Ignoring the Real Foreign Threats

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Cpl. Luke Bloom / AFP / Getty

Soldiers celebrate the Marine Corps' 231st birthday at the Haditha Dam, in Iraq's al-Anbar Province, 2006.

If 9/11 brought home one strategic truth to Americans, it was that weak states now potentially pose as great a threat to the U.S. as strong states do. But recognizing that fact doesn't get you very far; it only acknowledges the scale of the problem. Of the 200-plus countries in the world, 130-140 are "developing," struggling with some combination of bad government, lack of security, underperforming economies and poverty. How to identify the ones that pose a looming danger, and finding a strategy to manage the different threats they present, is a major priority for U.S. national security —although you wouldn't know it to listen to the presidential candidates.

Still, the question of weak states underlies some of the uglier fights the candidates have had on foreign and national security policy. Iraq is, after all, a failed state, and the national argument over whether and how fast to get out is largely about the effects of instability if we do. In Tuesday's debate, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama danced around the difficult question of whether they'd re-invade Iraq if al-Qaeda reestablished itself there after the U.S. withdrew.

Likewise Clinton, Obama and John McCain have beaten each other up over Pakistan. The central government's inability to control al-Qaeda in its northwestern tribal territories, and concerns over Islamabad's nuclear arsenal, make handling relations with the country a particularly tricky problem. Hence the tumult over Barack Obama's fairly mainstream assertion that he would strike "high-value" terror targets in Pakistan if the leadership there could not. The confusion over when and whether to intervene across sovereign borders shows how little light has been shed on America's policy for responding to weak-state threats during the campaign.

Which is not to say that the candidates shouldn't debate Iraq and Pakistan policy — both are key issues. But America's foreign and national security policy megalith is still structured to handle superpower threats like the Soviet Union. What questions would a debate about weak-state strategy involve? A few suggestions:

  • Would the candidates sacrifice expensive Cold War platforms such as the F-22 fighter to pay for more drones and Special Forces units?

  • What are the development aid priorities of the candidates? Do they support President Bush's incentive-heavy Millennium Challenge Account? How do they explain the fact that many poor countries are worse off after years of Western foreign aid?

  • Should the U.S. risk sacrificing Ethiopian military support in the fight against al-Qaeda in neighboring Somalia by insisting Addis Ababa improve its abysmal human rights record and embrace political liberalization?

  • Do the candidates think China's soaring economic and diplomatic influence in the developing world is a net plus or minus for stability and what would they do to try and channel the effects of its massive investments there?

  • What steps would the candidates take to better coordinate international responses to pandemic disease?

  • Should developing countries get a pass on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the interest of speeding economic growth?

    Just because the candidates haven't been debating a larger strategy for handling weak states doesn't mean they're not thinking about it. Clinton has several experts on failed states advising her, including Richard Holbrooke, who negotiated the end of the Balkan wars, and Madeleine Albright, who made expanding democracy the theoretical aim of her tenure as Bill Clinton's Secretary of State. McCain's director of foreign and national security policy is Randy Scheunemann, from the conservative Project for a New American Century, who as a Senate adviser handled issues of military intervention in the Balkans and Somalia. And one of Obama's top campaign advisors, Susan Rice, has in the course of her work at the Brookings Institution produced, with Stewart Patrick of the Center for Global Development, a 50-page index of weak states that ranks 141 developing countries according to 20 factors such incidence of coups, GDP growth and primary school completion. The idea is to define state weakness in a way that identifies problem countries, and shows which areas in them need the most attention.

    None of the candidates has said what concrete steps they would take to reorient the tools of American power to better handle the threats produced by weak states. And it's not clear how much of the strategic lesson has seeped up to the candidates from the advisors who know something about it. But for all the talk of the experience required to be Commander in Chief in the post-9/11 era, it might be useful to start asking.