President Barack Obama will face a daunting international scene in January as a direct consequence of George Bush’s ill-conceived adventure in Iraq. Having argued forcefully that the war should never have been fought, and having committed himself to a “responsible” withdrawal, Obama will indeed inherit responsibility for Iraq.
Notwithstanding its much-trumpeted success, Bush’s Surge has done no more than buy time without achieving a solution to the fundamental problem of sectarian division in Iraq. If Obama carries through with his promised withdrawal, we will likely see a chronically unstable Iraq wracked by sectarian and regional conflict. If he succumbs to the temptation to stay, we will be stuck in the Mesopotamian sands and unable to respond to any of the other challenges that will confront us.
The fundamental problem is that Iraq is a state invented by British imperialists shackling together three antagonistic populations (the Sunni, the Shi’a, and the Kurds). It will never be stable except under a draconian dictator like Saddam Hussein. The tragedy is that George Bush has bought responsibility for this chronic disaster, and Barack Obama will inherit it.
By overthrowing Saddam Hussein, Bush not only destabilized Iraq, he removed the main barrier to Iranian power in the region. That’s why successive US administrations held their noses and supported Hussein after the 1979 revolution brought Ayatolla Khomeini to power in Iran. With a weak Iraq under Shi’a control, Iran can threaten the corrupt Sunni Arab petro-states of the Gulf region (including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait).
The Bush Administration has made much of the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran, but this is largely a monster of its own creation, a monster now to be handed off to President Obama. With a military confrontation off the table because of our overcommitment in Iraq, Obama will be wise to seek a more diplomatic and nuanced approach to Iran.
Much has been made by Obama of the folly of diverting resources from Afghanistan to Iraq before victory was assured in the former. He has pledged a significant increase in forces there, and he will have to deliver in short order if he hopes to reverse the rapid deterioration that is now sweeping the country. There is a major resurgence of the Taliban, largely because they are the best organized and least corrupt of Afghani political forces, and because they are facing a feckless and corrupt government that is a creature of US intervention. It is true that we lack sufficient forces to prevail in Afghanistan, but what Obama is not saying (and perhaps not seeing) is that Afghanistan is, like Iraq, scarcely a nation at all, and will be stable only under the kind of draconian force that the Taliban can provide. To prevent a Taliban takeover, Obama will have to keep a major force in Afghanistan indefinitely.
The ability of the Taliban to threaten Afghanistan is directly supported by a Janus-faced Pakistan that is simultaneously an indispensable ally to both the Taliban and the US. Pakistan is by its DNA an Islamic state, forged in opposition to a predominantly Hindu India. Islamic militants have had the unswerving support of the Pakistani army and intelligence agency in the struggle against Indian occupation of Kashmir, and that alliance has not been broken as the militants turn their attention to Afghanistan. Pakistani authorities risk their own overthrow if they challenge the militant allies of the Taliban.
At the same time, Pakistan’s alliance with the US has been fundamental to its confrontation with India almost from the advent of the country itself. After the attacks of 9/11, Pakistan had little choice but to support the US invasion of Afghanistan, but has done so with one hand while quietly facilitating the Taliban’s cross-border attacks with the other hand. Obama will have no ready solution to this conundrum that is Pakistan. He might pursue a developing détente with India, but that won’t help in Afghanistan and would surely provoke a more consistently hostile Pakistan.
Underlying everything in the Middle East is the Arab-Israeli conflict. Obama has bought into the long-standing bipartisan consensus on unconditional support for Israel, and there is no evidence that he will change that. But it is increasingly clear that US interests in the region cannot be secure without a stable and just peace settlement leading to a viable Palestine at peace with Israel. That cannot be achieved without US pressure on both sides. The problem is excruciatingly difficult, but it may, paradoxically, be the most soluble of all the Middle Eastern problems that Obama will confront. All he has to do is something that no US president has ever done: make Israel give up its illegal settlements, and make the Islamist Hamas a party to the settlement.
President Obama will face all of these challenges with a remarkably weak hand as a result of Bush’s mistaken policies and failures. Our armed forces are so overextended and stressed that he simply cannot credibly threaten the use of force in any new theater. Our alliances—NATO in particular—are bloated and ineffective. The expansion of NATO to include former Soviet allies has yielded no significant military gain while needlessly antagonizing Russia and making alliance decision-making impossibly cumbersome.
Our present acute financial crisis is just a manifestation of an economy gone haywire with massive fiscal and trade deficits and the virtual destruction of our manufacturing sector. We are reduced to borrowing money from the Chinese to pay for our imported oil. Indeed, the Chinese already have the power to destroy our economy at will by refusing to keep buying our bonds. They don’t pull the trigger because they need for us to keep buying their stuff. But we really don’t dare antagonize them on anything fundamental, such as Taiwan.
Obama has been very critical of Bush’s foreign policy, but there is little evidence that he’s thought in depth about how to get out of the hole we’re in. At least he would stop digging, while McCain would dig us deeper. If only Obama would read my essay, “A Progressive Foreign Policy for the 21st Century,” recently published by LA Progressive, he might have a clue.
John Peeler is a retired professor of political science at Bucknell University, specializing in Latin American and international affairs. His op-ed essays have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today, as well as many in local papers here in central Pennsylvania where he lives. He has had letters published in both the New York Times and the Washington Post.
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