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January 29th, 2010
01:49 AM ET

Dear President Obama #375: Keeping the change ... and a lot more ... in Taliban-istan

Reporter's Note: President Obama is storming around trying to capitalize on any boost from his State of the Union. And I’m just sitting here, thinking about a conflict far, far away and an idea that this worth writing about in my daily letter to the president.

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Dear Mr. President,

Here is one of Tom’s big rules of life: The only thing worse than bribing someone, is bribing him insufficiently. In this country, we generally see bribery as de facto “bad;” unless we’re talking about really wealthy people giving money to really powerful people, in which case we call it “participation in the political process.” But in seamier corners of the world, under-the-table payments are just a fact of life. Like gravity. Or hip problems in old age.

It is a way that people make a living, and a way that things get done. It works like this: “We, the government of Chaosylvania, can’t really afford a police force. We don’t pay our officers enough. But we still need them. So we look the other way as those officers solicit donations for things like, oh say, not getting a speeding ticket while your car was parked.” It is an imperfect system, rife with unfairness, and sometimes it’s all they have.

But this is an arcane way of doing business with arcane rules, which are easy for outsiders to break. For example, I was in a country once (out of respect to all the decent folks there, I won’t say which one) where police officers were absolutely not to be bribed. They would take great umbrage and possibly even arrest you if you tried. However, they did expect gifts when they pulled you over to search your car and question you without cause: a carton of cigarettes, some nice magazines, maybe a box of candy. One country away, the police also expected gifts, but were happier if the gifts came with cash. We were stopped by an agricultural inspector, for example, and he held us for a good ten minutes for some indefinite problem with our car. However, when we gave him a cold soda, the problem evaporated and we were sent on our way. And it certainly seemed to help that the cold soda was wrapped in a ten dollar bill.

You see the difficulty. Offer too little money when the hand is subtly extended, and you have committed two sins at once: You’ve simultaneously implied that you think the payee is corrupt (which he is) and you’ve suggested he is cheap (which he is not.)

I mention all this because I’m not sure how much you know about the bribery universe. Although, having been involved in Illinois politics, there is a fair chance you’ve at least accidentally brushed elbows with folks who know plenty about it. Ha! Anyway, there is growing talk about this idea that we and other nations should simply “pay off” the Taliban for them to stop fighting. Or at least we ought to make some good faith offers to the more moderate players on their side, to see if they would be interested in a little free-agency.

I would not presume to say whether this is a good idea or a bad one, because just fighting them for a really long time with shaky support from the Afghans and periodically absent support from the Pakistanis, is not exactly my idea of an attractive alternative. What I will say is this. If we decide to get involved in this game, be careful. The potential for paying for one thing and getting another is profound, and so are the consequences. The American people may not be keen on contemplating such a solution (if it is found to be one,) but they will even less happy if we jump into that messy pool, through around a lot more money, only to find that we bought no peace…or worse, ended up bankrolling our enemies who suckered us in.

Again, not saying you can’t do it if all of our allies get into this game. But make sure you get a receipt.

I hope I did not miss your call today. I’ve been terribly busy down here trying to read up on your stimulus projects, and listening for the phone has been fairly low on my priority list so if I missed you, call back. Better on Saturday.

Regards,

Tom

Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. laurie

    So so true! I hope he calls!

    January 29, 2010 at 10:51 am |
  2. Giancarlo

    It'S The old question about the doctors, if i have a cronical pain in the stomach there are 2 ways or get the pillows for lifetime or to have a serios surgery, in short therm pillow seems more cheap for the doctor and more confortable for me,but in long therm i could die because there will be no more money for pillows, and someone will asses that a surgery had could cost less.

    January 29, 2010 at 9:42 am |
  3. Dennis Shaffner

    Just like the Dukes of Hazard gone global.

    January 29, 2010 at 9:19 am |

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