We are never impressed with campaign positions,
or with the failure of the victorious candidate to live up to them.
That’s the way American politics work. But in this case, these promises
have created a dual crisis that Obama must make decisions about now.
Back in April, in the midst of the financial crisis, Obama reached an agreement at the G-8 meeting that the Iranians would have until Sept. 24 and the G-20 meeting to engage in meaningful talks
with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus
Germany (P-5+1) or face intensely increased sanctions. His
administration was quite new at the time, so the amount of thought
behind this remains unclear. On one level, the financial crisis was so
intense and September so far away that Obama and his team probably saw
this as a means to delay a secondary matter while more important fires
were flaring up.
But there was more operating than that. Obama intended to try to
bridge the gap between the Islamic world and the United States between
April and September. In his speech to the Islamic world from Cairo, he
planned to show a desire not only to find common ground, but also to
acknowledge shortcomings in U.S. policy in the region. With the
appointment of special envoys George Mitchell (for Israel and the
Palestinian territories) and Richard Holbrooke (for Pakistan and
Afghanistan), Obama sought to build on his opening to the Islamic world
with intense diplomatic activity designed to reshape regional
It can be argued that the Islamic masses responded positively to
Obama’s opening — it has been asserted to be so and we will accept this
— but the diplomatic mission did not solve the core problem. Mitchell
could not get the Israelis to move on the settlement issue, and while
Holbrooke appears to have made some headway on increasing Pakistan’s
aggressiveness toward the Taliban, no fundamental shift has occurred in
the Afghan war.
Most important, no major shift has occurred in Iran’s attitude
toward the United States and the P-5+1 negotiating group. In spite of
Obama’s Persian New Year address to Iran, the Iranians did not change
their attitude toward the United States. The unrest following Iran’s contested June presidential election
actually hardened the Iranian position. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remained
president with the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,
while the so-called moderates seemed powerless to influence their
position. Perceptions that the West supported the demonstrations have
strengthened Ahmadinejad’s hand further, allowing him to paint his
critics as pro-Western and himself as an Iranian nationalist.
But with September drawing to a close, talks have still not begun.
Instead, they will begin Oct. 1. And last week, the Iranians chose to
announce that not only will they continue work on their nuclear program
(which they claim is not for military purposes), they have a second,
hardened uranium enrichment facility near Qom.
After that announcement, Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and
French President Nicolas Sarkozy held a press conference saying they
have known about the tunnel for several months, and warned of stern
This, of course, raises the question of what consequences. Obama has three choices in this regard.
First, he can impose crippling sanctions against Iran. But that is possible only if the Russians cooperate. Moscow has the rolling stock and reserves to supply all of Iran’s fuel needs
if it so chooses, and Beijing can also remedy any Iranian fuel
shortages. Both Russia and China have said they don’t want sanctions;
without them on board, sanctions are meaningless.
Second, Obama can take military action against Iran,
something easier politically and diplomatically for the United States
to do itself rather than rely on Israel. By itself, Israel cannot
achieve air superiority, suppress air defenses, attack the necessary
number of sites and attempt to neutralize Iranian mine-laying and
anti-ship capability all along the Persian Gulf. Moreover, if Israel
struck on its own and Iran responded by mining the Strait of Hormuz,
the United States would be drawn into at least a naval war with Iran —
and probably would have to complete the Israeli airstrikes, too.
And third, Obama could choose to do nothing (or engage in sanctions
that would be the equivalent of doing nothing). Washington could see
future Iranian nuclear weapons as an acceptable risk. But the Israelis
don’t, meaning they would likely trigger the second scenario. It is
possible that the United States could try to compel Israel not to
strike — though it’s not clear whether Israel would comply — something
that would leave Obama publicly accepting Iran’s nuclear program.
And this, of course, would jeopardize Obama’s credibility. It is
possible for the French or Germans to waffle on this issue; no one is
looking to them for leadership. But for Obama simply to acquiesce to
Iranian nuclear weapons, especially at this point, would have
significant diplomatic and domestic political ramifications. Simply
put, Obama would look weak — and that, of course, is why the Iranians
announced the second nuclear site. They read Obama as weak, and they
want to demonstrate their own resolve. That way, if the Russians were
thinking of cooperating with the United States on sanctions, Moscow
would be seen as backing the weak player against the strong one. The
third option, doing nothing, therefore actually represents a
In a way, the same issue is at stake in Afghanistan. Having labeled
Afghanistan as critical — indeed, having campaigned on the platform
that the Bush administration was fighting the wrong war — it would be
difficult for Obama to back down in Afghanistan. At the same time, the
U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has reported
that without a new strategy and a substantial increase in troop
numbers, failure in Afghanistan is likely.
The number of troops being discussed, 30,000-40,000, would bring
total U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan to just above the number of
troops the Soviet Union deployed there in its war (just under 120,000)
— a war that ended in failure. The new strategy being advocated would
be one in which the focus would not be on the defeat of the Taliban by
force of arms, but the creation of havens for the Afghan people and
protecting those havens from the Taliban.
A move to the defensive when time is on your side is not an
unreasonable strategy. But it is not clear that time is on Western
forces’ side. Increased offensives are not weakening the Taliban.
But halting attacks and assuming that the Taliban will oblige the West
by moving to the offensive, thereby opening itself to air and artillery
strikes, probably is not going to happen. And while assuming that the
country will effectively rise against the Taliban out of the protected
zones the United States has created is interesting, it does not strike
us as likely. The Taliban is fighting the long war because it has
nowhere else to go. Its ability to maintain military and political
cohesion following the 2001 invasion has been remarkable. And betting
that the Pakistanis will be effective enough to break the Taliban’s
supply lines is hardly the most prudent bet.
In short, Obama’s commander on the ground has told him the current
Afghan strategy is failing. He has said that unless that strategy
changes, more troops won’t help, and that a change of strategy will
require substantially more troops. But when we look at the proposed
strategy and the force levels, it is far from obvious that even that
level of commitment will stand a chance of achieving meaningful results
quickly enough before the forces of Washington’s NATO allies begin to
withdraw and U.S. domestic resolve erodes further.
Obama has three choices in Afghanistan. He can continue to current
strategy and force level, hoping to prolong failure long enough for
some undefined force to intervene. He can follow McChrystal’s advice
and bet on the new strategy. Or he can withdraw U.S. forces from
Afghanistan. Once again, doing nothing — the first option — is doing
something quite significant.
The Two Challenges Come Together
The two crises intermingle in this way: Every president is tested in
foreign policy, sometimes by design and sometimes by circumstance.
Frequently, this happens at the beginning of his term as a result of
some problem left by his predecessor, a strategy adopted in the
campaign or a deliberate action by an antagonist. How this happens
isn’t important. What is important is that Obama’s test is here. Obama
at least publicly approached the presidency as if many of the problems
the United States faced were due to misunderstandings about or the
thoughtlessness of the United States. Whether this was correct is less
important than that it left Obama appearing eager to accommodate his
adversaries rather than confront them.
No one has a clear idea of Obama’s threshold for action.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban takes the view that the British and
Russians left, and that the Americans will leave, too. We strongly
doubt that the force level proposed by McChrystal will be enough to
change their minds. Moreover, U.S. forces are limited,
with many still engaged in Iraq. In any case, it isn’t clear what force
level would suffice to force the Taliban to negotiate or capitulate —
and we strongly doubt that there is a level practical to contemplate.
In Iran, Ahmadinejad clearly perceives that challenging Obama is
low-risk and high reward. If he can finally demonstrate that the United
States is unwilling to take military action regardless of provocations,
his own domestic situation improves dramatically, his relationship with
the Russians deepens, and most important, his regional influence — and
menace — surges. If Obama accepts Iranian nukes without serious
sanctions or military actions, the American position in the Islamic
world will decline dramatically. The Arab states in the region rely on
the United States to protect them from Iran, so U.S. acquiescence in
the face of Iranian nuclear weapons would reshape U.S. relations in the
region far more than a hundred Cairo speeches.
There are four permutations Obama might choose in response to the
dual crisis. He could attack Iran and increase forces in Afghanistan,
but he might well wind up stuck in a long-term war in Afghanistan. He
could avoid that long-term war by withdrawing from Afghanistan and also
ignore Iran’s program, but that would leave many regimes reliant on the
United States for defense against Iran in the lurch. He could increase
forces in Afghanistan and ignore Iran — probably yielding the worst of
all possible outcomes, namely, a long-term Afghan war and an Iran with
a nuclear program if not nuclear weapons.
On pure logic, history or politics aside, the best course is to
strike Iran and withdraw from Afghanistan. That would demonstrate will
in the face of a significant challenge while perhaps reshaping Iran and
certainly avoiding a drawn-out war in Afghanistan. Of course, it is
easy for those who lack power and responsibility — and the need to
govern — to provide logical choices. But the forces closing in on Obama
are substantial, and there are many competing considerations in play.
Presidents eventually arrive at the point where something must be
done, and where doing nothing is very much doing something. At this
point, decisions can no longer be postponed, and each choice involves
significant risk. Obama has reached that point, and significantly, in
his case, he faces a double choice. And any decision he makes will