Foreign Policy Blogs

US Policy: Realist Vs. Realist-Liberal

Alright, I’m pretty sure I’ve got you confused already by the title. Let me explain. Much has been leaked that the upcoming Obama policy plan for Afghanistan will take a ‘minimalist‘ approach to the crucial, yet troubling security situation in South Asia. In other words, Obama may downplay talk and attempts to create a democratic and prosperous Afghanistan, and instead aim for the creation of a stable country that can defend against extremists and terrorist elements at home and keep them from reaching abroad, especially to American shores. Now at this moment this is no sure policy-thing, as the report has yet to be released and Obama has used heavy rhetoric and significant troop commitments to the country to possibly suggest otherwise.

However, others have already given their views of what policy the US should follow in Kabul and beyond. Many of these voices are already calling Afghanistan ‘Obama’s Vietnam’, advocating a lessening of goals, and poll numbers show a surprisingly negative view of a US military presence in the country, with about 50% believing we should start drawing down troops immediately. Some of these people raise valid and thoughtful arguments that can be quite persuasive. IR scholar and arch realist Stephen Walt lays out the realist approach to US policy in Afghanistan quite well, Here is his succinct description of US national interests in Afghanistan:

“We have only one vital national interest in Afghanistan: to prevent Afghan territory from being used as a safe haven for groups plotting attacks on American soil or on Americans abroad, as al Qaeda did prior to September 11. It might be nice to achieve some other goals too (such as economic development, better conditions for women, greater political participation, etc.), but these goals are neither vital to U.S. national security nor central to the future of freedom in the United States or elsewhere. Deep down, we don’t (or shouldn’t) care very much who governs in Afghanistan, provided they don’t let anti-American bad guys use their territory to attack us. As I recall, President Bush was even willing to let the Taliban stay in power in 2001 if they had been willing to hand us Osama and his henchmen.”

Indeed, there are many people in this country that are sympathetic to this reasoning. But there also many who would fight it vigorously. Senator John McCain and Senator Joe Lieberman, both strong advocates for the ’surge’ in Iraq, call for a similar strategy and commitment for Afghanistan. They unabashedly believe that if the US is truly committed it can ‘win’, that’s right ‘win’, in Afghanistan, and this would include helping build a strong, representative government along with defeating the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Here’s their side:

“The war in Afghanistan can be won. Success — a stable, secure, self-governing Afghanistan that is not a terrorist sanctuary — can be achieved. Just as in Iraq, there is no shortcut to success, no clever “middle way” that allows us to achieve more by doing less. A minimalist approach in Afghanistan is a recipe not for winning smarter but for losing slowly at tremendous cost in American lives, treasure and security.”

They call on Obama to follow his campaign pledge that Afghanistan is a ”war we must win.” The tone of the McCain-Lieberman is supportive, but also concerned, as you can tell they fear Obama may go the other way. I call their approach ‘realist-liberal’ because they base their strategy on hard policies of more troops and political will, but have an end goal that Afghanistan become a pluralist, democratic state because that itself will help secure US national interests by keeping extremists marginalized. Just like in Iraq, their argument basically states that if we take a minimalist approach in Afghanistan, we will just be back again and again. This strategy is based on the belief that an open, democratic society will be more peaceful toward the US and its neighbors and through time erode extremism, all IR liberal viewpoints.

US Policy: Realist Vs. Realist-Liberal

Obama’s choice will probably be a tightrope between both of these policies. His choice of language concerning the conflict will be vital. Will he pledge to be there ’til the job is done’ or will he take a more subtle approach? Americans will be listening, as the poll numbers show what they hear will be crucial, but even more important will be the fact that Afghans, Pakistanis, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban-led insurgents will be to.