Monday, November 10, 2008

Why I Wouldn't Be Secretary of State for A Kajillion Dollars

Here's a prediction: The Obama Administration is about to be profoundly unhappy with foreign policy options in some key areas: Iraq, Afghanistan and Russia.

Over and over again in the campaign we heard that Obama was going to shift emphasis to Afghanistan and bring down our troop levels in Iraq, removing most of them within 16 months. If the current government doesn't fill the ensuing power vacuum in the region (unlikely), the Iranians will.

More Iranian influence in Iraq -- which has 500 miles of border with Saudi Arabia -- would be bad news for the Saudis, who seem to ocillate between cordially disliking and frankly despising the Iranians. The Saudis, after all, backed Iraq in the long war with Iran and nobody forgets anything in that neighborhood. Obama can expect to hear from the Saudis if they feel threatened by the Iranians.

The same goes double for the Israelis.

The Iranians are developing nukes with unwholesome glee, apparently unconcerned by world opinion. Their Shahab-3 missiles can hit any point in Israel, and statements by Iranian president Ahmadinejad that Israel is a 'rotting corpse' and that Israel should be wiped off the map aren't particularly reassuring to the government in Jerusalem. Also worried by expansion to Iranian power: the Turks, Kurds and Jordanians.

If Obama wants to pull out of Iraq without putting together some kind of curb on Iranian ambitions, he will hear loud complaining from these countries and their surrogates in Congress, and will take a thumping from his domestic political opponents (and me) who cannot wait for him to screw up.

But what will he offer the Iranians that will convince them to leave Iraq and Israel alone and stop pursuing nuclear weapons? I have no idea, and am very happy that its not my job to figure it out.

Ideally, Obama will bungle the entire business and be savaged by the GOP for negotiating with the Iranians, and the Democrats will howl in dismay as the promised 16-month timeline goes out the window.

Afghanistan: Obama told us "Elect me, and I'll fight the global war on terror in Afghanistan, not Iraq." I want to point out that this is a shift in operational priority, not a change in strategy from the Bush Administration -- in case anyone was paying attention.

Obama wants to work with the Europeans and build more of a multinational force (ie. not just redeploy troops from Iraq to Afghanistan) with the laudable goals of stabilizing Afghanistan and defeating the Taliban. The last foreign power to win a war in Afghanistan was, I believe, Alexander the Great. So if Obama manages it, he'll be in excellent company. One estimate says the US and NATO will need 150,000 troops and 500,000 Afghan soldiers and police to pull it off.

Good luck. Obama's European allies are not all that keen on sending that many troops to Afghanistan. The Brits have already announced that any troops they pull out of Iraq are not going to Afghanistan, and as the finiancial crisis hits Europe, you can bet that the Spanish, Italians, French, Germans etc. will not be signing up for expensive foreign deployments.

And even if they did, their troops lack experience in counter-insurgency missions.

So where does that leave Obama? Keeping our troop levels the same leaves figthing the same inconclusive war. Increasing the forces to the levels that will make a difference looks politically impossible. What's left? Negotiating with the rather uncooperative Taliban, guaranteed to expose the administration to attacks from the right.

The US sees NATO as a defensive alliance and has no problem with Eastern European countries wanting to join. Moscow sees NATO as a hostile, anti-Russian organization.

Complicating the issue even further are the views of the Eastern Europeans themselves. Contries like Poland, Estonia and Lavtia can point to centuries of abuse from Russian and Soviet regimes and are tickled pink to join NATO, which they see as a hostile anti-Russian club.

Recently the Russians are taking it more personally. I noted the Kremlin's deployment of short range missiles to Kaliningrad -- potentially countering US Patriot missiles deploying to Poland. The Russians -- seige complex firmly in place -- are staking out a border region of friendly or neutral states to ensure the safety of the Rodina.

Obama, although he's been economical with the details, opposes Russian expansion. And even if he didn't, he's going to look like a wimp if he lets Moscow throw its weight around. But if he wants support from Germany he's dreaming. The Germans are heavily dependant on Russia for natural gas, and have no desire to end up in the middle of a renewed cold war between Russia and the West. Britan and France refuse to send large forces to Afghanistan. There is almost no plausible scenario in which they pledge their armies to counter an aggressive Russia.

Which again leaves Obama where? A short trip up shit creek in a barbed-wire canoe.


TN said...

Alexander was the last foreign power to defeat Afghanistan. It was the last geographical area to fall to him in his conquest of Asia Minor and Major.

The only way he defeated the Afghan warlords was through a scorched earth policy and what we'd call genocide today, he swept across the country and killed every man woman and child in his path.

Then, after that, he had to leave 1/5 of his standing army (100,000s + of greek soldiers and other conscripts) as an occupying force to routinely quell insurrection and brutalize civilians who would be inclined to become insurgents. I don't think the national temprament has changed all that much. No way they will like, accept or truck with anything American.

I agree with you, glad its not my job to figure this one out. However, occupying Afghanistan with conventional forces might not be the answer. Maybe operating via covert and clandestine and getting some land on the Pakistani border as access points to Afghanistan might be a more favorable answer and better for America. Take the obvious target off our backs.


MeatAxe said...

Yes. The goal of the "war on terror" is to kill, capture or otherwise neutralize terrorists, not to occupy Afghanistan with a large and expensive force of US and NATO troops.

It may be that at a policy level we are confusing the execution with the goal.

If we can find some other way to do it, that would be fine with me.

As you say, we don't want to adhere slavishly to Alexander's approach.

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