David Broder has raised some eyebrows with his bizarre Washington Post column arguing "with strong Republican support in Congress for challenging Iran's ambition to become a nuclear power, [Obama] can spend much of 2011 and 2012 orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs. This will help him politically because the opposition party will be urging him on. And as tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve." It should only be surprising to those who haven't been paying attention, though. Leaving aside the truly odd ideas about the economy, Broder is actually offering a warmed over, mainstream version of the argument coined in August by former Bush Middle East adviser Elliott Abrams that "the Obama who had struck Iran and destroyed its nuclear program would be a far stronger candidate, and perhaps an unbeatable one." Since then, each time the argument pops up I've tagged it on Twitter with "this idea was stupid enough when Elliott Abrams wrote it in August."
Broder's column is an interesting study in how really dumb ideas bounce around Washington D.C. Fortunately, it's not an idea that seems to have any support at all in the Obama White House. Unlike Abrams (who it's fair to assume does not wish Obama well in November 2012) and Broder (who... well, it's anyone's guess), the Obama team can see perfectly clearly that the American people have no appetite for a third major war in the Middle East and that launching a war with massive strategic consequences for short-term political gain would be epically irresponsible. They find this argument ridiculous. Even if they were primarily interested in their electoral fortunes in designing Iran policy, they would quickly see that such an Abrams-approved stratagem would wipe out their support on the left and gain absolutely zero votes on the right.
Now, I'm very worried that Obama's Iran strategy will lock the U.S. into ever more hawkish rhetoric which ties their hands and paves the way to future military confrontations. I think that serious people disagree about the likely effectiveness of sanctions or of diplomacy, and that all are struggling to find meaningful off-ramps in the glide towards ever more stringent and militarized regional containment. I worry about a lot on Iran policy. But this isn't one of the things that I worry about. I don't think that anyone in the Obama White House takes remotely seriously the epically bad Abrams-Broder advice to pursue military showdown with Iran for political advantage. This may offer an intriguing window into how Abrams thought about foreign policy in the Bush White House, and a depressing case study in the circulation of ideas in Washington, but it tells us nothing at all about how the Obama administration is thinking about Iran.
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The heavy focus on al Qaeda in the new AfPak strategy could complicate America's broader strategy of strategic public engagement with the Muslim world. The politics of the focus make perfect domestic sense, as Obama -- quite effectively, in a disappointingly Bush-like way -- tried to recapture the mantle of the "good war" and to focus American public attention on 9/11. And to the extent that this represents a limiting of American objectives, then I'm all for it. But the heavy focus on al Qaeda risks rescuing it from the position of marginality in Arab and Muslim politics to which it has largely been relegated over the last year --- and could end up strengthening the strategic threat of violent extremism even if it weakens al Qaeda Central.
I am not talking here about the much-discussed point that al Qaeda does not seem to actually be present in any significant way in Afghanistan. The argument here rests on claims that the goal is to prevent al Qaeda from returning to Afghanistan and that al Qaeda is so deeply interwoven with the various Talibans as to make the distinction meaningless. Both arguments are problematic -– but since both have been discussed elsewhere at some length, I won't dwell on them.
I am more concerned with an issue more in the areas where I focus: the relationship between al Qaeda Central and the broader network of affiliated movements (AQAM, in the lingo) and like-minded individuals (which me might call AQN, the al Qaeda Network). A key part of the Obama administration's strategy has been a very successful reorientation of America's relationship with the Muslim world, downplaying al Qaeda and refusing to allow that extremist fringe to hijack or monopolize those vital relationships. But the new focus on al Qaeda in the AfPak strategy threatens to reverse that vital achievement ... and even to revive al Qaeda's flagging fortunes in the wider Muslim world.
In part, this refects a debate which has been raging for years over the importance of AQC to the wider network of salafi-jihadist groups and individuals. The Obama administration's Afghanistan strategy seems to have taken one side in that debate –- but whether that is because it is correct, or because it is useful to justify an Afghan military strategy chosen for other reasons, is hugely important.
For Bruce Hoffmann and other "Centralists," al Qaeda Central continues to play an extremely important role in guiding, shaping, arming, and directing the seemingly inchoate network of jihadists. They point to evidence of contacts between the perpetrators of well-known cases and AQC affiliated people in Pakistan or elsewhere. They point to the deluge of AQ propaganda still pouring out of al-Sahab and other jihadist media outlets. On the other side, Marc Sageman and other "bunch of guys" analysts see the threat as primarily one of a very loosely affiliated network of like-minded individuals and organizations who neither need nor want direction from AQC. If AQC was needed as a spark to light the fire, it is no longer needed to keep the fires burning or new fires from breaking out when local conditions come together.
In reality both approaches likely have some degree of merit. AQC does still exist, does put out its propaganda, does try to shape and guide the jihad. But individuals and local organizations carry out their own analysis and planning, explode into action for their own private reasons, seek out and network with other like-minded people without being told to do so. A healthy strategy pays attention to both dimensions.
Clearly, the Obama administration does not intend to ignore the other areas of concern -– countering violent extremism across the spectrum and around the world. But the AfPak strategy puts a tremendous amount of resources into one side of the equation -– al Qaeda Central. This could only be justified if it were the case that AQC is in fact vitally important to the survival and efficacy of the broader jihadist challenge (AQAM and/or the AQN). The case here remains fairly weak, though. Even granted that they try to make a difference, it seems likely that were bin Laden and Zawahiri to be killed or brought to justice -– inshallah –- it is unlikely that this would materially affect the ideologically motivated actions of the pockets of salafi-jihadist mobilization around the world.
And all other things are not equal. The AfPak escalation may well increase the pressure on AQC –- especially if the Pakistanis can be brought more fully on board. But at the same time, it may well galvanize and strengthen the affiliated movements and like-minded individuals around the world. Affiliated movements may benefit from personnel or resources leaving the Afghan theater or Pakistani safe havens, and strengthen the capabilities of insurgencies in Yemen, North Africa, Somalia, Iraq or elsewhere.
And to the extent that the escalation angers Arab and Muslim public opinion, it could create a point of entry into mainstream attitudes which al Qaeda has largely lacked in recent years. It could reinforce the growing notion that Obama is no different from Bush, that the U.S. is waging a war against Islam, that moderation does not pay. This would resonate dangerously with the breakdown of Obama's efforts to push Israel towards a settlement freeze (especially if the Israeli-Palestinian front collapses into violence comparable to the 2000 al-Aqsa Intifada) or if tensions with Iran spike into military confrontation.
It is therefore absolutely vital that the Obama administration coordinate its AfPak strategy with its wider Middle East foreign policy and with its efforts at strategic public engagement with Arab and Muslim audiences. It needs to be sharply attuned to signs suggesting that its escalation in Afghanistan is restoring the ability of al Qaeda to appeal to the generalized "resistance" discourse which retains great sway with Arab public opinion. If it doesn't do that, then even a successful campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan against AQC may end up actually strengthening the wider challenge of violent extremism which it is ostensibly meant to defeat.
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Peter Beinart today bravely repeats the emerging would-be conventional wisdom. Rather than simply denounce everything Republican, he argues, Democrats should admit that the "surge" worked and -- uniquely echoing a thousand recent op-eds -- was President Bush's finest moment. I have a hard time imagining anything as tedious as rehashing those tired debates from the campaign about the "surge" -- perhaps we could have another round of arguments as to whether the surge brigades arriving in the spring of 2007 caused the Sunni turn against al-Qaeda in the fall of 2006? But in the interests of post-partisanship, I am willing to offer an alternative as Bush's finest hour in Iraq: the Status of Forces Agreement.
Signing a Status of Forces Agreement requiring the full withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq on a fixed three year timeline demonstrated a real flexibility on Bush's part. It demonstrated a pragmatism and willingness to put the national interest ahead of partisanship that few of us believed he possessed. It is largely thanks to Bush's acceptance of his own bargaining failure that Barack Obama will inherit a plausible route to successful disengagement from Iraq.
Conservatives now like to claim the SOFA as a "Bush-negotiated" success. But Bush entered the SOFA negotiations looking for something entirely different than what emerged at the end. The U.S. went into the SOFA talks intent on obtaining legitimacy for a long-term military presence in Iraq once the Security Council mandate ended. When negotiations began, it was widely assumed that Bush would extract from the Iraqis an agreement which made the removal of U.S. troops entirely contingent upon American assessments of conditions on the ground. There were widespread discussions of permanent U.S. bases and a Korea-style presence for generations, an assumption that the U.S. would retain a free hand in its operations, and an absolute rejection of an Obama-style timeline for withdrawal.
But Iraqi leaders, to most everyone's surprise, took a hard line in the negotiations. Their tough line was encouraged by Iran, no doubt, as stressed by many frustrated American commentators. But it also reflected Iraqi domestic considerations, including several rounds of upcoming elections and an intensely strong popular Iraqi hostility to the U.S. occupation under any name. The Iraqis were also helped by the calender. As negotiations dragged on, the December 31 deadline loomed large, threatening to leave the U.S. troops without any legal mandate to remain in the country and forcing the hand of American negotiators. Finally, the Iraqi leaders clearly kept a careful eye on the American Presidential elections and used Obama's stance to strengthen their own hand in negotiations.
And here's where I will offer some sincere praise for Bush and his team. When the Iraqis insisted on an Obama-style timeline for U.S. withdrawal instead of a Bush/McCain- style conditions-based aspirational time frame for U.S. withdrawal, he could have insisted on the latter. This would have fit with his administration's often-repeated preferences. He could have continued to push for this conception closer to the December 31 deadline, playing high-stakes chicken at the expense of American military planning for the coming year and at the risk of the Iraqi political system not having adequate time to ratify the deal.
But he didn't. To his credit, Bush agreed to the Obama-style timeline for U.S. withdrawal. Granted, he hedged -- he didn't authorize Ambassador Ryan Crocker to sign off on the deal until after the Presidential election (on November 18). But at that point he bowed to the political realities in the U.S. and Iraq and agreed to a SOFA which far more closely matched Obama's avowed vision for Iraq -- withdrawal of U.S. forces in three years, no permanent bases -- than his own. Thanks to this pragmatism, Obama can now work closely with the Iraqi government in managing the drawdown instead of spending his first months in office trying to wriggle out of an unacceptable deal. And this, I might speculate, is among the reasons why Robert Gates will continue as Secretary of Defense.
And thus I offer Bush's willingness to sign the SOFA mandating U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and not the surge, as his finest moment in Iraq.
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John Bolton proposes in today's Washington Post giving up on Palestinian governance and a two-state solution, instead opting for a "three-state approach" in which "Gaza is returned to Egyptian control and the West Bank in some configuration reverts to Jordanian sovereignty."
If a zombie can be defined as a "reanimated corpse," then Bolton's proposal certainly fits the bill. This concept reappears like clockwork whenever there's an Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Some see it as a magic bullet to negate Palestinian nationalism or at least redirect Palestinian ire towards their new/old Arab rulers. Others just can't imagine the emergence of any Palestinian leadership they find acceptable (probably a safe bet) and prefer the predictable dictatorships to the East and South. Most recently, in October, Israeli Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Giora Eiland's Washington Institute for Near East Policy paper proposed a "trilateral" solution (more discussion here).
Variants on this idea pop up so routinely, in fact, that it might be more concerning if the dog didn't bark. So thanks to Bolton for that. But it's still a terrible idea. Leaving aside all the practical impediments, who wants it (other than Bolton and his pals)?
Bolton acknowledges that neither the Egyptians nor Jordanians are interested, but the opposition of foreigners has rarely been a problem for Bolton (or for neo-conservatives in general, whose misreading of the importance of foreign public opinion has always been one of the more deadly of their numerous Achilles heels). Bolton dismissively suggests that Egypt and Jordan can be persuaded with the offer of "financial and political support from the Arab League and the West." That rather understates the intense regime survival fears in both countries... and resonates rather too well with the popular Arab complaint that their governments prostitute themselves to the West.
Watching the walking dead can be fun in George Romero movies or in the Marvel Zombies comic books, but it's less amusing in the midst of a major regional crisis.. especially if it offers any kind of guide to the thinking of the Israeli leadership, the Likud opposition, or to the remnants of the Bush administration. The Jordan option, the Egypt-Gaza option, the "three-state solution" -- these are fantasies which have little to do with the real problems on the ground or feasible solutions to this intractable conflict. Can we just let this idea finally rest in its grave so that more serious options can be considered instead.. and perhaps even liberate some valuable Washington Post op-ed page real-estate?
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.