A dozen years ago, journalist Charlie Rose asked Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew about the role of the United States in the Middle East. Lee made these points:
1. The United States can’t create an artificial country in Afghanistan. Lee said, “Trying to make a country out of Afghanistan is a distraction. There was no country for the last 30 or 40 years. They have just been fighting each other since the last King was chased out. How on earth are you going to put these little bits together? It’s not possible.”
2. Just because the US helped overthrow the Taliban, it didn't mean that the US had to govern Afghanistan. Lee said, “I’m not an expert. But in my simple mind, it strikes me that you won in Iraq and you won in Afghanistan not because you fought the Taliban, but because you got the Northern Alliance to fight them. You provided the Northern Alliance with intelligence and capabilities to bomb them.”
3. Rose then pointed out that the US had to stay on in Afghanistan, because the Afghans had problems governing themselves. Lee said, “That’s all right. That’s their problem. Why do you want to make it your problem?”
4. Afghanistan isn’t important, in the grand scheme of things. Lee said, “I see the imbroglio in Iraq and Afghanistan as distractions. It’s not going to change the world, what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
5. So what is important? Lee said, “The main changes are taking place in China and India. It’s a watershed. The world order we knew was dominated by the Caucasian peoples. The 20th century was the American century. The first half of the 21st century will be the American. But I believe in the second half, they will have to share top places with China and India.”
Lee was interviewed while in the US. He was there because Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke and others wanted to consult him. Many people wanted to hear from Lee because he was seen as an unbiased elder statesman. He would just tell it like it is, and never take sides with any superpower.
Lee’s non-partisan analysis was straightforward: the Afghanistan situation distracted the US from focusing on the real issue, which was the rise of China and India.
Lee said that the US was a “benign stabilizing force” in the world. But he also reminded them, “You can’t solve all the problems in the world.”
He reminded the US, "The 21st century will be a contest for supremacy in the Pacific. That’s where the growth will be. If you cannot hold your ground in the Pacific, you cannot be a world leader."
Today, in the midst of the US pullout from Afghanistan, it’s sobering to reflect on Lee's thoughts. To Lee, this always had to happen: the US would have to leave, and allow Afghanistan to solve its own problems. There are more important issues to focus on.