On the earthquake in Japan

I don't have any profound wisdom to offer in response to the breaktaking scenes coming out of Japan (as usual, Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish is a fount of videos, tweets, and other on-the-scene accounts), but I do want to make one overarching point about unexpected disasters of this sort. One of the reasons that people like me constantly harp on the dangers of overcommitment is the simple fact that much of life remains unpredictable. To quote the distinguished political philosopher Donald Rumsfeld: "Stuff happens."

No matter how carefully you plan, there are always going to be some unpleasant surprises. Maybe it will be an earthquake hitting a longtime ally. Maybe it's an uprising that topples a friendly leader. Or it could be a financial panic, an outbreak of infectious disease, or a military operation that turns out to be much harder than you thought.

When the unexpected occurs, great powers need to have something in reserve. But if a country has already gotten bogged down in lots of costly commitments, and if its citizens don't like to pay taxes and thus tend to underfund anything anyway, it will be a lot harder to respond effectively when a crisis suddenly arrives. Which is why the United States should think harder about its willingness (at least rhetorically) to "pay any price and bear any burden." That's not isolationism; it's just what Walter Lippman called "solvency" (i.e., making sure that our commitments match our interests and our resources, with something left over to deal with emergencies.

All that said, a prompt and generous provision of relief aid to Japan seems like a no-brainer, in sharp contrast to the more vexing question of what to do about Libya.

Getty images

Stephen M. Walt

Afghanistan: How does this end?

Next week the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, will visit Capitol Hill to tell Congress about our progress there. Judging from this pre-visit story in the New York Times, he'll offer an upbeat appraisal, no doubt tempered with the usual cautions about how there are still challenges to be overcome, that the mission remains difficult, etc. etc. As I've noted before, this is pretty much what one expects any commander to do in such circumstances, so one should approach his testimony with a certain healthy skepticism.

I do hope the Hill staffers who will be preparing questions for their bosses will also read C.J. Chivers's account of the complexities that continue to bedevil our efforts in Afghanistan. Chivers has clearly been talking to soldiers in the field, and his story paints a less optimistic vision than we are likely to hear next week. Here's the revealing hint that the view from the bottom is different from the view at the top:

Officially, Mr. Obama's Afghan buildup shows signs of success, demonstrating both American military capabilities and the revival of a campaign that had been neglected for years. But in the rank and file, there has been little triumphalism as the administration's plan has crested."

Chivers also quotes a U.S. colonel (who requested anonymity) as follows:

You can keep trying all different kinds of tactics," said one American colonel outside of this province. "We know how to do that. But if the strategic level isn't working, you do end up wondering: How much does it matter? And how does this end?"

Needless to say, the problems at the strategic level are quite familiar:

The Taliban and the groups it collaborates with remain deeply rooted; the Afghan military and police remain lackluster and given to widespread drug use; the country’s borders remain porous; Kabul Bank, which processes government salaries, is wormy with fraud, and President Hamid Karzai’s government, by almost all accounts, remains weak, corrupt and erratically led.  And the Pakistani frontier remains a Taliban safe haven."

As for the anonymous colonel's last question -- "How does this end?" -- I think the best we can hope for now is that the Obama administration goes in to full spin mode, touting all the progress it has made, and uses that as a justification for a gradual strategic withdrawal. That's one way to interpret Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's own remarks about recent U.S. progress, heralding the likelihood that U.S. troop levels will begin to decline this summer. It's a variation of the old "declare victory and get out" strategy that was once proposed for Vietnam, and if that's what it takes to end this continued drain on our resources and strategic attention, fine by me.