Shadow Government

What Fareed Zakaria gets right -- and wrong -- on Obama's Pakistan policy

I find Fareed Zakaria always intriguing even, or perhaps especially, when I am not fully persuaded by his argument. Today, he writes:

President Obama gets much credit for changing America's image in the world -- he was probably awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for doing so. But even devoted fans would probably say it is too soon to cite a specific foreign policy achievement. In fact, there is a place -- crucial to U.S. national security -- where Obama's foreign policy is working: Pakistan.

I agree more or less with all four claims in that opening paragraph: Obama deserves credit for improving America's image; image is the only plausible justification for giving Obama the Nobel prize; Obama's foreign policy achievements have been sparse thus far; and the results and prospects in Pakistan are less gloomy than one might have predicted a year ago. However, the Pakistan claim is the dodgiest of those claims and I am only partially persuaded by Zakaria's reasoning.

Zakaria argues that success (so far) in Pakistan is due to four factors, three of which he credits to the Obama team:

1) Obama properly recognized that prospects in Afghanistan are linked to Pakistan and dramatized this fact by referring to the problem as the Af-Pak problem.
2) Obama used sticks and carrots to pressure Pakistan: sticks in the form of outreach to Pakistan's rival, India; carrots in the form of massive aid.
3) Obama has put in time and effort, specifically a "whole of government" approach to Pakistan.
4) Obama got lucky because the militants over-reached in Pakistan with their brutality.

My problem with this argument is that all of these factors, except perhaps the "AfPak" label and luck (!), pre-date the Obama administration by some margin. 

  • The Bush team saw Afghanistan and Pakistan as linked, indeed the very first move after 9/11 was sending Deputy Secretary Armitage to Pakistan to threaten Musharraf to get on-side; ever since, the Afghanistan and Pakistan policy lines have been intertwined.  The problem was that sometimes this meant that progress on one line led to progress on the other but just as often it meant that a set-back on one line led to a set-back on the other.
  • The Bush team used sticks and carrots with Pakistan, indeed the very same sticks and carrots of outreach to India and generous aid to Pakistan. 
  • The Bush team likewise devoted considerable time and effort to Pakistan and tried the same whole of government approach.
  • The militants certainly over-reached in Pakistan and have been over-reaching for quite a long time.  The one difference is that Bush was unlucky, in the form of a mostly unrelated over-reach by Musharraf when he challenged his Supreme Court Justice Chaudhry back in 2007.

It is possible that Obama has tweaked the mix of these policies just right and this has produced better results.  It is more possible that simply the steady accumulation of continuing basically the same things has produced more progress.  And it is perhaps most possible that the critical ingredients distinguishing between progress and reversals is the adoption of the McChrystal surge strategy in Afghanistan, good luck, and circumstance.

Consider this: if the situation in Pakistan was worsening, there would be plenty of explanatory factors available to blame.  First, just as Bush was stuck with the compromised Musharraf regime as partner, Obama is stuck the equally but differently compromised Zardari regime as partner.  Second, numerous bureaucratic snafus have largely hobbled the "whole of government" effort.  Third, the way the Pakistani aid package was, well, packaged produced a sharp backlash in Pakistan -- it is hard to know whether to code this a carrot or a stick or a poisoned carrot. Fourth, the tortuous Afghan Strategy Review 2.0 and the botched roll-out provided as much confusion as clarification in the region, at least initially.

In short, it seems it would be no harder to explain a lack of progress as it is to explain progress. Under the circumstances, a modified version of the old Scot verdict, "not yet proven," seems warranted.

To be fair, Zakaria duly caveats the Pakistan argument.  One cannot accuse him of naïve boosterism on this issue.  Indeed, he closes with a warning against naïve optimism on Pakistan and warns the Obama administration that relations with Pakistan are like running on a treadmill: "If you stop, you move backward -- and most likely fall down." He may be more right than he realized: it could be like running on a treadmill in that you can be doing the right things for a very long time and at great effort and still not appear to be any closer to your final objective.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Rove returns to re-litigate the past

Karl Rove is back in the news with his memoirs doing something that he claims the Bush administration did not do vigorously enough: re-litigating the past. I will have more to say when I finish reading the book, but for now I want to talk about one of the highlights flagged in several interviews: Rove's claim that if the administration had known the true extent of Iraq's WMD stockpile and programs it would not have pushed the use of force resolution in October 2002 and invaded in 2003.

This claim leapt out at me because I remember President Bush giving a somewhat different answer a few years ago. For instance, in December 2005 Bush was asked more or less this exact same question and he gave this response:

HUME: Can you say today that if you had known then what you know now about the weapons, that you would have made the same decision.

BUSH: I said it today, and I said it at the last speech I gave. And I've said it throughout the campaign to the American people. I said I made the right decision. Knowing what I know today, I would have still made that decision.

HUME: Now if you had this -- if the weapons had been out of the equation, because the intelligence did not conclude that he had them, it was still the right call?

BUSH: Absolutely.


In a valedictory interview, he was asked this question again and his answer was less dogmatic:

GIBSON: You've always said there's no do-overs as President. If you had one?

BUSH: I don't know -- the biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq. A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said the weapons of mass destruction is a reason to remove Saddam Hussein. It wasn't just people in my administration; a lot of members in Congress, prior to my arrival in Washington D.C., during the debate on Iraq, a lot of leaders of nations around the world were all looking at the same intelligence. And, you know, that's not a do-over, but I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess.

GIBSON: If the intelligence had been right, would there have been an Iraq war?

BUSH: Yes, because Saddam Hussein was unwilling to let the inspectors go in to determine whether or not the U.N. resolutions were being upheld. In other words, if he had had weapons of mass destruction, would there have been a war? Absolutely.

GIBSON: No, if you had known he didn't.

BUSH: Oh, I see what you're saying. You know, that's an interesting question. That is a do-over that I can't do. It's hard for me to speculate.


At some level, of course, this is an impossible hypothetical counter-factual and so there is nothing sinister in the fact that one of Bush's key advisors would give a different answer from the president nor even in the fact that the President would give a different answer at different times. Bush is at work on his own memoirs and so doubtless he is wrestling with this very issue himself and so his views may evolve still further.

And we should not exaggerate the contradictions in these various answers. Both Bush and Rove say that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein and both would say that if Iraq continues on the basically positive trajectory it has been on since the surge decision the war will have been "worth it."

But I think Rove's point is important and basically right. There were good reasons to promote regime change in Iraq and good reasons to oppose it. But the strongest case for the urgency of dealing decisively with Iraq in 2002 hinged on Iraq's WMD arsenal and its pursuit of capabilities to expand that arsenal. Had the true condition of that arsenal (limited) and the true status of the pursuit (ongoing but slower than suspected and put on a somewhat slower track deliberately pending the final collapse of the sanctions regime) been known by the Bush administration, the president's national security team would have pursued other more urgent priorities in the war on terror. And had it been known more widely in Congress, there would not have been such strong bipartisan support for the use of force resolution; all of the major Democratic senators in 2002 with ambitions for the 2004 presidential run supported the use of force resolution because they agreed with the consensus view that Iraq had a formidable WMD arsenal and was seeking to expand it still further. And had it been known more widely in the international community, the argument with our allies would have been over the existence of an Iraqi threat rather than over the best strategy for dealing with it.

There were a few iconoclasts who guessed more accurately the truth about the Iraqi WMD program in 2002, but they were outliers -- not unlike the outliers today who claim that Iran has no nuclear weapons ambitions whatsoever. Then, as now, it would seem quite a gamble to base an entire security strategy on an iconoclastic view that, if wrong, would be disastrously wrong. And, of course, we only know these truths because  the Duelfer report provided the intrusive fact-finding that was impossible while Hussein was in power. The situation in mid-2002 was one of a non-existent inspection regime and a collapsing sanctions regime; those and other dots pointed to the consensus that formed the basis of the Bush policy.

Rove's point is important in one further respect -- it rebuts a core tenet of the most fervent Bush-haters, those who believe that Bush wanted war in Iraq for any number of reasons, none of them having to do with the threat Bush claimed Iraqi WMD posed to the national interest of the United States. Those who think the Iraq war was about some Freudian impulse to best the father, or about seizing Iraqi oil, or about boosting Halliburton's profits, or what-have-you must believe that Rove is wrong -- that Bush would have figured out some other way to generate a war. These canards live on and, in some circles, may even enjoy the status of conventional wisdom. Given those circumstances, Rove is right to litigate the matter again.

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