US foreign policy’s lack of expertise

Manan Ahmed in The National:

ScreenHunter_14 Dec. 15 16.04“I am sitting you next to Secretary Clinton at dinner. Say exactly what you think. If you don't, I never – ever – want to hear you criticise the policy again.” So said Richard Holbrooke, the US Special Representative to the Af-Pak region, barely a week after assuming his new position under the Obama administration. He was talking to Rory Stewart, and Stewart told the anecdote on the Huffington Post after Holbrooke's sudden death in 2010.

Holbrooke, Stewart remembered, praised his acumen regarding Afghanistan, and listened to him, even though Stewart disapproved of the emerging policy of General Petraeus. To Holbrooke, Stewart was the expert who dared disagree, but whose disagreement still needed to be heard in the halls of power.

Stewart is widely considered an expert on Afghanistan. Currently a Member of Parliament in Britain, he sits on the influential Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Previously, he was the Ryan Family Professor of the Practice of Human Rights at the Harvard Kennedy School. Before that, in 2003-04, he worked in southern Iraq with the American administration. And prior to that, in 2002, he walked 6,000 miles – partly across Afghanistan. This last bit, his walk in Afghanistan, became the fulcrum of his 2004 book, The Places in Between, which was a bestseller in the UK and the USA. The website for his book declared that he survived his walk because of “his knowledge of Persian dialects and Muslim customs” and a grounded knowledge of the entire region.

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