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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Foreign policy: reasons to be cheerful?

Alex says: Well, that’s probably pushing it. Obama’s announcement that he is sending nearly fifty percent more troops to Afghanistan could easily go either way. We might, in a few years, have pictures of US troop withdrawals that mirror these memorable images of the Red Army retreating from the same hills. Critics, especially on the left, are worrying that this might turn into a gruelling counterinsurgency and make Iraq seem lightweight. More than a couple of times in the past week, news reports have made reference to the dreaded ‘J word’: implying that Obama’s domestic reform agenda might get bogged down by a divisive and costly war on the other side of the planet, just as Johnson’s Great Society was destroyed by Vietnam. This is particularly worrying as the centrality of a surge in Afghanistan to Obama’s foreign policy credentials means that a lot of presidential credibility is on the line.

But whilst the region is undoubtedly still hanging in the balance, I think this kind of prediction is too precipitous. Indeed, in the Mid East and Central/South Asia region there are actually a few reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the future, reasons which should be set alongside any reasonable concerns about the region:

1. No, I don’t think a surge will work in Afghanistan. But it didn’t work in Iraq, either. At least not alone. The success of the Iraq surge was contingent upon a political shift amongst the US generals towards negotiating with militant groups who were strongly religious, nationalist and anti-American, but not necessarily supportive of al-Qaeda. There’s no reason to suppose that similar strategic realignments are impossible in Afghanistan, either. Probably the best we can hope for is pinning back the recidivist insurgency to Helmand province and bumping up spending on the rest of the country – not so much to ‘reconstruct’ Afghanistan as to construct a nation that wasn’t there in the first place. If this produces jobs and material benefits for Afghanis, and especially if it is channelled through institutions which empower local elites and reduce the foreign presence in safer regions, there’s no reason to suppose it won’t have a degree of success. It’s not perfect, it certainly doesn’t meet the absurd expectations raised in the Bush era, but perhaps constructing a functioning Afghani central state and limiting the insurgency to a single region may turn out to be enough to reduce the feasibility of international terrorist attacks.

2. Raising the troop numbers must give a better chance of disrupting uncontrolled Pakistan-Afghan movements. This may help to undermine the insurgency in Afghanistan. But, more importantly, it may provide a breathing space for the Pakistani government to try and get out of the terrible fix it’s in at the moment. History suggests that taming borderlands is a notoriously fruitless enterprise. If the goal is of a genuinely secure border, think again (if the border from the United States to Mexico can’t be managed, what hope would one have for this one?) 100 percent success is an unrealistic expectation, then, but some progress is better than nothing.

3. News today that Egypt has released long-time dissident Ayman Nour. The subtext of this story is clear: real US pressure towards democratic opening can have an impact, as long as the president has real power. So this can be chalked up as another thing that the Obama administration has achieved in a month that the Bush administration failed to achieve in eight years. Liberalisation in Egypt is likely to produce some brown trousers times in the near term, as there is clearly a great deal of frustration from below that has been boiling for decades, and it will be important to manage any process of opening very carefully. (Witness Iran in 1979.) But in the long term, it has to be welcomed as a positive development in the region. More than that, it's unavoidable - and later rather than sooner just means more dangerous for everyone.

4. The fact that Netanyahu is winning in Israel doesn’t necessarily seem to be great news (at least to me). But the truth is that he will have a stronger mandate for meaningful negotiations than Olmert, whose politics was entirely driven by aggressive attempts (in Lebanon and Gaza) to assert his nationalist credentials to a suspicious public against just this kind of challenge from the right. If the US can ever get the Israelis and Palestinians to the table, they will only be able to secure a deal that their leaders can get accepted at home. That was the unbridgeable gap with Ehud Barak. So things here lie in the balance: a wider war arguably as likely as a meaningful breakthrough. But in a certain sense, at least a hard-line victory will let the US be able to talk to people who really matter.

5. Meanwhile, President Assad is making extremely unsubtle noises about a positive response from Syria to any potential overtures from the Obama administration. The path to Hamas and Hizbollah lies through Damascus and Tehran, and the great chance for a major strategic realignment in the region will come with an overture there that parallels Nixon’s visit to China. Who knows, perhaps even Ahmadinejad might lose the forthcoming elections in Iran? With stronger ties on the Arab / Persian side, then, Obama would have a greater ability to offer security reassurances to the Israelis. This in turn would allow him to make more demands from them in terms of territorial concessions. It’s very hard to see any possibility for progress given the horror of Gaza earlier this year. But perhaps in time we might see Gaza not as the beginning of a terrible era in the region's history, but the end of a failed phase in US and Israeli military strategy.

Don’t get me wrong: the Middle East remains arguably the most dangerous part of the world. There are a hundred ways things could go wrong. Iraq remains a concern of the first order (especially if, as is a possibility, the process of strengthening the military against the insurgents raises the possibility of a coup from that direction). Saudi Arabia is in an intractable bind, since a liberal path here will likely produce a collapse in a regime that has virtually no legitimacy beyond the sword. The Persian Gulf region is likely to be hit badly by the collapsing world economy. But all that said, there are opportunities here for constructive action if the Obama administration acts judiciously.

Alex Goodall
Papamoka’s European Contributor
From A Swift Blow to the Head

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Blogger B.J. said...

Thanks, Alex, for such a good analysis.

Afghanis have lived with war and warring factions for so long I’m not sure they have any idea what a peaceful existence means – certainly not in the sense that you and I do. U.S.-led forces there have suffered only one-fourth the fatalies of those in Iraq, which seems to me to indicate less insurgency strength. The uptick in civilian casualties is forcing more attention on our “other war,” yet with one-third of such deaths caused by government or U.S.-led forces, this is not a measure of insurgency.

A great deal can be learned about the factions in the country in George Crile’s “Charlie Wilson’s War.”

You make a good point that these people must be given opportunites to make a living. Far too long, poppies have been the economic manstary.

Finally, since U.S. policy in the region hinges on the welfare of Israel,, a Netanyahu win there, especially with concessions to the far-right, anti-Arab Avigdor Lieberman, is not, in my opinion, a good omen for future peace. (See my post of 2/16/09, “High drama in Israeli affairs.”)


8:59 AM  

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