Perils of problem-solving one issue at a time

The current crisis in Pakistan exposes once again the high cost of ignoring festering foreign policy issues and the serious national security risks we take when we address problems in isolation. Lack of a broad, coherent vision in U.S. foreign policy-making invariably leads us to short-term solutions that are influenced by domestic politics that distort necessary policy debates.

We have known that Pakistan has been a crisis in the making for many years, with only the military standing between the toxic brew of rabid anti-Americanism, emboldened Taliban and other jihadi activists, a potent nuclear stockpile, radical madrassahs flourishing in the open and a wobbly democracy.  

Now that the pot is boiling over, our reactive politics is creating a new batch of instant experts to opine in the predictable ways of our polarized politics. But where is our capacity to see problems as they develop and to address them in a timely way when diplomacy, economic pressure and the right mix of carrots and sticks actually might be effective?

Unfortunately, Iraq has crowded out every other pressing issue, and today we view other problems through the prism of the difficulties we have encountered over the last four years. Democrats assert that the war in Iraq was an expensive mistake and that the president’s democracy project in the Muslim world is a proven failure, as highlighted most recently by the conflicting tensions in our policy supporting an autocratic Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Republicans point to Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and other Middle East hot spots to defend their argument that the U.S. cannot afford to turn away from the region, and that Democrats in the post Sept. 11 world are naive to think problems overseas won’t follow us home.

We can expect 2008 presidential politics to lead to more tiresome finger-pointing rather than thoughtful analysis that might educate, inform, prepare or engage Americans for the many international challenges the U.S. must address.

For example, today’s high-profile crises make it nearly impossible to get government officials to focus on a strip of unguarded frontier along the border of Iran and Armenian-occupied Azerbaijan that has become the new superhighway for opium, guns and even human trafficking heading north, and strong suspicions that uranium secretly is being transported to Tehran.

Azerbaijan, one of only four Shiite-majority countries in the world but one with a strong secular tradition, openly desires closer ties with the West. It would like friendship to lead to real partnership with the U.S., but as we search the region for Islamic nations where we can win hearts and minds, it seems like sometimes we just can’t take yes for an answer. No matter how distracted we may be, this is a perfect example of why we need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

With its growing oil and gas wealth, Azerbaijan is viewed by an aggressive Iran next door — itself worried about its 20 million or more ethnic Azeri citizens — as both an annoyance for not knuckling under and as potentially tasty prey. Iran and Armenia already act with impunity on Azeri territory, engaging in illicit behavior that ought to sound alarms throughout the West.

The Caucasus may be easy to ignore today, but over centuries these are people who have learned how to cut deals with larger, belligerent neighbors in order to survive. Shiite extremists sponsored by Tehran intermittently thrust and parry in the Azeri countryside, but have no foothold to date. Surrounded by traditionally hostile empires, Russia to the north and Persia to the south, and sitting amidst Caspian Sea energy reserves said to rival that of the Saudis, Azerbaijan sits with its hand outstretched to Washington, waiting and watching the turmoil in the region, calculating how long it can afford to bet on the West.
Kurz, a former communications director and senior adviser to the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is president of The Kurz Company, an international consulting firm.