America’s Strategic Whac-a-Mole

13 04 2009

Le Monde Diplomatique (France)
13 April 2009

[Note: an abbreviated version of this commentary was published by Le Monde Diplomatique]

It’s no surprise that President Obama’s foreign policy challenges are unsavory, diverse and numerous, but what makes them most worrisome is the degree to which they overlap in the worst ways possible.  Our allies’ concerns, our enemies’ threats and our victims’ pleas are inextricably tied to one another—if not by nature, then by the hand of political leaders and institutions across the globe.  Solving one problem seems impossible without solving the rest, or at least pretending to do so.  And ‘pretending’ may be what it comes to, though it’s difficult to imagine just whom we’d fool.  The world seems to be knocking at every American door, imploring, cajoling or threatening us to do (or not do) something.  And whenever no one’s knocking, we can’t help but wonder where everyone went.

Iraq and Afghanistan seldom wonder far from our doorstep for obvious reasons, but with Obama’s focus on renewing old alliances and engendering newer convenient ones, many others are requesting an audience.  Unfortunately, it is mathematically impossible for President Obama to address each or even most of them.  And inevitably, the process of prioritizing is going to get ugly.

Here are just a few of Obama’s more important foreign policy goals:
•    Eradicating (or rendering impotent) al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
•    Securing Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and some modicum of democracy there.
•    Withdrawing US forces from Iraq and preventing the Iranians from filling the void.
•    Derailing and/or deterring Iran’s development of a nuclear (weapons) technology program.
•    Spreading democracy across the globe, especially in Muslim and formerly Soviet states.
•    Reaching a final settlement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
•    Mitigating the heavy spillover from the drug wars in Mexico into America’s southwest.
•    Limiting the social and political upheaval of a global recession.

If only these goals could be divided on a chopping block.  But instead, they are all connected in an interminable run-on sentence.  To defeat al Qaeda, we have to remove its support structure along the Afpak border.  To do that, we have to (implicitly) convince Pakistan that it does not need an Islamist buffer in Afghanistan to ensure its own survival.  To do that, we have to ensure the economic development of southern Afghanistan.

To rebuild Afghanistan, we will need supplies, and those supplies will soon be guaranteed only when transited through Russia’s backyard.  To get that access, however, Russia is insisting that we abandon our plans to install anti-ballistic missile shields in Eastern Europe.  Meanwhile, Obama seems happy to do this as long as Russia stops supplying Iran’s nuclear development.  But for that concession, Russia is also demanding that we abandon our efforts to integrate Russia’s former satellite states (Ukraine and Georgia, specifically) into NATO and other western institutions.

We might be in a position to refuse this last Russian demand if only we could know for sure that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program.  But to obtain that reassurance from Iran, Tehran itself is looking for carte-blanche in its consolidation of Shiite influence in Iraq, Iran’s greatest historical enemy.  We might be willing to make a trade—nukes for Iraq—but the US is slated to withdraw most of its forces anyway, so we have little to offer Tehran that it won’t get by merely sitting on its hands.

Perhaps, then, the gridlock will dissipate if we manage to break off Syria from its alliance with Iran, but that requires Israel’s willingness to negotiate with Syria and other enemies—a practice which Israel’s new prime minister is apparently refusing to do until after President Obama defuses Iran’s nuclear ambitions, in one way or another.

If you are confused, join the club.  No one knows where this negotiation starts or ends, who the parties really are, and what concessions they are prepared to make.  So far, the only real sacrifice President Obama has asked of the American people is economic.  He has not asked us to tolerate an Iranian Bomb; he has not suggested we send our sons and daughters into northwest Pakistan; and he has not indicated just how far he would go in a confrontation with Russia.  After all, reset buttons might inspire a respite of amnesia, but just how far back does he expect that button will take us?  To the Yeltsin days when Russia slept in every morning?  Or to the Cuban missile crisis, when no one slept at all?

The one thing that is clear is that Russia, Iran and Pakistan are at the center of nearly every obstacle we face abroad, and we lack the military, financial and political resources to address more than one of them at a time, if that.

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