Smart Girls vs. Bombs

 An Afghan girl at school in Parwan Province. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
An Afghan girl at school in Parwan Province. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

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, so far, for both Al Qaeda and Iran.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney probably had places like Yemen on his mind when he described Obama a few days ago 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 told “The Hugh Hewitt Show,” “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.
Cheney also pushed for policies of torture, indefinite detention at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and over-the-top intelligence-gathering that repulsed our allies and tremendously weakened America’s soft power. Cheney has served Iranian interests very well.

Foreign policy is hard, and politicians can err without being traitors — and Obama’s foreign policy legacy sure looks healthier to me than Cheney’s and President George W. Bush’s. Obama has, at least, been extricating us from wars, while Cheney and Bush were dragging us into them.
But it’s worth learning from mistakes, and we have plenty of bipartisan errors to learn from.

Since 9/11, 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 Qaeda mother ship in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But it led to the rise of Al Qaeda affiliates in the Middle East and in West Africa, and it empowered extremists worldwide.

As I see it, after 9/11, 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 American 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 home-grown campaign for moderation.

The advantage of educating girls is also demographic. One of the factors most associated with civil conflict is a youth bulge in the population, the result of very high birthrates. To reduce birthrates, it particularly helps to educate girls: Every extra four years of primary schooling for a girl is linked to about one fewer child.

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 (think of those girls in the coming days as they reach a year in captivity).

President Obama’s mother was an expert in global development, but it’s not clear her son picked this up. When he was running for president in 2008, he 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.
So instead of pummeling each other on foreign policy, let’s look for lessons learned. Surely one of them is that to counter terrorists, sometimes a girl with a book is more powerful than a drone in the sky.