News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
The first thing that Barack Obama has to understand about Iran: there is no hurry.
The hawks outside the administration, and a few of those who might be inside -- notably, Dennis Ross -- will say that the situation is a crisis. They will argue that Iran is on the verge of acquiring a nuclear weapon that will change the balance of power in the Persian Gulf. And they will ring the Holocaust alarm bells that Iran will use the A-bomb to obliterate Israel. None of this is true. Obama has years to deal with Iran.
As a candidate, and as president-elect, Obama has declared his intention to open a dialogue with Tehran. Certainly, he will make a sincere offer of talks. But such talks are unlikely to lead to an immediate breakthrough. They could start, break off, re-start, and again be suspended. It's possible that a US-Iran dialogue could take two years or more to make progress. That's why Obama will have to ignore the hawks, who will say -- at the first sign of trouble -- that the talks aren't working. And they will argue that Iran must be confronted with harsh economic sanctions, a blockade, or military action. Obama must resist these calls. He will have to ignore angry rhetoric from Iran, especially from its own hawks, who will issue thunderous denunciations of the United States. The new US administration will have to be prepared for a long, bumpy road in its dialogue with Iran.
The fact is that Iran's nuclear program is still in a research stage. It has acquired a quantity of low-enriched uranium, but none of the uranium can be used for a bomb. Before it can be used for military purposes, it will have to be enriched to weapons-grade, a long and laborious process that Iran cannot hide from inspectors from the IAEA. (Alternatively, Iran could expel the IAEA team, which would not only make its intentions obvious but would result in a public relations disaster for Tehran.) Even if Iran further enriches the uranium it has, it will have enough for only one bomb, i.e., not enough to test a weapon and not enough -- according to military experts -- to provide it with credible threat. In addition, Iran may not have the technological know-how to actually construct a weapon, even if does manage to acquire weapons-grade uranium. And Iran does not, at present, have the ability to deliver a weapon.
For all those reasons, Obama can take his time.
The more important question is: What should be the US agenda for the talks? Advocates of a Grand Bargain, such as Flynt Leverett and Hilary Mann Leverett, suggest forcefully that the talks should cover the entire spectrum of issues in the US-Iranian relationship: Iraq, Afghanistan, terrorism and Al Qaeda, Iran's support for Hamas and Hezbollah, US recognition of Iran's security interests in the Gulf, and an end to threats of subversion, covert action, and regime change against Iran. Others, such as Suzanne Maloney and Ray Takeyh, suggest a somewhat more modest agenda, with talks on several tracks involving US-Iran diplomatic ties, the nuclear issue, Iran's role in the region, and, of course, Iraq. At the very least, Obama will have to go far beyond the Bush administration's contacts with Iran, which have been limited to talks about the war in Iraq.
It's not clear how Iran will respond to offers of talks by the Obama administration. Iran has its own presidential elections coming up, and real negotiations may have to wait for the internal political situation in Iran to resolve itself. Even if the US offer to talk is sincere, Iran's mullahs and hardliners may have to strut, preen, and bluster before they accept. Again, Obama has time enough to let them do so. With the price of oil hovering around $40 per barrel, Iran has lost a great deal of its advantage in 2008, and its economic problems are dire. Iran needs peace on its borders, and it needs US and Western technology to rebuild its oil industry and to construct refineries and that can provide it with gasoline, heating oil, and other petroleum products that it now imports.
It's true that Iran's leaders -- especially Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader who wields vast, near-dictatorial power -- may not exactly be clear-eyed about the position they are in. Few of the clerical elite that runs the country are educated beyond the religious schools in Qom and Mashad, and most of them have not traveled outside the country. Many of them are intoxicated by the mistaken belief that their version of fundamentalist Shiism has an appeal to religious Muslims outside Iran, and that Iran is somehow the center of Islam -- which it is, decidedly, not. And Iran's leaders have be reading too much into recent regional successes: They feel emboldened by the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan, which eliminated two of Iran's local enemies. And they've used their support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank to push for expanded influence in the Arab world. But at bottom Iran is a weak and impoverished country that is severely isolated around the world and facing determined opposition from many of its neighbors. During my visit to Iran last March, it wasn't clear that Iran's leaders understand how weak a hand they hold.
It will be Obama's job to seek to establish improved relations with Iran, based on US and Iranian mutual interests, while dealing with Iran's troublesome and problematic leaders in a sophisticated manner. It won't be easy. It may take a long time.
This is the fourth of a five-part series on Barack Obama's Middle East. Part V, on Iran, will appear Monday.
Chances are fair to middling that a ceasefire in Gaza, ending Israel's three-week blitzkrieg there, will take hold before Barack Obama is sworn in as president on Tuesday. But, either way, the war has pushed the Palestine issue to the very top of Obama's agenda for first days and weeks in office. If there is any silver lining from the carnage in Gaza, it's that Obama's team can't avoid the issue, even if they'd wanted to before the crisis erupted.
But in talking to Washington insiders, virtually everything about how Obama will approach the Arab-Israeli dispute seems up for grabs -- or, at least, Obama's people aren't talking. Obama, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton, and other officials have said that they won't let the problem sit on the back burner for years, as past administrations have done. And they certainly won't abstain from engagement altogether while giving one-sided support to Israel, as the Bush administration did, from the get-go, by isolating the PLO, refusing to meet with Yasser Arafat, supporting Israel's bloody invasion of the West Bank, its 2006 invasion of Lebanon, and, of course, winking at the current attack on Gaza.
It isn't clear, yet, how Obama will deal with the crisis, nor is it clear who he will appoint to manage policy. Will Obama be personally engaged in dealing with the parties, in a hands-on manner, with full presidential involvement? Will he assign the secretary of state to handle the task? Will he appoint a "special envoy" for the job? Will he simply let the assistant secretary of state and the ambassadors handle it? And who will these people be? The Israeli lobby, including the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is promoting Dennis Ross, who works at WINEP, as a kind of super special envoy, dealing with Iran and the Middle East, but that isn't set in stone. Daniel Kurtzer, who served as Obama's top adviser on the Middle East during the campaign, is an orthodox Jew who was US ambassador to both Egypt and Israel, is said to be a straight-shooter who is fiercely committed to a two-state solution, and his impeccable Jewish credentials make him scary to Israeli hardliners, sources say, since they will find it a lot harder to impeach him. In any case, so far, Obama's not tipping his hand.
In the wake of Gaza, everything is unsettled. The most likely outcome of the crisis is that hawks in Israel and radicals among the Arabs, including Islamist Hamas, will be stronger as a result of the bloodletting. Among the Palestinians, Fatah and the PLO have been weakened. That will make it a lot easier for Israel to make the tired old argument that it has no "partner for peace," since the Palestinians are divided. Meanwhile, the Israeli elections next month may catapult Bibi Netanyahu, the ultra-Zionist radical, to power. A lot depends on how Israeli voters see the results of the Gaza war, who gets the credit (if it's seen as a success) and who gets the blame (if it's seen as a fiasco), and so far that seems unclear. One thing is certain, though: whoever wins the Israeli election, the result will be a coalition involving two or perhaps three of the leading Israeli parties as partners -- Likud, Labor, and the center-right Kadima party led by Foreign Minister Livni -- and a bunch of smaller parties of all persuasions, meaning that Israel, too, will be politically weak and without a leadership likely to be able to take the hard steps needed for a deal.
In other words, the Palestinians, too, might argue that they don't have a "partner for peace," either.
Everyone knows what those steps must be, and it would be useful if Obama were to state them explicitly at the start. (No one will be shocked.) They are: the partition of Jerusalem, the dismantling of West Bank settlements (including, potentially, the resettling of 300,000 Jews), a land swap to rearrange slightly the contours of the West Bank for a Palestinian state, a multi-billion dollar package to provide for the refugees' right-of-return compensation, and the removal of the checkpoints, barriers, and blockades that have turned Gaza into a concentration camp and the destroyed the economy and the quality of life in the West Bank.
To get there, Obama will have to encourage Egypt and Saudi Arabia to use all of their considerable clout to get Fatah and Hamas to put aside their differences, get a Palestinian Authority up and running, and prepare a delegation for talks. They'll have to finesse their disagreements, but Hamas (at least some of it) has supported a ten-year ceasefire with Israel, and the Islamist group might allow Fatah to represent it during the initial rounds of talks with the United States, Israel, and other parties to the Quartet. (Incidentally, Obama ought to invite China to make it a Quintet.) Obama can also indicate broadly that he's willing to engage Hamas, without preconditions, although practically speaking a US-Hamas dialogue will likely require quite a few intermediate steps, and quite a few intermediaries (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Europeans, etc.).
A key question involves security guarantees for Israel and for the Palestinians. Obama's national security adviser, James L. Jones, the retired NATO commander, spent much of 2008 working on this issue, and top Palestinian negotiators have told me that they believe he might be an honest interlocutor. But Jones seems inclined to support a NATO presence in between Israel and Palestine, which is not only a bad idea but one opposed by all sides. (There might be a small role for NATO observers, though.) The issue of security guarantees is especially tough now because of the smuggling of missiles through Gaza's border with Egypt in tunnels, and it will take some tough bargaining to come up with a workable arrangement.
But here's the bottom line: For forty years, since the occupation began in 1967, it's been obvious that Israel won't relinquish those territories without a significant dollop for forceful US insistence -- backed by America's vast leverage over Israel -- that it's time for a deal. Making such a deal will cause an enormous political upheaval in Israel. The hardliners, and their co-thinkers among the Israel lobby in Washington, will cry bloody murder and wave the Holocaust's bloody shirt. Removing the settlements on the West Bank will pit the Israeli army against an armed settlers' movement that will take on the dimensions of a civil war in Israel. Israel's religious parties, and some of its ultra-Zionists, will threaten to commit hara-kiri rather than see Jerusalem divided. It's a violent storm that Obama will have to weather.
Having observed this issue for 35 years, myself, I've learned it's usually a safe bet to wager against an Israel-Arab settlement. But this time, for Obama, the Arab League has backed King Abdullah's peace plan. (Ironically, I believe Iraq is the only Arab country not to have explicitly supported the Saudi peace plan.) One thing is for sure: solving this problem will be harder, by an order of magnitude, than righting the US economy.
This is the third in a series of posts on Barack Obama's Middle East dilemmas. The topic for Part I was the war on terror, and Part II was Afghanistan. Tomorrow, Part IV will cover the Israel-Palestine conflict, and Part V will be Iran. Today: Iraq.
Iraq is not stable. The "surge" didn't work. The US-Iraq "Status of Forces Agreement" is only a piece of paper. The country is plagued with violence. Key political actors in Iraq are bolstered by paramilitary armies, including the Badr Brigade, the Mahdi Army, and the Sons of Iraq ("Awakening") movement. Vast numbers of Iraqis are unemployed. Industry has collapsed, and basic services -- electricity, water, gas, sanitation -- are intermittent or nonexistent. The army and police are corrupt and infiltrated by militias, and the army's loyalty is suspect. Most of Iraq's political movements are backed by or have ties to one or more of Iraq's neighbors. Baghdad is a warren of blast walls and walled-off enclaves, reeling from years of ethnic cleansing, and Iraq's provincial capitals are rife with intrigue, with many of them -- Kirkuk, Mosul, Baquba, Basra, for instance -- perched at the bring of outright civil war.
That's the Iraq that Obama is inheriting from the decider.
As president, Obama has no choice other than to follow through on the central promise of his campaign: to withdraw one to two brigades of US troops each month. The New York Times reports today that US military planners, anticipating an order from Obama, "are drawing up plans for a faster withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in anticipation that President-elect Barack Obama will reject current proposals as too slow, Pentagon and military officials said Wednesday." That's the first concrete sign that Obama is prepared to stand up to the generals, who'd proposed a much slower drawdown of American forces that Obama had promised in 2008.
Indeed, when it comes to Iraq, Obama is in full control. He is not bound by any agreement or plans signed by George W. Bush. He isn't hemmed in by the three-year timetable of the Status of Forces Agreement, which calls for US forces to stay in Iraq through 2011. And he isn't tied to any timetables sketched out by Admiral Mullen of the Joint Chiefs, General Petraues of Centcom, and General Odierno, the US commander in Iraq. He is, yes, the commander-in-chief. In that regard, the Times report is an encouraging indication that he plans to act like one.
But drawing down combat forces is only half the story.
Many critics of Obama, who suspect that the president-elect will eventually cave in to the military and to Secretary of Defense Gates, are concerned -- rightfully -- about Obama's failure to say anything concrete about what might happen when all or most of the so-called combat forces are withdrawn, say, by sometime in 2010. Defining what units are "combat forces" isn't an exact science, but by most accounts they make up roughly half of the US forces in Iraq. That still leaves something like 60,000 to 80,000 troops that are usually described as "residual" forces, to be used for one or more of the following purposes: support to the Iraqi security forces, training of the Iraqi army and police, protecting Iraq's borders, counterterrorism, and guarding the enormous US embassy. Soon after taking office, Obama should speak concretely about what he envisions for these forces and, hopefully, announce plans to withdraw them, too, at the same time that so-called combat units get out.
Equally important, Obama needs to enunciate his policy for Iraq. As described earlier, Iraq is a seething mix of militias and "pissed off Iraqis." Does Obama see the United States as long-term guarantor of Iraqi stability? If so, for how long? And why? What if violence escalates among Iraq's volatile mix of political enemies and factions? What if that violence again takes the form of sectarian-based civil war, or if Iraqi Arabs and Kurds clash over Kirkuk and Mosul? In fact, renewed violence in Iraq is more likely than not. If it erupts, especially as US forces are leaving, Obama will face accusations from neoconservatives, Republicans, and the media that he is squandering the gains supposedly accomplished during the Bush-Gates "surge." So be it. If that's the political price he has to pay, then he must pay it. But it would minimize the damage if he articulated, now, the view that the surge did not solve Iraq's political divisions and that, perhaps, Iraqis might end up settling their differences by force as America gets out.
Of course, there is a great deal that Obama can do to reduce the severity of the coming score-settling in Iraq. He should go to the United Nations to get its help on negotiating a national reconciliation strategy among Iraqis, with a high profile, non-American special envoy in the lead. He can launch a diplomatic surge among Iraq's neighbors, including Iran, to persuade them to use their influence to rein in their agents, allies, and pawns inside Iraq. (For that, the United States is going to have to pay a price: Iran will want US concessions in exchange for helping to stabilize Iraq. Saudi Arabia will want the United States to adopt something like King Abdullah's 2002 Arab peace plan for Palestine. Turkey will want American political and financial support for its agreement to allow somewhat more Kurdish autonomy than it would otherwise like. And Syria, which has influence over Baathist and Arab nationalist forces in Iraq, will want US support for its efforts to reclaim the Golan Heights and for the United States to acknowledge its legitimate interests in Lebanon.)
There's more: lots of US money for rebuilding Iraq. A promise not to seek bases for US forces. A willingness to allow Russia, China, Japan, and Europe equal access to Iraqi oil contracts and reconstruction efforts.
The wild card, of course, is Iran. I'll deal with Iran, and its influence in Iraq, in Part V of this series, on Saturday.
This is the second part of a five-part series on Barack Obama's Middle East. Yesterday, Part I covered the so-called War on Terror. Today, in Part II, the subject is Afghanistan and Pakistan. The series will continue all week.
During the last three months of 2008, I spent a lot of time interviewing many of Barack Obama's advisers on Afghanistan and Pakistan. To summarize their collective view: the war in Afghanistan cannot be won militarily. Instead, it will require a combination of military power, state building, training of the Afghan National Army, economic support and development aid, regional diplomacy (including Iran, India, and Russia), and negotiations with "reconcilable" elements of the Taliban-led insurgency. But, they argue, it is impossible at present to conduct useful talks with even moderate components of the Taliban, because the Taliban believes that it is winning the war. Thus, Obama's advisers say, a military surge is necessary not to "win" the war in Afghanistan but to stabilize the situation and to convince the Islamist insurgent leaders to come to the bargaining table. (Take a look at my piece in The Nation, "Obama's Afghan Dilemma.")
It is a dangerously flawed strategy. And it is one that could unravel Obama's presidency.
So far, Obama has not outlined a formal strategy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, and by all accounts he will conduct a detailed review of the war during his first months in office. That leaves at least some hope that Obama will change course. Sadly, however, he has committed himself to an escalation of the war, and it will be exceedingly difficult to dissuade the Obama administration from making the mistake the president-elect seems determined to make. He's already compounded his poor decision to retain Robert Gates as secretary of defense by keeping George Bush's Iraq-Afghanistan coordinator, General Douglas Lute, as the new White House's National Security Council coordinator for America's two wars. It's not encouraging as a sign of new thinking.
So what are the flaws in Obama's emerging plan?
First, it is incorrect to portray the war in Afghanistan in such dire terms that an immediate military escalation, or "surge," is needed to prevent a Saigon-style collapse of Kabul. Under current circumstances, the United States cannot defeat the Taliban and its allies, nor can it take control of the large swaths of southern and eastern Afghanistan where the Taliban is in control. By the same token, the Taliban cannot capture Kabul, and it cannot overrun US and Afghan military bases. The war is essentially stalemated. Therefore, if Obama's foreign policy team believes that it needs a few months, or more, to conduct a review of US strategy in the war in Afghanistan, it has plenty of time. There is no military logic behind the need for more troops to stabilize Afghanistan during such a review.
Second, in all of the literature, speeches, and thinktank papers on Afghanistan, there has not been a single cogent explanation of how additional US and NATO forces can be deployed to make strategic gains in the conflict. Perhaps Obama and his military commanders plan to develop a deployment strategy during their first months in office. But to announce plans to add as many as 30,000 US troops -- doubling the US force -- over the next year is a classic example of "shoot first, aim later." If Obama truly believes that tens of thousands more US troops can turn the tide in Afghanistan, then he ought to develop the plan, and then explain it in detail to the American people. On the contrary, many experts on Afghanistan assert that by sending more troops, the United States will further inflame the insurgency. These critics argue that a great deal of the Afghan insurgency is a reaction to the US-NATO occupation of the country. It is the occupation, including its hamhanded efforts to impose Western-style democracy on Afghanistan and to inculcate Western-style values in an exceedingly backward and conservative society, that provides the most effective recruiting poster for the Taliban. Many, perhaps most of the insurgents are not hard-core, ideology-driven Taliban partisans, but they are angry, alienated, and fearful Pashtun tribal conservatives who are being driven into the arms of the Taliban. If that's true, then sending more troops will make the situation much worse.
A recent article in the Washington Post provides a shocking glimpse into Obama's flawed strategy. According to the article, Obama and his team "do not anticipate that the Iraq-like surge will significantly change the direction of a conflict that has steadily deteriorated." Instead, says the Post, the deployment of 30,000 more US forces is designed simply to buy time for the Obama White House to figure out what to do. Concludes the article:
"Obama's national security team expects that the new deployments, which will nearly double the current U.S. force of 32,000 (alongside an equal number of non-U.S. NATO troops), will help buy enough time for the new administration to reappraise the entire Afghanistan war effort and develop a comprehensive new strategy for what Obama has called the 'central front on terror.'"
In my Nation piece, I provided a detailed account of why the "surge and negotiate" policy is wrongheaded. Besides the two flaws cited above, there is a deeper problem that relates to American objectives in Afghanistan. If the goal is to eliminate or neutralize Al Qaeda, then we've already won the war. If the goal is to eradicate the Taliban, remake Afghan society, and modernize its culture, then America is looking at a Thirty Years' War. There are some, including some human rights and women rights activists, who believe that reorganizing the social basis of Afghan society is an achievable goal. It is not. There are other, darker forces who believe that a long-term US presence in the heart of central Asia is an important geo-strategic goal for the United States, vis-a-vis Russia and China, in the struggle for regional influence and access to oil and natural gas.
It's encouraging, in a small degree, that Obama has said -- since being elected -- that US goals in Afghanistan are "very limited" and the "No. 1 goal" is to stop Al Qaeda and to ensure that Afghanistan "cannot be used as a base to launch attacks against the United States." If he sticks to that limited goal, and abandons any pretense that the United States can bring democracy and the Enlightenment to Kandahar, then perhaps he can be persuaded not to go along with the generals in expanding the war. Perhaps.
The true exit strategy for the United States in Afghanistan is to put a complete withdrawal of US forces on the table, in order to draw Taliban-linked insurgents into productive talks. To start the process, an immediate partial pullout -- say, 5,000 troops -- on a unilateral basis could get the ball rolling. Additional withdrawals could be accompanied by a negotiation process among the Karzai government in Kabul, various regional warlords and tribal leaders, former Taliban, moderate (and even not-so-moderate) current Taliban representatives. The governments of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, which have close ties to the Afghan Taliban, would have be get involved actively. So would the anti-Taliban neighbors of Afghanistan, including India, Russia, and Iran, who sponsored the Northern Alliance that resisted Taliban rule. And all of these countries -- plus the United States, the EU, China, and others -- would have to put lots of money on the table to cement the deal. (I've proposed a fund of at least $100 billion over ten years.)
Getting this done, given Obama's apparent determination to surge, won't be easy. Indeed, it may be impossible. It will take a combination of public pressure, efforts by Congressional committees, task forces led by anti-surge "gray beards," and continued resistance by NATO, especially Germany, to sending additional troops into the quagmire.
It will also require a vast effort by the United States to support Pakistan's civilian government in its fearful and tentative attempt to clip the wings of the pro-Taliban Pakistani military and its intelligence service, the ISI. And it will take aggressive efforts by the United Nations and the international community to faciliate a Pakistan-India peace process, since, ultimately, a lasting accord in Afghanistan will have to rest on the foundation of a deal between Pakistan and India.
The Middle East looms large for Barack Obama, and in Washington it's clear that the seething arc of crises from Gaza and Lebanon through Iraq and Iran into Afghanistan and Pakistan won't let Obama ignore the region from Day One. Starting today, and continuing for the rest of this week, I'm presenting a series of pieces about Obama's Middle East. Today, we start with the so-called War on Terror. Tomorrow, I'll deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan. On Thursday, Iraq. On Friday, Gaza, Israel, and Lebanon. And on Monday, Iran.
Perhaps the area where Barack Obama can make the quickest, and most effective, pivot from the administration of George W. Bush is with the so-called War on Terror.
For seven years and four months, the United States has been engaged in a monumentally flawed and destructive campaign that President Bush described as an all-out effort against terrorism and terrorist groups of "global reach." It includes two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, a lethal counterterrorism effort waged by the CIA and the Pentagon's Special Forces units, and a global effort to expand US military and intelligence ties to countries throughout Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.
Unfortunately, from the start the United States conflated its lone real enemy, Al Qaeda, with a panoply of unrelated states and organizations, some Islamist and some secular, creating a mythical bloc of evil-doers under the heading of what John McCain called, redundantly, "radical Islamic extremism." In the mix, Bush rolled up Iran, Saddam's Iraq, Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, Saudi Arabia's Wahhabis, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban, various Pakistani Islamist groups, and others into one big terrorist ball of wax. Predictably, and aided by the anti-Muslim prejudices of the Christian right, it became a Crusade against Islam, at least in as seen through the lens of people living in the Middle East and South Asia. No wonder that anti-American sentiment throughout the region reached all-time highs.
There are three things that Obama can do in this regard.
First, Obama can declare victory against Al Qaeda. For the most part, Al Qaeda is dead and buried. Despite the hysterical warnings that continue to emanate from members of the US terrorism-industrial complex -- from people like Frances Townsend, who formerly advised Bush on terrorism, and from members of the hardy band of terrorism specialists who have an interest in sustaining an inordinate fear of Al Qaeda -- the organization is toothless. For the past three years, Al Qaeda has not launched a single attack against any Western target, including the United States and Europe.
Last week, no less an authority than Dell Dailey, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, said: "We see Al Qaeda, in a centralized role, (as being) totally controlled. Bin Laden can't get an operational effort off the ground without it being detected ahead of time and being thwarted. Their ability to reach is nonexistent." Predictably, Dailey's comments didn't get much attention, in part because the US media doesn't like to headline reports that don't set off fire alarms. But Dailey's right. Al Qaeda is pretty much finished, although vigilance and continued mopping up operations, especially in Waziristan, are required. It's been crushed in Afghanistan, it has been utterly destroyed in Iraq, it has been obliterated in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and its operations base in North Africa, which was mostly locally focused anyway, is under siege.
So Obama can declare victory over Al Qaeda. Using his supremely confident aura of cool, he can de-escalate the rhetoric. He can tell Americans that they have nothing to fear but fear itself. He can tell them that the threat of terrorism, for Americans, has been reduced to the level of a nuisance. He can assure Americans that they are safe and secure. He can emphasize that the chance that terrorists might get ahold of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons of mass destruction is close to zero. And he can explain that, in the unlikely event of another attack -- say, a Mumbai-style explosion of guerrilla war or an Oklahoma City-style truck bombing -- the United States will undertake a patient and ruthless effort to track down the perpetrators.
Second, Obama can make it clear that the United States is, from now on, playing by the rules. No more torture. No more rendition to torture-prone nations. No more Guantanamo. No more Abu Ghraibs. Respect for the rule of law. In all of this, the United States will use its intelligence and law enforcement apparatus with utmost professionalism to protect Americans, preventing terrorist acts when we can and tracking down the terrorists when we can't.
And third, Obama should deliver a major speech, aimed at Americans, explaining the many and subtle differences among the opponents and adversaries of the United States in the Muslim world. On the one hand, he should say, there can be no reconciliation or truce with Al Qaeda. On the other hand, with nearly all of the other components of the Bush-McCain Terrorist Ball of Wax -- Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Taliban, especially -- we will talk, we will listen, we will negotiate, we will seek at least a truce, and we will try to establish a permanent, working accord.
In declaring an end to the War on Terror, Obama will have no choice but to provide Americans with a detailed, and rational, explanation of who the enemy is -- and who it is not. This cannot be a one-speech effort. Rather, it will require a sustained communications effort by Obama and his entire team. Seven years of mind-numbing propaganda from the Bush White House has convinced tens of millions of Americans that the threat of terrorism is both imminent and vast. Those tens of millions are convinced that an enormous, global terrorist movement that extends far beyond Al Qaeda is out to get us. It is Obama's urgent task to explain, calmly, that it isn't so. For seven years, Bush used the trauma of 9/11 to stoke Americans' fears, and in so doing he created an enemy that doesn't exist in the real world. Like the mythical Iraqi WMD, the worldwide terrorist threat isn't there. Obama can say so.
Will he do this? It's not impossible. During several interviews, John Brennan, one of Obama's top intelligence advisers who will lead the White House's counterterrorism policy efforts, told me that he is flatly opposed to the very notion of a "War on Terror." And, he told me, he favors the idea of a dialogue with organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood. And he suggested that Obama feels the same way.
Though Obama is inexperienced in international affairs, putting an end to the War on Terror once and for all is a step that will appeal to his instincts. He's pledged to deliver a major address on US relations with the Islamic world, and he's said that he would do so in an Arab or Muslim capital, perhaps Cairo. Stay tuned.
Tomorrow: Obama and Afghanistan.
It's interesting, and unsettling, to note the near-absence of Democratic Party criticism of the Israeli invasion of Gaza, even as the Bush Administration executes a near-180-degree turn in its policy toward the crisis.
The vote in the UN Security Council yesterday, calling for a ceasefire in Gaza -- and pointedly not demanding an end to Hamas rocket fire as a condition for that ceasefire -- passed by an unanimous 14-0 vote. The important shift, undoubtedly brought about by Israel's killing of UN workers, Palestinian civilians, and high-profile attacks on schools and refuges, was by the United States, which abstained rather than veto the resolution. The Washington Post calls it a "sharp reversal" by the White House:
"The resolution demands an 'immediate, durable and fully respected cease-fire, leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza,' U.S. and Arab officials said. It marked a sharp reversal by the Bush administration, which had refused to allow passage of a cease-fire resolution without binding assurances that Hamas would halt its rocket attacks against Israel."
Eating humble pie, Palestine-style, Secretary of State Condi Rice -- who had earlier parroted the White House line that any ceasefire would have to be "sustainable and durable" and not a return to the "status quo" -- now says:
"We decided that this resolution -- the text of which we support, the goals of which we support and the objectives of which we fully support -- should indeed be allowed to go forward."
Jackson Diehl, the deputy editorial page editor of the Post and no dove, opined bluntly in his op-ed:
"Israel's military campaign in the Gaza Strip is failing. ... Every day this war continues, Hamas grows politically stronger, as do its allies in other countries and its sponsor, Iran. ... Now, bogged down, suffering casualties and inflicting many more, creating terrible pictures for television, it will have to accept an unsatisfying settlement."
Of course, as I've argued in The Dreyfuss Report, the Israeli attack was almost certain to boost Hamas.
A commentary by Anthony Cordesman, a hard-headed realist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, adds:
"Has Israel somehow blundered into a steadily escalating war without a clear strategic goal or at least one it can credibly achieve? Will Israel end in empowering an enemy in political terms that it defeated in tactical terms? Will Israel's actions seriously damage the US position in the region, any hope of peace, as well as moderate Arab regimes and voices in the process?
"To blunt, the answer so far seems to be yes."
Meanwhile, with the Bush administration executing an about-face and Republican realists slamming Israel, where are the Democrats? Over at the Center for American Progress, the daily Progress Report, which resumed publication on January 5, 2009, at the height of the crisis, there has been absolutely nothing -- zero, zilch, nada! -- on the war in Gaza so far this month, except for a few innocuous mentions of ceasefire efforts. (You can verify this by checking the Progress Report archives for January.) Though the Progress Report loves to bash George W. Bush for every transgression, apparently his naked support for Israel's slaughter in Gaza escaped the Progress Report's attention. How sad. [UPDATE: Finally, today, the Progress Report got around to taking on Gaza, under the headline: "No Military Solution in Gaza. It's mushy, to say the least, with no criticism of Bush and Co. for supporting the Israeli offensive.]
Meanwhile, AIPAC is promoting Steny Hoyer's op-ed in, of all places, the Washington Times, in which the Democratic leader writes pompously about "moral imperatives":
"America would never sit still if terrorists were lobbing missiles across our border into Texas or Montana; and just as we assert our right to defend ourselves, Israel has every right to protect its own citizens from the implacable foes on its borders. Support for Israel in her time of need, from both Democrats and Republicans, is not just the logical choice. It is both a strategic and moral imperative."
Reuters has a useful accountof the Democrats' perfidy, under the headline: "Few Speak Up for Palestinians in US Congress." It quotes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid defending his absurdly pro-Israel resolution.
I could go on, citing the Democrats' shameful rush to gather together in the Amen Corner of the Israel Lobby. And Obama? I'll take that on tomorrow. There's good news -- and, some really bad news. (Hint: the bad news is named Dennis Ross.)
For an agency whose job it is not to be surprised, nearly everything seems to surprise the CIA these days. So it's not surprising that the agency was surprised by the choice of Leon Panetta to head it. I was surprised too. My first reaction: it's an odd and unsettling choice. Here's why.
First, it's a bad idea to pick a politician to lead the CIA, because it is supposed to be an agency that is not political. Don't laugh -- that's the way it's supposed to be. Think about George W. Bush's most overt effort to politicize the CIA, by picking the Republican ideologue and hatchet man, Representative Porter Goss, in 2006. Goss' tenure was a disaster, and he had the advantage of being a former CIA officer and chairman of the House intelligence committee. Panetta is a know-nothing when it comes to intelligence.
Which brings up the second problem. The Obama transition team is telling reporters that Panetta had experience as a "consumer" of intelligence when he was chief of staff at the Clinton White House. Well, I have experience as a purchaser of computer equipment, but you wouldn't want me fixing your laptop. Fixing the CIA -- and believe me, it needs fixing, along with serious downsizing -- requires someone who knows how the insides work, and Panetta has no clue.
Third, while Panetta may oppose torture -- a "no-brainer," to quote Dick Cheney's phrase when asked about waterboarding -- there are hundreds of former CIA top officials who actually know how the CIA works who were appalled by the torture regime. Any of them might have been a better choice. So opposing torture is a good idea -- and yes, it's amazing that we're even debating whether torture is acceptable -- but Panetta gets no points for me on that score. That's like saying he opposes child pornography. Duh!
Fourth, Panetta is a relentless centrist and a conciliator. He's one more cog in the center-right national security apparatus that Obama is patiently assembling. Which raises another very important issue: Is Panetta the one to stand up and fight for civilian control of the intelligence community? Of course not. His boss, it appears, will he Admiral Dennis Blair, yet another top military man appointed to run the U.S. intelligence community as head of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). Now the very office of the DNI is a useless post, and the entire office ought to be abolished by Obama on Day One. Who needs it? It was created by Congress, with President Bush's support, as part of the helter-skelter intelligence reorganization that also saw the creation of several other vast, unneeded agencies: the Northern Command, the Department of Homeland Security, and National Counterterrorism Center, and others. Obama should get rid of all of them. In the meantime, by appointing Blair, a man deeply entangled in the military-industrial complex, Obama is guaranteeing that the CIA and the other fifteen or so agencies that comprise the "community" will be ever beholden to the Pentagon, which already absorbs something like 80 percent of the intelligence budget.
The Panetta appointment is doomed. I give him a year, before he gives up over there. He's no match for the hardheaded spooks who run the place, and he's no match for the military brass who are elbowing their way to more and more control of intelligence spending and priorities.
The Israeli invasion of Gaza, launched Saturday, might very well be George W. Bush's last and final war crime. For eight years, Bush has coupled unparalled ignorance of the Middle East with supreme arrogance. It is precisely that deadly combination of ignorance and arrogance that is on display now, as a politically motivated Israeli invasion of Gaza unfolds with the full support of the Bush administration.
In his weekly radio address, delivered as Israeli tanks and armor rumbled into the Gaza Strip, Bush declared:
"This recent outburst of violence was instigated by Hamas -- a Palestinian terrorist group supported by Iran and Syria that calls for Israel's destruction. ... Another one-way ceasefire that leads to rocket attacks on Israel is not acceptable. And promises from Hamas will not suffice -- there must be monitoring mechanisms in place to help ensure that smuggling of weapons to terrorist groups in Gaza comes to an end. I urge all parties to pressure Hamas to turn away from terror."
A more sweeping endorsement of Israel's action is hard to imagine. Writing in the Post, columnist Jim Hoagland, a reliable, neoconservative-allied scribbler, describes it this way:
"He did not just give Israel a green light to inflict as much damage as possible on Hamas once that radical movement foolishly renounced a six-month-old truce. Bush knocked down the traffic light post and waved the Israelis through the intersection."
Personally, I find Hamas despicable. It is a right-wing Islamist group with open terrorist inclinations, motivated by a fanciful notion that it can defeat Israel with its pinprick attacks. I've also written extensively, including in my book, Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, how Israel created Hamas systematically and deliberately during the 1970s and 1980s, building up the Muslim Brotherhood and Ahmed Yassin's proto-Hamas movement as a counterweight to Fatah.
But Israel could easily have absorbed the rockets launched by Hamas, nearly all of which crash harmlessly in remote areas, if it had truly sought to work out an accommodation with the Palestinians. Most important, Israel could have endorsed and supported efforts by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others to create a lasting accord between Hamas and Fatah. Instead, Israel did the opposite, meeting each of Hamas' acts of violence with far greater violence of its own.
As I've written in this space earlier, the outcome of Israel's action is likely to be to strengthen, not weaken, Hamas. It will also have the following collateral effects: it will undermine the moderate wing of the Palestinian movement, perhaps fatally. It will weaken the government of Egypt, boosting the power of the radical-right Muslim Brotherhood there, to the point where Egypt's regime could collapse, with incalculable consequences. It will boost radicalism across the region, especially its Islamist variant, in Lebanon and Iraq in particular, and help Iran gain traction among otherwise unreceptive Arab populations.
Hamas is unlikely to seek a deal now. Having watched Israel blunder into Lebanon two years ago, in a futile effort to eradicate Hezbollah, only to see that movement emerge victorious and take control of part of Lebanon's own government, Hamas is not going to sue for peace. In that, they may be wrong, since Gaza is not Lebanon. In Gaza, Hamas has no access to resupply its armaments, and the territory on which it operates is extremely limited. So it is going to suffer severe military losses and vast casualties against the lethal Israeli Defense Forces.
Israel's objectives aren't clear. Israeli hawks, including Bibi Netanyahu -- appearing Sunday on CNN's Late Edition -- insist that Israel cannot stop its action until Hamas is utterly defeated, whatever that means. In the New York Times, two top Israeli leaders are quoted to the effect that Israel's objective is regime change and the elimination of Hamas. Foreign Minister Livni put it this way:
"There is no doubt that as long as Hamas controls Gaza, it is a problem for Israel, a problem for the Palestinians and a problem for the entire region."
And Haim Ramon, the vice premier, said:
"What I think we need to do is to reach a situation in which we do not allow Hamas to govern. That is the most important thing."
But in trying to eliminate Hamas, Israel will revive Hamas, which has been losing popularity dramatically until the current explosion. With Barack Obama maintaining his sphinx-like silence, it's the Bush-Cheney-Rice administration that remains in charge. They clearly have no intention of intervening, unless Israel gets into trouble and requests help. The Swampland blog at Time suggests that Obama's approach might be different from Bush's:
"No doubt, the Israelis want the operation to be over before the Obama inauguration--it's not neighborly to present your most important potential ally with a crisis at his moment of ascension. But it is very easy to get to stuck, and hurt, in alley-fighting. I hope that Israel is working as hard behind the scenes to arrange a quick cease fire as it is fighting on the ground. It would be nice if we had a President of the United States with the credibility and ingenuity to make it happen. Perhaps we soon will."
I'm not convinced. So far, at least, Obama has given no indication that he'd do anything different. I'd like to think he would. Some of his advisers, before the election, told me that they thought Obama would talk to Hamas. Let's hope so.
As Israel presses its bloody assault on Gaza, dropping broad hints that it is planning a ground attack to complement four days of bombings that have killed hundreds, it's clear that Israel's actions are likely to bolster, not weaken, the very enemy it is fighting.
Writing in the Washington Post, Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab points out that, before the latest crisis, Hamas was in sharp decline. The headline on his thoughtful piece is: "Has Israel Revived Hamas?" He says: "Israel appears to have given new life to the fledging Islamic movement in Palestine."
Over the past two years, Kuttab notes, Palestinian support for Hamas -- an ultrareligious, terrorist-inclined wing of the fanatical Muslim Brotherhood movement -- has declined sharply, from a 30 percent in 2006 to 22 percent in August, 2007, to just 17 percent in 2008 -- compared to 40 percent for Fatah, the mainstream, secular nationalist wing of the Palestinian body politic. Kuttab points out that Hamas has "turned down every legitimate offer from its nationalist PLO rivals and Egyptian mediators." Now, he says, the attacks are a "bonanza for Hamas" and says that Israel's assault will achieve "results exactly the opposite of its publicly proclaimed purposes."
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, and reflecting the views of Israel security hawks such as Bibi Netanyahu, Bret Stephens says that the Israeli campaign -- like the campaign in Lebanon that killed thousands in 2006, in the disastrous war against Hezhollah -- will not defeat Hamas. "The green flag of the movement will fly defiantly over the tallest building left standing," says Stephens. Unless, that is, the Israelis learn from Lebanon, 2006, and act decisively to crush Hamas once and for all. Problem is, that's an impossible task. Far more likely, Israel will end up radicalizing the Palestinians once again, weakening Fatah and strengthening Hamas. And that makes peace talks, and a settlement, less likely.
An intelligent news analysis piece in the Times from Stephen Farrell asks the key question:
The questions remain: Why did Hamas end its six-month cease-fire on Dec. 19? Will it -- can it -- unleash suicide bombers into Israel in retaliation? And will the devastation in Gaza make Palestinians fall into line behind Hamas, as they reliably have in the past, or will Hamas lose their support as Gazans count the escalating cost in blood and destruction?
Why, indeed? Like Israeli extremists such as Netanyahu, who thrive on conflict, Hamas too seems to have believed that it could revive itself by provoking its giant military adversary.
Farrells wonders: "A major question remains whether Hamas expected the shock-and-awe Israeli offensive that has left Gaza reeling." Hamas may not have expected the full brutality that Israel unleashed. In yesterday's post, I pointed out that the Mossad is reported to have concluded that Hamas was only seeking to make a show of force before trying to rengotiate the ceasefire on more favorable terms. But, in any case, its foolhardy decision to have ended the ceasefire and unleashed the rocket barrage seems idiotic in retrospect.
Yesterday, on NPR, I heard the official Hamas spokesman say -- without a shred of credibility or evidence -- that the rocket barrage since December 19 was unleashed by Israeli provocateurs in Gaza, seeking to provide Israel with an excuse for its all-out bombing campaign. Comments like that can only make Hamas look like pathetic, conspiracy-mongering fantasists.
Farrell's analysis points out that many Palestinians, so far at least, are rallying around Hamas, and he wonders:
More important is whether once away from television cameras and foreign journalists, Palestinians will vote for Hamas in presidential and parliamentary elections, which could take place within a year.
In Israel, the bloody holocaust they've unleashed is an election game, wherein Netanyahu and his slightly more moderate rivals in the Olmert-Livni bloc compete with each other to show who is best at slaughtering Palestinians. In Palestine, a similar election dynamic is underway.
In all of this, Obama continues his silence. Here's a way for him to end it: He ought to blame President Bush for his stunning refusal to get involved earlier this month, when Hamas started to say it that it would end its ceasefire. That was a perfect opportunity for the United States to end its boycott of Hamas and to sit down with Egypt, the Palestinian Authority under President Abbas, and Saudi Arabia and talk to Hamas. And Obama ought to say so. Don't hold your breath waiting for him to do it, though. We only have one incompetent president at a time.
Thanks to Hamas' stupid, provocative, and self-defeating rocket assault on, well, nothing, in Israel, the Middle East that Barack Obama will inherit from George W. Bush just got a lot more complicated. And, sadly, Obama seems content to fiddle while Gaza burns.
Yesterday Obama got an official US intelligence briefing on the crisis in Gaza, which may or may not have numbed his brain with data he didn't need. Obama didn't need an intelligence briefing to tell him anything he really needs to know: that, once again, the twin poles of Israeli and Palestinian extremism have flared up in a way that will only undermine, perhaps fatally, the chances of a negotiated accord during Obama's first term in office.
The only useful intelligence Obama might have gained from the briefing is that the Mossad knew, before Israel's massive attack on Gaza, that Hamas was only trying to make a show of force. That is, Hamas' not-too-bright leaders thought that they could get away with a few hundred rocket attacks into Israel and then renegotiate a better ceasefire deal. Like the less-than-brilliant strategists in Georgia, who thought that they could attack Russia with impunity and who instead got their heads handed to them last August, Hamas' own armchair fanatics thought they could get away with it. Oops. The Wall Street Journal reports today:
In recent weeks, Israeli intelligence officials have said they believed Hamas doesn't want a full-scale confrontation, but rather wants to make a show of force before seeking a renewed cease-fire on more favorable terms.
If that's true, and there's little reason to think it isn't, it was certainly within Israel's power to exercise restraint -- or perhaps to engage in a little tit-for-tat counterattacks -- while waiting for things to settle down. But, no. Hamas, for its part, should have known that it was firing its rockets directly into Israel's pre-election political mess, in which hardline extremists like Bibi Netanyahu are gaining the upper hand. And the power of those extremists, playing on Israeli public opinion and its fears, pushed the pathetic Olmert-Livni government over the brink. (It's particularly disgusting that Olmert, who in his various exit interviews and speeches has pretty much acknowledged that Israel needs a deal involving the removal of Jewish settlements and the partition of Jerusalem, would go along with the overkill in Gaza.)
But the truly sad thing is see how Obama has opted out. He left the commenting to David Axelrod, his political strategist, who said, mouse-like: "I think he (Obama) wants to get a handle on the situation so that when he becomes president on January 20 he has the advantage of all the facts and information leading up to that point." To that gobbledygook he added that now all-too-familiar nostrum that America has "one president at a time."
It's long past time for the United States to have opened a dialogue with Hamas. As stupid as they are, their leadership is divided and they are not all religious fanatics (though many are) and they are not all living in the fantasy that Hamas can defeat Israel. The same Journal story today notes:
There are indications that the Hamas leadership is divided on how forcefully to respond. When Hamas's traditionally hard-line Damascus-based leader Mr. Meshal urged renewed attacks against Israel earlier this month, local Hamas leaders in Gaza quickly distanced themselves from his statements.
Those more sensible Gaza leaders of Hamas might be willing to reconcile with Fatah and the Palestinian authority, and it's the least that Obama could do to say so. It might be nice, too, if Obama would gently (or not so gently) point out that Israel's ham-handed overreaction needs to be reined in. (The Bush administration, which cheer-led Israel's 2006 attack on Hezbollah in Lebanon, isn't going to call for restraint.)
Meanwhile, just as Israel's attack on Lebanon strengthened that country's band of religious fanatics -- Hezbollah -- the Gaza assault is almost guaranteed to end up bolstering Palestine's own religious extremists, including Hamas's more wild-eyed and terrorist-inclined gangs. For some Israeli extremists, that may be exactly what they want, because it pushes a two-state solution that much further away. It would nice, too, if Obama would point that out.
During 2008, Obama never allowed any daylight between himself and the Israeli lobby. Those inclined to believe that Obama had a secret plan to break with AIPAC and its allies and to push for a solution in Palestine in a manner that wouild involve twisting Israeli arms discounted Obama's pro-Israel rhetoric as campaign posturing. We'll see. But it now appears abundantly clear that we'll have to wait until January 20, if not long afterwards, to find out.