ATHENS, Greece — At a seminar last week at Costa Navarino in the Greek Peloponnese, I heard a brilliant young Harvard scholar, who has also been influential in the Obama administration’s strategic planning, explain that the future of successful American action in Central Asia lies in a “surge” of civilian political and developmental action to rescue the people of the region from their present backwardness and from state failure, the conditions upon which radical and reactionary forces currently prey, and which have opened them to renewed aggression and exploitation by the major Asian rival states in the region.

I was at the same time reading, for review, a book titled “The Origins of Political Order” by noted American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, which is already exercising a significant influence in Washington and some American universities (actually, it is the first volume in a two-part sequence yet to be completed). It proposes a purportedly new historical understanding of the evolution of political institutions, implying a new approach to institution-building and political development in our modern industrial and postindustrial era, when economic growth and social mobilization progress with vastly greater speed and consequence than in the past.

I strongly disagree with the book (which is another matter, for another occasion), but it is likely to lend support to a contemporary American foreign policy strategy of democracy-building that was initially and comprehensively set out by George W. Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, in a Foreign Affairs article in the late summer of 2008. Rice said that “a uniquely American realism” demands that the United States recognize its responsibility “to change the world, and in its own image. … Our long-standing partnerships in the Persian Gulf provide a solid geostrategic foundation for the generational work ahead.”

Three years later, under another secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the State Department has published a Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review called “Leading Through Civilian Power,” which elaborates with enthusiasm on the “surge” of civilian officials who in coming months and years will produce miracles of political and social development in the non-Western world, strategically invaluable to Washington. One important critic, David Rieff, has (in the February 2011 issue of National Interest) described this document as a “geostrategic fairy tale,” a judgment with which I entirely agree.

One reason to say this is the difficulty of reconciling such expectations with the military realities and implications of America’s expanding political and military engagements with respect to Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Somalia, Iraq, Iran and, of course, Israel, now neurotically — as well as dangerously — obsessed by being besieged by waterborne peace activists and friends of Palestine, many of them old ladies with parasols and retired American officials, and some of them Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, and with the danger of a U.N. vote that could “stigmatize” Israel as an apartheid state, in illegal occupation of a substantial portion of Palestine, a stigmatization easily ended by ceasing the occupation.

Despite domestic pressures to withdraw from wars in the Muslim world, and to refocus attention on China, the Obama administration is working hard to convince Iraq’s government that American troops must stay on in that country, despite the U.S. commitment to leave. President Obama has just announced that 33,000 U.S. troops will be removed from Afghanistan during the next year, a third of the troop reinforcement he ordered after taking office in 2009, leaving more than were already there in 2008, without any fundamental improvement in the situation, mounting military and civilian casualties, a corrupt Afghan government, and an American electorate widely baffled by the absence of a serious rationale for fighting this war in Afghanistan.

To defeat the Taliban is the reason, of course, Obama’s spokesmen reply: so that democracy can (theoretically) prevail. It was the same in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, where democracy had never before prevailed, only a well-meaning colonialism (a phenomenon of the age), succeeded by Communism in Vietnam, with which we today get along very comfortably, and by genocide in Cambodia, induced by American bombing and politico-military intervention. This murdered half the population, and was finally ended by a Vietnamese invasion, its place taken by the same nominal monarchy that was there before Washington drove it out, early in our Indochinese intervention. A few decrepit or senile theoreticians and executants of the genocide are currently being tried in Cambodia by an international war crimes court — no Americans among them.

The best book currently available on Afghanistan is Lucy Morgan Edwards’ “The Afghan Solution,” just published by Bactria Press in London. She has spent much of the past decade in Afghanistan as a journalist for The Daily Telegraph and The Economist, and as political adviser to the European Union in Kabul, aid worker and election monitor. The book is a deeply depressing account of how, thanks to Western hubris and arrogance, the Afghanistan catastrophe has happened, and why the war is now “heading in the direction of an intractable mire” (in which many foreign interests benefit “from the runaway military spending that is a central plank of the strategy”). What to do? She offers no formula. Obviously the foreigners have to leave, as they eventually left Indochina. But when? Not, it seems, under Barack Obama.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.

© 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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