Tip Sheet for the Global Midterms
On the Cusp
General David Petraeus: The Great Surgifier of Baghdad and the Seer of Kabul is now, it seems, in something of a rush. For one thing, his fabulous 2006–08 surge in Iraq turns out to have been for the benefit of Iran, not Washington (see Iran in Iraq, above). In addition, as members of the Sunni Awakening Movement reportedly peel off in disillusionment or disgust with the present largely Shiite government and rejoin the insurgency in significant numbers, his modest success is threatening to unravel behind him—and so is American support for the Afghan War he now commands, according to the opinion polls.
As a result, according to Washington pundit (and Petraeus-lover) David Ignatius, he's making a "strategic pivot"—a decorous phrase—in Afghanistan. Give him credit for daring—or desperation. He may be known as the progenitor of the Army's present counterinsurgency strategy, or COIN, the man who dusted off that failed, long-discarded doctrine from the Vietnam era, made it thrillingly sexy, complete with new manual, and elevated it to a central position in Army planning for years to come, but he's not a man to let consistency stand in his way. Seeing the need for quick signs of "progress" in Afghanistan (where the war has been going desperately badly), both for a December Obama administration policy review and to keep any US troop drawdowns to a minimum in 2011, he has countermanded former war commander McChrystal's COIN-ish attempt to radically scale back US air strikes. Instead, he's loosed the US Air Force on the Taliban, opted to try to pound them with anything available, pushed for escalation in the form of "hot pursuit" across the Pakistani border, upped Special Operations "capture or kill" raids, and generally left COIN in a ditch. Think of his new tactics as BKJ, for "bomb-kill-jaw"—the jawing being about "peace talks" and aimed at influential sectors of the US media, among others, part of a rising drumbeat of "progress" propaganda from the general's headquarters.
Well-connected, savvy and willing to shift tactics on a moment's notice, Petraeus is a figure to contend with in Washington, our most political general since I don't know when. Like Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, he may be playing a cagey hand to extend matters through 2012, when a president ready to fight on till hell freezes over could take office. He's a man on the cusp, destined for success, but only a few hops, skips, and jumps ahead of failure.
(By the way, keep an eye on another Bush-era holdover, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, if you want to gauge what Washington thinks of the war's "progress." Just a month ago, he was publicly muttering about retirement early next year. He's not a man who will want to preside over disaster in Afghanistan. If he does leave early in 2011, just assume that the war is headed for the toilet and, having supported his war commanders in their surge strategy through 2009 and 2010, he's getting out while the going is still good and his reputation intact.)
Pakistan: Only recently 20 percent underwater, Pakistan is in a protracted military, intelligence and policy dance with the United States, the Afghans, the Taliban, India and God knows who else so intricate that only a contortionist could appreciate it. For Washington, Pakistan is an enigma curled in a conundrum wrapped in a roti and sprinkled with hot pepper. With the Obama administration schizophrenically poised between partnership and poison—policies of "hot pursuit" across the Pakistani border and placation, showering the Pakistani military with yet more weaponry and cutting off some units from any aid at all—anything is possible. Armed to the teeth, clobbered by nature, beset by fundamentalist guerrillas, surrounded by potential enemies, and unraveling, democratic and ever at the edge of military rule, Pakistan is the greatest unknown of the Greater Middle East (even if it is in South Asia). If it's on the cusp of hell, then, like it or not, Washington will be, too.
Israel: The question here is straightforward enough: Just how badly can Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu and his government treat the Obama administration (and the president himself) and get away with it? Right now, the answer seems to be, as badly as they want. After all, Washington put almost all its global diplomatic apples in one ill-woven negotiating basket, named it "making progress on a two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine problem," started talks, and then offered Israel a package of goodies of a sort that would normally only be given away deep into negotiations, if at all, for nothing more than a two-month extension of the Israeli settlement-construction freeze. The result: Israeli settlers are again building up a storm on the West Bank while the Netanyahu government plays even harder to get. If the Obama administration can't do better than this, then at the next TomDispatch handicapping session Israel has a reasonable shot at being elevated into the winner's circle. If Obama and his team ever get tired of being kicked around by Netanyahu & Co., especially with the US midterms behind them, life could get tougher for Bibi. The real question is, Can the prime minister play out this version of the game until 2012 in hopes that Obama will lose out and a new US president will be ready to give away the store?
Iran (not in Iraq): Nasty government, shaky economy beset by international sanctions, poor choices and poor planning, irritated population, enemies with malice aforethought, and an embattled peaceful nuclear program that could be headed for "breakout" capacity versus fabulous reserves of oil and natural gas and integration into the great Eurasian energy grid as well as into the energy-eager plans of China, Russia, Pakistan and India. It's anybody's bet.
Economy, the global: I wouldn't even think about handicapping this one or guessing what it might be on the cusp of. After all, Asian economies (minus Japan) are heating up, as are a number of developing ones like Brazil's (with capital flowing to such places in problematic amounts); meanwhile, the American economy is cold as a tomb, and Europe is teetering at the edge of who knows what. If this isn't the definition of a jerry-built Rube-Goldberg-version of a global system, what is? Put your money down if you want, but you'll get no odds here.
Counterinsurgency Doctrine or COIN: It was Petraeus's baby and later the belle of the military ball as well as the talk of the militarized intelligentsia at every Washington think tank that mattered. It took the US Army by storm, and when it comes to laying out the latest plans for the US Army's future fighting doctrine, it's still counterinsurgency all the way to the horizon (and 2028). But how long does any fad last? Who remembers hula hoops, bell bottoms or the Whiskey a Go Go? In the same way, in Afghanistan, COIN, the military doctrine of "protecting the people" in order to win "hearts and minds," just lost out to smashing the enemy—and whoever else happens to be around (see Petraeus, General David, above). Okay, COIN is still there, and you'll hear the carnies in and out of the war-making tent talking a great COIN game for some time to come, but that was the case in Vietnam, too, even after B-52s were carpet-bombing the South Vietnamese countryside and CIA-sponsored teams were roaming the provinces murdering locals by the score. Hearts and minds? COIN's a loser, and even General Petraeus now seems to know it (though he'll never admit it).
Great Britain: The British lion just got a haircut and—who could be surprised—most of the hair that got cut was shorn from women and children, always first to disembark from the HMS Economy. One other casualty of government slashing, however, is the British defense establishment, suffering an 8 percent budget cut over the next four years—which means losing lots of jets, 17,000 bodies and even the fleet's flagship aircraft carrier, which will be "decommissioned," leaving the British unable to launch a plane at sea until at least 2019. As the Washington Post politely put the matter, "[The government's] moves amount to a tactical scaling down of military ambition by the one European ally consistently willing to back the United States with firepower in international conflicts." Put more bluntly, as the British in their imperial days used native recruits to help police their colonies and fight their wars, so in recent years, the Brits have been America's Gurkhas. No longer, however, will Britain be, militarily speaking, the mouse that roared. Despite pathetic pledges to remain at the American side in Afghanistan forever and a day, the sun is now setting on the British military, which means that the United States has lost its key sidekick in any future "coalition of the willing." (Note for the Pentagon: carpe diem. The Brits are the canary in the mine on this. Sooner or later, it will be your turn, too. By then, of course, women and children in the US will already be well shorn.)
Iraqis, Afghans and Americans: We're talking peoples here. Afghans and Iraqis have spent these last years, if not decades, in hell. Lives ripped apart and destroyed, exiles created in vast numbers, basic services debilitated. The numbers of dead and wounded, while contested, are vast enough to stagger the imagination. Just the other day, thanks to the Wikileaks Iraq document dump, Iraq Body Count was able to identify approximately 15,000 previously unknown Iraqi civilian deaths between 2004 and 2009. As that organization's John Sloboda commented, the new cache of 400,000 US military documents from 2004–09 shows "the relentless grind of daily killings in almost every town or village in every province." The Iraqis, like the Afghans, deserved better, and yet, when it comes to misery and death, there's still no end in sight. Both peoples were supposedly "liberated" by American invasions. Both are the true losers of the last decade and the saddest of stories, planetarily speaking. And let's not forget the American people either, pounded in their own way. Just imagine what kind of winners they might have been if, instead of building vast, useless base complexes in Iraq and Afghanistan (and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East) and fighting trillion-dollar wars, the United States had chosen to build almost anything at home. But why go down that road? It's such a sorry what-if journey to nowhere (see Economy, the American, below).
Barack Obama & Company: He had the numbers (in the polls and in Congress) and the popularity in early 2009. He could have done almost anything. But first, in the key areas of foreign and economic policy, he surrounded himself with the old crew, the deadest of heads and the stalest Washington thinking around. While this was presented as an Ivy League fest of the best and the brightest, so far their track record shows them to be politically dumb and dumber. They missed out on jobs (about as simple and basic as you can get), and took a dismal year of review to double down twice on a war from hell. Now the president stands a reasonable chance in 2012 of turning over to a new (possibly far more dismal) administration an even more disastrous Afghan War, an unfinished Iraq crisis, a Guantánamo still unclosed, "don't ask, don't tell" still in place (who says the coming Congress will care to do Obama's bidding on this one, now that he's bypassed the courts) and a jobless nonrecovery or worse—and that's just to start down the path of DisObamapointment.
Economy, the American: Don't even get me started. Just kiss this one goodbye for a while.
Check back in a month. With the global (and American) midterms over and the Big Show of 2012 ahead, rest assured that our hardy gang of pollsters and pundits will soon be gearing up again. You can sort through the odds and place your next set of bets in late November.