In his widely discussed recent book, The Limits of Power (Metropolitan Books, 2008), Boston University professor of history and international relations Andrew J. Bacevich proposed reinventing US containment policy toward the Soviet Union as the cornerstone for dealing with Al Qaeda and Islamic terrorism. Containment would mean intensified surveillance of terrorist activity, international police efforts to prevent attacks and expose terrorist networks, denying Islamic militants sanctuaries and financial resources. It would involve cultural, educational and diplomatic engagement with the Islamic world. It would not involve a Bush-style open-ended global war or budget-busting US support of failing states.
“Ours is the far stronger hand,” Bacevich has written. “The jihadist project is entirely negative. Time is our ally. With time, our adversary will wither and die.” In the following e-mail exchange, Bacevich criticizes the new Obama policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, in part, for its failure to consider the alternatives:
Obama’s new Afghanistan-Pakistan policy, with its emphasis on military counterinsurgency operations and nation-building, suggests that the president is none the wiser about the containment policy outlined in your book. Do you see any evidence to the contrary?
Candidly, I know of no evidence suggesting that the president is familiar with anything I have written. No one from the administration has been in touch with me about any subject whatsoever. The Obama approach differs from the Bush approach in that Obama defines US objectives somewhat more modestly than Bush did–he’ll settle for stability, whereas Bush insisted that we sought to democratize. And Obama understands that relying entirely on hard power won’t work–hence, his greater emphasis on economic development. But in Afghanistan, at least, Obama still seems to think that the United States can and must remake the place.
Do you support a strong US-led, regionally based diplomatic initiative and nonmilitary operations designed to strengthen Afghan governance and economic development?
I’m not optimistic about our ability to “strengthen Afghan governance and economic development.” Given the current economic crisis, I don’t believe we have the money for such an enterprise. When it comes to Afghanistan, I’m sympathetic to economic support and security assistance only in the sense that the Bush approach was even worse. Let me speak plainly: we can’t remake Afghanistan and don’t need to.
You have been an outspoken critic of the Bush war on terrorism as a “fashionable” idea that has created a “constellation of celebrities” around General Petraeus. I take it you have little confidence in the Pentagon’s investment in counterinsurgency doctrine?
The “surge” produced improved security but has not delivered the promised political reconciliation. To the extent that the surge produced positive results, the credit is due in large measure to the Sunnis, who decided for their own reasons to suspend insurgent activity. If you think we need to stay in Afghanistan for the next several years, then separating the bad Taliban from the not-so-bad Taliban is certainly legitimate and also probably imperative. I don’t happen to subscribe to the premise, however.