vastly from his predecessor and offers more prospects for success because its aims are more limited. However, the reality of his policy, whatever the music, is not George Bush lite. It is George Bush very heavy. Obama is not only bailing out Afghanistan, but also the intimately-related Pakistan and trying to change its national-security priorities. Regrettably, the results are as uncertain as our bailout of the banks.
Mr. Obama has declared the principal focus of AfPak policy to be the destruction of al-Qaeda and its threat to the United States. That target is unlikely to be achieved without stabilizing Afghanistan. Consequently, huge military and economic resources are being poured into Afghanistan to produce greater public security. Not surprisingly, the Afghan government likes its newfound preeminence in U.S. foreign policy and the accompanying largesse. But it may become less enthusiastic as America necessarily tries to make the place work better and aggressively tackles the narcotics and corruption problems that help fuel the insurgency and weaken the state. We don't call all this "nation building" anymore, just trying to stabilize the country. Nor are we now focused on Bush's rhetoric of "establishing democracy,"-a point the American press duly emphasized-but still are asked to mobilize resources and allies to make the August elections reasonably free and fair, one test of democracy.
While the United States focuses on destroying al-Qaeda in AfPak, Secretary Clinton has declared the "Global War on Terror" passé. Much ink has been spilled on the ramifications of that label and it is politically helpful to inter that banner. Nevertheless, since terrorists continue to be our target in AfPak, the implication is that the anti terrorist effort is no longer global. And yet, Mr. Obama recently told the people of the Czech Republic and Turkey that they need to recognize that al-Qaeda directly threatens them and, indeed, the whole world. Presumably, the difference is that we will not engage as heavily in areas outside AfPak where al-Qaeda also thrives. Surely, that's at least a small gamble.
In Pakistan, the administration will make a more concerted effort to keep that beset country afloat with much greater military and economic assistance. It hopes to leverage that aid to get the Pakistani military to stop focusing on Kashmir and instead turn its wrath on the insurgents operating from Islamabad's tribal territories, effectively denying them a safe haven and diminishing their ability to destabilize both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama also wants more Pakistani support in allowing American military operations in their country. How deeply and how effectively the United States will intervene in politically weak Pakistan, despite its best protestations, remain to be seen. The increasing number of drone attacks in the tribal areas does not indicate shyness, at least. Our interventions in the past, however, have not been inspiring.
Certainly one major difference between Obama and his predecessor is the long-overdue diplomatic effort to better stabilize the entire region. The administration wants our allies to pony up all sorts of military and economic assistance, including combat forces. More serious efforts are also underway to get regional countries to assist Kabul in creating a more viable state free from competitive meddling. Common interests in a stable Afghanistan may lead them to adopt measures to galvanize productive change in Afghanistan. Hopefully, simultaneous efforts to encourage Pakistan and India to reduce the pervasive Kashmir factor and competition in Afghanistan will also bear some fruit. Obama's popularity abroad and his openness to engaging allies, potential partners, and even adversaries might facilitate that diplomatic progress.
But diplomatic engagement on behalf of AfPak policy is not without its complications where Iran is concerned. Clearly, neighboring Tehran can play a more critical part than most other countries in Afghanistan and is universally believed to want to help. The administration acknowledged this in frequent statements and a small but much publicized nod toward Iran at a recent Afghanistan conference in The Hague. The United States has not exposed its hand other than to seek greater diplomatic engagement with Iran. But it will have to balance that interest with its desire to prevent any Iranian nuclear weapon. Does cooperation on AfPak make it easier to deal with Iran on contentious issues, including nukes? The low-lying fruit of cooperation in Afghanistan will have to be weighed against the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. Apparently, the game plan is being developed.
Basically, the Obama administration has promised to end the largely haphazard, incompetent management of the immense Afghan-Pakistani problem. Its planned efforts are more focused and better funded. And they are being conducted by new and more capable hands. That, indeed, is a vast and welcome change. And while the strategies may be reminiscent of a former era, they may also be just what's needed. Not all change is good and not all constancy is bad. But in the interest of clarity and long-term public support, Obama needs to bring his public rhetoric more in-line with the reality of his efforts and its potential costs. Like the banks, AfPak bailouts can be less effective and far more costly than imagined, whatever the established ‘benchmarks" say.
Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.