Thursday, May 21, 2009

Pitfalls of American Foreign Policy

Steve Coll’s Comment in the most recent issue of the New Yorker is, as usual, excellent. While discussing US policy towards Afghanistan over the last 30 years, it speaks to a broader truth in American foreign policy. Namely, the United States is miserable-miserable-at policy-follow through. Not only do American policy makers evince an historical unwillingness to consider the long-term or even second order effect of their policies, immediate success or failures frequently result in utter abandonment of the policy, regardless of the effects of abandoning the policy.

Coll’s book Ghost Wars illustrates both of the above points with reference to US policy making during and following the Soviet war in Afghanistan. The first is illustrated by the well warn tale of the US providing arms, training and intelligence to the mujahideen and what would become of some of the mujahideen after the Soviets left. The second is the less well known story of what the US did with regard to Afghanistan after the Soviets left – and more to the point, how different American policies after the Soviet withdrawal may have resulted in a very different Afghanistan (and a very different America, for that matter).

The short version of that story is that America abandoned Afghanistan. After the Soviets left, Afghanistan was essentially a power-vacuum. The disparate resistance groups remained disparate, as they remain today, the country was fractured, and the lawlessness gave rise, rather quickly, to the Taliban.

Again, this is not a critique merely of American policy in Afghanistan; rather, American policy in Afghanistan is emblematic of American foreign policy. Foreign policy is rarely one-dimensional. Frequently, the effects of policy are non-linear and multifaceted. The same is true for the effects of abandoning policy without a replacement. The moral, I think, is that we must become better at thinking policy through and at not acting with caprice or out of pique.