Just How Hard Will Afghanistan Be?: ‘We Issue Pens to Afghan Soldiers’


Robert Kaplan has a nice new piece on Afghanistan over at the Atlantic. As usual, it is worth your time. Kaplan travels to places most of us in IR could only dream of visiting, so his work’s got a verite feel that our modeling and endless quotations of one another never do. (This is why people read him, not us.) Unfortunately Kaplan repeats the same motifs again and again, so its not clear if we are reading about Afghanistan, or just Kaplan’s expansive Americanist ideology again. In this way, he is becoming like the Kagans. You already know his answer: geography is a huge constraint on international action; America’s NCOs and infantrymen are kick-a—; we should win the GWoT at even huge expense; and US empire is probably good for the world, even if others resent it.

This time around, Kaplan lays the groundwork for Stanley McChrystal’s presidential bid. What is it with conservatives and the lionization of generals? Just read Kaplan’s purple prose. No one doubts Petraeus or McChrystal’s military talents, but I am pretty sure the US right’s cult of personality tendency for military machismo is unhealthy for the democratic process. Also, is it really admirable that McChrystal only sleeps four hours a day? How many of us could make good decisions living that way regularly? That told me less that McChrystal is super-committed, and more that he is overworked, under-resourced, and under-staffed. That sounds like the Bush-era GWoT all right…

But the money quote from Kaplan’s piece has go to be this from a NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) interviewee:

The recruits may not know how to read, but they are incredibly street-smart. They’re survivalists. Basic soldiering here does not require literacy. We give them a course in how to read and issue them pens afterwards. They take tremendous pride in that. In Afghanistan, a pen in a shirt pocket is a sign of literacy.

Note the use of the military verb ‘issue.’ Yes, the $.50 plastic pen you forgot in the coffee room yesterday is a formally issued piece of military hardware that signals prestige in the wider Afghan society. WOW.

Consider all the information that short anecdote conveys to you about education, poverty, and governance in Afghanistan:

1. Afghans are so poor, they can’t afford pens. ISAF has to issue them, and only qualified soldiers get them.

2. Afghans are so illiterate, no one really needs them.

3. Widespread illiteracy and poverty means the Afghan state, even down into the local level, cannot meaningfully connect to the citizenry.

If illiteracy is so widespread that pens are a mark of social prestige, then Afghanistan can hardly be expected to have complex institutions or national centralization. If you can’t write bills or receipts, what kind of markets will you have? If you can’t read laws from Kabul, much less correspond with state organs, how do you know what the rules are, where to pay taxes, etc? If education is that non-existent, how can you build an army, infrastructure, courts, etc?

None of this means the US and other wealthy states should not help Afghanistan. Indeed, your heart should break when you read that Afghans are issued pens. Nor is this a verdict on the utility of ISAF; maybe we should still go, despite the huge hurdles this very revealing anecdote makes clear.

But this anecdote told me more about how hard the Afghan operation really will be, than Obama’s surge speech last year, or any of the other fearless, ‘we-can-do-it’ prose of Kaplan’s piece. This is way beyond Iraq. Afghanistan doesn’t just need counter-terrorism/insurgency, it needs nation-building on an order that took the US two centuries to achieve.

Obama didn’t include anecdotes this revealing in his Afghan surge address last year. Did he white lie by not showing us just how high the slope is? It kinda seems like it…

Does US Health Care Reform Have Any Diplomatic Impact?


It’s well known that domestic political failures/successes impact foreign policy-making ‘capital.’ This is especially so for the US president, because the US foreign policy-making process includes the legislative branch far more than in other democracies (much less in dictatorships). In other words, the US Congress intervenes a lot more in US foreign policy-making than the parliaments of other countries do, so presidents need more than the usual amount of congressional support to act overseas. You see this in lots of ways: Congress routinely derails trade deals, intervenes in US aid planning (to avoid abortion funding, or to support Israel, eg), pushes unsought weapons-systems on the Pentagon, demands recognition for preferred foreign constituencies (Armenians, Cuban exiles, Christians in China and the Middle East), etc. So the connection between ObamaCare’s passage and the general ability of Obama to push Congress to follow him later on foreign policy is real.

(Addendum: In European and Asian democracies, the legislature is rather deeply excluded; the executive branch runs the whole show. The logic is that when the country acts abroad, it should speak with one voice, and only the executive branch – the president or prime minister –can actually aggregate all the diverse interests in the country into that one voice.  Parliaments cannot do this realistically, as they are so fragmented among competing parties and egos.)

Mead argues that ObamaCare’s failure would have ‘crippled his presidency.’

1. Not really. Health care is such an overwhelmingly internal, domestic issue, I don’t think the specific foreign policy benefits are that high. States pursue all sorts of different health care strategies, and their linkage with specific foreign policy issues is minimal. ObamaCare won’t provide any dividends abroad on the burning immediate issues of US foreign policy, like Israeli settlements, Afghan or Mexican corruption, China’s currency, Iraqi elections, etc.

But it does send some oblique signals:

2. It does bring the US into line with the OECD norm that when countries get rich enough, they are supposed to provide near-universal health care as a basic gesture of ‘social justice.’ One in six Americans didn’t have health insurance, and any American travelling abroad has probably tried, awkwardly, to explain that one away to skeptical interlocutors from other OECD states.

So in this way ObamaCare pulls the US toward the global normative consensus of what a good society looks like; it helps make the US look ‘civilized.’ It aids Obama’s stated goal to return the US to moral authority after W and restock its soft power. It therefore helps the US shame and criticize illiberal states more effectively, because it is less vulnerable to hypocrisy charges. (The US embrace of gun ownership and the death penalty, e.g., make the US a less compelling advocate of the rule of law and state restraint. The US move toward torture similarly undermines the US as an opponent of it.)

3. It does signal that the US will have a harder and harder time maintaining a huge defense posture. The more the welfare state grows, however noble the cause, the more its spending will eat into defense and diplomacy spending

4. It does improve Obama’s domestic political capital and general standing as a powerful POTUS who can get things done. This will increase his leverage in Congress, and perhaps with democratic leaders overseas too. He should be able to more successfully push controversial foreign policy initiatives through Congress, like the Korean-US trade deal or a tougher line on Israel. Reputation and prestige matter in IR, and looking like a winner helps bluff others.

Revaluation Downside: Low-Cost Chinese Goods Help America’s Poorest


My big concern is that all the focus is on the negative side of China’s undervalued currency. Krugman (above) and others, correctly, complain that it artificially reduces US competitiveness. If the yuan floated, the price of US goods in China would slide dramatically. Rationalist Chinese consumers would move toward suddenly cheaper US goods, and that gets you the export boom Obama talked up in the State of the Union. (Although Asian buyers are stubbornly nationalistic. The home country bias here is extreme, so don’t get your hopes up for some big US export surge to Asia. You’ve never seen as many Korean cars as you will in Korea…)

The downside of course is that the poorest Americans benefit most from the undervalued yuan, and their unorganized, underprivileged, and non-corporate voice is completely unheard in this debate. The poorer you are, the more it matters to you that Chinese imports at Walmart are super-cheap. By definition, the tighter your family budget constraint, the proportionally more valuable low consumer prices are. The undervalued Chinese currency ensures that all that consumer stuff imported from China and sold at the big box stores like Walmart and Target helps the poor stretch the dollars. The purchasing power of their fewer dollars goes farther when Chinese imports cost so little.

1. So the poorest benefit the most proportionally from the undervaluation. Why doesn’t that make the news? Because the poorest are also the least political organized, and consumer interests are generally far less well-organized than business interests. So US exporters, who would benefit from a weak dollar, scream, and Congress listens. US consumers benefit enormously from a strong, especially overvalued, dollar. But their voice is disaggregated and diffused across the country, compared to the concentrated corporate power of exporters. Consumer gains from a cheaper Chinese-Walmart stuff is far smaller and diffused than the steep and concentrated pain of exporters suffering from a strong dollar. This is a classic protectionist response: gains are diffused, hard to see, and enjoyed by the weakest, while pain is concentrated, easy to indentify, and felt by the politically privileged.

None of this means that the yuan isn’t overvalued. It is, and the world’s largest economies clearly have a systemic responsibility to let their currencies float. The distortions coming from China’s currency are downright bizarre, with China’s foreign exchange reserves at levels never seen in the history of finance before. But if you wonder why DVD players that used to cost $20 at Walmart suddenly cost $30, now you’ll know. And while you, the middle class reader, might not care because that is within your disposable income range, recall that the poorer you are, the more that extra $10 means. The more overvalued the US dollar, the more America’s poorest are helped.

2. The temperature is rising on China’s currency. The US Congress is starting to seriously pressure the US Treasury to formally label China a ‘currency speculator.’ DoT must once again decide in mid-April. Krugman (above) got the ball rolling on the argument that the US should finally come out and openly accuse China of manipulation for its nationalist/mercantilist trade purposes. And just about everybody seems to agree that the yuan is overvalued. Just how undervalued is the yuan? 49% (!!) according to the Economist and 40% according to the Peterson IIE. For what it’s worth, I certainly agree with these estimates. I don’t think anyone really believes the dollar currently reflects its real purchasing power in Asia. US goods are ridiculously expensive in Korea; a fifth of Jack Daniels costs about $40!

3. All these Asian countries want their currencies undervalued because of the nasty lesson they learned in the Asian financial crisis. Most Americans don’t know this at all, it seems. 15 years ago, Asians did not have the dollar reserves to defend their currencies and when capital flight hit, these economies were turned upside down. Indonesia’s government collapsed into anarchy, Thailand lost something like 1/3 of its GDP, and South Korean couples were donating their wedding rings for gold to the government to pay its foreign debts! In short, the region got turned upside down/inside out, and everybody out here remembers this, while Americans just missed it altogether. So afterwards, the Asians did exactly what the DoT and the IMF told them to – they balanced their books and stocked up dollars in case there would be another crisis.

4. Here is good background on the conflict; try this too. To place the China currency evaluation in the global context, read this excellent introduction to the current problems of the global economy, specifically the problem of ‘imbalances.’ In brief, the US and Mediterranean countries are spendthrifts now carrying huge piles of debt, while Germany, China, and other Asians are overthrifty supersavers. So the broke Americans have no more money to spend to prime the global economy, and the supersaver Asians should fill in the gap by buying a lot. The more stuff they buy, the more people will be hired to make all that stuff they are buying. This will reduce unemployment. So the supersavers are the key to getting global unemployment down, because they have the cash to go on a spending spree.