Certain Uncertainties

November 6, 2008 Region: Americas

Certain Uncertainties

Obama talked a lot about his foreign-policy plan during the campaign. Now that he’s president-elect, will he stick to it?

Given the breadth of president-elect Barack Obama's appeal and political talent, the Democrats may have just found their Ronald Reagan. Just like the Gipper, Democrats will surely invoke Obama's name for decades to come to promote an array of policies-and candidacies. Indeed, much of the nation's jubilation is well deserved. After eight years of the Bush administration's misrule, government function and oversight seem to have collapsed across a broad spectrum and the country is in an appalling state of disrepair-from soft power to hard power and from hardware to economic health. Another four to eight years of continued war and brinkmanship-which could have been an outcome of a McCain administration-would have caused long-term, perhaps permanent, damage to the country.

But while there are a number of impressive known knowns about Obama, there are also some known unknowns and perhaps even unknown unknowns. On top of that, there are some discouraging known knowns.

One of those prominent known knowns, for example, was Obama's proposal to meet with Iran's leaders without preconditions. Obama was the only major candidate to do so during the campaign, and given Iran's current nuclear program. This decision required political bravery and bold judgment.

But a known unknown is how Obama can make any such discussion with the Iranians successful, given his publicly stated position to Iranian uranium enrichment. At a speech at AIPAC in March 2007, Obama said, "The world must work to stop Iran's uranium enrichment program and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons." While it is true that Obama may have left himself some latitude on the question of Iranian uranium enrichment in this and other comments on the matter, Iran's nuclear program is a matter of national pride. Even those Iranians who do not want their country to develop nuclear weapons and do are not fond of the clerical regime or the "elected" president support the program. Demanding a halt to Iranian uranium enrichment could be a non-starter and might not be politically viable for Tehran.

Some observers-including Dennis Ross, now a key adviser to Obama-have argued that even Iran's uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes would be unacceptable due to the ambiguity it presents. But given Iran's resurgent power in the region-due in very large part to the Iraq War-the global community should consider itself quite fortunate if it has only this ambiguity to reckon with. An Iranian nuclear program for the purpose of generating energy is admissible under the Nonproliferation Treaty and, if coupled with credible inspections, would probably not destabilize the region.

By proposing to meet with Iran's leaders without preconditions, Obama has implicitly recognized Tehran's strengthened hand. But in other comments, he appears to overestimate the sway that the United States and its allies have over the country. As he told AIPAC,

The United States' leverage is strengthened when we have many nations with us. It puts us in a place where sanctions could actually have a profound impact on Iran's economy. Iran is highly dependent on imports and foreign investment, credit and technology. And an environment where our allies see that these types of investments in Iran are not in the world's best interests, could help bring Iran to the table.

Certainly, sufficiently broad sanctions would have a profound impact on Iran. But given the cooperation that the United States needs from Iran with regard to Iraq under all circumstances-whether U.S. troops remain or are largely drawn down-Iran holds considerable leverage over the United States. And the United States and its allies are in almost dire need of the energy resources Iran provides to the global market, both in a recession-to keep oil prices down to facilitate a recovery-and during an uptick, when the energy supplies are in greater demand.

Another circumstantial problem with Obama's proposal is who he is to meet with. President Ahmadinejad has suffered serial political defeats and will more than likely lose the presidency in the country's next elections. If Obama were to meet with Ahmadinejad before then, he could unduly strengthen the Iranian president's standing. And at any rate, any Iranian president holds limited authority.

Further, the Bush administration could, in its waning days, still decide to take military action against Iran. This scenario may not seem likely, but it cannot be discounted. Such an occurrence would surely neutralize any reasonable Iran strategy.

With Iraq, there are too many unknown unknowns to contemplate. The pivotal element of Obama's Iraq plan is his stated intention to withdraw troops over an estimated sixteen-month timeframe. That proposal, along with his early public opposition to the Iraq War, was instrumental in Obama's primary victory. But he has imbued the plan with a number of known unknowns, such as the stipulation that a redeployment depends upon conditions on the ground and a pledge to keep a residual force (of unspecified size) in Iraq to counter al-Qaeda.

The known knowns of an Obama-facilitated Israeli-Palestinian peace accord do not augur well. An American president is not expected to be an alchemist, and if the political determination is not strong enough to create an accord, an Obama administration could not will it into existence. But most experienced observers concur that the international community would have to pressure both sides to accept the parameters of a deal.

Obama has already said, in the AIPAC speech, that he will not be assuming such a role. "But in the end, we also know that we should never seek to dictate what is best for the Israelis and their security interests. No Israeli prime minister should ever feel dragged to or blocked from the negotiating table by the United States."

 In addition, Obama's statements regarding Israel's ineffective strike against Lebanon in 2006 may indicate that he will not be providing Israel with clear-eyed assessments of its most important strategic actions. The Israeli public has reached its verdict on the wisdom of the campaign in Lebanon, and it is considerably more critical than Obama's analysis would suggest. That verdict was a factor in the collapse of confidence in outgoing prime minister Ehud Olmert's stewardship.

Obama said in the March speech that:

when Israel is attacked, we must stand up for Israel's legitimate right to defend itself. Last summer, Hezbollah attacked Israel. By using Lebanon as an outpost for terrorism, and innocent people as shields, Hezbollah has also engulfed that entire nation in violence and conflict, and threatened the fledgling movement for democracy there.

Such comments, coming from the leader of the world's only superpower, could even blunt the ability of the Israeli public to mobilize political accountability for such actions.

Regarding Russia's actions in its so-called near abroad-an issue that once seemed critically important in the campaign but has receded in the face of the ongoing financial crisis-Obama has given only part of the story. Indeed, his assessment of the Georgia-Russia conflict seems to echo his evaluation of the Israel-Lebanon conflict. Obama even seems to liken Russia to Iran, prescribing the same posturing to dealing with both. He advocates "tough, direct diplomacy that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and curb Russian aggression." It goes without saying that it is in the interest of the United States and its allies to prevent Russian military action. But it is also true that Georgia decided, probably recklessly, to attack a territory that had been seeking self-determination and that had strong cultural, historical and linguistic ties to Russia. Such statements by Obama could, again, undermine the efforts of the Georgian people to hold their president accountable for his misguided actions.

In addition, Obama's stated philosophy on the use of force may be more revealing and consequential than any of the previously mentioned statements. Obama has said he would "only send our troops into harm's way with a clear mission and a sacred commitment to give them the equipment they need in battle and the care and benefits they deserve when they come home." Requiring only a "clear mission" and adequate equipments seems a notably low threshold. In addition to a clear mission, Obama should have mentioned unmistakable, if not vital, national interests.

Finally, there is the war in Afghanistan, probably the most consequential venture for Obama abroad. Obama has made clear his intention to deploy more troops to the theatre. He has also said that he will attempt a multi-pronged effort to counter the Taliban and al-Qaeda, using development as a tool to woo the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal areas.

Given the errors that have been committed in Afghanistan, the military cannot be an effective tool for the time being. The terrain has become almost intolerably hostile and dangerous for U.S. and NATO forces. According to news reports, villagers and government officials are conspiring with militants to launch deadly surprise attacks on U.S. troops.

Against the admonitions of the former commander in Afghanistan, the United States is overreliant on air strikes. They have caused considerable civilian casualties and blowback.

Lt. Gen. David Barno, the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, said recently in an inteview with Gareth Porter: "I felt that civilian casualties were strategically decoupling us from our objective," adding "It caused blowback that undermined our cause." He also said he had seen the Afghan population's willingness to accept U.S. troops in the country as a "bag of capital," which US forces were "spending too rapidly every time we caused civilian casualties with air power or knocked down doors or detained someone in front of their family." Barno said that he had ordered a halt to airstrikes in early 2004, but he left his post in Afghanistan in mid-2005.