Sunday, April 5, 2009

Ghost Wars, conclusion: The Limits of Hard Power

The U.S. does not have the power to defend itself against terrorist attacks, and it is not doing the things it would take to build that power. That's the most important lesson I derive from reading Steve Coll's Ghost Wars : The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001.

I want to make it clear: Steve Coll doesn't say that. He probably wouldn't agree. A lot of his book points out how the U.S. missed chances to stop al-Qaeda in its tracks by misunderstanding what was going on, or not sharing the information available in different branches of government. Some of the time, he even makes it sound like better use of futuristic technology would have let the CIA assassinate bin Laden and prevent the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in 2001.

Coll's own book argues against those conclusions, however. He is too good a journalist not to report that the U.S. could not know for sure where bin Laden was at any given moment--and that the consequences of missing him, and killing innocent people, would have been dire. We have also many, many reasons to believe that killing one man would not have stopped this movement--even if it were moral to do so.

The thing is: where are we today? The U.S. military is wounded from Iraq. Even if it were at full strength, it could not fight a successful counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan--no foreign power in history has been able to do that. The CIA still has very few spies who speak Dari or Pashto or any of the languages most common in Afghanistan, and almost none who could pass for Afghanis themselves. Secret war will not be any more successful than overt war.

This is not a counsel of despair, however. The U.S. has relied single-mindedly on hard power, when what is needed is soft power. According to the inventor of the term, Joseph Nye, soft power means
the ability to obtain the outcomes one wants through attraction rather than using the carrots and sticks of payment or coercion. As I describe in my new book The Powers to Lead, in individuals soft power rests on the skills of emotional intelligence, vision, and communication that Obama possesses in abundance. In nations, it rests upon culture (where it is attractive to others), values (when they are applied without hypocrisy), and policies (when they are inclusive and seen as legitimate in the eyes of others.)
I agree with Nye when he says, "American soft power has declined quite dramatically in much of the world over the past eight years." Just by being elected, Obama has halted the decline. He has not gained ground, however, and he will not make America a more attractive model to the world by sending more troops to Afghanistan or sending more prisoners to Bagram, the Iraqi Guantanamo. He will not gain a reputation for wisdom by pretending that the Karzai government in Kabul, the Maliki government in Baghdad, or the Zardari government in Islamabad is a reliable friend. The Bush administration has left us very little time to come to grips with reality. It is time to retrench and rebuild.

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