Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Defining democratization down

The Times today, noting the congruity of realist outlook between Obama and Robert Gates, credits Gates with bringing Obama "to earth" on goals for Afghanistan. Gates, according to Eliabeth Bumiller, has a "discomfort with lofty democracy rhetoric":
“If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose,” Mr. Gates recently told Congress.

The remark ricocheted around the city as a startling break from the second President Bush, but it was also a departure from Mr. Obama’s comments during the campaign when he spoke grandly of rebuilding Afghanistan’s civil institutions. Friends say that Mr. Gates’s thinking may have been a factor in bringing Mr. Obama’s goals down to earth or at the very least that there was a meeting of minds.

“Who got there first, I don’t know,” said Lee Hamilton, president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, “but they really have sought a kind of middle ground between making Afghanistan a model of democracy and stability on the one hand, and a slide into chaos on the other.”

Something is slightly off here. Obma may have spoken soaringly of the need to focus U.S. military efforts on Afghanistan, away from Iraq, and broadly about the need to win the war for hearts and minds in the Muslim world, but did he wax eloquent about creating a model democracy? I don't think so. In fact, as I've noted before, Gates defining success down from Bushian heights in Afghanistan sounds almost exactly like Obama doing the same with regard to Iraq. Here's Gates on Afghanistan this January:
I think one of the -- one of the points where I suspect both administrations come to the same conclusion is that the goals we did have for Afghanistan are too broad and too far into the future, are too future-oriented, and that we need more concrete goals that can be achieved realistically within three to five years in terms of reestablishing control in certain areas, providing security for the population, going after alQaeda, preventing the reestablishment of terrorism, better performance in terms of delivery of services to the people, some very concrete things.
And Obama on Iraq, to Ryan Crocker, last April:

And, see, the problem I have is if the definition of success is so high, no traces of Al Qaida and no possibility of reconstitution, a highly-effective Iraqi government, a Democratic multiethnic, multi- sectarian functioning democracy, no Iranian influence, at least not of the kind that we don't like, then that portends the possibility of us staying for 20 or 30 years.

If, on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there's not, you know, huge outbreaks of violence, there's still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it's not a threat to its neighbors and it's not an Al Qaida base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe, and that, I think, is what everybody here on this committee has been trying to drive at, and we haven't been able to get as clear of an answer as we would like.

It's a meeting of realist minds.

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