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Realism in Afghanistan

Ben Smith posted a good piece over the holiday weekend about the uber-realism that has dominated recent American thinking about Afghanistan. Prior to the Iraq fiasco, there was much self-congratulation in Washington about how we had liberated women and struck a blow for enlightened western values. But the Bush era drove such notions into the dirt, and now we can expect Barack Obama to make his case for escalating in Afghanistan almost purely on national security grounds. Ben rounds up a good sampling of views about this, but there's one perspective that I would have heavily emphasized: that of Hillary Clinton, who, as Plank readers know by now, once considered the rights of Afghan women a central goal for the United States. Here she is writing in Time magazine shortly after the U.S. toppled the Taliban eight years ago:

Critics—some domestic, some in the Islamic world—say that America has no right to impose its values on Afghan society. They argue that to promote equal rights for women and a role for women in Afghan government and society amounts to cultural imperialism, destined to arouse the animosity of Muslims throughout the region.

I believe such criticism fails on at least two counts. One, it does not recognize that we, as liberators, have an interest in what follows the Taliban in Afghanistan. We cannot simply drop our bombs and depart with our best wishes, lest we find ourselves returning some years down the road to root out another terrorist regime.

Second, the argument that supporting the rights of women will insult the Muslim world is demeaning to women and to Muslims. Women's rights are human rights. They are not simply American, or western customs. They are universal values which we have a responsibility to promote throughout the world, and especially in a place like Afghanistan.

It is not only the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do. A post-Taliban Afghanistan where women's rights are respected is much less likely to harbor terrorists in the future. Why? Because a society that values all its members, including women, is also likely to put a higher premium on life, opportunity and freedom—values that run directly counter to the evil designs of the Osama bin Laden's of the world.

Clinton apparently supports the escalation of about 30,000 troops that Barack Obama has already ordered. It remains unclear how much of her thinking was shaped by questions of values and human rights. But with the American public tired of nation building and talk of promoting western values in the Arab world, you can bet that Obama's decision, at least, won't be presented this way.