Obama’s Burden

From Israel to Afghanistan, foreign policy challenges will test the new administration.

Robert Dreyfuss

On Nov. 28 in Lahore, Pakistani demonstrators burn a U.S. flag during a protest against U.S. missile strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

For those appalled by the arrogant unilateralism of the Bush era, the Obama administration will be a relief. But for those who believe that American policy in South and Southwest Asia was misguided in the decades before President Bush, they shouldn’t expect anything too different from Obama and what the Wall Street Journal calls Obama’s War Cabinet.”

Distinguishing Obama’s campaign rhetoric—calculated to protect his right flank—from what he might do in office is like trying to discern patterns in shifting sands.

President-elect Barack Obama will have to deal with a misshapen global war on terrorism and two failed wars: In Iraq, Bush’s adventures in empire-building have left an uneasy ceasefire and a seething mess of well-armed enemy militias that could explode into renewed violent civil war at any moment. In Afghanistan, the U.S.-NATO occupation, besieged by a powerful Islamist insurgency, is losing the war. 

In Pakistan, a shaky civilian government is facing an Islamist-inspired insurgency of its own, one that may or may not be allied to Pakistan’s own intelligence service. 

A resurgent Iran has built a network of allies – overt and covert in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine – and is pushing ahead with its nuclear enrichment program. 

In Lebanon, new elections could catapult the Iranian-allied Hezbollah party into power. The Israel-Palestine deadlock has calcified, made worse by the possibility that February elections in Israel could bring Bibi Netanyahu, the hard-line leader of the rightist Likud bloc, back to power.

Dealing with just one of these crises would be a challenge for any administration. But dealing with all of them is a hugely complicated problem. In his first six months, Obama won’t be able to avoid having to confront them – perhaps all at once. 

Shifting sands

On the positive side, an almost giddy sense of anticipation has spread globally about Obama’s presidency. The rancor that marked U.S. relations with the Muslim world for the past eight years still lingers, but most governments – and most citizens – in the Middle East seem willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. 

He has made a commitment to withdraw U.S. combat forces from Iraq on a 16-month timetable, and he has promised to open a high-level dialogue with Iran. He has also pledged to end torture and close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. To signal that he plans to abandon the Crusade-like rhetoric of Bush’s war on terror, Obama has stated plans to deliver a major speech on the future of U.S.-Muslim relations in an Islamic country early in his presidency.

But Obama has also promised to escalate the war in Afghanistan, and he has made it clear that he won’t shy away from attacking al Qaeda and Taliban bases in Pakistan. Despite his openness to negotiations with Iran, he has refused to rule out the use of force to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon. On Iraq, despite his pledge to initiate a withdrawal of American troops, he has hedged by saying that he will listen to the advice of the commanders on the ground and that he is prepared to adjust or halt the withdrawal if things go awry. And, so far at least, he has shown no inclination to step away from the litany of predictably pro-Israeli positions that he adopted during the campaign.

But trying to distinguish between his campaign rhetoric – often calculated to protect his right flank against Republican criticism – and what Obama might actually do once in office is like trying to discern patterns in shifting sands.

Surge and negotiate’

The first crisis Obama will face – provided Iraq isn’t engulfed in violence early in 2009 – may be in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

During the election, Obama pledged to send two to three additional U.S. brigades into Afghanistan, and he refused to criticize the Bush administration’s policy of launching Predator drone missile strikes at sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal areas. 

If we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act and we will take them out,” Obama said in the second of his three presidential debates with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al Qaeda.”

But that hard line could drag him deeper into the Afghan morass. Over the past year, a consensus has emerged in Europe and the Middle East that the only way out of Afghanistan is to negotiate with representatives of the Taliban – and allied right-wing Islamists and warlords – on a power-sharing deal in Kabul. That approach is beginning to sink in with U.S. officials, as well as with Obama’s advisers.

But Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, believes that before any negotiations can take place, the military must stabilize Afghanistan. As in Iraq, Petraeus has proposed a surge of up to 20,000 more U.S. troops in that country. 

In interviews, many of Obama’s Afghan advisers have accepted the idea of a surge and negotiate” strategy. 

I don’t see that you have any credible chance of persuading even a small number of Taliban to break,” says Bruce Riedel, who led Obama’s task force on Pakistan and Afghanistan. They think they’re winning, and if you look at the numbers, you can make a pretty convincing case.”

But more troops isn’t the answer. By escalating the war, the United States is likely to enflame the situation, strengthening the insurgency. Many Afghan watchers consider the war unwinnable, pointing out that in the 80s, the Soviet Union had far more troops engaged in a brutal counterinsurgency war, and lost. 

British Ambassador Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, in a cable leaked in early October, warned against precisely the escalation that Obama and Petraeus advocate: It is the American presidential candidates who must be dissuaded from getting further bogged down in Afghanistan. [Sending more troops] would have perverse effects: It would identify us even more strongly as an occupation force and would multiply the targets [for the insurgents].”

British Brig. Gen. Mark Carleton-Smith told the Sunday Times of London on Oct. 6: We’re not going to win this war. … It’s about reducing [insurgency] to a manageable level that’s not a strategic threat.” 

As a result, Great Britain and France have quietly encouraged Saudi Arabia to host talks involving former Taliban and representatives of the Afghan and Pakistani governments.

Nearly all of Obama’s Afghan advisers recognize that the war won’t be won militarily. They’ve advocated for regional diplomatic efforts to negotiate a settlement – possibly one underwritten by powers such as India, Russia and even Iran – and for stepped-up economic aid to Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

But in the meantime, Obama’s commitment to beefing up U.S. forces in Afghanistan could worsen that war. And unless Pakistan is handled with extreme care, that country could explode, as well. 

A shaky Pakistan

Pakistan faces a crippling economic crisis, and it is ruled by a shaky civilian government that could fail, precipitating the fifth military coup d’etat in five decades. 

By demanding that Pakistan escalate the war in its Islamist-dominated tribal areas, and by striking repeatedly across the Afghan border into Pakistan against Taliban and al Qaeda sanctuaries there, Obama will run the risk of destabilizing Pakistan by alienating the government from the population, which deeply resents America’s role.

Pakistan’s government is trapped between its own army and U.S. pressure to crack down on militants in remote tribal areas in the northwest. For half a century, the Pakistani army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate has been a fiefdom independent of civilian control, and so far, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari – the widower of the murdered former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto – has been unable to wrest control of national security from the army-ISI bloc. The ISI, in turn, has long supported Islamist militancy. In the 90s, the ISI fostered the Taliban as a tool to dominate Afghanistan. And Indian and U.S. intelligence reports suggested the ISI might have had a role in the Mumbai terrorist attacks in late November.

For the United States, the only practical solution in Pakistan is to step back, allow the civilian government to build credibility and to gain traction, while letting the army know that Washington will not support yet another coup d’etat.

But the cross-border attacks rile up Pakistan’s population and make the civilian government look weak and feckless. Rather than squeezing Pakistan by pressuring Islamabad to join the U.S. war on terrorism, Obama needs to ease the pressure and give Pakistan room to solve its own problems.

The players

Obama’s national security team, announced on Dec. 1, is a mostly conservative, centrist and pro-military group, reinforcing the idea that, except perhaps in Iraq, Obama isn’t planning significant changes in America’s posture in the Middle East. It includes Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) at the State Department, retired Marine Gen. James E. Jones as national security adviser, and President Bush’s secretary of defense, Robert Gates, staying on at the Pentagon. 

Jones, who served as NATO commander until 2006, pushed the alliance to extend its reach into the Middle East and Persian Gulf as part of a strategy aimed at securing oil supplies from the region. And both he and Gates have been deeply involved in plans to expand the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. 

What’s striking, however, about Clinton, Gates and Jones is that none of the three have been particularly close to Obama. And, among those who have been intimate advisers of the president-elect on national security, virtually none have been immersed in Middle East policy and politics during their careers.

Susan Rice, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, appointed by Obama to serve as ambassador to the United Nations, and Scott Gration, a retired Air Force major general and a fluent Swahili speaker, are Africa specialists. 

Rice, especially, is viewed with some suspicion in the Middle East because of her fervent calls for intervening militarily in Darfur,” says one veteran Middle East specialist, in an interview just after Obama’s election. 

Others in the inner circle of Obama’s foreign policy team are Richard Danzig, a former secretary of the Navy; Anthony Lake, who was President Clinton’s national security adviser; and Gregory Craig, a lawyer who was part of President Clinton’s defense team during impeachment. None of them have a reputation for their Middle East expertise.

Two others are Denis McDonough – a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota – and Mark Lippert – the chief foreign policy aide on Obama’s Senate staff. Neither one has a background in the Middle East and South Asia (although Lippert, a reserve lieutenant in the Navy SEALs, served in Iraq in 2007 and 2008).

On foreign affairs, Obama trusts no one as much as, perhaps, Lippert. According to those who’ve worked closely with him, Lippert is a conservative, cautious centrist who often pulled Obama to the right on Iran, Iraq and the Middle East, and who has been a consistent advocate for increased defense spending.

Even before Obama announced for the presidency, Lippert wanted Obama to be seen as tough on Iran,” says a lobbyist who has worked the Iran issue on Capitol Hill. He’s clearly more hawkish than [Obama].”

During the campaign, after Obama declared his readiness to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Lippert was among several Obama advisers who urged the Illinois senator to backpedal, sources say. He wanted Obama to pull back, but it was Obama himself who said no,” says one insider, an Iran specialist. 

In the Arab world, Obama’s appointment of Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), former Clinton chief of staff, as his White House chief of staff caused a degree of consternation. 

Emanuel, an unflinching partisan for Israel, is the son of a former fighter in the anti-British terrorist group, the Irgun Zvai Leumi. Emanuel’s father, who emigrated from Israel and now lives in a Chicago suburb, caused a stir when he commented on his son’s appointment. 

Obviously he will influence the president to be pro-Israel,” he told a reporter. Why wouldn’t he be? What is he, an Arab? He’s not going to clean the floors of the White House.” (Afterward, Emanuel was forced to apologize to an Arab-American organization for his father’s racist comments.) 

Most worrying to Obama-watchers is adviser Dennis Ross. In the 80s, Ross helped found the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the hawkish, pro-Israel lobbying group. In the 90s, he served as Clinton’s special envoy to the Middle East. Since then, Ross has been at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a neoconservative research group closely tied to the Israeli right. 

Over the past 12 years, he’s played an incredibly destructive role when it comes to the issue of Palestine,” says a leading Arab scholar. 

Last summer, Ross helped write Obama’s speech to AIPAC. 

As president, I will never compromise when it comes to Israel’s security,” Obama said, stating that he will sign a memorandum of understanding to provide Israel with $30 billion in military aid over the next 10 years to ensure Israel’s qualitative military advantage.” He promised never to negotiate with Hamas and Hezbollah, and added that while he will talk to Iran, I will always keep the threat of military action on the table.” 

Throughout the campaign, Obama never veered from orthodoxy in support of Israel. When advisers – such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser, or Robert Malley, who was part of President Clinton’s Middle East team – strayed from Obama’s campaign line, they were exiled. 

Still, in speaking with a range of former State Department officials, Arab diplomats, and regional experts, the consensus is that Obama, the president, may be more even-handed than Obama, the candidate. 

I’m very optimistic,” says Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, a peace-oriented Jewish group. Like many others, Ben-Ami discounts much of Obama’s campaign boilerplate as rhetoric designed to appeal to conservative Jewish voters.

Part of that optimism is because two of Obama’s key advisers on the Middle East are seen as fair in their approach: Daniel Kurtzer, an Orthodox Jew who served as ambassador to Egypt and Israel, and Dan Shapiro, a former National Security Council official and ex-Capitol Hill staffer. Both are highly regarded in Washington as moderate and sensitive to the nuances of Middle East talks. 

I have the highest regard for Dan Kurtzer,” says David Mack of the Middle East Institute, an Arabist-leaning think tank in Washington, who is a former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. He’s in the top 10 of people I worked with.”

In an interview held before Obama’s victory, Shapiro told In These Times that Obama will take an activist role in seeking to broker a deal in Palestine. 

He’s committed to a much more energetic form of helping Israel and the Palestinians reach an agreement,” Shapiro says. He adds that Obama would also step in to assist the peace talks between Israel and Syria. The Palestinians need a state that is contiguous and cohesive and the ability to chart their own destiny,” Shapiro says.

One issue that remains radioactive within the Obama camp is what to do about Hamas. In the 2006 election, the group won the right to govern the Palestinian Authority (PA), and then it seized control of the Gaza Strip in a mini-civil war with Fatah, the mainstream leadership of the PA and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Obama has given no hint that he would talk to Hamas.

But another Obama adviser, John Brennan, a long-time CIA officer who headed the National Counterterrorism Center, suggests that once the election dust settles, Obama might very well be prepared to talk not only to Hamas, but also to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed organization that is angling for power in Lebanon, as well. Brennan, who had the inside track to become a top intelligence official under Obama, dropped out of the running in late November.

In the end, however, it may be Iraq that trips up President Obama.

Political risks

Perhaps no other campaign pledge by the president-elect is as well known as his commitment to withdraw U.S. forces on a timetable, pulling out one to two brigades of combat forces every month. That’s roughly compatible with the timetable that many Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, support, and it has been the core promise of the Obama campaign since 2007. He used his antiwar stand effectively against Clinton in the primaries, and, against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Obama was clearly seen as the dove. Voters who strongly opposed the Iraq War voted 8 to 1 for Obama, according to exit polls. 

But toward the end of the campaign, Obama downplayed his exit strategy for Iraq. And because the financial crisis emerged as issue number one for most voters, it might complicate Obama’s ability to claim that the election was a mandate for his Iraq policy.

The question of Obama’s mandate on Iraq is important because Obama will face enormous pressure to back down from his pledge. That pressure will come from the military, including Petraeus, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq. It will also come from Democratic Party hawks, conservatives and neoconservatives in the GOP, think tanks, and editorial boards at the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. And Robert Gates, who presided over the 2007-2008 surge” of U.S. forces in Iraq, is likely to counsel Obama to go slow when it comes to withdrawing combat forces.

Obama will also have to confront serious political risks. If he begins to withdraw forces and the unstable situation in Iraq blows up, he will have to weather withering criticism that he squandered the gains supposedly achieved during the 2007-2008 surge. 

But those gains are mostly illusory, as the surge hasn’t healed the deep divisions within Iraq among competing power blocs and militias. And Iran, which has accumulated huge influence inside Iraq, might choose to abandon its current stabilizing role in Iraq and, instead, fuel more violence there as a way of putting pressure on the United States.

The private views of most of Obama’s inner circle of advisers aren’t well known. But during the campaign, he assembled a group of 10 to 20 experts and outside advisers on Iraq, and their views are diverse. 

Perhaps the clearest divide is between people such as Larry Korb and Brian Katulis at the Center for American Progress – who supported an unconditional withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq, including all military trainers and counterterrorist units – and people like Colin Kahl at the more centrist Center for a New American Security, who wants the withdrawal to be conditional, tied to politics and security in Iraq, and who has proposed leaving 50,000 to 70,000 troops in Iraq for at least several more years. 

Obama’s website endorses the need for some of these so-called residual forces, although he has been vague on specifics. And, though his early policy seemed to endorse the idea of an unconditional withdrawal, Obama later suggested that he’s open to the notion of adjusting or halting the withdrawal if violence escalates again in Iraq.

Because of his campaign pledges, Obama may feel compelled to carry out his withdrawal plans. If so, he will need all the political support he can get from the many millions of antiwar voters who cast their ballot for him. He will also need to accompany the withdrawal with a skillful diplomatic effort to persuade Iraq’s factions to reconcile, as well as a parallel effort to work with Iraq’s neighbors – including Iran and Syria – to support the emergence of a truly independent and stable Iraq, free of the U.S. occupation.

All in all, it’s a tall order, and it’s hard to know where to begin. In the end, it may not be up to President Obama, since one or another of the crises in the Middle East and South Asia may force him to start there. 

A year from now, fixing the economy may look like the easier of Obama’s challenges. 

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Robert Dreyfuss is an independent journalist based in Alexandria, Va. He is a contributing editor at the Nation, where his blog, The Dreyfuss Report, appears regularly. He is author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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