I think for a lot of Americans, particularly those of a more liberal inclination, like Michael Moore or my mother, there was a kind of flickering hope earlier in the week that America might be on the verge of exiting the Middle East once and for all.
The loud tick tick tick of the withdrawal timeline has been audible throughout Iraq for months. And with the debate triggered by the McChrystal Report and the pushback calls for more troops seemed to be generating from Vice President Biden and others within the administration, it seemed we might be moving toward a decision by the President that would have us narrowing the mission in Afghanistan. This argued many ... including conservatives like George Will, for that matter ... could only reasonably lead to our withdrawal from that misbegotten place.
And they may even hoped, the United States might finally be ready to pressure the Israelis into backing down on settlements as a way of getting to serious talks about a peace agreement with the Palestinians. No Jewish settlements equals lasting peace settlement, seems to be the calculus there.
Then, reality crept back into the picture. First, it was hinted at when Obama ... at least temporarily ... backed down on pressuring the Israelis on the settlements. But then it came roaring back into focus with a vengeance thanks to the "news" of Iran's second nuclear enrichment facility. Never mind that Obama was briefed on this facility before he became president, that allied intelligence services had known about it for years and that everyone knew Iran was lying about its existence all along. There comes a moment in these things when their lying and our willingness to lie to ourselves or at least to our publics slip out of whack. And that's when the truth creeps out and spoils the party.
And so as the week draws to a close, the picture now looks somewhat different. Iran is revealed again to be a liar and immediately responds by saying "we won't back down." America, Britain, and France make statements condemning Iran, but they range from bland and process oriented (Obama) to bold but toothless (Sarkozy and Brown). Meanwhile, Angela Merkel (who my sources tell me is not one of Obama's faves in Europe to begin with) and the Russians and the Chinese can't or won't make it to the "shocked, shocked" photo op.
Russia and China are the "or" and the "else" of any international threat to Iran. Absent them, countries like the United States and our European allies can only stomp their feet or introduce sanctions that will be largely ineffective. So this problem festers on and looks very likely to get much worse before it gets better.
Meanwhile, days after the Untied States votes to triple aid to Pakistan, the Washington Post runs a story today about the growing anti-Americanism in that country and how it threatens our goals there. Given that Pakistan is where our real enemies are, this reminds us that this is the AfPak War and regardless of what we want to do in Afghanistan, we will for many years be grappling with the much, much bigger problems associated with nuclear Pakistan.
And on top of it all, the Iran revelation makes Bibi Netanyahu (see today's other post) one of the big winners of this week, proving that while Ahmadinejad lies about the Holocaust and nukes, Netanyahu has been accurately characterizing the Iranian threat. Further, it is becoming clearer and clearer to the Obama team that however difficult the Israelis may be, they are matched step for step by the Palestinians.
In short, for those of you who thought we might have been on the verge of getting the heck out of Dodge, reconsider. We can draw down troops in Iraq, but there will be 50,000 there when Obama's successor arrives in office. We can narrow the focus in Afghanistan, but there will be U.S. military dealing with threats in AfPak when Obama's successor arrives in office. We can extend the "unclenched fist" to Iran, but they will spit in it and represent a deep and lasting threat to regional security for many years, certain well past whenever Obama's successor arrives in office. And Israel and Palestine may make peace ... although that seems a long way off...but the volatility in the region will ensure that sooner or later everyone will be clear that they are not the lynchpin of the region's stability issues. (Although they are certainly an important one.)
The decisions Obama makes about Afghanistan, about dealing with a difficult ally in Pakistan, about how to forge an effective international coalition to contain Iran (which will involve coming up with credible, meaningful consequences if they fail to fall into line), and about just how to get two difficult parties to accept the peace they both need and want, will play a large role in determining whether Obama is around for another 3 or another 7 years. But it seems clear that almost regardless of which path he chooses, his successor will face many of the same problems.
A week that began with murmurs of hope among those who would like to see America disengaged from the region -- a group with which I am very sympathetic not to mention one that includes plenty of my relatives -- is distressingly ending with a slightly different tone, better characterized by the shrieks of noted foreign policy observer Mathew Broderick at the climactic moment of "The Producers." "No way out!" he cries, "No way out!"
I'm not always a pessimist. But I am right now.
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