Obama’s Mideast Chance

I have said for a couple years now that I have been impressed by how the Bush Administration learned its lessons from the utter failure of its foreign policy choices in the first four years.  By shifting from Rumsfeld to Gates, giving Rice a larger role, and sidelining Cheney, the Administration engaged in a stealth switch a realist foreign policy many didn’t notice.  Even the radical change in objectives in Iraq reflect the realist mindset.  The latest proof is that the Bush Administration apparently rejected many pleas from Israel to attack Iran, or to allow Israel to attack Iran.

This wasn’t, of course, out of some Bush fondness for the Iranians.  Rather, they feared that the use of Iraqi airspace with American weapons (which would be needed to have the possibility of success against deeply buried Iranian installations) would have implicated the US in the attack, and assured US expulsion from Iraq.  Instead, the US shared with the Israelis details of American efforts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program, and other covert operations involving Iran.

There is some irony in this.  If the US had not attacked Iraq in 2003, and thus not gotten bogged down for coming on six years, there would have been no reason for the US to deny Israel the weapons.   If the US hadn’t wasted so many resources and prestige (not to mention life) on Iraq, both Israel and the US would have been in a far stronger position vis-a-vis Iran.

This adds to the evidence that attacking Iraq was perhaps the biggest fiasco of American foreign policy history.  Iraq was attacked because Saddam was feared as a threat, perhaps he might develop WMD and arm terrorists.   Yet Saddam was far from developing WMD (the weapons inspectors said so at the time), and as a secular Baathist, he saw the religious fundamentalists as enemies.  He might at times assist them against the US, but now with a nuclear weapon!  It took loads of imagination to really see how Iraq was a threat.  That’s why Dick Cheney called it “the one percent doctrine” (leading to a book by that title from Ron Suskind) — if there was one percent chance Iraq could do it, we should act as if it was a certainty.  That, of course, was absurd on its face, and look where it’s led.

Iran is a natural regional power.  It is large (near 80 million), sits on the Persian Gulf, has oil, and borders the Arab world on one side, the former USSR to the north, and Afghanistan to the south.  It was well armed by the US during the time of the Shah, though those weapons are now quite old.  Aiding and supporting terror organizations isn’t theoretical for Iran, they created Hezzbollah in Lebanon in 1982 after the Israeli invasion, and as the summer war of 2006 showed, Hezbollah remains strong and active.

With the US invading Iraq, Iran not only was shielded from a potential Israeli or American attack, but the Iranians have capitalized on the chaos to exert considerable control over Iraqi parties and militias.  The Iraq war has been a gift from President Bush to the Iranian Guardian Council.   Moreover, the Iranians have also learned some realism.  President Ahmadinejad spoke with Bush like bombast early on, but has now learned to the limits of Iranian power and has moderated his rhetoric (and, of course, he has a more realist guardian council to reign him in — the President of Iran is not the most powerful post in the country).

So what now?   Clearly Israel’s invasion of Gaza is a sign that they feel a two front existential threat, from Iranian backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the local grown Hamas in Gaza.  Hamas is Sunni extremist and Hezbollah Shi’ite, so at least Israel knows that there are divisions amongst its opponents.

A few days ago I wrote that there was no local solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; neither side can win, the two peoples’ destinies are intertwined.  With the new revelations about how badly Israel wanted to strike Iran, I read the Gaza invasion in a different light.

This conflict sets Barack Obama up for an early Presidential triumph.   If the US comes forward with a plan to internationalize the conflict by bringing an outside alliance into Gaza and the West Bank, that also sends a message to Hezbollah and Iran: attack Israel, and you’re engaging a multi-lateral force, which will likely include some of Israel’s severest critics.   Impossible?

Not necessarily.   President elect Obama brings with him a sense of hope and change that might allow him to take bold moves early, bringing allies on board who might have otherwise been skeptical.  The carnage of the Gaza invasion may make Arab states more willing to support and participate.  The expected opposition of Israel to such a move may be weaker if they truly feel threatened by Hezbollah and Israel; they might see this as a game changer.  Suddenly Israel will be the one with more international favor, more cooperative, and willing to make peace.

In the past Israel’s had the rather weak “well, if our opponents wouldn’t fight us, then all would be peaceful” argument.   That doesn’t win international support.  But if they decided to embrace an Obama plan for an international response, it could recast the conflict into a clear division between Israel and forces working for peace on one side, and Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran on the other side.   This could be a major step towards working out of this dilemma.  It could weaken Iran’s hardliners without risking a war that would kill massive numbers of innocents and which could spread, cause oil price spikes, and who knows what else.   From this dark day of headlines of death and destruction, perhaps a new dawn is ahead that will forge a path to ending the seemingly unendless conflict.

This depends on the will and actions of a lot of different people with diverse interests.  But it’s a chance I hope Barack Obama takes as soon as he enters office.

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