President Obama's War Wizardry

The world's a mess; war is everywhere. To set things straight, the president needs to stop indulging in magical thinking and face some hard realities in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. For starters.

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Sometimes I wonder if President Obama reads too many Ben Okri novels. As we transform from a U.S.-dominated, unipolar international order to a non-polar world, virtually everything about his Middle East policy as outlined in the latest National Security Strategy seems to have been infected by a kind of magical thinking. From Afghanistan to Israel/Palestine negotiations, the president needs to better match strategic concepts with a coherent, operational policy. Here are a few White House narratives that need a reality check.

Our Current Efforts in Afghanistan are Working

On the campaign trail in 2008, candidate Barack Obama spoke honestly and eloquently about why military surges don't work. The candidate understood how in a world where U.S. military power means less, a temporary military buildup can at best provide a temporary security aperture for political negotiation to take place. It is useful only if the Afghan government shows that it is capable of competence.

President Obama seems to have forgotten the wisdom of candidate Obama. The president is aware that Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's inept, kleptocratic president, has failed on countless occasions to show his own people that he deserves to be taken seriously as a leader. In this regard, Obama's national security document, which places an emphasis on the surge and improving accountable and effective governance, is deceptive. There simply is no accountable governance in Afghanistan and won't be for some time to come.

In order to win in Afghanistan, this administration needs to acknowledge that the current political and military path is unsustainable both on the battlefield, and ultimately, with the American public. Just as important, the president can best support American soldiers by defining a mission that is achievable. He should stop conjuring up huge nation-building projects with large military footprints that ultimately feed corruption and don't hold the government accountable. Instead, he needs to work to develop smaller, more effective, less costly, more sustainable interventions that address the principle threat in al-Qaida.

We Need  a Strategy in Iraq That Goes Beyond Get the Hell Out

After eight years, America's counterproductive presence in Iraq is finally coming to an end and that's a campaign promise well kept. But while the White House has set a certain date for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq (50,000 by the end of August and another 50,000 next year), it has failed to enunciate much less execute a political vision for the region once those troops are gone.

Obama gambled that the March elections would bring about a peaceful, pro-American transition as Iran's closest allies lost ground and Ayad Allawi, a pro-western Shia moderate, managed to win a narrow contest over Nouri al-Maliki. Instead of sealing this deal by attempting to hammer out a compromise between the two major candidates that would ensure a stable Sunni-Shia order and facilitate relations between Baghdad and Washington, the administration chose to stand on the sidelines. In the ensuing political vacuum, negotiations for the new government began to take place between Shia leaders in Tehran. Obama can certainly claim that his administration respected the democratic process. But our active non-participation comes at a cost: Iraq now threatens to recede into sectarian violence while Iran extends its influence.

This failure has been complicated by administration's inability to outline and communicate clear post-departure policy goals and actions to the rest of the region. Now that the U.S. presence is receding, other Middle East nations are feeling more vulnerable. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states are well aware that as much as Tehran threatens Israel, they are equally at risk. These states are already threatened by Iran's ability to manipulate Shia minorities to ferment instability. They are ready to expedite the development of their own atomic programs if Tehran itself goes nuclear. The administration needs to outline in detail its strategic relationship with the region with specific emphasis on how it will make good on its security promises. The new security strategy speaks of the need for U.S. policy in the region after U.S. troops depart, but makes no mention of what exactly this strategy entails. This makes the region less stable and puts America at greater risk of having to fight a war with Iran.

Proximity Talks Are Serious