Washington – As Barack Obama arrives home from his weeklong tour of East Asia, he confronts a growing list of ever more urgent problems in the Greater Middle East that he inherited from George W. Bush’s “global war on terror”.
From Palestine to Pakistan, Obama, who also faces a major fight in getting his top legislative priority – health care reform – through Congress, must make a series of critical decisions within a relatively short time.
Some of those decisions could well determine Obama’s foreign policy legacy, specifically whether he can pull the U.S. out of the hole Bush dug for it in the region or whether, inspiring rhetoric notwithstanding, he keeps digging.
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While deciding on his strategy in Afghanistan – and how many U.S. troops will be needed to implement it – is at the top of the list, the apparent impasse on Iran’s nuclear programme has strengthened forces here that favour imposing “crippling sanctions”, if not military action, against the Islamic Republic, sooner rather than later.
At the same time, the sharp deterioration over the past several weeks in prospects for renewed peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians has suddenly put into serious question the continued viability not only of the Palestine Authority (PA), but also of the two-state solution on which Washington and other members of the Quartet have long based their policies.
It was just three weeks ago that Obama’s national security adviser, Gen. James Jones, identified the Israel-Palestinian conflict as the “epicentre” of U.S. challenges in the Greater Middle East and the one crisis the administration would prioritise if it could “solve any one problem” in the region.
Yet, with Israel’s latest defiance of U.S. demands that it halt settlement expansion in the West Bank and, specifically, in East Jerusalem, a solution now appears more remote than at any time since Bush ended Bill Clinton’s peacemaking efforts in 2001.
Obama’s Asia tour, which took him to Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea, garnered mixed reviews here. Right-wing critics accused him of excessive deference, especially toward his Chinese hosts and the Japanese emperor (to whom he was accused of bowing too deeply). His defenders insisted that his modesty marked a welcome contrast to Bush’s “cowboy” swagger, especially in countries that have become Washington’s biggest creditors by far.
Many of Obama’s top foreign policy advisers firmly believe that U.S. relations with Asia – where China is fast emerging as a true global power, and recent elections in Japan, Washington’s closest regional ally, have launched a major political transition with serious foreign policy implications – require far more attention than they received under Bush, a point underlined by Obama’s reference to himself as Washington’s “first Pacific president”.
That the administration has been forced to focus most of its attention on the Greater Middle East is a source of both regret and resentment to many of these same aides who blame the Bush administration’s incompetence, Manichean worldview, and contempt for diplomacy for the crises they face in the region.
Of those, Afghanistan, the subject of a major review that is well into its third month, has drawn the most attention and may turn out to be the most momentous.
Obama’s top military commander, apparently backed by the Armed Forces chief of staff, and Defence Secretary Robert Gates, has asked for as many as 40,000 new U.S. troops to add to the 68,000 already deployed there in order to repel Taliban advances and gain time for Washington and its NATO allies to build up the Afghan Army and police so they can hold their own.
They are reportedly opposed by Vice President Joseph Biden and several of Obama’s top political advisers. Worried about growing opposition to the war among Democrats and polls showing that only about one-third of the public favour adding troops, they have argued for a much more modest escalation, if any at all.
They have been strengthened in recent weeks by published accounts of gross corruption on the part of the government of President Hamid Karzai, his brother and their cronies, and by the leak of a cable from Washington’s ambassador in Kabul. Ret. Gen. Karl Eikenberry expressed great scepticism in that communication over whether adding troops would make any difference in the absence of wholesale – and, in his view, highly unlikely – changes in the government’s performance.
Reports about the estimated costs of additional deployments – estimated at one million dollars per soldier per year – have also bolstered Biden’s position.
Obama, who ruled out withdrawing U.S. troops last month, is now reportedly weighing several options – ranging from adding 10,000 troops to granting the Pentagon’s full request.
He is also reportedly insisting that additional U.S. assistance be tied to “measurable” improvements in the government’s performance, a message conveyed personally by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who attended Karzai’s inauguration in Kabul Thursday.
In an interview Wednesday with CNN, Obama, who has been accused by right-wing critics, notably former Vice President Dick Cheney, of “dithering” over his decision, said he was “very close” to making one and expected to announce it “in the next several weeks”.
On Iran, Obama pledged last spring that he would pursue his “engagement” policy with Tehran through the end of the year before assessing whether it should be continued.
With less than 45 days before the new year, however, Iran has failed to confirm an agreement in principle reached last month in Geneva between it and the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany) that would lower tensions over its nuclear programme.
The plan called for Tehran to export most of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia and France for reprocessing into fuel rods to be used for a research reactor in Tehran. Recent statements by senior Iranian officials that appeared to reject the plan have contributed to growing pessimism here that the deal will be accepted.
As a result, the so-called “Israel Lobby” and its allies in Congress have rallied behind a series of bills that would impose unilateral sanctions against Iran and third-country companies that do business with it.
With time running out, Obama himself appears to be putting greater emphasis on sticks rather than carrots, warning Thursday in Seoul that, “over the next several weeks, the (the P5+1) will be developing a package of potential steps that we could take that would indicate our seriousness to Iran”.
The group is scheduled to meet Friday in Brussels. While Obama said he was “pleased” with what he called “the extraordinary international unity that we have seen” over the issue, Russia and China have repeatedly indicated their reluctance to impose sanctions. If maintained, their stance will impose very difficult choices on Washington very soon.
On top of all this, events in Israel and the Occupied Territories – most recently, Israel’s approval this week of the construction of 900 housing units in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Gilo in East Jerusalem – has dealt a perhaps fatal blow to the Oslo framework that has guided the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” since 1993.
Coming after threats by senior Palestinian officials to resign in protest over Washington’s refusal to back up its earlier demands for a halt to all Jewish settlement expansion, Obama himself warned Wednesday that the latest action by the Netanyahu government “embitters the Palestinians in a way that could end up being very dangerous”.
Even before the Gilo announcement, experts here were warning that a third intifada could break out at any time, with potentially disastrous consequences not only for Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects, but also for Obama’s efforts to restore Washington’s image throughout the region.
Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at https://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/