The next three weeks will be decisive. President Barack Obama, whose margin of victory came from voters who wanted no more of the seemingly endless wars initiated by the Bush Administration, will have to make major policy decisions in three areas that could well define his legacy as president and might even determine if he is to become a one term disappointment.
First and foremost is the Afghan war. General Stanley McChrystal, who presided over a neocon-heavy assessment of the war strategy, will ask for thousands more soldiers in a bid to roll back the Taliban and continue his policy of clear, hold, and build. That the policy has been ineffective during its first six months is being blamed on insufficient resources to carry it out, not on a failure to comprehend the nature of the enemy. If that sounds familiar, it is because it is the argument that generals always make when they are not successful. More soldiers didn’t work in Vietnam and were not the solution in Iraq where bribery of the insurgency proved more effective than victory on the battlefield. Plans to double the numbers of Afghan soldiers and police will not make the local people any more willing to fight and will eventually founder based on Kabul’s inability to pay and equip such a massive security apparatus. Or, alternatively, a dysfunctional rump government in Afghanistan will maintain a tenuous hold on power in Kabul as a semi-permanent ward of the United States and Europe.
If Obama gives McChrystal his soldiers he will be heading down the road to disaster. When reliably conservative columnist George Will calls for leaving Afghanistan , the writing is surely on the wall. Even Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen has conceded that the United States has effectively wasted more than seven years in Afghanistan and now has to start over, an assessment that is actually optimistic in that it presumes that there is a way to achieve success, whatever that means. Obama can read the tea leaves as well as anyone. Will he do an LBJ and, in the cowardly fashion of a politician placing party above country, support a war that he knows is lost or will he make the courageous and correct choice to speak candidly to the American people and admit that Afghanistan has been a failed US policy and that it is time to walk away? Or will he adopt a third way that is neither fish nor fowl, going with the status quo and supporting current troop levels and funding, even though he knows to do so is futile, in the hope that he will not be labeled as the president who "lost" Afghanistan?
And then there is Iran. Iran is facing a Washington-imposed deadline to enter into serious negotiations with the US and its European allies by the end of September "or else." Or else will mean a strict sanctions regime that will likely include a cut off of gasoline imports which will undeniably spark a reaction from Iran that could escalate. Escalation means eventual war as there is no way to back out of the trap of no dialogue combined with increasingly punitive steps to coerce compliance. Or, alternatively, Israel might feel encouraged by voices in the US Congress to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, as it has frequently threatened to do. Can anyone doubt that on the very next day every Congressman except Ron Paul would vote for a resolution supporting Israel and involving the US in a new war on its behalf? Again, Obama has a choice. He can contradict his vice president Joe Biden and House majority leader Steny Hoyer, who together have given a green light to Israel, and declare loudly and publicly that the United States opposes any attack on Iran by Tel Aviv and will not involve itself in any conflict Bibi Netanyahu initiates. He can further announce that he intends to build on Iran’s latest offer to discuss its nuclear energy program to enter into negotiations without any preconditions and without any time limits. He can do all that, but does he have the necessary courage? Far easier to demonize and penalize Iran while hoping that the whole situation doesn’t blow up. Far easier from a politician’s perspective to let Israel take the lead even if it means that the US will get drawn into a new war.
And finally there is the Israel-Palestine problem, which Obama pledged to work to solve. Six months of trying has produced nothing. If there is not a breakthrough soon three more years of creeping annexation by Israel is inevitable. Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has refused to submit to Obama’s demand that all settlement growth on the West Bank be halted as a precondition to renewing peace talks. In fact, Netanyahu has openly defied Obama by announcing last week that settlements under construction on the West Bank will be completed and there will be no limits on new construction in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu is able to defy Obama because he knows that he has the uncritical support of the US Congress and the media, even if the American public supports the president. When it comes to policy and Israel, the American public hardly counts in the reckoning.
Obama has to put teeth into his policy and he can do two things to force Netanyahu to change his mind. First, he could make very clear that continued US support of Israel is dependent on taking the hard steps that are necessary to implement a final peace settlement with the Palestinians and second, he could privately assure the Israeli leadership that failure to cooperate will have consequences. Obama could move to reduce the billions of dollars in direct and indirect US economic and military assistance, but that would be a risky move and he would run directly into strong congressional opposition. But he has other options. As Congress has given so much to Israel there are lots of places to cut. He could, for example, end the practice of giving Israel a block grant of all its assistance money at the beginning of the fiscal year and instead space it out as is done with other recipients. He could stop bilateral defense programs that develop weapons in Israel using US technology and funding. And he could also have the Justice and Treasury Departments look into the activities of the numerous tax exempt "charities" that in fact fund the expansion of settlements. He could force AIPAC to register as a foreign lobby, which would require it to open its books to US government scrutiny. What will Obama do? Like his predecessors he might decide that confronting Israel’s friends in Congress and the media is not worth the pain and opt to do nothing, but nevertheless the ball is in his court and he could appeal to the American people to force the issue and bring about real change.
So Obama will soon have the opportunity to make a clear break with the policies of the Bush White House. But will he? He has not pulled the plug on Iraq in spite of his pre-election promises and all signs indicate that he is a consensus politician who is not disposed to take risks. Nevertheless, the choice will be his in Afghanistan, with Iran, and in the Israel-Palestine conflict. He can walk away from an existing war and from starting a new one and he could also take the first step to disengage the United States from Israeli foreign policy and partisan involvement in the Middle East. It will take both nerve and commitment as well as an understanding that current policies are just not sustainable and do not work in America’s interest. If Obama does not opt for real change and moves to the dark side, we citizens who had hoped for better can have absolutely no positive expectations for the next three years.