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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

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Light at the End of the Afghan Tunnel?

A lot happening on the AfPak front.

It's Pakistan week in Washington, and nearly the entire Pakistan government is in town for meetings with the Obama administration. But the real action is half a world away, where a delegation from the Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Islamic Party (Hezb-i Islami), a key ally of the Taliban, has sent a peace delegation to Kabul for meetings with the Afghan government of President Karzai.

It's the most important peace initiative since the start of the war in Afghanistan in 2001. And here I make a bold prediction: the war in Afghanistan will be pretty much over by July, 2011. Like the war in Iraq, which is winding down as U.S. forces withdraw, the end of the war in Afghanistan will be messy, a lot of loose ends will be left over, and it will be unsatisfying to all sides.

Let's remember, first of all, who Hekmatyar is. He's not exactly an anti-American firebrand. During the CIA-sponsored anti-USSR jihad in the 1980s, he was the prime recipient of aid from Saudi Arabia, the CIA, and Pakistan's ISI. He had a well-earned reputation as a brutal thug, but then so did many of Karzai's current warlord allies. During the pre-Taliban civil war of the early 1990s, he was an enthusiastic participant, and since then he's emerged as an ally of the Taliban, based in Pakistan and quietly receiving covert support from the ISI since 9/11. He is a committed Islamist.

But, according to the New York Times, in a piece by Carlotta Gall, the paper's long-time reporter in South Asia, Hekmatyar's delegation to Kabul has proposed a peace plan that is also supported by the Taliban, contingent on the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces. Gall writes:

"Representatives of a major insurgent faction have presented a formal 15-point peace plan to the Afghan government, the first concrete proposal to end hostilities since President Hamid Karzai said he would make reconciliation a priority after his re-election last year. ...

"His representatives met Monday with President Karzai and other Afghan officials in the first formal contact between a major insurgent group and the Afghan government after almost two years of backchannel communications, which diplomats say the United States has supported.

"A spokesman for the delegation, Mohammad Daoud Abedi, said the Taliban, which makes up the bulk of the insurgency, would be willing to go along with the plan if a date was set for the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country."

The terms of the peace plan, called the National Rescue Agreement, aren't exactly extremist in nature:

"The Hezb-i-Islami proposal, while categorical about the demand for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan, and to end military operations and detentions, goes some way toward meeting the demands of Western nations and the Afghan government on other issues.

"It accepts having the current government to stay in power, and having the Afghan police, army and intelligence services assume responsibility for security, while a seven-member national security council is formed as the ultimate decision-making body until foreign forces leave and new elections are held.

"A future elected parliament would have the right to review the Constitution, and the Afghan courts would prosecute those accused of corruption, drug smuggling, theft of the national wealth, and war crimes."

Of course, the opening of peace talks isn't the end of talks, just the beginning. In a month or so, Karzai plans to convene a jirga, or council of tribal elders and others, to discuss an arrangement for reconciliation with the insurgency, including the Taliban, the Islamic Party, and anyone else who wants to take part. Karzai's initiative was encouraged strongly by the British and the rest of NATO and the EU, who've turned decidedly against the idea of prolonged war in Afghanistan. The United States' views on the whole effort are decidedly more mixed, since the counterinsurgency (COIN) and nation-building cult in Washington is far more committed than the Europeans to a decades-long program of war and rebuilding in Afghanistan. But Obama, I believe, wants to end the war in Afghanistan before running for reelection in 2012, so he can run as the president who ended President Bush's two misguided wars. In the end, Obama is likely to support a negotiated end to the fighting; indeed, that is precisely why the president announced last December that U.S. forces would start to withdraw from Afghanistan in July, 2011.

Although the Taliban and Hekmatyar want the U.S. withdrawal to start in July, 2010, it's an opening gambit. The head of the Islamic Party delegation in Kabul told Gall: "This is a start, this is not the word of the Koran that we cannot change it."

So what of Pakistan? In the end, a decisive role will be played by Pakistan, because of that country's vast influence with the Taliban, with the Islamic Party, and with the even more radical group around the Haqqani family, whose movement makes up the third part of the insurgency in Afghanistan. (The Haqqanis, according to experts, are much closer to the dead-enders in Al Qaeda than the others.)

An important story in the Washington Post today by Karen DeYoung and Karin Brulliard reports that Pakistan realizes that the end-game in Afghanistan is coming more quickly than it expected, and so Pakistan is scrambling to get its ducks in a row in preparation for a settlement of the war. Pakistan's main interest, as always, is in securing what it thinks of as a strategic interest in Afghanistan vis-à-vis India, and recently Pakistan has tried to up the ante so that it gets a seat at the table. In January, for instance, the Pakistanis offered to help train Afghan military forces. In the end, Pakistan will be critical, even decisive, in bringing the Taliban, Hekmatyar, and Haqqani to the bargaining table, and indeed it's almost certain that Pakistan is playing a leading role behind the scenes in making that happen already.

Reports the Post:

"Pakistani officials are also seeking reassurance that a substantial U.S. military presence will remain in Afghanistan long after Obama's promised withdrawal begins in mid-2011 and that their traditional adversary, India, will not be allowed to expand its strategic presence there. The Pakistani military and intelligence service see their long-standing relationship with the Afghan Taliban as insurance against the possibility of an unfriendly government in Kabul. In exchange for weakening those ties, they want a seat at the table for any Afghan reconciliation talks, and a guarantee that U.S. commitments will not evaporate if and when the Taliban and al-Qaeda are no longer deemed a U.S. security threat.

"'There is a sort of panic in Pakistan that the endgame may be earlier than Pakistan had thought, and that Pakistan isn't positioned well at all to protect its own interests,' said Tanvir Ahmad Khan, director of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Islamabad and a former Pakistani foreign secretary."

For its cooperation, Pakistan wants a lot: not only U.S. assurances that Washington won't abandon it, but tons of military hardware, billions of dollars in U.S. economic aid, and even a nuclear agreement parallel to the U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal that was signed by President Bush. Christine Fair, writing in Foreign Policy, suggests that a U.S.-Pakistan nuclear deal isn't out of the question, as long as it's "conditions-based," and she adds:

"Although the United States has professed a need for a 'strategic relationship' with Pakistan and has offered lucrative financial allurements and conventional arms since the 1950s, a genuinely strategic relationship has been beguiled by the reality that both states have divergent strategic aims. Washington wants Islamabad to give up what it sees as the only tools in its arsenal to secure its interests at home and abroad: jihadi terrorism under the security of its nuclear umbrella.

"But the United States is going to have to offer something in exchange: recognition and strategic support. Such a deal could create the conditions of trust whereby other initiatives, such as a limited security guarantee -- negotiated with India's explicit input -- would be welcomed."

The big question hovering over all of this is: Does the Obama administration have the savvy to undertake a vast, regional approach that sees Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China components and participants in a deal? Can it make all of those moving parts fit together? Can it do that, while doing the same in Iraq, where it was to work closely with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria, and Jordan? And can it do all of that while hammering away at the Israel-Palestine conundrum, which is approaching a major turning point, too? Stay tuned.

Not Chalabi's Iraq

Final results in the Iraqi elections, held March 7, won't be announced until Friday at the earliest. And even then, the vote count is likely to be disputed by nearly everyone, with Prime Minister Maliki issuing veiled threats that he won't relinquish the reins of power no matter the result. But with 95 percent of the vote counted, Maliki is locked in a dead heat with the Sunni-backed, nationalist bloc, the Iraqi Nationalist Movement, led by former Prime Minister Allawi, a secular Shiite. Both Maliki and Allawi are expected to win about 90 seats each in the 325-member parliament.

The best reporting on the Iraqi elections and their aftermath continues to come from Reidar Visser, a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, whose invaluable blog provides regular updates on the politics of Iraq.

Today, however, I want to focus on the fortunes of the Great de-Baathification Machine, namely, Ahmed Chalabi and Ali al-Lami, whose provocative purge of more than 500 candidates -- nearly all of whom were associated with anti-Iran and secular, nationalist movements -- polarized Iraq in the weeks before the vote. (Those who've seen "The Green Zone," the thriller starring Matt Damon, saw Chalabi's role as an exile who lied about Iraq's weapons program portrayed beautifully.)

Among other things, it appears as if the anti-Baath purge boosted Sunni turnout and turned more moderate Shiite voters away from, rather than toward, Chalabi, Lami, and the Shiite religious coalition that they created.

Lami, who was Chalabi's ally and head of the Justice and Accountability Commission, got only about 900 votes in the election, according to Visser's count, meaning that he likely won't be elected to parliament. Chalabi, who ran as a stalwart -- indeed, the organizer -- of the Iranian-backed Iraqi National Alliance, the Shiite coalition of religious parties, will take a seat in the next parliament. As Visser reports, the INA -- which included the former Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Sadrists, and other Shiite parties -- won 16 seats in Baghdad province, and among them Chalabi finished ninth.

As readers of this space know, I've been excoriating US neoconservatives who gleefully embraced Chalabi in the 1990s and who backed him in 2002-2003 during their headlong rush to war in Iraq. Since then, of course, Chalabi has come out of the closet as an agent of influence for Iran, and he worked closely with Iran's leaders in 2009 to assemble the INA. In February, in response to my question, General Odierno virtually accused Chalabi of being an Iranian tool. Among the neocons closest to Chalabi was Michael Rubin of the neocon-infested American Enterprise Institute.

In that light, an interesting debate has erupted among neocons over the Chalabi factor.

Joshua Muravchik, a former AEI fellow who is now a fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University, has written a mea culpa of the first order for World Affairs, in which he apologizes for having gotten into bed with Chalabi two decades ago:

"Confessing error is never easy, especially when under attack. ... The particulars of our errors -- whether it was the whole idea of invading Iraq or just aspects of its execution -- will be sorted out for a long time, but one cardinal mistake was undoubtedly our infatuation with Ahmad Chalabi."

In his piece, Muravchik provides a skewed but mostly accurate account of Chalabi's post-2003 machinations, including the espionage charges involving Iran, his role in assembling the pro-Iran Shiite coalition, and so on, and he adds:

"In an effort to change the subject from his election shenanigans, Chalabi floats the idea of 'a regional alliance among Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran that would be of benefit to the entire Middle East and a strong bastion against Islamic extremism.'

"Say what? I heard Iran’s reactionary Majlis speaker, Ali Larijani, make a roughly similar proposal at a forum in Dubai once. An alliance of this kind is designed to push the United States from the region and pave the way for Iranian and/or Islamist hegemony. Who knows about the espionage charges, but the games Chalabi is playing are a threat both to Iraq’s prospects for democracy, as well as to America’s interests in the region."

If you read down to the comments following Muravchik's article, you will find enthusaistic, pro-Chalabi comments from two other Chalabi partisans. Francis Brooke, who was Chalabi's aide and publicist in Washington, calls Muravchik's argument "silly," and asks: "Why the drive-by attack?" And Max Singer, a fellow at the neocon-infested Hudson Institute, which he helped to found, wrote a long, meandering post defending Chalabi that deserves to be read in full for its magnificent self-delusion. He writes:

"While I do not know enough about current Iraqi politics to judge how much I agree with Chalabi’s recent positions, I am not ready to give up either the view that Chalabi was the right person to lead Iraq toward stability and democracy in 2003 or that Chalabi is a force for good in Iraq today."

Personally, I don't believe for a minute that Chalabi is, in fact, an "Iranian agent." But he's maintained close political ties to Tehran going back to the 1990s, and these ties were well known to the neoconservatives then, and now. He is a rank opportunist of the first order. In 2003, and subsequently, his fanatical anti-Baathist views coincided neatly with both the Supreme Leader of Iran and the supreme leader of the neocons, Richard Perle. They still do. The hardcore pro-Israeli far right and its neocon allies consider the Sunni Arab nationalist movement in all its forms, including its Baathist variant, as more inimical to Israel than Iran's version of clerical rule, despite the emerging Iranian bid for hegemony in the region. Politics, indeed, does make strange bedfellows.

That Singer, a visceral supporter of the Likud regime in Israel, would continue to embrace Chalabi is a sign that many neocons still believe that Chalabi is their guy, despite his close ties to Iran and his outright advocacy for Iran's influence in Iraq.

GOP Peaceniks?

Last December, when President Obama launched his second escalation of the Afghan war, he did so with the unflinching support of the Republicans, the right, and neoconservativies. But a small group of conservatives, libertarians and assorted contrarians on the right has opposed the war, and yesterday I journeyed to the Cato Institute to find out whether that nucleus of anti-war opposition is significant or not. The answer: maybe, but probably not.

The Cato conference was entitled "Escalate or Withdraw? Conservatives and the War in Afghanistan," and it brought together several ultra conservative members of Congress: Tom McClintock (R-CA); Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA); and John J. Duncan, Jr. (R-TN), for a panel hosted by Grover Norquist, the right-wing activist and president of Americans for Tax Reform. Other speakers included Joe Scarborough, the MSNBC host and a former member of Congress elected as part of the 1994 Republican Contract with America revolution that Norquist and Newt Gingrich organized, and other conservatives, including Cato staffers.

Perhaps the most important participant was Norquist. As leader of ATR, Norquist ia a fierce crusader for cutting taxes and eliminating government programs and regulations. Nine years ago, when I wrote a profile of Norquist for The Nation, he told me: "My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." Since then, of course, the government has grown bigger, not smaller, and a big part of that growth has been the Pentagon, mostly the Bush administration's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Part of what motivates Norquist today is that the Bush-era wars did two things that small-government crusaders are unhappy about: they enlarged the federal government and, by mobilizing voters against politicians who supported the wars, they contributed to crushing national defeats for the GOP in 2006 and 2008.

In an interview on the sidelines of the conference, Norquist told me that for the most part he "hasn't weighed in" on Iraq and Afghanistan, preferring instead to concentrate his activities on taxes and related issues. "I try not to have an opinion about everything," he told me. At the same time, his appearance at a conference whose very purpose was to raise questions and doubts about the war effort in Afghanistan, Norquist was making an important statement, and one that might resonate among broader elements of the "center-right" coalition that he leads. "It's important to have this conversation on the right," he says.

According to Norquist, it's difficult for Republican members of Congress to speak out against the war, because the adventure was initiated by President Bush. But, he suggests, there is a kind of silent majority of Republicans in Congress who'd come out against the war if the right political opportunity emerged. Indeed, during the panel discussion with McClintock, Duncan, and Rohrabacher, Norquist asked the three members of Congress how many of their colleagues in the House shared their dissident views on Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama's escalation, and the nation-building project underway. And all three said that Republican opposition is high. McClintock said that "virtually everyone agrees that going into Afghanistan the way we did was a mistake" and that more than half of the Republican caucus has strong misgivings about the war. On Iraq, Rohrabacher made the surprising assertion that "almost all" of the GOP members of the House think that it was a mistake to invade Iraq. And Duncan, who cited his experience in facing a Republican primary challenger who criticized Duncan's antiwar views, said that the vast majority of Republican voters in his conservative Tennessee district agree with him. His opponent, he said, won 12 percent of the primary vote.

In the interview, Norquist cited their statements as evidence that the Republican party is mostly unenthusiastic about the wars. "All three of them [McClintock, Duncan and Rohrabacher] came down strong, close to saying that practically everybody" in the Republican caucus agrees that the Iraq-Afghanistan efforts are misguided. The problem is, he said, most of the Republicans believe that the Republican voter base won't tolerate anything other than lock-step support for the war. Why? "Because Bush identified the Republicans with Iraq and Afghanistan."

Republicans, Norquist says, have other priorities. "On taxes, where if a Republican says, 'I want to raise taxes,' or on guns, where if a Republican says, 'I want to take away your guns,' the base would say, 'We're outta here.' But if Bush had said, 'We're not going to invade Iraq,' he wouldn't have gotten three harshly worded letters." He argues that there was no real public support for the war in Iraq before it was launched.

Today, many conservatives, especially traditionalists, are uncomfortable with nation-building in Afghanistan. They are strict constitutionalists, who believe that wars need to be declared by Congress, not launched by executive fiat. And many of them are concerned over the fiscal implications of defense spending. They strongly criticize neoconservatives, who they believe dragged the GOP down by convincing Bush to go to war. Duncan, in his Cato talk, called the neocons "the most radical" element in US politics. McClintock criticized Obama for trying to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan, noting that the military's job is to apply overwhelming force to win wars and then get out. And Rohrabacher said that more troops for Afghanistan is not the answer, that the United States ought to let the Afghans fight it out, perhaps supporting allies such as the Northern Alliance or other anti-Taliban veterans of the 1980s anti-USSR jihad who are willing to cooperate with the United States.

The three members' views, though, as expressed in the Cato conference, were confusing, and ill-thought-out at best. None presented a coherent view of the conflict, none proposed a true exit strategy, and not one of them mentioned the idea of a political settlement by negotiating a deal with the Taliban. Worse, they didn't address the political problem of how to convince the supposed silent majority among the GOP to speak out.

Pentagon vs. Israel?

Nearly a year ago, I wrote about General Keith Dayton's address to the annual Soref Symposium of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the pro-Israeli thinktank. In that address, I noted, Dayton -- who'd been assigned the job of helping to train and equip Palestinian military units in the West Bank -- worried out loud that despite the fact that the individuals selected for those units were vetted by Israeli and Jordanian intelligence, and despite the US involvement, it wasn't impossible that these units could become stirred by a Palestinian nationalist (i.e., strongly anti-Israel) outlook.

Dayton added, however, that the point of building these units was to "create a Palestinian state." But he added:

"With big expectations, come big risks. There is perhaps a two-year shelf life on being told that you're creating a state, when you're not."

As I wrote at the time:

"To my ears, at least, his subtle warning is that if concrete progress isn't made toward a Palestinian state, the very troops Dayton is assembling could rebel."

Which raises the question of the US military's role in the Middle East, in Palestine, and in America's Middle East policy. Recently, as noted below, key commanders in Centcom and at the US Joint Chiefs of Staff have reportedly been sounding the alarm that Israel's intransigence on peace talks is undermining the US position in the Middle East. And, top US military officers, including Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, are strongly opposed to the idea of an Israeli attack on Iran. What it means is that the fiercely pro-Israeli neoconservatives, who hug the military to their breasts when it comes to invading Iraq, are wary of the Pentagon's role more broadly in the Middle East, since the Pentagon -- and the military-industrial complex -- is fond of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Arabs, and the regional machinery that supports America's huge presence in the area of Centcom's bailiwick.

Daniel Pipes, who makes most neocons look mild by comparison, has just issued another fatwa against America's support for what he calls "the Palestinian militia," i.e., General Dayton's responsibility, and he concludes: "The Dayton mission needs to be stopped before it does more harm."

Why does Dayton need "to be stopped"? Because, says Pipes:

"Looking ahead, I predict that those troops will more likely be a war partner than a peace partner for Israel."

Pipes says that the Palestinian armed forces, weak as they are, are prone to "start directing their firepower against Israel," cooperating with Hamas, or even being taken over by Hamas if the militant Islamists from that benighted organization take over the West Bank.

Pipes' blast at General Dayton is only the most recent neoconservative assault against the US military in the Middle East. In part, the neocons are suspicious -- as always -- of the so-called "realists" who, in turn, are skeptical of Israel's role of monkey wrench in the machinery of US-Arab relations.

Case in point: General Petraeus.

According to Mark Perry, writing in Foreign Policy, Petraeus recently delivered a 45-minute briefing, with slides, that "stunned" Mullen and the brass. Writes Perry:

"The briefers reported that there was a growing perception among Arab leaders that the U.S. was incapable of standing up to Israel, that CENTCOM's mostly Arab constituency was losing faith in American promises, that Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region, and that Mitchell himself was (as a senior Pentagon officer later bluntly described it) 'too old, too slow ... and too late.'"

In addition:

"The briefers were careful to tell Mullen that their conclusions followed from a December 2009 tour of the region where, on Petraeus's instructions, they spoke to senior Arab leaders. 'Everywhere they went, the message was pretty humbling,' a Pentagon officer familiar with the briefing says. 'America was not only viewed as weak, but its military posture in the region was eroding.'"

It isn't a shock, of course, that Israel's hardline policies are undermining America's relations with the Muslim world. For most hardline Israelis, including the Likudniks and people like Bibi Netanyahu, that's the point.

As Perry concludes, citing reports in the Israeli press, Vice President Biden's recent fiasco in Israel wasn't merely pique over a settlements blunder by Israeli hardliners. Perry used Yediot Aharanoth, a conservative Israeli daily, to add:

"Not surprisingly, what Biden told Netanyahu reflected the importance the administration attached to Petraeus's Mullen briefing: 'This is starting to get dangerous for us,' Biden reportedly told Netanyahu. 'What you're doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace.' Yedioth Ahronoth went on to report: 'The vice president told his Israeli hosts that since many people in the Muslim world perceived a connection between Israel's actions and US policy, any decision about construction that undermines Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem could have an impact on the personal safety of American troops fighting against Islamic terrorism.' The message couldn't be plainer: Israel's intransigence could cost American lives."

Which is why the Washington Post and its pro-Israel editorialists are going to have to keep their pencils sharpened. In today's paper, the Post has an editorial entited, "The U.S. quarrel with Israel." It says:

"It has been startling -- and a little puzzling -- to see Mr. Obama deliberately plunge into another public brawl with the Jewish state."

With any luck, that brawl is just beginning.

US-Israel Showdown?

The Israel lobby is mobilizing for what might turn into the most significant confrontation between the United States and Israel since, well, the Suez War of 1956, when President Eisenhower told Israel -- and its covert allies, the UK and France -- to halt the unprovoked assault on Egypt. Since then, US-Israel conflicts have been relatively small and tied to side issues, such as the fight over President Reagan's sale of AWACS surveillance aircraft to Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s or President Bush's showdown with Israel in the early 1990s, when the United States threatened to withhold loan guarantees to Israel after a right-wing Israeli government stone-walled the peace process.

This time, if President Obama plays his cards right, he could bring down the extremist government of Bibi Netanyahu. But that depends on whether Obama displays the guts and gumption necessary for a full-frontal challenge to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its allies.

In a piece written for Mother Jones last year, I outlined the vulnerability of AIPAC et al. to a direct challenge from Obama, especially with the emergence of J Street, the "pro-Israeli, pro-peace" Jewish lobby.

A year ago, it seemed possible that Obama was headed in that direction. He'd nominated the even-handed George Mitchell as his Israel-Palestine special representative, to the discomfort of AIPAC. He'd installed a number of aides at the White House, including General Jones, Mara Rudman, and others who had sympathies with the Palestinians and with the Israeli pro-peace camp. Obama launched a major effort to rebuild US ties with the Muslim world, including his June speech in Cairo, that all but required a stronger US effort to force concessions from Israel. And he'd ordered a showdown with Israel over its illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian lands, demanding outright that Israel stop building them.

Nearly all of that collapsed. Mitchell got nowhere. Netanyahu bluntly rejected the settlements demand, kept building them, and faced no consequences. And, worst of all, Obama utterly failed to put forward an American peace plan to restart the talks. What was needed then, and now, is for Obama to outline what a final settlement of the conflict will look like: a return to the 1967 borders (with some land swaps), the division of Jerusalem, the removal of Israeli encampments from the West Bank, a sovereign Palestinian state, a deal over the Palestinians' right to return to their land (including a Saudi- and Gulf-financed compensation package), and probably some sort of US security guarantees for Israel.

Obama didn't deliver. He never stated the end goal. Now, he has another chance. His new opportunity was handed to him last week when Netanyahu's government slapped visiting Vice President Biden in face by announcing, during a high-stakes, delicate trip, a plan to build 1,600 new Jewish homes in occupied East Jerusalem. In the aftermath of that event, the entire Obama administration has been mobilized against Israel. The key question is not whether Obama and Co. will slam Israel rhetorically, as they've done, buy whether there will be concrete consequences for Israel and whether the Obama team will finally relaunch the all-but-dead peace process by declaring the president's own vision of the terms that Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab states must agree to.

As the New York Times editorialized last week, following the Biden visit fiasco:

"We also hope that if progress lags, the administration will be ready to put forward its own proposals on the central issues of borders, refugees, security and the future of Jerusalem.

"Mr. Obama has another chance to move the peace process forward. This time he has to get it right."

Biden, of course, used the word "condemn" in reacting to Israel's defiant action, saying: "I condemn the decision." Then rhetorically at least, the US got even nastier. Hillary Clinton -- who, like Biden, prides herself as being militantly pro-Israel -- used the word "insult" in slamming Israel: "The announcement of the settlements on the very day that the vice president was there was insulting," said Clinton.With Obama's approval, she delivered a 45-minute tongue lashing to Netanhayu over the phone. And yesterday David Axelrod, the White House political adviser chimed in, saying: "What happened there was an affront. It was an insult."

Netanyahu, while faking an apology, insists -- as does his entire right-wing regime -- that it won't change policy or back down.

The lobby is mobilizing. AIPAC, in a defensive statement, called the whole thing a "distraction," and it added:

"AIPAC calls on the Administration to take immediate steps to defuse the tension with the Jewish State. ... The Administration should make a conscious effort to move away from public demands and unilateral deadlines directed at Israel."

Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, a knee-jerk defender of everything Israel does, accused the US of a "gross overreaction" to the Israeli insult, adding:

"We are shocked and stunned at the Administration's tone and public dressing down of Israel on the issue of future building in Jerusalem. We cannot remember an instance when such harsh language was directed at a friend and ally of the United States. One can only wonder how far the U.S. is prepared to go in distancing itself from Israel in order to placate the Palestinians in the hope they see it is in their interest to return to the negotiating table."

And a panoply of Israel's best friends in Congress are trying to preempt an Obama response to the Israeli insult that goes beyond rhetoric, too. Representive Shelley Berkley (D.-Nevada) called the Clinton-Axelrod statements part of an "irresponsible overreaction," and the ever-reliable John Boehner, the Republican leader in the House, told Commentary that "the tone and substance we are seeing emerge as a pattern for this Administration are both disappointing and of great concern."

Various neocons are weighing in, too. Writing in the Washington Post, Elliott Abrams accused the Obama administration of "mishandling" relations with Israel, adding: "The Obama administration continues to drift away from traditional U.S. support for Israel." In the same vein, Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, expressed alarm about a "tectonic drift" pushing the US and Israel apart, concluding:

"Israel and the United States have been drifting apart for some time, though that pace has accelerated during the Obama administration. The currents that have set Washington and Jerusalem on different courses are complex and cannot be boiled down to one failed mission (that of Vice President Biden) nor an indifferent president (Barack Obama). There is a generational shift underway, driving apart post-Zionist Israel and 21st-century America."

And Robert Satloff of the militantly pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy warned the administration not to tilt away from Israel after the insult to Biden:

"It would be shortsighted for the administration to use this episode as an opportunity to reward the Palestinians. ... And it would be an analytical blunder for the administration to believe that this incident is an opportunity that could precipitate Netanyahu's political demise."

Underlying all this is not just the reaction to an insulting announcement during the visit of Vice President Biden. Instead, at a more fundamental level, the Obama administration is beginning to realize that Israeli intransigence -- and the Netanyahu government, in particular -- is a major obstacle to US policy in the region, from Iraq to Iran to the struggle against Al Qaeda. It still remains to be seen if the White House the courage to do anything about it. In 2009, it didn't. But this is 2010.

Tomorrow: the strategic underpinnings of Obama's unease with the Israelis.

Hopeful Signs in Iraq?

Facts are scarce, and spin is everywhere, in the aftermath of Iraq's election on Sunday.

I'll be updating this entry later today and tomorrow as preliminary results from the election are announced.

Some initial thoughts: voter turnout was 62 percent, according to initial reports from Iraq. That's down from about 75 percent in the 2005 election. In Baghdad, the key province with 70 seats in parliament at stake, turnout was the lowest in Iraq, at 53 percent. It isn't clear, yet, if that total includes any or all of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who fled Baghdad during the sectarian purge of 2005-2007, mostly Sunni voters who either fled to Syria and Jordan or to safer provinces in western Iraq. According to initial reports, again, election officials at polling places were ill-equipped to handle displaced voters, meaning that many internally displaced persons didn't get to vote. If the election is close, and perhaps even if it isn't, the disputes over the votes of refugees and displaced persons will be bitter and explosive.

It's far too early to say anything about the results, though there is speculation that Prime Minister Maliki's State of Law party and the secular, cross-sectarian bloc led by former Prime Minister Allawi each did well. There are 325 seats to be allocated, and it's possible that both Maliki and Allawi got something in the range of 90 to 100 seats each. If so, then the best possible outcome of the election -- given the fragmentation of the vote -- would be a coalition between Maliki and Allawi. That's unlikely, however, since both Maliki and Allawi would insist on the top job. More likely is a repeat of the current ruling alliance, with Maliki and the rather weakened Shiite religious bloc, the Iraqi National Alliance, joining with the Kurds. But that grand alliance probably won't have much more than a bare majority, say, 170 to 180 seats, meaning that it will be a shaky government at best.

Of course, it will be many weeks, perhaps months, before the results are finally certified and the various blocs negotiate a deal to form a government. (Early results are expected this week, but official, certified results may not be in until April 1.)

It's also too early to evaluate the impact of the pre-election purge by Iran's friends in Iraq, including Ahmed Chalabi, who prevented hundreds of secular, nationalist, and anti-Iranian candidates from running for office. The clear intent of that effort was to force Maliki to adopt a fierce, anti-Baathist (and sectarian, anti-Sunni) stance, which partly succeeded, and to scare Shiite voters into stampeding into the arms of the Shiite religious bloc. Apparently, their effort failed, and if anything it spurred Sunni and pro-secular voters to go to the polls in greater numbers. But it remains to be seen if the pro-Iranian bloc, the INA, was routed, and if the secular parties, such as Allawi's and the party led by Interior Minister Bolani, another secular Shiite leader, did well in Iraq's Shiite heartland. In the provincial elections, in 2009, there were some major surprises, including a stunning victory by a secular, moderate ex-Baathist in Karbala, the very heart of Iraq's Shiite religious electorate.

The bottom line, of course, is that despite the hopeful straws in the wind, big chunks of Iraq are still unwilling to accept the results if it doesn't go their way. The battle line dividing Arabs and Kurds is still red hot, from the far northwest to Diyala province. The armed militias, including the Kurds' pesh merga, the Shiite-led Badr Brigade, Muqtada al-Sadr's ragtag force, and Iranian-backed Special Groups such as the League of the Righteous, are still capable of flexing their muscle. And among the Sunnis, the remnants of the Sons of Iraq, the ex-Awakening movement, are sullen and bitter, and it's not at all impossible that a new insurgency could develop (supported, no doubt, by Iraq's Arab neighbors), if enough Sunnis decide to resist the election results. While Iraqi politicians wheel and deal, expect them to rally forces on the street, too.

One good sign: the United States insists that its withdrawal, to 50,000 (from 96,000) by August, to be followed by a complete pullout by the end of 2011, is still on track.

Stay tuned.

Iraq's High Electoral Commission says that it won't announce even preliminary results until Wednesday or Thursday. They'd planned originally to make that announcement today, after counting 30 percent of the ballots. They didn't explain the delay.

Previously unreported, the same Iranian-linked commission, led by Chalabi, that purged 500 candidates in January purged another 55 candidates on election eve. Those candidates, of course, received votes on Sunday, since the ban on their candidacy's was made public too late to affect the ballots. Most of the candidates were members of Iyad Allawi's secular, cross-sectarian list. Says Allawi, according to the Washington Post:

"It will be a very violent reaction. A lot of violence will take place, and God knows how this will end. I will tell you there is already an existing feeling that there was widespread rigging and widespread intimidation."

A UN official in Iraq now says that preliminary results of the election will not be announced until Thursday. Apparently, those results will include just 30 percent of the vote totals.

Obama, Iran and Iraq

Just like love and marriage, Iran and Iraq go together. As much as the Obama administration might like to, there's no having an "Iraq policy" without having a closely related "Iran policy." As the song says, you can't have one without the other.

One of the biggest failures of the administration so far is its seeming inability to coordinate its regional approach to the set of problems revolving around Iran, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf. At a conference on Monday at the American Enterprise Institute, Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress called this "strategic incoherence." It's a critical failure because stability in Iraq, now at grave risk because of electoral shenanigans by Iran's allies in Iraqi politics, is very much dependent on Iran's role in Iraq. For years now, I've been writing that Iran is using its power in Iraq as leverage in regard to U.S.-Iran relations; that is, if the United States and Iran move forward toward an understanding, implicit or explicit, Iran can use its influence to stabilize Iraq, while if the U.S.-Iran dialogue spins out of control toward a showdown, Iran can turn Iraq into a seething caldron of instability and violence.

Iraqi officials, across the political spectrum, do not want Iraq to be turned into a battlefield between Iran and the United States. Yesterday, on the sidelines of a conference on the Iraqi elections organized by the Jamestown Foundation, I interviewed a senior Iraqi government official who asked that I not mention his name. "The Iranians have ties with nearly all of the main factions in Iraq," he said, comparing Iran's pull on Iraq to the force of gravity. "The Iranians, because of their geopolitical position in the region, will have a strong role in Iraq. So the United States, and the international community, need to reach an understanding with Iran." Only a U.S.-Iran agreement, he suggested, can prevent Iraq from becoming a place where the U.S.-Iran tug of war is played out, and violently. Many other Iraqi officials have said the same thing, and some of them -- including those who have close ties to Iran -- have repeatedly offered to help mediate between Washington and Tehran. During my two visits to Iran, in 2008 and again last year, various Iranian officials have also pointed to Iraq as a place where the United States and Iran might seek an agreement.

Yesterday, at the Jamestown Conference, I asked Colin Kahl, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, about the importance of a U.S.-Iran accord for Iraq. But Kahl, who led Barack Obama's campaign advisory team for the Middle East, was dismissive. "It's debatable whether a U.S.-Iran agreement is possible," he said. "But I don't think it's necessary." Now, it's true that a deal between Washignton and Tehran is elusive, and it will be exceedingly difficult to accomplish. But without it, Iran has so much leverage in Iraq that it can make life extremely difficult as the Obama administration draws down U.S. forces between now and 2011. Kahl discounted the importance of Iran in Iraq, saying, "I dont think there's any probability of Iraq calling under Iranian hegemony," and adding that those who talk about Iran's power in Iraq underestimate the power of latent Iraqi nationalism to resist Iranian encroachment. But the point is that even though Iran may not be able to achieve hegemonic control in Iraq, it can use its muscle -- from covert support to violent militias to its widely acknowledged ties to many leading Iranian Shiite religious parties -- to make sure that Iraq remains unstable, violent, and prone to sectarian conflicts.

Speaking at the same conference, Zalmay Khalilzad, the former US ambassador to Iraq -- who, to be sure, shares some of the blame for the Bush administration's criminally misguided attack on Iraq in 2003 -- declared that he agreed with my critique of Obama's failure to engage in vigorous regional diplomacy with Iraq's neighbors. "Iraq is a transition country," he said. "It's a transition country between Iran and the Arab world, and between Sunni and Shia. In order to make further progress in Iraq, a greater effort will be necessary at the regional level." It will be difficult, he said, but it will be especially critical during the tumultuous period after Iraq's March 7 election, when all of Iraq's factions will be competing to negotiate a governing coalition.

Besides politics, Iran can meddle in Iraq using armed gangs allied to it, including the so-called League of the Righteous, aka Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Earlier this week, the Washington Post carried a feature piece on the League, an Iranian-backed militia with close ties to the perpetrators of the anti-baathist purge that has roiled the electoral scene in Iraq. Ali al-Lami, a close aide to Ahmed Chalabi, has ties to the League, and it was the Chalabi-Lami de-Baathification commission that forced the purge of hundreds of secular and nationalist candidates from the ballot. Reports the Post:

"A failed effort by the United States to neutralize a powerful Shiite militant group in Iraq has left in place a dangerous force whose attacks on American troops threaten to complicate the U.S. drawdown, according to American and Iraqi officials. ...

"The U.S. military now has no more than a handful of Asaib Ahl al-Haq members in custody. American and Iraqi officials worry that violence could intensify after parliamentary elections on Sunday, particularly if Shiite candidates favored by Iran do poorly.

"'The implicit threat is that if Iran is unable to achieve its objectives one way, it has militia groups that it can use to turn up the violence,' said Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, a scholar at the Institute for the Study of War who has written extensively about Shiite militias. 'The stakes are very high for Iran in this election. It's not surprising if they're pursuing concurring actions.'"

A year ago, President Obama launched his famous outreach to Iran, beginning with his inaugural address, in which he extended his hand to Tehran. Following that, a series of key initiatives: his taped New Year's greeting to "the Islamic Republic of Iran," letters from Obama to Iran's Leader, Ayatolllah Ali Khamenei, and his well received Cairo speech on the eve of Iran's June 12 election. Despite the post-election crisis, Obama's diplomats held behind-the-scenes talks with Iranian officials leading up to the very important October 1 meeting in Geneva, where U.S. and Iranian diplomats met face to face for the first time in 30 years on the core issue of Washington-Tehran relations. And, at that meeting, it seemed like progress was made toward a partial resolution of the nuclear standoff, when Iran agreed to transfer the bulk of its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France for reprocessing into fuel rods for peaceful purposes.

The October 1 accord has stalled, or unraveled, and an arbitrary deadline set by Obama for the end of 2009 has come and gone, so once again the United States has turned to pressure, sanctions, and confrontation. Yet no one believes that economic sanctions will either topple Iran's regime or cause it to halt its nuclear program, so the sanctions can only have the effect of pushing Iran into a corner. That, in turn, has many implications, but one of those implications will play out next door, in Iraq.

Violence on Eve of Iraq Vote

Iraqis go to the polls this Sunday, March 7, and it's not looking good.

A rumble of violence is spreading across Iraq, and while it's nothing like the generalized warfare that plagued the country three years ago, it's a worrying sign that a wrong turn after the elections could lead to an explosion -- especially if the vote is rigged, or if the politically disenfranchised outsiders, such as the many Sunnis, secularists, and nationalists, feel that the deck was stacked against them.

The best outcome after March 7 would, in effect, amount to a restoration of sorts, not of the Saddam Hussein-era hardliners, but of a coalition of Iraqis who are prepared to resist Iran and its myriad Iraqi agents, sympathizers, and allies while, at the same time, holding the United States to its deadline for withdrawing US forces by the end of 2011. There is at least a chance that the recent polarization of the electorate, sparked by the purge of candidates by an Iranian-backed commission headed by Ahmed Chalabi, the former darling of the noecons, might backfire. While there are signs that the polarization, designed to terrify Iraqi Shia over the spurious fear of a Saddamist comeback, might stampede many on-the-fence Shia to vote for sectarian Shiite candidates, it's also possible that the heavyhanded purge will bring a huge turnout of Sunni and secular candidates to the polls, simply to vote against the Shiite coalition and against Prime Minister Maliki. (Maliki, who's made half-hearted efforts over the past year to cloak himself in nationalist garb, strongly endorsed the purge. And, like the Shiite bloc, the INA, Maliki is waving the bloody shirt of Baathism to rally Shiite voters to his party, too.) A big turnout by Sunnis, secularists, and nationalists might upend Shiite dominance of Iraq by creating the basis for an anti-Iran coalition that could join with the Kurds and some renegade Shiite members of the INA after the election.

Putting together a governing coalition is likely to take four to six months after March 7, in a Wild West-like setting. (It's during this shaky period that US forces are supposed to drop from 96,000 to 50,000.)

Three huge bombs racked Diyala province, a mixed ethnic and sectarian province northeast of Baghdad along the border with Iran, on Wednesday, killing scores of people, and the province was placed under curfew. In Ramadi, the center of Sunni-dominated Anbar province in the west, tensions are high, and the deputy governor is warning that his constituents are restive. "If they feel their rights have been robbed, it might lead to sectarian violence," he warns. (The Anbar governor just returned from the United States, where he was fitted with an artificial limb after a recent bomb attack.) In crucial Nineweh province, a northern province that includes Mosul, Iraq's third largest city, Arab-Kurd tension is escalating along the so-called trigger line that separates the Kurds' expansionist border from Arab Iraq, and Masoud Barzani, the separatist Kurdish leader, has threatened to have his pesh merga paramilitary militia forces arrest the legitimately elected governor simply because he tried to visit a town in his own province that the Kurds consider part of "Kurdistan." Meanwhile, there have been a series of assassination attempts against candidates for parliament, especially aimed at members of the secular bloc led by former Prime Minister Allawi, banned secular leader Saleh al-Mutlaq, and the party of the Nineweh governor. I've spoken to candidates for office who have to travel in heavily armed convoys, who can't have public rallies, and who fear for their lives at every moment.

Chalabi, the portly liar and wheeler dealer who led the purge of anti-Iran candidates, makes no bones about campaigning as a sectarian Shia. This week, he told the Los Angeles Times that he is proud of his anti-Baathist McCarthyism, and he boasted about his despicable rabble-rousing: "On the issue of the Baath, I don't think anyone can match me." The paper described his blatant appeal to sectarianism in a speech to voters

"'I call for your support, for preventing the return of the Baathists,' he says, before adding a final, ominous-sounding pledge to his Shiite audience, one that leaves little doubt as to the tone of his campaign.

"'We support your sect and we will protect it,' he says, before being hustled back into his vehicle by his bodyguards for the journey home through the slum, now shrouded in darkness."

Allawi, the standard bearer for the secular nationalists, and his allies have been campaigning hard, and not just in Iraq. Both Allawi, a secular Shia, and Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni who used to be part of the Sunni religious bloc, have been traveling in neighboring Arab countries where millions of Iraqi voters have fled in the seven years since the US invasion. In Jordan and Syria alone, up to two million displaced Iraqis are eligible to vote, and many of them hail from the critical electoral cauldron of Baghdad province, which was ethnically cleansed by Iranian-backed Shiite death squads between 2004 and 2007. The votes of the two million Iraqi refugees, plus another two million internally displaced persons, might be critical in Sunday's vote -- if they're counted, and fairly.

In an interview with the Telegraph, Allawi warned that the thuggish Maliki is becoming a mini-Saddam himself, adding these strong words:

"We accept there will be a margin of irregularities in this situation. We are not going to accept a large portion of irregularities. That means a failure of democracy in Iraq. We will get out of the political process. If this happens, it will point Iraq towards a very violent and stormy future.

"If the political process is against the will of the people and filled with irregularities, I will stay away and I will call on others to boycott the process. If I am elected, I will resign from parliament."

Stay tuned.

Squeezing Iran

With Iraq threatening to unravel if this Sunday's election doesn't go well, and with the war in Afghanistan heating up rapidly (U.S. forces are planning a massive assault on Kandahar to begin in late spring), you'd think that the United States would avoid a confrontation over Iran. You'd be wrong.

World powers meet today in Geneva to discuss the latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which last month issued a new report charging that Iran's military plans for nuclear research "seem to have continued beyond 2004" and accused Iran of "current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile." It was, to be sure, a rather alarmist report, and the IAEA didn't provide any concrete information or details about Iran's alleged activity. Still, the U.S. is pushing hard for a new round of sanctions at the UN Security Council, and the IAEA meeting today is likely to accelerate that effort by leading directly to a new UNSC debate on Iran.

Secretary of State Clinton has declared that a new resolution at the UNSC will be introduced "in the next 30 to 60 days," giving Washington time to put pressure on Russia to support it and to persuade China to abstain, at least. There are five countries who belong to the current membership of the UNSC who aren't likely to vote yes on Iran sanctions: China, Brazil, Turkey, Lebanon, and Bosnia. Since the U.S needs nine "yes" votes for sanctions, those five aren't enough, although China (and Russia) might still veto sanctions that they consider too harsh. Leaving no stone unturned, Clinton will visit Brazil soon in part to make sure Brazil is on board.

Russia, increasingly unhappy with Tehran, is hinting openly that it will support some form of sanctions. Still, it's unlikely that Russia will support tough measures, and it's virtually certain that China would block anything stronger than a slap on the wrist. (Recently, however, China has signalled displeasure with Tehran's defiance, too, refusing to protest the recent IAEA report and going along with a toughly worded measure by a financial action task force that regulates trade with Iran.) As a possible sign of their displeasure, the Russians have apparently once again delayed the delivery of S-300 surface-to-air missile systems that they're supposed to deliver, by contract, to Iran. The Russian announcement of yet another delay came one day after a visit to Moscow by Israel's prime minister, the Iran-obsessed Bibi Netanyahu.

According to Josh Rogin at The Cable, over at Foreign Policy, the U.S. intelligence community is about to issue a revised National Intelligence Estimate that is expected to "walk back" the conclusion of the 2007 NIE, which said that Iran had halted its work on a bomb while continuing to enrich uranium. But the report says:

"The new estimate might not directly contradict [the 2007] judgment, but could say that while the intelligence community has not determined that Iran has made the strategic decision to build a nuclear weapon, it is seen to be working on the components of a device."

But it isn't at all clear what the United States thinks it can achieve. Can sanctions stop Iran from moving forward if it wants a bomb? Not likely. Most analysts don't believe that sanctions will work. Any sanctions that the UNSC might approve, even with Russian support and China's aquiescence, will be very mild. The Obama administration says that it will go ahead with unilateral or multilateral sanctions (with Europe) that presumably will be a lot tougher than the UN--approved ones. But they'll likely stop short of an embargo on Iran's import of refined petroleum products, such as gasoline. Still, there's a lot that tougher U.S.-EU sanctions might do, in terms of further boxing Iran in on investment and technology it needs across a wide range of industries: oil and gas production and refining, civil aviation, computers and IT, auto manufacturing, etc. All of that can hurt Iran's economy, but will it change Iran's policies? Anything's possible, but it's far more likely that Iran can work toward building a bomb, if that's what it wants to do.

Shut Up, Tom Ricks!

Imagine Madeleine Albright coming at you with an M-16, and you'll get the right image for the Center for a New American Security, a thinktank made up of right-wing and centrist Democrats who never met a surge they didn't love.

Thus it's no surprise that Tom Ricks, a former reporter and author who's taken up residence at CNAS, has fired the opening gambit in what is likely to be a direct challenge to President Obama by the military, by conservatives and neoconservatives, by surge-lovers and empire builders, and others, to keep US forces in Iraq.

Ricks penned an op-ed in the New York Times entitled "Extending Our Stay in Iraq," as if the 98,000 troops there were business travelers asking the front desk for a late checkout. "Our stay"? He means, the US occupation of Iraq.

And Ricks pulls no punches. Obama should forget about his pledge to reduce US forces to 50,000 by August and to zero by the end of 2011. Instead, Ricks says, the troubling internal contradictions in Iraq -- including Iran's influence -- means that the United States should "keep 30,000 to 50,000 United States service members in Iraq for many years to come."

In recent weeks the US military has been hinting that it's thinking the same thing. A Post article yesterday entitled "U.S. plans for possible delay in Iraq withdrawal" said:

"The U.S. military has prepared contingency plans to delay the planned withdrawal of all combat forces in Iraq, citing the prospects for political instability and increased violence as Iraqis hold national elections next month."

Ray Odierno, the US commander in Iraq, has dropped hints about sticking around, too. And Robert Gates, the Republican secretary of defense who just won't seem to go away, told a press briefing on Tuesday: "We would have to see a pretty considerable deterioration of the situation in Iraq and we don't see that, certainly, at this time." At this time.

True enough, as I've been writing for weeks now (and for years, in fact, before that) Iran has vast and growing influence in Iraq, and it's ever more likely that the Iraqi elections on March 7 will be rigged in favor of Iran's friends among the religious Shia, including Prime Minister Maliki. But the last thing that the United States needs to is stay in Iraq and turn that country into a battlefield with Iran for control of the Persian Gulf. Obama's best course is to get out of Iraq as quickly as possible, even faster than the current timetable, if that can be done, and work hard on a diplomatic deal with Iran that would cover the nuclear file, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

But when the surge-loving conservatives and the counterinsurgency cultists starting pressuring Obama on Afghanistan last summer, he caved. Even though Obama, so far, has said again and again that the Iraq withdrawal plan that he announced a year ago is written in stone, I don't have any confidence that he'll stick to it if, after the elections, the Iraqis try to settle post-electoral differences with guns and car bombs.

Interestingly, Marc Lynch -- a far more sensible analyst on Iraq than Ricks -- has come out in favor of keeping to the timetable. Like Ricks, Lynch also has a perch at CNAS. (Memo to Marc: Get out of there, quick!) In his Foreign Policy blog, Lynch writes:

"There's been a mini-boom of late in commentary urging Obama to delay his timeline for drawing down U.S. forces, or at least to "do more" -- the Kagans are shocked, shocked to discover that Iranians are influential in Iraq, Jackson Diehl just wants Obama to care more about Iraq (without any hint of what policies might follow). They should be ignored. The administration is handling Iraq calmly, maturely, and patiently, has demonstrated in word and deed its commitment to its drawdown policy, and has tried hard to thread a devilish needle of trying to shape events without triggering an extremely potent Iraqi backlash."

So at CNAS, the record is: Sane, Lynch. Insane, Ricks. Stay tuned.

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