What Are We Doing? — 8 April 2013

This weekend, a 25-year-old woman from the Chicago suburbs was killed in Afghanistan.  Anne Smedinghoff was a State Department officer delivering books to local schools when she and four other Americans were killed by a roadside bomb.  By all accounts, she was smart, dedicated, and idealistic, and wanted to do good things around the world, an ambition for which she paid with her life.

Unsurprisingly, this led to a renewal of the chorus of “What are we doing in Afghanistan?”  One local talking head averred that “you can’t export democracy to countries that didn’t have the benefit of our Judaeo-Christian traditions.”  Others asked, “how is it in our national interest to be fighting and dying in Afghanistan?”

As I said over ten years ago, when George W. Bush got the country started in the “war on terror,” the big risk in that kind of endeavor is that it will take a long time, and we are an impatient people.  I feared we would not have the staying power for a protracted struggle against an enemy too amorphous to defeat convincingly.  That prediction did not require much prescience.

But I think the questions deserve to be answered nonetheless.  First off, democracy does not need a particularly Western culture or philosophy to thrive: look at Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, India, even Indonesia, the biggest Muslim country in the world.  All of them have solid democratic traditions, some older than others, that enable the peaceful change of governments and public acceptance of the new regime.  Many of them have grave problems, social strife, and serious political dysfunction; but who couldn’t say that about the United States?

Nor can one say, as the anti-war crowd are wont to do, that you can’t export democracy, or impose it at the point of a gun.  We did precisely that in Japan at the end of World War II, and in Germany as well.  Perhaps there were elements of culture in both countries that fortuitously favored the adoption of democracy, but perhaps as well it was just better, more thought-out execution of the task.

One thing I think we have gotten lazy about – and I charge the Bush administration with this as much as Team Obama – is that there is a lot more to democracy than elections.  Too many fledgling democracies have one election, for the sake of international legitimacy, and then tuck the whole idea away for the foreseeable future: one man, one vote, one time.  Then the people are worse off: stuck with a dictator perversely celebrated as a legitimate ruler.

As much as elections – more so, in fact – democratic societies need other institutions to give the process public legitimacy.  First and foremost, they need institutional checks on the power of the government: an independent judiciary that can overrule acts of the government, and a free and unfettered press to call officials to account for malfeasance.

Another critical element of a democracy is that governmental power should not be the path to riches.  When an official position means one can appropriate public wealth for oneself or one’s tribe, the legitimacy of the government is fatally compromised, and the cost of losing elections becomes far greater to the incumbent.  This is particularly the case in socialist economies, where the government controls so much of the nation’s economic activity, and the temptation of corruption is the greater.

So, in a word, it is not the case that democracy is a lost cause, but it’s not easy.  Bush was rightly leery of getting into the business of “nation-building,” but ended up there anyway. And that leads to the second point.

It is easy at this point to look at the frustrations in Afghanistan and ask what interest is served by being there.  But one must not lose sight of this: when we went into Afghanistan in late 2001, the whole country was behind the effort, or nearly so.  Even as late as 2008, Barack Obama was calling it the “good war” to contrast it with Iraq.  We justifiably went to Afghanistan when the Taliban would not break with bin Laden, and brought down the government.  So to those who now question why we are there, I would ask, “then what?”

Afghanistan became a haven for al Qaeda because it was a failed state run badly by zealots.  To topple that government and leave the wreckage behind would have been to leave the field wide open for a repeat.  We had to replace it with something.

Perhaps we were more successful after WWII because we were less bashful about establishing a protectorate or a regency, with our own forces running the place until a satisfactory successor government could be established.  As it was, we attempted to form a political system in decidedly suboptimal circumstances, and failed utterly to eradicate corruption and to deal with tribalism, two traits that gravely undermined our efforts.

But our interests were served not merely by trying to establish a legitimate government responsive to the people in Afghanistan.  We have far broader interests in being known and recognized as the guarantor of the rule of law and the workings of the international system.  One of the principle reasons the late twentieth century was a period of remarkable economic advancement for hundreds of millions around the world is because the US maintained the shipping lanes, pressed for free trade, upheld treaty obligations, and generally acted to maintain peace and security for all nations.

In fulfilling that role, we need to be seen as a nation that can be relied upon.  We have done terrible damage to that reputation over the last several decades, from the abandonment of South Vietnam to the similar betrayal of the Iraqis after the 1992 war.  It does not serve us well to cut and run in Afghanistan as well.

For better or worse, the US is the global “hyper power,” as the French like to say (somewhat sniffily).  We have a national interest in being respected, even feared, but not in being scorned.

So what is our national interest in Afghanistan?  Put simply, it is not failing.  We have an obligation to the world, and need to be good enough to fulfill it.

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