Last Monday, Obama launched his “reach-out” to the Islamic world with a televised interview, his first with any channel, with Al Arabiya. Two envoys, George Mitchell for the Middle East and Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan and Pakistan, have been appointed; Mitchell is already in the region searching for diplomatic settlements. All of this has occurred even as the Administration was pushing for approval of its economic stimulus package and engaging in fierce inter-agency debates over Iraq and Afghanistan.
The media, rightly but ritually, hailed Obama's symbolic renunciation of his predecessor George W. Bush. Much more substantial was this Administration's attention to methods. The American global image would not be projected and its position assured, as in the Dubya years, through military strength; instead, the US would lsucceed through a recognition of and adherence to international cooperation, a projection of tolerance, and a desire to listen. While the term “smart power”, developed over the last two years in anticipation of this Administration, is already in danger of overuse, it is the right expression for the Obama approach.
Yet, even in Obama's more than symbolic announcement, there were seeds of trouble for that “smart power”. The President had hoped to order the immediate, or at least the near-future, shutdown of Camp X-Ray, but he was stymied by political opposition as well as legal complications. The interview with Al Arabiya was a substitute for Obama's hope of a major foreign policy speech in an Arab capital in the first weeks of his Administrat. The Holbrooke appointment was modified when New Delhi made clear it would not receive a “Pakistan-India” envoy; Mitchell's scope for success has already been constrained by the background of Gaza.
Little of this was within Obama's power to rectify; it would have been Messianic indeed if he could have prevailed immediately, given the domestic and international context. The President may have received a quick lesson, however, in the bureaucratic challenges that face even the most determined and persuasive leader.
Already some officials in the Pentagon have tried to block Obama initiatives. They tried to spun against the plan to close Guantanamo Bay, before and after the Inauguration, with the claims that released detainees had returned to Al Qa'eda and terrorism. That attempt was undermined by the shallowness of the claims, which were only substantiated in two cases, and the unexpected offense that it caused Saudi Arabia, who felt that its programme for rehabilitation of former insurgents had been insulted. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates finally and firmed quashed the mini-coup by declaring on Wednesday that he fully supported Obama's plans.
On other key issues, however, the President faces tougher, higher-ranking, and more persistent opposition. Within a day of Obama's first meeting on Iraq, Pentagon sources were letting the media know their doubts on a 16-month timetable for withdrawal. And, after this Wednesday's meeting, General Raymond Odierno, in charge of US forces in Iraq, publicly warned against a quick transition to the Iraqi military and security forces. This not-too-subtle rebuke of the President has been backed by the outgoing US Ambassador in Iraq, Ryan Crocker, and I suspect by the key military figure, head of US Central Command General David Petraeus.
The future US strategy in Afghanistan also appears to be caught up in a battle within the Administration, with a lack of resolution on the increase in the American military presence (much,much more on that in a moment). And even on Iran, where Obama appears to be making a overture on engagement with Tehran, it's not clear that he will get backing for a near-future initiatives. White House officials leaked Obama's draft letter to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a British newspaper, but State Department officials added that such a letter would not be sent until a “full review” of the US strategy with Iran had been completed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Still, all of these might be minor irritants, given the impact both of Obama's symbolic steps and of other quieter but important steps. For example, after the outright Bush Administration hostility to any Latin American Government that did not have the proper economic or political stance, Obama's State Department immediately recognised the victory of President Evo Morales in a referendum on the Bolivian constitution, and there are signs that the President will soon be engaging with Havana's leaders with a view to opening up a US-Cuban relationship. In Europe, Obama's phone call with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev was quickly followed by Moscow's announcement that, in return for a more productive US stance on missile defence (i.e., Washington wasn't going to roll out the system in Eastern Europe), Russia would not deploy missiles on the Polish border. There are even signals of an advance in the Middle East through a new US-Syrian relationship, although this is probably contingent on some recogntion or acceptance of Hamas by Washington.
So why am I even more concerned about the Obama foreign-policy path than I was a week ago, when I wrote of my conflicted reaction to the Inauguration? Let me introduce to the two elephants in this room, one which he inherited and one which he seems to have purchased.
Unless there is an unexpected outcome from George Mitchell's tour of the Middle East, Obama's goodwill toward the Arab and Islamic worlds could quickly dissipate over Gaza. The military conflict may be over, but the bitterness over the deaths of more than 1300 Gazans, most of them civilians, is not going away. And because President-elect Obama said next-to-nothing while the Israeli attack was ongoing, the burden of expectation upon President Obama to do something beyond an Al Arabiya interview is even greater.
Whether the Bush Administration directly supported Israel's attempt to overthrow Hamas and put the Palestinian Authority in Gaza or whether it was drawn along by Tel Aviv's initiative, the cold political reality is that this failed. Indeed, the operation --- again in political, not military, terms --- backfired. Hamas' position has been strengthened, while the Palestinian Authority now looks weak and may even be in trouble in its base of the West Bank.
And there are wider re-configurations. Egypt, which supported the Israeli attempt, is now having to recover some modicum of authority in the Arab world while Syria, which openly supported Hamas, has been bolstered. (Those getting into detail may note not only the emerging alliance between Damascus, Turkey, and Iran but also that Syria has sent an Ambassador to Beirut, effectively signalling a new Syrian-Lebanese relationship.)
Put bluntly, the Obama Administration --- with its belated approach to Gaza and its consequences --- is entering a situation which it does not control and, indeed, which it cannot lead. The US Government may pretend that it can pursue a political and diplomatic resolution by talking to only two of the three central actors, working with Israel and the Palestinian Authority but not Hamas, but that is no longer an approach recognised by most in the region and beyond. (In a separate post later today, I'll note a signal that even Washington's European allies are bowing to the existence of Hamas.)
The Israel-Palestine-Gaza situation is not my foremost concern, however. As significant, in symbolic and political terms, as that conflict might be for Washington's position in the Middle East and beyond, it will be a sideshow if the President and his advisors march towards disaster in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
On Wednesday, the New York Times had the red-flag story. White House staffers leaked the essence of the Obama plan: increase US troop levels in Afghanistan, leave nation-building to “the Europeans”, and drop Afghan President Hamid Karzai if he had any objections. On the same day, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told Congressional committees that the US would continue its bombing of targets in northwest Pakistan. (Not a surprise, since the first strikes of the Obama era had already taken place , killing 19 people, most of them civilians.)
So much for “smart power”. Leave aside, for the moment, that the rationale for the approach to Afghanistan --- Gates saying that the US had to defeat “Al Qa'eda” --- is either a diversion or a flight for reality, since the major challenge in the country (and indeed in Pakistan) is from local insurgents. Consider the consequences.
What happens to Obama's symbolic goodwill in not only the Islamic world but worlds beyond when an increase in US forces and US operations leads to an increase in civilian deaths, when America walks away from economic and social projects as it concentrates on the projection of force, when there are more detainees pushed into Camp Bagram (which already has more than twice as many “residents” and worse conditions than Guantanamo Bay)? What happens to “smart power” when Obama's pledge to listen and grasp the unclenched fist is replaced with a far more forceful, clenched American fist? And what has happened to supposed US respect for freedom and democracy when Washington not only carries out unilateral operations in Pakistan but threatens to topple an Afghan leader who it put into power in 2001/2?
This approach towards Afghanistan/Pakistan will crack even the bedrock of US-European relations. In Britain, America's closest ally in this venture, politicians, diplomats, and military commanders are close-to-openly horrified at the US takeover and direction of this Afghan strategy and at the consequences in Pakistan of the US bombings and missile strikes. Put bluntly, “Europe” isn't going to step up to nation-build throughout Afghanistan as a mere support for American's military-first strategy. And when it doesn't, Obama and advisors will have a choice: will they then criticise European allies to the point of risking NATO --- at least in “out-of-area” operations --- or will it accept a limit to their actions?
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the lack of agreement in the Obama Administration so far on a defined number of US troops means the President might not be in accord with the approach unveiled in the New York Times. Maybe the Administration will pursue an integrated political strategy, talking to groups inside Afghanistan (and, yes, that includes “moderate Taliban”) and to other countries with influence, such as Iran. Or maybe it won't do any of this, but Afghanistan won't be a disaster, or at least a symbolic disaster --- as with Iraq from 2003 --- spilling over into all areas of US foreign policy.
Sitting here amidst the grey rain of Dublin and the morning-after recognition that “expert thought” in the US, whatever that means, doesn't see the dangers in Afghanistan and Pakistan that I've laid out, I desperately hope to be wrong.
Because, if the world was made in six days, parts of it can be unmade in the next six months.