A common criticism of American foreign policy is that the American public itself is not well informed about the world.
Foreign policy guru Zbigniew Brzezinski recently commented in Foreign Affairs that presidents face three systemic weaknesses that undermine a decisive, long-term policy: The disproportionate role of ethnic lobbies, lack of bipartisanship and “one of the least informed publics” in the world.
“How can a public unfamiliar with geography or foreign history,” he wrote, “have even an elementary grasp of, say, the geopolitical dilemmas in Afghanistan and Pakistan?”
Thanks to the Camden Conference, which recently held its 23rd annual gathering, on Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, the people of Maine are well out in front of the curve.
Approximately 800 people participated in this year’s conference, at the Camden Opera House and “video-streamed” facilities in Rockland and Belfast. People came from throughout New England and around the country. Generous “scholarships” hosted 100 college and secondary students — including, from Gould Academy, one from Afghanistan and one from Pakistan.
Complete coverage of the conference is available at www.camdenconference.org. Here is a brief sample.
Ahmed Rashid, the respected Pakistani journalist and keynote speaker, was pretty downbeat about U.S. prospects in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
President Barack Obama mistakenly indicated an exit start of mid-2011. Afghan President Karzai is not interested in governance. Pakistan is a hopelessly “national security state” that sees the Afghan Taliban as a strategic asset in its rivalry with India.
Yet, throughout Rashid’s bleak assessment, I found many threads of encouragement and positive developments.
Harshly critical of the Bush administration’s decision to turn away from Afghanistan in his book “Descent into Chaos,” Rashid feels that with Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s new counter-insurgency strategy, the Obama administration has committed itself to helping and protecting Afghan people, to building trust.
The Taliban are not popular: “The Afghan people realize that they have absolutely nothing to offer.”
And despite endemic corruption, an opium-dominated economy and illiteracy, Rashid cites progress in education, health and women’s empowerment.
He sees negotiations with less extremist Taliban as a probable next stage — prompted by a growing conviction that the U.S. will eventually depart. Whether that leads to a brokered peace or further chaos is the ultimate question.
Ambassador Ronald Neumann, who served as chief of mission until 2007, sees more favorable “possibilities” today — understandably given that the current administration has supplied real resources to the U.S. presence there that Neumann and his predecessors were denied.
Neumann said “execution is now the key. It is worth the effort to persevere.”
Both Rashid and Neumann argued that few Taliban leaders are now close to al-Qaida leaders — most of them in Pakistan. Rashid said he doubted that al-Qaida would be invited back even if the Taliban regained control.
Paul Pillar, a leading authority on both South Asia and counterterrorism, provided the most clear-cut argument against a continuing American commitment to Afghanistan.
Pillar said vital U.S. interests are not at stake there, and more U.S. and NATO troops will not lead to stability in such an impoverished, divided tribal land with no strong central government. He maintained that U.S. strategy in the region should focus on counterterrorism and Pakistan’s stability, in part to reduce any danger its nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists.
He also said he does not believe a Taliban victory in Afghanistan would increase instability in Pakistan.
During a weekend of bleak descriptions of suicide bombings, growth of fundamentalism and development failures, there was “good news.” Ambassador Tezi Schaffer, a diplomat and expert on the region, described the improvement in U.S.-India ties as a significant step in stability in the broader region.
Continuing turmoil and weak leadership in Pakistan dominate Indian concerns, especially after the Mumbai attack. Yet Schaffer sees improving contacts in media and culture, and prospects for Indo-Pak cooperation on energy.
Other speakers offered in-depth coverage of social conditions and historical background. And moderator and career diplomat, Nicholas Burns, provided an outstanding, balanced summary of key points in his concluding remarks.
The 2011 topic will be announced soon. Under incoming president Robert Hirsch, the conference board also is considering expansion of its “streamed” content to other locales in Maine and possibly beyond. Davos it may not be, but Camden certainly has earned a prominent place on the foreign affairs map.
Fred Hill of Arrowsic was a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and worked on national security issues for the State Department. He is a member of the Camden Conference board. He can be reached at email@example.com.