GAO Plan for Pakistan: Better Planning

Thursday the Government Accountability Office published a report that points out that the United States lacks a “comprehensive plan” that integrates “all elements of national power” to deal with problem of terrorism emanating from Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The report exemplifies the cult of planning that enthralls U.S. foreign policy analysts — and not just because it uses the phrase “comprehensive plan” 47 times in 25 pages.

Democratic leaders can use the report to bash President Bush, which is presumably why they requested it. But most people will merely find it useless. It is, after all, the GAO’s shtick to issue bland reports like this one, which does little other than note a lack of coordinated planning and then recommend more coordinated planning. (The report does say, to be fair, that the United States has done too little to address the cause of terrorism in northwest Pakistan, which it identifies, with bizarre confidence, as a lack of economic development.) And no one, even at Cato, can really be against better planning and coordination of government agencies to combat terrorists. Seems harmless. So what’s the problem?

The report never considers the possibility that the great minds of Washington, D.C., however well coordinated, may not contain the solution to the problems in Pakistan’s northwest hinterlands. Planning, after all, isn’t power.

I have never been, I confess, to an inter-agency planning meeting, so I can’t rule out the possibility that they’re magic. Maybe the agency representatives perform coordinated rites that reveal the wisdom to solve any problem and the power to implement their insight.

Barring that, it might have been worth devoting a sentence or two in the report to the difficulty of planning the affairs of other people’s countries. The area in question, after all, is not only beyond the control of our government but beyond the control of Pakistan’s, which we also do not control. This is not an engineering problem, like a faulty bridge. This is a problem of Pakistani politics and geography. There is not a U.S. plan that can fix that, including an invasion plan.

Growing up in Boston, I annually developed plans to fix the Red Sox’s lineup. So did my brother. My father had his own ideas. The Red Sox management never implemented any of our plans. I’m confident that the GAO would have told us that our failure stemmed from a lack of coordinated planning and suggested that we draw up a comprehensive strategy to harness all elements of Friedman power.

I am not arguing that the United States should abandon efforts to deal with terrorism in Pakistan. I am arguing that we should recognize the limits of what our policy can do. A belief that we can solve problems that we can’t may lead to costly efforts to eradicate problems rather than practical steps to manage them.

One reason Harvey Sapolsky, Chris Preble, and I wrote a paper about the lessons of the war in Iraq was irritation at the tendency of defense analysts to cast the occupation there as a failure of planning and to generate policy recommendations from that claim. Observing that planning for the occupation was poor and that the occupation went badly, the analyst would assume that the former caused the latter, and instruct the U.S. government to reform the interagency process to better plan future occupations. We argue that the United States never had much power to control Iraq’s politics, despite 100,000 to 150,000 troops in-country and the billions we spend every week. Problems of planning and coordination distract from the more important policy changes the war suggests. But the fixation on planning in Iraq at least made some sense, being that we occupied it.

The GAO report is the sort of thing Aaron Wildavsky had in mind he wrote that, “if planning is everything, maybe it’s nothing.” Phase one in my plan to save U.S. foreign policy from the cult of planning is getting policymakers to read that essay. In phase two, they apply it to foreign policy. Phase three involves converting the resulting despair into realism. In phase four (Victory), we cease our efforts to control everything that concerns us abroad. I am confident that this plan will fail.