America’s national dialogue has been focused on the clash and change in Washington. Meanwhile, on non-metaphorical battlefronts half a world away, ominous events have commanded minimal public attention. Obama’s presidency, succeeding at home, could still be undone abroad. Baghdad and Kabul, having made a mockery of the Bush administration’s grandiose designs, now threaten to fall short of this administration’s far more modest objectives, leaving the president facing challenges far tougher than tangling with Washington’s Party of No.
George W. Bush promised to bring democracy to Iraq. Unfortunately, what was installed was a Rovian mutation of it, where the courts are being manipulated to steal an election. Iraq’s March balloting was supposed to set the stage for a withdrawal of tens of thousands of U.S. troops. Instead Iraq is now engaged in a political war that could flare into full-fledged violence. After an election certified by U.S. and international observers as fair, a quasi-kangaroo court has ordered up a selective recount designed to benefit the incumbent Shiite-dominated, Iran-cozy government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The court has also disqualified candidates from the winning slate on grounds that they were too close to the Ba’ath Party of Saddam Hussein. The real offense of al-Maliki’s rival, Ayad Allawi, was to run a winning campaign with a slate that spanned the nation’s division between Shia and Sunni.
Bush critics like New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman have held out hope against hope that Iraq’s democracy could become a model, even if imperfect, that would reshape the governance of the Middle East. Instead, it may be nothing more than a gloss on an age-old power struggle, culminating in an Iranian hegemony that stretches all the way to Syria and the Mediterranean. At best, the formation of a new government appears to be months away – with the months all but certain to be filled with haggling, conspiring, vote manipulating, and violence. The regime that results may very well be blatantly illegitimate, presiding over an Iraq riven by escalating strife.
Where does this leave the August deadline set by the president for the drawdown of American forces? The United States, which under Bush disbanded the Iraqi Army and pursued a disastrous policy of de-Ba’athification, is now in no position to modulate the damage. Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, who supported the invasion in the first place, has warned against America “picking sides in a top-down civil war.” Only by force of arms could we enforce a fair electoral outcome; the result would be an armed uprising.
Veterans of the Bush administration predictably suggest that Obama postpone the August deadline. Bush’s former Deputy National Security Advisor Meaghan O’Sullivan has contended we shouldn’t be “focused more on exit than anything else at a time of high political uncertainty.” But how would postponing withdrawal eliminate the uncertainty without evolving into a reincarnated occupation? According to former Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the U.S. should “retain the original flexibility.” Is failure in Iraq really a reason for its own perpetuation?
The president has reaffirmed that he will stick to the August date; the top U.S. general in Iraq has agreed, with a subtle qualification – “unless something unforeseen and disastrous happens.” The president is right – without qualification. A foreign policy expert who’s dealt with both the Bush and Obama administrations suggested to me that the real disaster would be to retreat from the deadline. Having averted a double-dip recession in America, the Obama administration needn’t invite a double-dip war in Iraq.
Leaving on schedule implies a set of other decisions – and implicates the long-term political fortunes of the president. As the Iraqis sort out, or shoot out, their future, the inevitable GOP recriminations would re-run the charges of cutting and running. JFK incurred a similar backlash when he settled for a coalition government in Laos that included Communists. It’s almost certain that he was also preparing to withdraw from Vietnam – but not until after the 1964 election. He wasn’t willing to run the political risk of acting sooner.
The situation now is different. Americans are ready to see our forces come home from Iraq. In Afghanistan, where the Karzai government fixed its own election and commands less support than the regimes we concocted or propped up in Vietnam, the military successes on our side are a double-edged sword. Our tactics, however hard we try to calibrate them, continue to inflict civilian causalities, driving recruits and support to the Taliban. If we gain ground and hold it, the only way forward and the best way out will be a negotiated settlement that accords some power to the Taliban but no base to al Qaida. In addition to this unpalatable outcome, the United States will have to offer refuge to thousands or tens of thousands of people, especially women who, for example, have dared to teach school.
But it is a choice that may have to be made. If so, it’s preferable to what happened to the last Democratic president who passed a transformative progressive agenda. I don’t see Barack Obama, who reads history closely, following Lyndon Johnson into a quagmire and a shattered presidency.
The United States does have a vital national interest in securing the stability of Pakistan, the actual hideout of Osama bin Laden and now a nearly failed state with a nuclear arsenal. Beyond that, if sanctions on Iran fail and its extremist regime races ahead to develop nuclear weapons, it’s hard to see any recourse other than a military strike. That’s a perilous step for many reasons – but not as perilous as letting the semi-mad men (and they are men) in Tehran deploy missiles aimed at Israel, the Gulf States, or ultimately Europe and the U.S. (Imagine Obama running for re-election if that were to happen on his watch.)
Few presidents have simultaneously advanced far-reaching change domestically – and achieved so much so fast – while inheriting so many fateful challenges overseas. For the moment, the news from faraway keeps coming, but the country, the commenteriat, and the Tea Partiers are focused elsewhere. If Barack Obama keeps his word and keeps to the August withdrawal date in Iraq, we’ll know that he at least has been paying attention.