Last fall, President Obama slapped back at critics by citing what he called a foreign-policy success: Yemen.
Oops. Yemen is now collapsing into civil war, with gains for both al-Qaida and Iran.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney probably had places like Yemen on his mind when he described Obama recently as “the worst president we’ve ever had” and – incredibly – hinted that Obama may be a traitor who is deliberately weakening our country through his foreign policies.
“If you had somebody as president who wanted to take America down,” Cheney said, “it would look exactly like what Barack Obama’s doing.”
Wow. By that logic, Cheney himself is a sleeper Iranian agent. Cheney helped oust Iran’s enemy to the east, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and then replaced Iran’s enemy to the west, Saddam Hussein, with a pro-Iranian regime.
Moreover, it was while Cheney was in the White House that Iran’s nuclear program took off from just a few dozen centrifuges to many thousands.
Foreign policy is hard, and politicians can err without being traitors. But it’s worth learning from mistakes, and we have plenty of bipartisan errors to learn from.
Since Sept. 11, we’ve responded to terrorism and insecurity primarily with military tools – particularly in the Bush-Cheney years, but continuing in a more restrained way under Obama. This approach had some success: It destabilized the al-Qaida mother ship in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But it led to the rise of al-Qaida affiliates in the Middle East and in West Africa, and it empowered extremists worldwide.
As I see it, after Sept. 11 we systematically overused military tools and underemployed two other kinds of tools – education and women’s empowerment. These work agonizingly slowly, but over time they help change societies.
“Development has to be part of conflict prevention,” notes Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank. In other words, economic development isn’t just a soft, squishy feel-good initiative; it’s a national security imperative.
Education is also a bargain. For the cost of deploying a single U.S. soldier abroad for a year, we can start more than 20 schools.
In Afghanistan, where we did support education for girls, hundreds of Afghan women helped lead a march against religious extremism last month after the beating death of a woman falsely accused of burning a Quran. It was a rare homegrown campaign for moderation.
Empowering women isn’t a panacea. Educated girls sometimes become terrorists. Women leaders often have been disappointing. But, on balance, girls’ education reduces birthrates, expands the labor force, induces moderation and promotes economic growth rather than terrorism.
Terrorists understand this. That’s why the Taliban throws acid at schoolgirls; that’s why Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls in northern Nigeria.
When he was running for president in 2008, Obama proposed a $2 billion global fund for education – but then dropped the idea. The White House this year unveiled a “Let Girls Learn” initiative, spearheaded by Michelle Obama, to back girls’ education around the world. That’s an excellent idea, but it’s minuscule: a requested $100 million in new funding.
Consider Yemen, where grenades were openly selling for $4 each in a market near Sada when I visited. Rocket-propelled grenade launchers, $500. Anti-tank mines, $22. The Bush and Obama administrations both tried to stabilize Yemen by providing even more arms, many of which fell into the hands of Houthi rebels. So, lately, we’ve been helping Saudis bomb the very supplies we provided.
If instead we had invested in girls’ education, it wouldn’t necessarily have stabilized Yemen. But it could hardly have done worse.
Sometimes a girl with a book is more powerful than a drone in the sky.
Nicholas Kristof writes for the New York Times.