Either way, we’ll be leaving. Thanksgiving week was remarkable because it may have witnessed the last nails being driven into the coffin of America’s ongoing colonial enterprise. On Tuesday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai angrily denounced the creation of a parallel carpetbagger government to be run by the United States and NATO in his country. He demanded a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign soldiers, noting that his countrymen no longer understand what the fighting is all about, particularly as they hear of wedding parties and school outings being blasted by the helicopters and warplanes of their ostensible allies. Karzai asked rhetorically how the insurgency can keep getting stronger when most of the world is united in an attempt to defeat it, and he reiterated his intention to negotiate with the Taliban leaders to bring peace.
On Thanksgiving Day itself, by a narrow margin, the Iraqi parliament voted for a new status of forces agreement (SOFA) with the United States that will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2009. The neoconservatives have predictably declared that the SOFA represents victory, even though they have not read the document itself, which no one outside of the administration has seen in its English version. Leaks of the Arabic version and the horse-trading that preceded the ratification suggest that the final agreement was something less than a triumph for the Bush White House. Thousands of Iraqis demonstrated against a continued American presence, and there was virtually no interest in permitting either the open-ended U.S. military commitment or the immunity for American forces Washington demanded. U.S. forces reportedly can no longer detain Iraqi citizens, and both soldiers and contractors will be subject to Iraqi courts for serious crimes. American troops will be gone from Iraq’s cities by June 2009 and completely gone from the country by the end of 2011. The four major military bases envisioned to maintain a long-term American presence will never materialize, and the huge embassy on the banks of the Tigris will serve more as a mausoleum to American ambitions than as a seat of power for a U.S. viceroy.
Intelligence sources are also gloomy in their predictions, with some assessments indicating that deeply rooted antipathy toward the U.S. presence could drive American forces out of Iraq sooner rather than later, the SOFA notwithstanding. Iraq will eventually find its own way forward, though probably with much blood and suffering, but if there is one thing for sure it is that the United States will in all likelihood be neither a friend nor an ally to whatever type of government emerges. Dislike of Washington runs deep in all the political groups that make up the country, with the exception of the Kurds, who are seeking to leverage American support into their own independence, an objective strongly resisted by both Sunni and Shi’ite Arabs. Likewise in Afghanistan the United States will almost certainly be eventually viewed as just one more in a long series of invaders, all of whom were eventually defeated and left the country.
That the Afghans are demanding a timetable for Washington to leave and that the Iraqis have already set a deadline is remarkable, and it speaks to the declining role and possible irrelevance of the United States to what is going on in the Near East. If the United States has retained a shred of decency, then it will hopefully be willing to go when it is asked to do so. Apart from shoring up the unpopular regimes in place in both Afghanistan and Iraq to permit some sort of political settlement, Washington is no longer the essential nation in a region that it had set out to dominate by force of arms seven years ago. In a regional context, the removal of Saddam Hussein coupled with a blundering occupation and a failed reconstruction in both Iraq and Afghanistan has reinvigorated the terrorist threat and has empowered only Iran.
So what does the turn of events in Iraq and Afghanistan mean vis-à-vis Barack Obama’s foreign policy? Obama is only a "peace" candidate in relative terms, having committed himself to negotiating before he bombs. He has said that he will stay in Iraq as long as the generals recommend it, and he has not explicitly disowned the current U.S. policies of preemptive warfare and nation-building. He appears willing to consider regime change if it is applied selectively. Ever resolute in his AIPAC-fueled pledge to stop the Iranian nuclear program, he has also supported intervention in new regions like Darfur where the United States has no conceivable national interest. He has even out-Republicaned the Republicans in his pledge to use U.S. troops to aggressively pursue terrorists inside nuclear-armed Pakistan, an act of war that would further destabilize that unhappy land.
Wanting to draw down in Iraq and increase troop strength in Afghanistan, Obama is embracing taking one failed policy and transferring it somewhere else in hopes that it will succeed. He is also ignoring sage advice. The British and French have already indicated that the Afghan conflict cannot be won in any conventional sense, making the NATO commitment to the war questionable, to say the least. Even Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has stated that the United States cannot kill its way to victory in Afghanistan, indicating somewhat obliquely that he does not believe any surge in troop levels will provide a long-term solution.
The fact is that Barack Obama’s foreign policy is just Bush-lite: it embraces the principle that the judicious use of force is a good thing and that Washington should properly be the world’s policeman. Many Democratic stalwarts, including party leaders Steny Hoyer, Joe Biden, and Nancy Pelosi, are at heart interventionists. Obama’s foreign policy team is troubling, most particularly in the choice of Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff and of Hillary "Obliterate Iran" Clinton as his secretary of state. There has been some speculation that Obama is preempting criticism by AIPAC in naming two of the most pro-Israeli hawks in Congress to key positions, providing him with the political cover that he needs to pursue a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. The analogy of Nixon going to China is sometimes cited, suggesting that only someone with a sustained record of criticism of an adversary would have the political credibility to take the bold steps necessary to shift the political playing field. But that analysis ignores a critical element, which is that changing China policy did not lead to confrontation with a major domestic constituency seeking to block any agreement. AIPAC would oppose giving anything to the Palestinians at the expense of Israel, and it has demonstrated that it has a de facto veto over Washington’s Middle East policy. Can anyone truly believe that Hillary Clinton will take a hard line with Israel, demanding that Tel Aviv stop and even roll back its settlement activity? Without such a bold step, no viable peace agreement is possible.
The other Obama foreign policy hypothesis, that Hillary Clinton will serve as a dutiful and obedient secretary of state carrying out the president’s policies reliably and without demur, is also little more than speculation. On the contrary, Clinton’s history and her thinly veiled ambitions would suggest the opposite, and her husband, a perpetual loose cannon on deck, also cannot be relied upon to be a team player. It is much more likely that Obama, recognizing that he is vulnerable on foreign policy and knowing that he will be watched closely, has decided to pursue a foreign policy that both AIPAC and Hillary will be comfortable with, which means that the Palestinians can kiss the next four years good-bye and Iran better look to its defenses.
Or maybe Obama, an intelligent man who appears to have a conscience, will quickly discover that Washington no longer has the resources to intervene by force when and where it chooses. The United States might find itself compelled to bring home the regiments and aircraft carriers as the burden of empire becomes insupportable, as in Rudyard Kipling’s poem "Recessional" predicting the end of the British Empire: "Lo, all our pomp of yesterday is one with Nineveh and Tyre." Iraq and Afghanistan both want the United States to leave, but on their timetable. Perhaps it would be appropriate to move that timetable up in America’s own national interest and leave now before Washington truly becomes Nineveh on the Potomac.