Obama Fighting on all Fronts

Tuesday evening’s prime-time television address marking the withdrawal of all US “combat” troops from Iraq, as well as the following day’s formal launch here of direct talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, will be hailed by the administration as key advances in restoring some stability to the world’s most volatile region.

But, as Obama himself will admit, the country remains deeply mired in Middle East conflicts – from the eastern Mediterranean to flood-ravaged Pakistan. The long-sought light at the end of the tunnel remains at most a very distant glimmer.

Indeed, the fact that Washington remains bogged down in Middle East and South Asia quagmires is becoming increasingly frustrating to many in the administration and within the larger foreign-policy establishment.

They believe Washington needs to focus much more on China, with which relations have in recent months become distinctly more fractious over a number of issues – ranging from its chronic bilateral trade surplus, to US arms sales to Taiwan to its more assertive territorial claims and ambitions in nearby waters.

As Financial Times writer Geoff Dyer wrote recently, “Over the last decade or so, China has stolen a march on the US in Asia. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq proved to be a strategic gift for Beijing.”

The fact that Washington has reduced its troop deployment in Iraq from a high of 165,000 a couple of years ago to the 50,000 who remain today will not only permit Obama to claim compliance with a key campaign promise, but, more importantly, to also relieve pressure on what virtually all analysts agree is a military force that was badly “overstretched” during the “war on terror.”

If all goes according to plan, the remaining troops will be withdrawn over the next 17 months, although most experts believe Baghdad, depending on the composition of the government and the its army’s effectiveness and confidence, will likely request some continued US military presence – in a training capacity at least – for some years after.

That assumes, however, that all will go according to plan. The fact that the Iraqis have so far been unable to put together a government more than five months after national elections – the focus of a sudden trip by Vice President Joseph Biden to Baghdad on Monday – has stoked fears that the “national reconciliation” that was supposed to be achieved by General David Petraeus’ vaunted “surge” tactics in 2007 and 2008 has in fact not taken place, and that both ethnic and sectarian tensions that brought the country to the bring of all-out civil war remain to be resolved.

United States military officials, who note that the remaining troops will still be prepared to engage in combat operations if requested by the Iraqis, are themselves warning that violence is likely to increase. In just the past week al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia pulled off more than a dozen coordinated attacks across the country, killing more than 50 people.

The group also now appears to have launched an intensive recruitment drive among increasingly disaffected Sunni “Awakening” groups that played a key role in ensuring the yet-to-be-fully-tested “success” of Petraeus’ surge, according to a recent account in Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

“Extensive research on inter-communal civil wars – wars like Iraq’s – finds a dangerous propensity toward recidivism,” warned Kenneth Pollack, an expert and former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst who supported the 2003 invasion in the Washington Post last week. “[T]he fear, anger, greed and desire for revenge that helped propel Iraq into civil war in the first place remain just beneath the surface.”

If those forces gain momentum, and the Iraqi security forces fail to restrain them, Obama will be confronted with very difficult – and politically costly – options: to delay the withdrawal and risk becoming mired in renewed civil conflict; or to continue disengagement and risk “losing” Iraq, as Republicans will almost surely charge.

With respect to the other major Middle East-related event this week – the commencement of direct talks between Netanyahu and Abbas aimed at reaching agreement within one year – skepticism about its prospects is running significantly higher than hope.

Obama, backed by both Biden and Petraeus among others in administration and the military, has long believed that any tangible progress in making peace between Israel and the Palestinians will pay dividends in overcoming the immense damage inflicted by George W Bush’s “war on terror” on Washington’s overall strategic position – especially vis-a-vis Iran and its regional allies – throughout the Arab world and beyond.

Even Bush appeared to embrace that conclusion in the last year of his term when he launched his Annapolis conference in 2007 that brought Abbas together with then-prime minister Ehud Olmert and a host of Arab and European leaders who set as a deadline for agreement on a two-state solution at the end of Bush’s term in January 2009.

The initiative, however, was derailed as a result of the political weakness of both Abbas and Olmert, the three-week Gaza war, and the efforts of neo-conservative spoilers in the White House to sabotage the talks.

While neo-conservatives have been expelled from the executive branch, most analysts believe the situation for progress today is no more ripe for major progress than two years ago.

Abbas remains as weak as ever; Netanyahu, whose politics and government are significantly more rightwing than Olmert’s, has ruled out a number of solutions – such as dividing Jerusalem – that are seen as minimal conditions for the agreement of Palestinians and key Arab states which, other than major US aid recipients Egypt and Jordan, are avoiding this week’s summit.

Finally, the administration seems, at least until after the mid-term elections in November, unwilling to aggressively press its own “bridging proposals”, let alone a comprehensive peace plan.

The most realistic hope is that Netanyahu will quietly agree to maintain a 10-month moratorium on new settlement construction on the West Bank beyond its September 26 expiration date and restrain new building in East Jerusalem in order to keep the talks alive.

But that alone falls far short of the kind of breakthrough needed to substantially improve Washington’s strategic position in the region as desired by the administration and the Pentagon. Indeed, some commentators are dismissing the new round of talks as “deja vu”.

Meanwhile, the situation in Afghanistan – where Washington will soon have a record 100,000 troops deployed – does not appear to have improved, as the Taliban spreads its forces into regions previously considered secure, and new reports of corruption by the government of President Hamid Karzai surface virtually daily.

And the massive flooding in nuclear-armed Pakistan, which has displaced more than 20 million people and is believed to have caused at least US$7 billion in damages to infrastructure and agriculture – more than Washington had planned to provide the country in aid over the next five years – has dashed whatever US hopes remained that its army would focus on counter-insurgency operations along the Afghan border, particularly in the North Waziristan tribal area.

If anything, according to reports from the region, the Taliban on both sides of the frontier are likely to emerge stronger from Pakistan’s worst-ever natural disaster.

Jim Lobe’s blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.