Voice

A New 'New Beginning'

What Barack Obama should tell the world in his Asia speech.

President Barack Obama has begun his 10-day trip to India, South Korea, Indonesia, and Japan, leaving Tuesday's electoral wreckage behind him. In Indonesia, where he spent four years of his boyhood, Obama is scheduled to deliver a major speech on Islam and modernity; aides have been describing the address as a sequel to the speech he gave in Cairo in June 2009, in which he famously pledged a "new beginning" to the United States' relationship with the Muslim world. But the Muslim world already knows what he thinks. It's the people of Asia, Muslim and otherwise, to whom Obama needs to present himself, or re-present himself. With that in mind, I have written a speech for him, which I offer here. I will not be offended if he borrows portions of it without attribution.

Hello, Jakarta! It's good to be in a town where they'd vote for me if they had the chance... Yes, I love you, too. Foreign countries are great.

What I really mean is that it's wonderful to be in the future. Almost a decade ago, my country was invaded by the past. Terrorists obsessed with the injustice of the Crusades launched an attack on the West -- on modernity, as they understood it -- from the sanctuary of a medieval state. We responded, both in ways we had to and in ways we didn't. The effect was to drag us into ancient quarrels and violent hatreds. These were battles we couldn't win. One of the first things I did after taking office was to declare a "new beginning" between America and the Middle East. I admit we haven't made much headway on that. I thought the problem had to do with the way America comported itself. In fact, the problem was the Middle East: Whether it's the theocrats in Iran or the settlers in Israel or the Wahhabi rulers in Saudi Arabia, everyone's looking backwards. And we can't make them face the future if they don't want to.

Americans are afraid of the Middle East, and we're hoping that if we can nurture democracy and development there, people won't come and kill us. We're not afraid of Asia. The United Nations just reported that the countries of East Asia and the Pacific have doubled their scores on the Human Development Index over the last 40 years -- by far the world's most rapid rate of growth. Today, five countries from the region are ranked in the "very high" category of human development: Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Brunei. The only Arab countries to make it into that category are oil states. The Middle East is struggling to escape the past; Asia is already living in the future.

The rest of the world has a lot to learn from Asia. You've been at peace for 35 years, and you've used that long era of stability to develop your markets, to make prudent national investments, to make great strides in human capital. My own country is so convulsed with fear, and with fights over alleged "first principles" -- limited government versus "socialism," authenticity versus elitism -- that we can't even think collectively about the future. Some people -- Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, to be exact -- say that Asian countries have avoided many of these futile struggles thanks to "Asian values." But if that means subordinating individual to collective rights, then I don't believe it. The model of authoritarian capitalism -- the model of China and Singapore -- has not proved contagious. Indonesia has become the world's third biggest democracy and a force for stability and prosperity in Southeast Asia. And India has proved that even the most freewheeling democracy in the world can harness national energies to produce rapid economic growth.

Still, hundreds of millions of Asians live in dire poverty. Asia needs the United States as much as the United States needs Asia. You need us to provide security and stability, as we have for the last 65 years; to serve as a market to buy your goods; and to preserve the rules of a liberal economic and political order. We need Asia to continue demonstrating that democracy and equitable development are compatible; to propel worldwide economic growth; and, increasingly, to help us and other Western states shape that liberal global order. Let me take these issues one at a time.

In recent years, the United States has talked too much about security, and above all about terrorism. We will continue working on counterterrorism issues, especially with Indonesia and the Philippines. But we know that many of you feel threatened by a force much closer to home: China's aggressive territorial claims. Chinese leaders are in a bellicose mood, as if they've outgrown the "peaceful rise." They seem to regard the South China Sea as an inland lake. And we're only too happy to benefit from your fears. We are, after all, the benevolent hegemon -- or maybe ex-hegemon.

At the same time, no one wants a confrontation with China. Your economies grow more dependent on China every day, as does ours. So you need to know that we will deepen our ties with Asia, through both bilateral and multinational arrangements; that we will remind China of the need to peacefully resolve disputes, but will do so in a calm way which will not trigger Chinese nationalism and paranoia; and that we will not allow China to decide where the United States will conduct naval exercises with our Asian allies.

But I know that what you need from the United States above all is a sound American economy. I wish I could trade the U.S. Congress for some Asian technocrats: The Democrats oppose free trade, and the Republicans oppose fiscal logic. But I'm going to do what I can with what I've got. I'm going to conclude the planned free-trade agreement with South Korea, and then I'm going to challenge the Republicans to prove that they really believe in free trade -- even at a time when Americans are worrying about competition from abroad. I'm going to move on to the next round of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will lead to free-trade agreements among Pacific Rim nations. This will require that both we, and you, lower tariffs -- and risk the political costs of doing so.

And yes, America will get its own economic house in order. We will have to rein in entitlement and defense spending, and put an end to the suicidal pandering of endless tax cuts. But as any of you watching our election results know, we're not going to do it any time soon. Sorry.

Leading Asian states aspire to play a larger role in global affairs -- as do emerging powers elsewhere in the globe. The United States welcomes this ambition, as our deepening engagement with the G-20 demonstrates. We have stated our support for Japan's candidacy for the U.N. Security Council. Today, I declare our support for India's candidacy as well. India will soon begin a two-year term on the council; this will give the country the opportunity to show that it sees itself as a responsible stakeholder of the global system. In case I'm being too oblique, blocking council action against malefactors and human rights abusers on the grounds of state sovereignty is a poor way of making your case. It's hard enough dealing with China as a permanent member. Don't make things worse.

Finally, you will surely have been struck by the fact that I haven't said a word about myself -- not my childhood years here in Indonesia, or even that my middle name is "Hussein." The middle name thing, you may have heard, no longer goes over so well at home. But I've also learned something important over the last two years: Biography is not policy. Empathy, respect, even deference -- they're all to the good. But the Palestinians tell me that that if you use a new tone of voice to articulate a familiar policy, it winds up sounding like hypocrisy. And they're not the only ones. Anyway, all that emblematic stuff is for the Middle East. You guys care about substance. Maybe that's what Asian values are all about.

The author would like to thank Evan Feigenbaum of the Eurasia Group, Charles Freeman and Ernest Bower of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment.

NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

An Unnecessary War

Afghanistan used to be the central front in the war against terrorism. Now it's a distraction from it.

First as candidate and later as president, Barack Obama famously described Afghanistan as "a war of necessity:" a war the United States could not afford to lose. Obama restated the case in the speech he gave last December announcing his decision to add 30,000 troops to the battle, asserting that Afghanistan and Pakistan constituted "the epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda," and adding that the threat would "only grow if the region slides backwards, and al Qaeda can operate with impunity." The only way to counteract this threat, Obama insisted, was to bolster American military capacity, and to adopt a counterinsurgency strategy to "increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region."

Most of the debate around Obama's war plans has centered on that counterinsurgency strategy: Is President Hamid Karzai too corrupt and erratic, are the Afghan people too hostile to foreign forces, is institution-building too intrinsically difficult, and are Afghan security forces too inept to justify the massive and belated effort to build Afghan stability and capacity? But this is actually the secondary issue. The central question is: Is it necessary? Would withdrawal in fact gravely jeopardize American national security?

The recent tentative overtures which Gen. David Petraeus has made to Taliban leaders show that this is no idle question. Although the official American position is that the Taliban must accept the authority of the state, a far likelier outcome is that U.S. and Afghan forces would withdraw from areas which would then be effectively occupied by the Taliban. How bad would that be?

In their recent report, "A New Way Forward," the members of the Afghanistan Study Group, a panel convened by the New America Foundation, argue flatly that Obama was wrong in thinking that Al Qaeda would "operate with impunity" in the space vacated by NATO forces. "Al Qaeda's presence in Afghanistan is very small," they write, and thus containable with classic counterterrorism measures. Moreover, the Taliban "would likely not invite Al Qaeda to re-establish a significant presence" in a re-Talibanized Afghanistan. In fact, the authors argue, "the current U.S. military effort is helping fuel the very insurgency we are attempting to defeat." University of Chicago scholar Robert Pape, a member of the panel, has concluded after a study of 2,200 suicide terrorism attacks that foreign military presence itself is the chief trigger of terrorist attacks.

How plausible is all this? Let's take the claims one at a time. Administration officials have estimated that no more than 400 or so members of al Qaeda remain in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al Qaeda is arguably a spent force, depending increasingly on zealous but ineffective volunteers. Marc Sageman, a CIA veteran now with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, has asserted in congressional testimony that more than three-quarters of the terrorist plots against the West executed or foiled over the last five years have been carried out by "homegrown terrorists" with no organizational connection to al Qaeda -- a phenomenon he calls "leaderless jihad." Focusing vast resources on any piece of geographical space is thus a strategic mistake.

On the other hand, the terrorism expert Peter Bergen argues that "the numbers are a red herring." Osama bin Laden only had 200 loyalists at the time of 9/11, after all, and still managed to do a great deal of damage. What's more, he adds, since al Qaeda "has infected other groups they're embedded with," including the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani body which carried out the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, counting al Qaeda alone is misleading. And the lack of recent spectacular attacks hardly proves that al Qaeda central is history. Today's headlines that packages containing explosive devices were sent from Yemen to two synagogues in Chicago may indicate that al Qaeda is still capable of mounting terror operations overseas. Bruce Riedel, a Middle East expert who helped shape the Obama administration AfPak policy and now serves as a fellow at the Brookings Institution, has written that the failed plots of the "Christmas bomber" and of the Afghan-American Najibullah Zazi show that al Qaeda has in fact regrouped. Had either succeeded, no one would be talking about the organization's decline.

Bergen also takes issue with the claim that the Taliban wouldn't be as foolish as to let al Qaeda tag along if and when they re-occupy much of southern and eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban are not "rational actors," he says. "Housing al Qaeda was not a rational act. And there's no reason to believe they would behave any differently from the way they did before." Nor, says Bergen, is it correct to say that the Taliban have no goals beyond overthrowing the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some sub-groups do; others don't.

How can one predict whether or not Taliban leaders will do what Westerners would deem the rational thing? Patrick Cronin, a national security specialist with the Center for a New American Security and a signatory of "A New Way Forward," is candid enough to say, "We don't know." The Taliban might well put out a welcome mat for al Qaeda-style groups. The Haqqanis, who have carried out many of the suicide attacks against NATO forces and have worked closely with al Qaeda, are "the nub of the problem," Cronin says, because a Haqqani presence in eastern Afghanistan would offer a new platform for international jihadists. But Cronin notes that Pakistani security forces, which have long sponsored the Haqqanis, do not want to see an al Qaeda connection and have been trying to "rein them in." The Haqqanis may have to be included in any final settlement -- Pakistan will insist on it -- but NATO forces will continue pounding the frontier areas.

But "can the effort succeed?" and "how bad would failure be?" are not quite the same question. On the first, much evidence has piled up; and most, though not all, of it points to "No." Counterinsurgency strategy doesn't work with a corrupt and illegitimate government, and an insurgency that can take shelter beyond the Pakistani border. But experience to date tells us almost nothing about the second question. Paul Pillar, another veteran CIA officer and signatory of "A New Way Forward," argues that the Haqqani-al Qaeda link "is not immutable." That may be; but there's no more evidence on that subject than on the rationality, or irrationality, of the Taliban. The Council on Foreign Relations' Leslie Gelb has consistently argued that a troop reduction in Afghanistan, like the withdrawal from Vietnam, would provoke apocalyptic fears but prove to be an anti-climax. I find that notion appealing, though not necessarily persuasive.

But all costs are relative. And against the uncertain benefits of maintaining a very large military presence in Afghanistan over the next three to four years are the very large costs of staying in such large numbers. The $100 billion a year or so in resources may be the least of it. Whether or not Pape is right that foreign military presence itself is the cause of terrorism, it is surely a provocation in the eyes of millions of Muslims, some tiny fraction of whom will be moved to attack the West. And whether or not Sageman is right that al Qaeda-centric terrorism has given way to leaderless jihad, the focus on Afghanistan absorbs assets needed for criminal justice and surveillance efforts in all the other places where terrorism now germinates. The war is a terrible drain on Washington's attention, and on U.S. soft power and prestige. "It's hard to be taken seriously in Asia when we are still bogged down in Afghanistan," as Cronin says.

There are very few true wars of necessity. The Civil War was one; World War II was another. When Mullah Omar refused to give up Osama bin Laden, a war in Afghanistan became necessary. But then the war changed character, and the nature of the adversary changed as well. A war against Islamic terrorism, in some form, remains necessary. But the war in Afghanistan does not.

MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images