Diplomats and development workers love to talk about soft power, but often misunderstand two important characteristics about it. First, when Harvard Professor Joseph Nye coined the term, he did not mean for soft power to be exclusive of hard power, but rather to be executed in conjunction with hard power. Second, while American policymakers discuss our own plans for aid and development, seldom do we acknowledge how our adversaries also make use of soft power.
Case in point: While the Americans assist Afghans in agriculture (although we have recently stood down and cancelled the missions for our Agricultural Development Teams) and education, there are certain projects popular with Afghans which neither the American government nor U.S.-based NGOs conduct. An Iranian website, for example, just released a photo essay of a recent mass wedding Iran’s Imam Khomeini Relief Committee sponsored in the Western Afghan city of Herat. The Committee—whose assets are controlled by the Supreme Leader—is active not only in Afghanistan, but also in Tajikistan, Lebanon, the Comoros Islands, and Bosnia. A year ago, the U.S. Treasury Department designated the Committee’s branches in Lebanon for their relationship to Hezbollah. When I lived in Tajikistan, the local branch of the Committee was conducting surveillance on the U.S. embassy, and contributed directly to the evacuation of all non-essential personnel.
When I got married a few years back, my wife and I had a very small wedding so as not to break the bank, but when an Afghan gets married, he cannot get away with inviting less than 1,000 of his closest friends, family members, and neighbors. Most impoverished Afghans delay marriages for years because they cannot afford the price tag. The Iranians, however, know that by subsidizing such marriages, they can win hearts and minds for a generation.
What to do? I don’t know. The United States should not be in the business of subsidizing marriages. We do, however, need to recognize that others are. Soft power should not simply be throwing money at random development projects, but should be carefully crafted to gain the most long-term benefits for the buck. Most of our aid and assistance in Iraq and Afghanistan has been wasted and will derive the United States no long term benefits. The Islamic Republic may start with less, but they are careful to ensure what they do spend will pay dividends for years. We can’t work in weddings, but perhaps we can do more with higher education (the Iranian-backed Khatam Al-Anbia University in Kabul, according to one Afghan professor, has an annual budget which exceeds the entire higher education budget of Afghanistan) and scholarships for study abroad. One thing is certain: What the Iranians now do works, while what the American aid community invests in largely does not.