Retired lieutenant general and one-time ambassador is back in NC on academic mission

jprice@newsobserver.comMarch 7, 2014 


U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry testifies during a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee December 8, 2009 on Capitol Hill.

ALEX WONG — 2009 Getty Images file photo

— Since graduating from Goldsboro High School in 1969, Karl W. Eikenberry has led a life that can only be called extraordinary.

He was commissioned after West Point, and while in the U.S. Army earned a master’s degree in Eastern studies at Harvard, another in political science from Stanford and an advanced degree in Chinese history at Nanjing University in China. He became so skilled in Mandarin that he earned a foreign office interpreter’s certificate.

Eikenberry climbed the ranks of the Army to become a three-star general and commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan. Then he left the Army, but only so that he could return to Afghanistan in 2009 as President Barack Obama’s choice to be U.S. ambassador.

Now the intellectually restless Eikenberry is in his third act: academic. He is a lecturer at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. It was in his higher education role that he visited N.C. State University on Friday to join a panel discussion on a report about the importance of the humanities and social sciences by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Commission on Humanities and Social Sciences.

Eikenberry is a member of the commission (with the likes of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, singer Emmylou Harris, “Star Wars” creator George Lucas, musician Yo-Yo Ma and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter), and was on stage at the Hunt Library with one of its co-chairmen, Duke President Richard Brodhead, as well U.S. Rep. David Price of Chapel Hill and UNC system President Tom Ross.

We caught up with him briefly after the talk.

Q: This is your third act in many ways. You were a general, an ambassador and now you’re in academia. Why is it that the humanities interested you so much you wanted to get involved with this commission?

A: It was serendipity. I was invited by someone on the commission who knew something of my background to come and address the commission about what I thought the relationship was between the arts and humanities and America’s security. That session I had with the commission, it allowed me, removed from years in uniform and the day-to-day demands of diplomacy, to reflect in a deeper way about what is the role of the arts and humanities in terms of keeping America strong abroad. It was that opportunity in talking to the commission and then the reflection thereafter, that made me a real champion of this effort.

Q: This may sound like a joke, but it’s a serious question and one I get often from people who know I spent time in Kabul: Is President Hamid Karzai sane?

A: Yeah (pause for thought). Three comments on President Karzai. The first is, to be the president of Afghanistan at this stage in history requires somebody who is not only a very good politician, which he is, and someone who is sympathetic with the plight of his people and wants a better future for them, which he does, but also that he be a state builder and understand the importance of institutions, and in that area President Karzai, he lacks skill. So, it has been difficult for him.

Having said that, it would be difficult for anybody. If you were Kemal Ataturk, it would be difficult to be an effective president of Afghanistan.

Point two, he disagreed with our central strategy and our strategic approach. His view was that the central threat to the United States and Afghanistan came from terrorist sanctuary or terrorist existence inside of Pakistan. His assessment was that for various strategic reasons the United States was not going to carry the war directly into Pakistan and the second-best strategy was to operate out of Afghanistan and try to deal with al-Qaida and the Taliban insurgency from Afghan soil. And so, as the fighting increased over the years and the number of American troops increased in Afghanistan, he became increasingly resentful of that approach.

The third point about President Karzai is, like many people in political office, he over years starts to enjoy the trappings of people and the resources that go along with it, and so he was unwilling to make important decisions in the past eight, nine, 10 years which would have taken Afghanistan forward in terms of creating a more accountable government.

A complex answer about a complex person, a very difficult job. But no one answer to that question.

Q: What harm did his lack of skill at building institutions do?

A: I wouldn’t put it in terms of harm, I’d put it in terms of lost opportunities.

Q: The flood of money we have shipped into Afghanistan, did that do harm as well as good?

A: Of course it did. And to figure out how much harm vs. how much good is difficult. The idea was, given a limited period of time, to try to apply maximum resources to that window that was available, and that leads of course to a large amount of inefficiencies.

I also think as historians look back they will say there is also cost in terms of effectiveness. And the easiest one to turn to is the question of dependency. If you create conditions in any country where there is a huge flood of aid coming in that is not creating sustainable organic institutions, but is instead creating an economy and a political mindset that is then mostly responsive to levels of aid, that is not necessarily helping to set the conditions for long-term, sustainable political or economic growth.

Q: The rewards to be had in the world of technology these days have led some to attack the humanities and say they simply aren’t relevant. What would you say to them?

A: There should not be a tension between the sciences and technology and the world of the arts and humanities. There is a very direct relationship between the two.

There was a German sociologist, very famous in the last century, Max Weber, who thought very deeply about education. His starting point was that there were polar opposites in education. There is the arts and humanities, and there’s science, technology and math. He thought about this and talked about the differences. One is learning for learning’s sake, and the other is learning for utility. One is for inspiration, the other for application. His conclusion, after many years of study, was indeed they are not polar opposites, they’re interrelated.

If you visit Silicon Valley, you’ll be very surprised when you see profiles of the corporate leadership and their educational background. I visited LinkedIn recently, and one of the co-founders, I asked what kind of educational background he valued. His answer was, of course: “Most of the people we have here, we take it for granted that they have a technology background. But if we talk about the ones who are our most valued employees, they will be the ones who also have a very rich humanities and arts background.” He himself was an English language major as an undergraduate at Stanford.

The arts and humanities, there’s no formula that exists that’s going to tell you what the outcomes are going to be in terms of contributions to the economy, but clearly for the United States of America, our arts and humanities, one of the cores of our educational system, lead to creativity and innovation that’s keeping America ahead, still, today, economically.

Business is about clientele and customers, and you need interpersonal skills and communication skills to get to those customers, so this binary choice between STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and humanities and arts, that’s a false choice. They are interdependent.

Price: 919-829-4526

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