Rutland Herald/Barre Times Argus
The Long Term
By Haviland Smith
What’s going on today in the White House is the perfect argument for a non-renewable six-year presidential term. There are so many incredibly difficult and intractable issues on this president’s plate right now, that any Obama preoccupation with the possibility of a second term is only going inject domestic politics into the decision making process, lead to bad decisions and, in effect, preclude his re-election in 2012.
George W. Bush’s November 2008 legacy to whichever presidential candidate was elected to follow him in office was, quite simply, a kiss of death. It wouldn’t have mattered whether it was McCain or Obama, for what Bush willed to his successor was extremely toxic and under the best of circumstances probably would have limited anyone to four years in office. Just consider Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Iraq.
The Middle East is a different world. Americans, with their notion of their own Exceptionalism, would notice little but strange behaviors, strange beliefs and strange activities. Unfortunately, this American ethnocentricity, among the most pervasive in the world, makes our dealings with different cultures abroad extremely problematical.
The key to all of this is the unfortunate fact that many of the most important foreign policy decision made by any US president are made, not on the basis of the objective facts that exist in the country or region in question, but rather on the basis of the domestic political needs of the president in power and his party. Consider, for example the recent decision to withdraw support from the Palestinians on the issue of the Israeli settlements.
Faced with the intractability of the situations that face him in the Middle East, President Obama has little wiggle room. He is disadvantaged by his own lack of military experience. His campaign pronouncements that Iraq was a bad place to be, but that Afghanistan is a good one, do not help. When he got rid of General McKiernan and replaced him with General McChrystal, he put himself at the mercy of the military and its vocal supporters in the congress and around the country.
As an inexperienced president with no military expertise, how could he possible go against McChrystal’s recommendations? Was the president so naïve that he thought a hard-charging, ambitious, three-star would admit that virtually any counterinsurgency program would entail decades of future effort and trillions of dollars or even, perhaps, that it might not be doable? Would he think that for the first time since MacArthur, a general would go public, eschewing the chain of command?
This is not to say that the decision of what to do in Afghanistan is clear-cut. What is clear is the fact that there is no present connection between Afghanistan and terrorism. The issue in Afghanistan is the Taliban insurgency and has nothing whatsoever to do with Al Qaida. Additionally, history provides little evidence of successful, traditional counterinsurgencies anywhere in the world. Why should we succeed in Afghanistan?
Given that and the fact that Afghanistan has never been successfully conquered by anyone, the policy decision should only be whether we really want or need to fight an expensive, long-lasting and problematic counterinsurgency against the Taliban, when the president has told us repeatedly that our real fight is against terrorism.
In this context, the reestablishment of Afghanistan as an Al Qaida safe haven is highly unlikely. Al Qaida was directly responsible for the defeat of the Taliban in 2002, a course of action the Taliban is hardly likely to repeat. Besides that, terrorism has proven it can act in America, Spain, England, France - perhaps even Texas - without Afghanistan.
And what of Iraq? Will the fragile respite of the past months continue or will it, as many experts fear, devolve into sectarian and ethnic struggles? If it does, what will Obama do? Will he succumb to pressure from those who feel that military response is the only and best response, like the pressure he feels today on Afghanistan, or will he find a better way to get us out of a mess with which we never ever should have become involved in the first place?
With politics what they are, the president likely will be tempted to take the middle of the road on these military issues. That will be a mistake that will almost certainly limit him to one term.
Conversely, imagine the president undertaking the unusual, groundbreaking policy of letting history, plus the realities of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran dictate his policies. Not only would such a policy be in tune with such realities, it would almost certainly have the best chance for “success”, however he may choose to define it. He certainly won’t get there with compromise policies based on domestic politics.
The unintended consequences of implementing a rational foreign policy built on facts as opposed to one preoccupied with domestic politics, could be a startling amount of “success” which very possibly might even lead to a second term!
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff. He lives in Williston.