Defusing the Foreign Policy Time-Bomb

Previously by S.J. Masty: New Year Rhymes for a NewDepression

You munch popcorn while, up on the silver screen, James Bond has 16 seconds in which to defuse the fiendish thermonuclear device. Does he clip the blue wire or the red wire? A mistake will destroy the planet.

In a comedy film, 007 would walk around to the back and unplug it, but this isn't a comedy. Neither is American foreign policy. Yes, it has gone frightfully wrong, yes it is now unaffordable, yes it is in the worst interest of American people, the US economy and maybe much of the world. But the order of reform is all-important. Clip the wrong wire first and it's not a happy ending.

The objective, one presumes, looks like Switzerland without the cuckoo-clocks. The closest that the Swiss ever come to meddling in other countries is its admirable International Committee of the Red Cross, staffed by valiant youth who run hospitals in other peoples' war-zones, and who monitor human rights and then negotiate quietly with the perpetrators, maintaining access and dialogue by avoiding publicity.

Otherwise, the Swiss just do business by minding their own business. Their government issues no daily announcements about the private affairs of nearly every nation on earth, they do not keep troops in half of the nations on the planet, nor do they launch wars to solve other countries' ancient, intractable problems.

It works. Nobody crashes jetliners into Swiss skyscrapers. Everybody uses their banks and eats their chocolate. This is the foreign policy that General Washington recommended to Americans, one fully ignored by big government and its profiteering contractors against which another general-turned-president, Eisenhower, warned convincingly.

Now America's economic meltdown presents a rare opportunity to reconsider the financial and other costs of global meddling.

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Even today, about two-thirds of the British worry that they were lied into war in Iraq by their political masters, and that innocents perished at their hands regardless of whether Saddam was a stinker who deserved his comeuppance. This concern for foreign lives has never turned up in American polls, where respondents seem only to care about American lives lost and American money spent.

This is telling, and upsetting, but if all Americans care about is American lives and American money, the historically small loss of American lives in Afghanistan – made disproportionately important emotionally and politically through the relatively new technology of global broadcast media – and most importantly the withering cost of empire, open a door to dramatic change and America's re-engagement with the world on more of a Swiss model.

But James Bond, recast as an American, still must choose which wire to cut.

It is finally becoming clear that Pakistan is in a state of undeclared war against Afghanistan, America and NATO. The London School of Economics recently published a scholarly paper stating that three generals from Pakistan's version of the CIA sit on the ruling board of the Taliban. When the Haqqani group of Taliban met secretly with Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently, they were accompanied by high-ranking minders from the Pakistan military. Pakistan runs the show or something very like it.

In his 2007 book Descent into Chaos, veteran Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid described how Pakistan's military consider the subjugation/colonization of Afghanistan to be of paramount national interest alongside Kashmir. America's leaders, faced with a nuclear-armed and volatile Pakistan, believed that once the radical Islamists — organized, trained and run by Pakistan — turned on their hosts and began blowing up Pakistani civilians, the Pak government would have a change of heart. It didn't.

Instead, Pakistan sends its own young soldiers to the Afghan-Pak border to die fighting Taliban whom it also controls, buying time until NATO gets tired and waddles off home. Meanwhile, America pumps weapons and cash into Pakistan, whose proxies blow up Afghan civilians and slaughter American servicemen and women.

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At stake for Pakistan is, initially, control of Afghanistan's vast mineral riches and unfettered trade access to Central Asia. The latter is now limited because Pakistan thwarts reciprocal Afghan trade to India, fearing that Indian goods will move north and compete favorably with their own.

In the longer term, the arrogant Pakistani generals, whose country never won a war, seem to believe that their Taliban proxies will spread their empire across Central Asia, even deep into Russia itself. There have been enough middling attempts by Pakistanis to destabilize countries, from Afghanistan's northern neighbors to even Mongolia, to make this theory at least plausible and Pakistan's 1980s dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, longed openly for a borderless, non-Arab, Islamist empire stretching from Pakistan to Turkey.

But armed servants often become the masters. The elite Janissaries of Ottoman Turkey grew sufficiently powerful to choose the sultan. So, too, with Rome's Praetorian Guard. If history is a guide, the Pakistani scheme may lead to radical, Islamist forces battering at the gates of Kazakhstan, China's Sinkiang, India and elsewhere, and in full or partial control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

Moreover, the hoary tale of how Afghans never suffer an occupation for long is a falsehood. The Alexandrine Greek occupation lasted hundreds of years, chiefly because the Hellenes intermarried with local leaders and their people. Later, the brutal White Huns occupied it for centuries, as did the gentle, trade-minded Kushans before them. The great Pushtoon poet, Khushal Khan Khattack, wrote bitterly of how the Pushtoon tribes betrayed one another and gave up their freedom, bought into the service of Aurangzeb and his 17th-century Moghul empire based in Delhi.

We Westerners always think that we are the star of the movie and ignore the experiences of others — Afghans can and have been divided and conquered for centuries at a time. Yes, the British and the Soviets failed and the American invasion may fail too, but that does not mean that the Pakistanis may not succeed, at least for long enough to create a vast, radical and perhaps very dangerous empire grown beyond their control, with America as its major enemy and target.

If America withdraws now, from Afghanistan and the region, has it clipped the wrong wire? Has it permitted a large, hostile and perhaps nuclear-armed enemy to form without addressing why radical Islamists are hostile to America in the first place?

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It may make more sense for America to first solve the underlying problems. Then, while a vast Islamist empire may be unpleasant for its subjects, it would have no more reason to attack America than to attack Switzerland.

The objections are simple and even the Islamists state them with candor.

America has propped up the ghastly regime of Egypt's Hosni Mubarrak for 30 years, and his domestic enemies are less the radical Muslim Brotherhood than the Egyptian middle classes who long for democracy and reform. The Muslim Brotherhood tries to capitalize on public resentment and the Egyptian government hypes the Islamist threat to keep the US tax dollars flowing. America so meddles and pays around the world.

The ultimately self-destructive unfairness of Israeli governments, in what looks to much of the world suspiciously like the slow-motion, under-the-radar, ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, has made America a target that US generals recognize even in public. Whether Jew or Gentile, many Americans now openly question the wisdom of American Government support for this process, or if that overstates it, the reluctant or begrudging acquiescence of the US Establishment out of fear of domestic political retribution.

Stop these and America moves out of the cross-hairs of Islamist radicals that it increasingly lacks the popular support, political fortitude, skill and definitely the cash to overcome. Apply the principle consistently and globally, and America may become as rich and safe as Switzerland.

The debate is already underway. Next, the domestic political ramifications of going broke, inflation, joblessness, closing schools, laying off teachers, shutting public parks and so on may tip the balance and set America back on the path that its first president intended.

But America must clip the right wire first and stop meddling.

July 1, 2010