Beware a new Bush doctrine

By Seyom Brown | October 4, 2006

IN A DEFT move to divert the political debate away from the embarrassing National Intelligence Estimate on the impact of the war in Iraq on terrorism, President George W. Bush has been prematurely touting the "successes" of NATO's beefed-up counterinsurgency campaign against the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. But reports from the field reveal another potential quagmire in the making. Moreover, Bush has couched this re emphasis on Afghanistan in a reformulation of his grand strategy for conducting the war on terrorism.

The "ideological conflict" of the 21st century, he now avers, is between "moderation" and "extremism." Belatedly, the debate in his administration appears to have been won by those who recognize that equating successful counter-terrorism with implanting democracy is naive (witness the exploitation of democracy by Hamas, Hezbollah, and militant Shi'ites in Iraq), and also embarrassing to intransigently undemocratic governments (like Pakistan) that the United States is courting, not only for help in combating terrorism but also for reasons of arms control, access to energy, military bases, and hospitality to US investments (including Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Kazakhstan, and of course China).

If, as reported by Bob Woodward, Bush has been consulting with Henry Kissinger, this doctrinal revision of the aggressive democratization policy is hardly surprising. It was Kissinger who persuaded President Nixon to make arms control and economic deals with the Soviet Union and China over the objections of human rights champions on the left and anti communist ideologues on the right. And it was the realpolitik national security adviser who maneuvered the "tilt" toward Pakistan as that military dictatorship tried to suppress the Bangladesh independence movement backed by democratic India -- giving primacy to geopolitics over humanitarian considerations.

Both of these correctives -- the renewed recognition of Afghanistan as the flashpoint in the effort to eradicate Al Qaeda and a realistic backing away from hubristic neoconservative illusions about democratic peace growing out of the barrel of a gun -- should be welcomed, despite their obvious purpose of shifting the political spotlight away from the administration's gross ineptitude in Iraq. Rectifying the legacy of ineptitude, however, even in Afghanistan, let alone at the level of grand strategy, requires a more fundamental overhaul of policy and policy-making than this administration is capable of undertaking.

The vaunted assumption by NATO of the prime counterinsurgency role in Afghanistan has not yet yielded sufficient troop and equipment contributions to overcome the expanding Taliban insurgency. Castigations of the allies for dragging their feet when the indispensable superpower, still bogged down in Iraq, is engaged in a transparent effort to slough off the lion's share of its own counterinsurgency efforts to NATO are unlikely to produce the substantial force augmentation required. The gap between promise and performance in Afghanistan is starkly revealed also by the continuing reduction of funds for reconstruction and development, without which local victories in firefights with the Taliban are only temporary, if not meaningless.

Nor are Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's complaints about other countries' caveats to US-preferred rules of engagement likely to overcome the hesitancy felt in many capitals about having their boots on the ground march into a no-exit bloody war directed at the top by the United States. (A US general is slated to take over command of the NATO force in Afghanistan in 2007.) Meanwhile, in contradiction of US insistences on "unity of command," the United States continues to operate its "counter terrorism" (as distinct from "counter insurgency") operations outside the NATO command structure.

The new Bush doctrine of supporting "moderate" regimes and movements against the extremists sounds like a realistic accommodation to the reality that not all those upon whom the United States depends for its security and well-being can pass a litmus test for democracy and human rights. But it risks a pendulum swing too far back in the direction of completely amoral realpolitik, in which this country indifferently turns a blind eye to gross violations of human rights. It was not a good sign of how the new doctrine will be implemented by this administration to hear Bush say, after meeting with President Nuristan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan last Friday, "We discussed our desire to defeat extremism and our mutual desire to support the forces of moderation throughout the world."

The record of this administration does not inspire confidence that it can avoid a simplistic implementation of the moderation vs. extremism formula in which those who go along with its demands and preferences are, by definition, moderates, and those who oppose it are either extremists or appeasers of the extremists.