What We Can Do
First published in the New York Times, 27 March 2007
We must acknowledge the limits of our power and knowledge in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere and concentrate on what is achievable. The question is not “What ought we to do?” but “What can we do?”
This is rarely discussed. When I ask politicians whether we can defeat the Taliban, they reply that we “have to” defeat the Taliban. If I ask whether we can actually do any good by staying in Iraq, they reply that we have “a moral obligation” to the Iraqi people.
By emphasizing moral necessity, politicians can justify almost any risk, uncertainty or sacrifice and make compromise seem cowardly and criticism treasonous. When I suggest recognition of Moktada al-Sadr or negotiation with the Taliban, I am described as an appeaser. But these moral judgments are fragile, and they increasingly cloak despair, paralysis and preparation for flight.
We are learning, painfully, that many of the problems in Iraq or Afghanistan — from violence and state failure to treatment of women — are deeply embedded in local beliefs, political structures and traumatic histories. Iraqis and Afghans do not want their country controlled by foreigners and non-Muslims. A powerful and effective minority is trying to kill us. The majority is at best lukewarm: they may dislike Sadrists or the Taliban, but they prefer them to us.
We are also now aware how little we can comprehend. Our officials are on short tours, lack linguistic or cultural training, live in barracks behind high blast walls and encounter the local population through angry petitions or sudden ambushes. We will never acquire the subtle sense of values, beliefs and history needed to create lasting changes, still less as we once intended, to lead a political, social and economic revolution.
Paul Bremer, then the top American administrator in Iraq, told us in October 2003 that we had six months to computerize the Baghdad stock exchange, privatize state-owned enterprises and reform the university curriculum. Now he would be grateful for stability. The American and British people have sensed that their grand objectives are unachievable, and since no one is offering any practical alternative, they are lapsing into cynicism and opposition.
Meanwhile the paralyzed leaders, afraid of their impotence, flit from troop increases to flight, from engagement to isolation. We must prevent this by acknowledging our limits,
while recognizing that although we are less powerful and informed than we claimed, we are more powerful and informed than we fear.
A year ago, for example, I felt it would be almost impossible to help re-establish ceramics, woodwork and calligraphy and restore part of the old city of Kabul. I worried that Afghans were uninterested, the standards too low, the prices too high, the government apathetic and international demand nonexistent. But I found great Afghan energy, courage and skill and received imaginative and generous support from the U.S. government. Unexpected markets emerged; the Afghan administration helped; men and women found new pride and incomes. There are many much better established and more successful projects than this all over Afghanistan.
My experience suggests that we can continue to protect our soil from terrorist attack, we can undertake projects that prevent more people from becoming disaffected, and we can even do some good. In short, we will be able to do more, not less, than we are now. But working with what is possible requires humility and the courage to compromise.
We will have to focus on projects that Iraqis and Afghans demand; prioritize and set aside moral perfectionism; work with people of whom we don’t approve; and choose among lesser evils. We will have to be patient. We should aim to stop illegal opium growth and change the way that Iraqis or Afghans treat their women. But we will not achieve this in the next three years. We may never be able to build a democratic state in Iraq or southern Afghanistan. Trying to do so through a presence based on foreign troops creates insurgency and resentment and can only end in failure.
“You are saying,” the politician replies, “that we ought to sit back and do nothing.” On the contrary I believe we can do a great deal. But ought implies can. We have no moral obligation to do what we cannot do.