The Lies We Tell Ourselves

Six grand illusions of America's foreign policy.

Life is full of illusions. We all need them to survive: Hard work and honesty really do guarantee success, we tell ourselves; I really am indispensable at work. But illusions seem particularly abundant in politics, policy, and governments' behavior -- where they do more harm than good.

On the domestic side, illusions keep turning up like weeds in a flower garden. Hardcore Democrats and Republicans believe that their respective parties have all the answers to what ails America, Tea Partiers yearn to recreate an America that is no longer practical or possible, GOP ideologues hype a fiscal fix that can somehow avoid both tax increases and entitlement reform, and Barack Obama's supporters and detractors respectively think he's either one of the greatest American presidents or the latest manifestation of Satan's finger on Earth.

Idealized conceptions of reality have long characterized American foreign policy, too. Here is a collection of my favorites, which have marked Democratic and Republican administrations alike.

"American foreign policy must be principled and consistent."

It's not and rarely is. We have upheld our principles in the past, and we will do so again in the future. But the world is just too complicated, the need for flexibility is too imperative, and American interests are too diverse ever to imagine doing so all the time. Even consistently supporting a set of general principles -- freedom and democracy, say -- is a bridge too far. We support an Arab Spring in Egypt (at least in the beginning), but not in strategically located countries like Bahrain; we intervene in Libya and overthrow the evil Muammar al-Qaddafi, but won't intervene in Syria to get rid of the equally evil Bashar al-Assad. We can talk to jihadists in Iraq and Afghanistan who have the blood of Americans on their hands -- but we'd never consider engaging with Hamas or Hezbollah.

Contradictions and hypocrisy are part of the job description of every great power -- and many smaller ones too. We can try to iron out the bumps, but holding out hope for consistency and principle? Give me a break. I'd be happy if every Democratic and Republican administration would mean what they say, say what they mean, and think carefully about the consequences of America's actions before they acted.

"The key question for U.S. action is: 'Can we do it?'"

There are bigger questions to ask. Too many times we act because we can, without thinking through the consequences or the objectives of what we're doing. We embark on massive nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and try to make peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Because hey, why not? We're America, and we need to fix things.

But capacity is hardly the only variable, particularly when military force is involved. There are at least three other central questions that need to be debated before we launch ourselves into any endeavor -- political or military. What are we doing it for? Should we be doing it? And what will it cost?

These questions are the holy trinity of foreign policy. Answering them won't guarantee success, but we have a better chance of reducing the odds of failure if we ask them. For a country now emerging from its two longest -- and arguably among its most profitless -- wars, they are now more imperative than ever.

"Trying and failing is better than not trying at all."

Not necessarily. The notion -- to quote both former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State John Kerry -- that there's nothing wrong with being caught trying really is in need of some serious work. The old college try is precisely that -- it's appropriate for the Michigan Wolverines (Go Blue), but it's not a substitute for the foreign policy of the world's greatest power.

Failure has costs. So does inaction, to be sure. The two have to be constantly weighed against one another, and a balance has to be found. There is no way to guarantee success -- but if you're basing your approach on a wing and a prayer (see: the Iraq war, the 2000 Camp David peace summit, the Geneva peace talks on Syria), you're headed for trouble. Even the Camp David and Geneva talks might have been OK if we had some sort of plan B. But we didn't, and left the kind of vacuum that leads folks to believe (correctly) that we don't know what we're doing.

"Domestic politics and foreign policy should never mix."

Sure they do, and they must. Diplomats are generally purists on this subject: They hate domestic politics, and many also can't stand Congress. They view politics as a dirty affair compromising the nation's true interests, which only the foreign-policy elite can understand.

This is ridiculous. Domestic politics matters even in authoritarian societies -- who are we kidding to think it doesn't matter in a democracy, particular one in which power is diffused? In a democracy, a sustainable foreign policy depends on a sustainable domestic consensus. And that consensus is in turn shaped by many factors in our system -- public opinion, interest groups, lobbies, and the media.

It's a competition, really -- and it's in the very nature of our system. Get over it. Whining about domestic lobbies (see: AIPAC) makes little sense, as does blasting presidents when they turn to domestic politics because they have other priorities other than Middle East peace. Indeed, strong and willful presidents pursuing smart policies can hold their own -- even trump domestic pressures.

"It's the 21st century: Doesn't the rest of the world get it?"

No they don't. And it's perfectly understandable why. When Kerry talks about Russian President Vladimir Putin behaving in a 21st century world as if he were still living in the 19th century, I wonder if we really get it. America may not pay attention to history and geography, but other nations are bound by them.

9/11 notwithstanding, we are detached from the cruelties of the world in a way no other great power has ever been. We may ascribe to the notion that all countries have a stake in one another's success in this newly globalized world, and that concerns over political identity, survival, national honor, and dignity are relics of some long-forgotten world when dinosaurs walked the Earth. But just ask the Iranians, the Palestinians, the Egyptians, the Israelis, the Turks, or the Chinese whether they've gotten over the past and feel as secure and upbeat as we do in this supposedly reformed world.

I think the world is actually getting better and that the present has been informed positively by the lessons of history. But that doesn't mean the transition is complete or that the past doesn't cast a long shadow over the behavior of other nations or leaders.

"American exceptionalism is dead."

No it's not. It's just not for export. Travellers to the United States in the 19th century, from  Alexis de Tocqueville to Lord Bryce, reported the obvious: America was different from Europe. It is unique, really -- and that's still true today.

Three elements define American exceptionalism: The detachment and physical security that two oceans and weak neighbors provide, our physical size and abundance of resources, and a political system based on the idea that individuals really do matter and that they can advance by virtue of their merit. No other democracy in the world today could have elected a man of color and made him the most powerful leader in the world. The Brits couldn't elect a man of color to lead them; nor could the French, the Australians, or the Israelis.

None of this makes us morally superior, nor the keepers of good governance. But it can position us well to be a force for good in the world. What we need to understand is that our exceptionalism is idiosyncratic: It cannot be shipped abroad as a model for others to follow. We get ourselves into trouble when we lecture the rest of the world about how they should try to be like us and follow what has worked for us. The best we can do is to use our power to help create an environment in which countries are free to make their own choices consistent with their values, history, and geography. And as we now see with Ukraine and Syria, that's easier said than done.

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I'm under no illusion that we're going to give up our illusions anytime soon. Most of these flow from the most basic of conditions -- who we are, or at least who we think we are, and our own conception of America. These kinds of things don't change easily, or sometimes at all. We're preternaturally optimistic, hypocritically principled, convinced we're morally superior, incredibly judgmental, and at times quite pragmatic. This mix can make us insufferable, endearing -- and quite influential, too. Indeed, when we articulate a clear foreign-policy objective, get the means and ends right, are risk-ready, and don't allow our aims to exceed our capacity, we can actually accomplish quite a bit (see: Jimmy Carter's mediation for an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, or Bush 41's Iraq war).

But who are we kidding? Those are the exceptions not the rule. Most of the time, we're flapping around and just trying to get by -- caught up in a world that's largely beyond our capacity to control. We may wish it weren't so, but I think many of us are secretly relieved that our days of trying to save the world are over -- at least for a while.

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Nigeria Is Not Pakistan

The state isn't trying to use Boko Haram as a political tool -- it's just been totally useless in doing anything to defeat it.

Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain was scheduled to arrive in the Nigerian capital of Abuja on April 21 with a group of around 70 officials and business leaders for a three-day visit aimed at boosting bilateral trade.

Days before Hussain's arrival, a Pakistani Embassy official in Abuja told reporters the presidential agenda would include discussions on how Pakistan could help Nigeria address its energy and domestic gas challenges. Pakistan providing energy expertise -- fancy that! This from a country where power cuts grind factories to a halt, bodies decompose in morgues, and the rich are forced to fan themselves in the peak of the summer heat when their backup generators blow up from overuse. The heart of the problem is corruption, of course, which everyone knows but no one seems capable of handling.

After decades of covering the AfPak region, my standard of comparison is so skewed that I tend to see hope where most of my colleagues only smell despair. I know the bar has been set too low, for instance, when I start comparing the Islamists' women's rights track record to the Taliban's. If outage-hit Pakistan can offer its energy distribution expertise to Nigeria, it makes for an interesting study in the pecking order of mismanaged states.

But in the end, the lights went out on that plan. Hussain -- sometimes known as Pakistan's "invisible" president -- canceled his Nigerian visit. Not due to security concerns, insisted a Pakistani Embassy official in Abuja, but nobody believed him.

In the week leading up to the Pakistani presidential visit, the Nigerian militant Islamist group Boko Haram raised its profile in the terror charts, conducting attacks that have shocked even the group's fellow jihadists.

On April 14, militants stormed an all-girls secondary school in the remote northeastern village of Chibok in Borno state and kidnapped hundreds of girls. On the same day, a car bomb exploded during rush hour at a bus station in Nyanya, right on the outskirts of the Nigerian capital, killing more than 70 people.

In a jihad video posted days after the attack, Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram's elusive leader, issued a stark warning. "This is a prelude," said Shekau, clad in camouflage fatigues and cradling an AK-47 assault rifle. Addressing President Goodluck Jonathan, the jihadi leader goaded the embattled president, as he has been doing over the past few years: "Let me be blunt: I am in your city, near you. Find me."

Finding Shekau is easier said than done. The Pakistani authorities know this, of course. The world's most wanted man was under their noses in Abbottabad, yet they claim they didn't have a clue.

In 2009, Nigerian authorities believed the brutish militant leader was killed in a security crackdown that led to the capture of his far more charismatic predecessor, Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf. The Nigerian security forces proceeded to kill Yusuf in custody, summarily executing him before a crowd outside a police station in Maiduguri, Boko Haram's birthplace, according to news reports. Shortly after Yusuf's killing, local police and state officials insisted he had been killed in a shootout in the remote northeastern city while trying to escape. But few Nigerians familiar with the security forces' reputation for brutality believed the official account.

A year later, Shekau had the sort of "Lazarus moment" that's fairly common in jihadi circles, when inept government officials claim a high-profile militant has been killed only to eat their words when the presumed dead man emerges to vow fire, brimstone, suicide bombings, and more on the enemy infidel state.

Over the next four years, Boko Haram attacks on security forces, churches, markets, and schools in northern Nigeria have killed more than 4,000 people. The rising levels of violence has effectively brought normal life in this northeastern corner of Nigeria to a standstill, with millions displaced, schools frequently closed, and residents coping with the checkpoints and curfews of emergency rule imposed last year. There was a widespread feeling that the Nigerian government was either impervious or not doing enough to address the spiraling security situation. That sentiment reached a peak following the April 14 mass abduction, fueling public outrage on the streets of the capital -- where women's groups have been regularly demonstrating -- and on social media, where the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls has attracted high-profile voices such as Hillary Clinton and Mary J. Blige.

Now, U.S. President Barack Obama has finally stepped in, sending a team of experts to try to locate the girls. The announcement came just hours after reports emerged that another group of eight girls was kidnapped on May 4 from a village in Borno state.

In the immediate aftermath of the April 14 kidnappings -- a critical time for security experts to start tracking abductors and their hostages -- as the days turned to weeks, my horror turned to panic as I heard some Nigerian journalists on the airwaves explain that even in countries with far better militaries, such as Pakistan, terrorism takes time to tackle.

Let's be clear: Terrorists may be clever, committed, well-trained, and well traveled. They may employ asymmetrical tactics, seeking soft targets and sowing a level of terror disproportionate to their military abilities. But in the end, jihadi groups are only as effective as states, governments, and security services enable them to be. When terrorist threats or insurgencies drag on for years, with death tolls running into the thousands and with millions displaced -- as has happened in Nigeria and Pakistan -- there are invariably policy and structural issues at play.

In Pakistan, as we all know, the problem is official duplicity. Yes, since 2004, more than 4,000 Pakistani soldiers have been killed in security operations in the lawless tribal areas, according to military statistics. Pakistani officials often cite these figures when they are confronted with U.S. allegations that they are an insincere partner in the war on terror.

But the awful truth is, the victims of Tehrik-i-Taliban (or the "bad Taliban") are also victims of a shortsighted Pakistani military-intelligence strategy of supporting Islamist groups -- including the Afghan (or "good") Taliban -- in order to try to extend "strategic depth" (as it's known in policy circles) in neighboring Afghanistan. Nothing is going change this: Pakistan will not stop trying to spread its influence in Afghanistan or getting at India. This problem is here to stay.

In Nigeria, the picture is more nuanced. It involves poverty, corruption, geographical and sectarian grievances, impunity, inefficiency, and some levels of local political complicity. These are problems this former British colony has battled since independence.

But here's the good news for Nigerians who compare themselves unfavorably to the other former British colony in South Asia and who are seeking counterterrorism training and cooperation from Pakistan: The Nigerian problem is inefficiency, which is easier to tackle than an official, intractable policy of duplicity.

In an April report on the Boko Haram insurgency, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) addressed some of the allegations of Nigerian political complicity that are occasionally heard but never detailed in the international media. The ICG report notes that, "while accounts are disputed, the narrative put forward by Boko Haram and now dominant in the region is that around 2002, [founder Mohammed] Yusuf was co-opted by the then Borno state gubernatorial candidate, Ali Modu Sheriff, for the support of his large youth movement, in exchange for full implementation of Sharia and promises of senior state government positions for his followers." Sheriff has denied the allegations, but speaking to the ICG, an unnamed senior Nigerian security official noted, "After the politicians had created the monster … they lost control of it."

Rival politicians have made numerous allegations of political complicity, which are hard to substantiate but are likely to increase as the 2015 election approaches. This is a country split between a mostly Muslim north and a Christian-majority south, a divide that provides the perfect backdrop for conspiracy theories.

The truth, however, is that Boko Haram is too huge, vicious, and unpredictable to be manipulated in a political game. There was certainly some local political complicity with the group back in the early 2000s. But that was when Yusuf -- a popular Quranic scholar who was engaged in the political process -- was the group's leader.

Yusuf's objections to Western education, which earned the group the name Boko Haram ("Western education is forbidden," in the local Hausa), included criticisms of evolution and the big-bang theory, which contravenes a literalist interpretation of the scriptures. I suspect Yusuf would have found that a number of fundamentalist Nigerian Christians -- of which there are many -- probably share this concerns.

But that was the old Boko Haram -- before Shekau emerged as a jihadi leader vowing revenge for his predecessor's death.

Boko Haram today is a regional threat. French military officials in Mali have confirmed that Boko Haram militants trained in northern Mali when the region fell to rebel control following a March 2012 coup. The Nigerian group has fighters who have trained and fought with al-Shabab in Somalia. It also works with, or tolerates, an even more hard-line splinter group, Ansaru. Boko Haram and Ansaru fighters have links to jihadi groups in the Sahel, including the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. And the Boko Haram threat is spreading to neighboring Chad, Cameroon, and Niger.

Nigerian politicians understand this very well. There's little evidence of Pakistani-style perfidy at the national level in Nigerian political or military-intelligence circles. The simple, sad truth is, the Nigerian government has failed to address the problem of poverty and corruption, which feeds jihadi ideologies in this oil-rich West African nation.

When it comes to a long-term strategy, the Jonathan administration has made halfhearted attempts at peace talks, with the appointment of a Dialogue and Reconciliation Committee last year and reports of talks through "backroom channels." Many Nigerian experts and former military officials maintain that a dialogue is necessary to address the problem. But some of the negotiators I've interviewed say there is a lack of political will to make the peace talks work. Boko Haram's long-standing preconditions for talks are never met. These include bringing Yusuf's killers to justice and releasing women and children (including possibly Shekau's wife and children) in detention. Boko Haram has claimed that at least one of its members, known as Abu Darda, who was "sent to dialogue on our behalf" in the northwestern Nigerian city of Kaduna, was "lured and arrested" by the federal government.

Of course, peace talks with groups such as Boko Haram and the Taliban are hard to pull off. Jihadi leaders tend to dismiss the very idea of negotiating with the infidel state. Even if they do engage in secret, back-channel talks, it's often hard to ascertain whether their emissaries are credible representatives or whether the emir has full control of various factions and splinter groups. Indeed, Boko Haram's organization appears to be more diffuse than the Afghan Taliban. Among Shekau's fighters, some of whom have petty criminal records, he does not command the level of respect and discipline of his more learned predecessor, nor does he have the stature of the Taliban's Mullah Omar.

That leaves a military solution to the problem, which Jonathan is not averse to -- if only his underresourced, poorly trained military-intelligence teams could get it right.

On May 1, U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters the United States has provided Nigeria more than $20 million in security assistance. "Part of what that does is help professionalize their military, investigate terrorist attacks, and enhance their forensic capabilities," she said.

Ask any Nigerians where that money went, and they will roll their eyes and supply the old answer: corruption.

To be fair, the Nigerian military did step up its operations in late 2013 and managed to target senior Boko Haram militants. But the fight against terrorism has also been taken up by a civilian vigilante group called the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), composed of youths helping the security forces. Security experts and some residents in the northern states say the CJTF has succeeded in cracking down on Boko Haram. But militia groups tend to become monsters; the New York-based Human Rights Watch has already recorded cases of CJTF excesses.

Announcing the latest U.S. security assistance to Nigeria, Obama noted that the "heartbreaking" and "outrageous" abductions "may be the event that helps to mobilize the entire international community to finally do something against this horrendous organization that's perpetrated such a terrible crime."

But this is not a problem the international community can solve. It's up to the Nigerian government and security services as well as the elites to ensure their authorities are doing the right thing. This includes a rapid governmental response to the violence in remote parts of the country, a professional military with counterterrorism units, special operations forces, and robust intelligence-gathering and sharing initiatives. The good news is, all Nigerians agree that's the solution. There's no insidious, shadowy, proxy-war policy at play, where the government or even one arm of the military-intelligence network may not know what the other arm is doing. Nigeria after all, is not Pakistan, and for once, it's better off.

Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images