Foreign Policy Blogs

Afghanistan and President Obama's Articulated Foreign Policy

President Barack Obama today defended what he wants the young men on the street in far-flung countries to view as a new stripe of diplomacy, one that is informed by the value of self-determination and respect for those young millions hungry for it. One that does not contrast American interests from American values.

Time will tell whether the hungry angry folks on the streets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere will  believe him. Time will tell whether President Obama did indeed square that circle between the competing demands of principles and interests. But at least young millions the world might stand at bay at the simple fact that the President of the United States Barack Obama delivered this speech that the State Department for the sake of –and one hopes for the benefit of–that chanting and sweating masses demanding the exercise of its political voice.

President Obama argued that the U.S. has broken the Taliban’s back and with it, the Taliban’s momentum.  He argued that the politics of intolerance and majoritarian violence cannot share space with the aspiration of the many millions that have come out to protest autocratic governments the world over.  Indeed, he held that even if the aspiration for democracy and self-rule contrasted with narrowly defined American interests, the U.S would support those vision of self-rule and individual claims to dignity.  That sounds fine in principle; what does that mean for the people on the ground in Afghanistan?

To get to that, assume that the violence and politics in Afghanistan is the outcome of sectarian distrust and hatred, Pashtun’s against Hazara’s and Tajiks.  Obama argued that sectarian political values need not lead to sectarian violence.  He offered the following carrot “if you take the risk that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States.” The stick? The status quo!

Hence, as long as narrowly-defined promotion of partisan politics in Kabul gave way to genuine shared values or at least attempts to garner those values, the United States would support that effort. Indeed the president’s claims implied that even if the young and the vibrant masses came out against avowed American strategic interests, the exercise of that speech would go untrammeled. This is perhaps the best that the President could offer; perhaps the best that the young man in Kabul or Herat might suppose he’d get at the bargaining table-though it’s hardly enough to satisfy him.

The consensus view within the administration and its foreign policy arm has been a position that the president offered to the world in 2009 in Cairo but articulated with some gusto only this afternoon: “We look forward to working with all who embrace genuine and inclusive democracy. What we will oppose is an attempt by any group to restrict the rights of others, and to hold power through coercion – not consent. Because democracy depends not only on elections, but also strong and accountable institutions, and respect for the rights of minorities.”  Hence President Karzai’s sham electoral win in the last election cycle would fall according to this new articulated position.  Elections aren’t sufficient, though they are necessary for democracy to take hold. There must be a solid base and support for robust democratic politics that views the rights of minorities on the same balanced scale as that of the majority.

So far, that seems a distant dream in Afghanistan. Still, perhaps something of this vision can yet be salvaged in Afghanistan. Perhaps the young man on the street, the young man that President Obama has taken so much care to appease might rest a bit easier tonight in the knowledge that whatever else might be the case, his political speech and cry for action won’t be constrained.



Faheem Haider

Faheem Haider is a political analyst, writer and artist. He holds advanced research degrees in political economy, political theory and the political economy of development from the London School of Economics and Political Science and New York University. He also studied political psychology at Columbia University. During long stints away from his beloved Washington Square Park, he studied peace and conflict resolution and French history and European politics at the American University in Washington DC and the University of Paris, respectively.

Faheem has research expertise in democratic theory and the political economy of democracy in South Asia. In whatever time he has to spare, Faheem paints, writes, and edits his own blog on the photographic image and its relationship to the political narrative of fascist, liberal and progressivist art.

That work and associated writing can be found at the following link:

Great Decisions Discussion group