Friday, December 28, 2007

Krugman on Pakistan

My my, it's been a while hasn't it? First off I'd like to apologize to any of my readers who were wondering if I'd started a new life as a hermit in the mountains of central Asia. I can offer no good explanation for my long absence, save a hectic holiday season and the fact that the Muses, fickle creatures that they are, have paid me few visits of late. I make it my New Year's resolution to resume something resembling a regular blogging schedule from here on out.

I am moved to comment on this blurb written a few days ago by the Times's Paul Krugman. Dr. Krugman is a man whose views I greatly respect. I think he is one of the most clear-headed and relevant voices of liberal thought in America today, and he is a better economist than I could ever hope to be. All that said, his comments on the recent Bhutto assassination in Afghanistan reflect a unidimensionally ideological approach to foreign policy that I find quite troubling. For those of you who couldn't be bothered to follow the link, here's the key quote:

This isn’t about you; in fact, as far as I can tell, it isn’t about America. It’s about the fact that Pakistan is a very messed-up place. This has very bad consequences for us, but it’s hard to see what, if anything, it says about US policy.

If you’re a tough guy (or gal) who believes in exerting US power — never mind, there are just too many heavily armed people in Pakistan for anyone but Norman Podhoretz to believe that we could throw our weight around. If you believe you can bring new understanding to the world through your enlightened outlook — sorry, there are too many people in Pakistan who don’t want to be enlightened. If you believe that we’d have more influence in the world if we hadn’t squandered our resources and good will in Iraq (which I do) — well, sorry, that influence wouldn’t extend to being able to bring peace and light to Pakistan.

This isn’t about us, and it’s out of our control.

Pardon my French Dr. Krugman, but [DELETED: Expletive referring to the excrement of a large farm animal]. Okay, maybe that's a bit harsh, but only a bit. For the sake of fairness, I will acknowledge that Krugman's analysis - to the extent that it merits the term - of the Pakistani political crisis hits on some important realities. For example, it is true that we cannot use the first infantry division to make Pakistani politics less volatile. I know of nobody, Podhoretz included, who advocates such a policy. We live in a definitively post-Imperial age in which global populations are too politicized to use as pawns in Georgetown living room chess games. The political direction of Pakistan will ultimately be set by the Pakistanis, and it is delusional to think that U.S. policy can "fix" the myriad political problems there.

Krugman, though, takes this advisable humility to its illogical extreme, arguing that events in Pakistan "[aren't] about us, and [are] out of our control." Pakistan is officially designated a Major Non-NATO Ally by the U.S. government. We have sold them over $10 billion in military equipment since 2001. Pakistan borders Afghanistan, Iran, and India, is currently serving as al-Qaeda's principal base of operations, and is a nuclear-armed state. Again, out of fairness, Krugman implicitly acknowledges Pakistan's strategic importance, but I am puzzled as to why he thinks American policy is irrelevant to events there. American negotiators were important to the (flawed) agreement that brought Bhutto back to Pakistan in the first place. American aid to the Pakistani military - particularly aid that allows it to maintain strategic parity with India - helps maintain Musharraf's support within his own army. To argue that the U.S. has no leverage in Pakistani politics strikes me as a bit small minded.

Part of the problem is that Krugman sets up straw men by grossly oversimplifying American policy options. He seems to think that we can either bomb Pakistan, or we can try to use moral suasion to direct political outcomes there. He's right that neither strategy would be particularly effective, but we have more nuanced options. Were the United States to start engaging Pakistan as a country, rather than just as a political regime, we could very likely have a positive effect both with regard to Pakistan's stability and our own security. The strategy outlined by Senator Biden in recent months, for example, would begin to repair America's image in Pakistan, help state-building there, and provide political actors with incentives to both strengthen democracy and go after violent extremists in a committed manner. Despite Krugman's infantalizing dismissal of Pakistani political culture ("there are too many people... who don't want to be enlightened"), my reading has indicated that the majority of the Pakistani population is either secular or moderately islamist. They don't need to be "enlightened," they need a political system that responds to their desires. The United States can help by investing in Pakistan, rather than whichever strongmen/women happen to be sitting in Islamabad at any given moment.

After fifty years of (largely frustrating) experience managing global politics, it is understandable why Dr. Krugman and many of his generation have given up on the notion that American power can be used effectively half a world away. While such humility is a welcome contrast to the overreaching doctrines of recent years, it is overly pessimistic of the leadership that America is yet able to provide.

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