Barack Obama will come into power in less than three weeks with a virtually free hand in domestic affairs, because previous policies are obviously bankrupt. In my youth I heard old New Dealers remark wistfully that FDR might actually have taken more radical steps in 1933 than he did, so desperate were the business and financial communities for help on any terms. The situation seems very similar right now. Foreign policy, however, is another matter. Seven years ago the Bush Administration put us on a new course in the Middle East: an attempt to set the regions' political development on a new course, with the help of large infusions of American military power. So far the results have been almost entirely negative, but the policy has nonetheless become institutionalized and developed a tremendous momentum of its own. It is not clear whether the new Administration can, or wants to, reverse it.
What the United States has tried to do in both Afghanistan and Iraq since 2002 is almost unprecedented. Our previous interventions in the Third World, both in the Caribbean and in East Asia, took advantage of at least some existing local institutions. South Korea had an Administration developed during 40 years of Japanese rule (and was actually quite a bit better of in 1945 than Japan, having been untouched by the war), while the South Vietnamese government built on the French colonial administration. In Afghanistan, on the other hand, we eliminated the Taliban, the only central authority, while in Iraq we tried to end the influence of the Ba'ath Party, which had held the country together for about thirty years. In both countries we have been attempting to build new central political and military institutions from scratch while using American troops to fight insurgencies. The results have not been encouraging.
Violence is down in Iraq, but there is really no evidence of truly national loyalty to the Maliki government among Sunnis, Shi'ites, and Kurds. Underneath the American occupation, power struggles among and within the three major groups continue, with shifting alliances. The new Status of Forces agreement has turned important authority over to the Iraqi government--including the authority to man the checkpoints in the Green Zone--and we do not really know if it is ready to handle it. The American advisory mission has run into some of the same problems encountered earlier by American efforts in Nationalist China and South Vietnam: any military leader who is favored by the Americans tends to become suspect. But the same agreement bids fair to lock us into a long-term advisory relationship with the Iraqi military, and a long-term presence of tens of thousands of troops, unless the new Administration decides to negotiate a new agreement.
The situation in Afghanistan is much worse. The Taliban has been gaining steadily for several years and more American troops are on the way. The New York Times reported two days ago that the entire government runs on bribes, bribes fueled by the country's only two sources of cash: drug profits on the one hand, and American and other foreign aid on the other. This too is a recurring problem with American interventions: American cash, designed to strengthen our clients against our enemies, winds up setting off lengthy struggles among our would-be friends for their proper share. Other NATO partners have recently suggested that we should abandon the idea of building a large Afghan national army and simply begin playing the various tribes off against each other in classic imperialist fashion. Even more serious, however, are the broader effects of our involvement. The Taliban controls sanctuaries over the Pakistani border and is gaining in strength within Pakistan itself. Because it has been able to cut our troops' main supply line through Pakistan, we are now reportedly building new bases in the former Soviet states north of Afghanistan--a strategy that has already failed once before, when the government of Uzbekistan threw us out. Russia seems unlikely to welcome such a move. All this has been set in motion by the outgoing Administration, making it hard for a new one to shift course.
Meanwhile, in parallel, Israel has for the last six years been attempting both to disengage from some Palestinian territories and to bludgeon hostile forces on its borders into submission--a process that has entered a new phase with the new attacks on Gaza. Backed by the United States, the Israelis have insisted that they can negotiate only with Palestinians who both accept Israel's legal right to exist and renounce any right of Palestinian return inside the 1967 borders. That policy backfired in 2006 when Hamas won the election in Palestine, eventually allowing it to take over the Gaza strip. The Israelis have been willing to conclude cease-fire agreements with Hamas but not to discuss any kind of long-term political truce, which might provide a basis for relatively peaceful coexistence for several decades, like Willy Brandt's agreements with East Germany in the 1970s. By undertaking the Gaza operation now, Israel has secured a reaffirmation of US support for these policies and heightened regional tension during the American interregnum--something which I do not believe to have been accidental. A similar intervention in Lebanon to try to crush Hezbollah in 2007 backfired and this one has been touted as an attempt to undo the damage of that failed effort. Its outcome is also uncertain. Meanwhile, the Israeli historian Benny Morris, in yet another Times op-ed, has warned of new Israeli military initiatives.
The Israeli-American attempt to persuade the Palestinians that they need leaders ho will work with us--an attempt inaugurated with great fanfare by President Bush in 2002 when he called upon Palestinians to elect new leadership to replace Yassir Arafat--has so far failed to help Mahmoud Abbas and his associates. Indeed, the retreat of relatively westernized and moderate leadership seems to be continuing in much of the region--certainly in Lebanon, and now, it seems, in Jordan, where fundamentalism is increasingly popular among the young. Political trends in the Arab community in Israel are also reported to be alarming.
It is not my place to tell Israelis how to conduct their foreign policy, but previous attempts to bludgeon the Palestinians into submission have not worked. Meanwhile, I see no evidence that American military involvement in the region has done anything but harm. Of the Obama National Security team, Secretary Gates may indeed favor a partial pull-back, as recommended by the Baker-Hamilton Commission (of which he was originally a member); General Jones, the new National Security Adviser, has been intimately involved in Israeli-Palestinian issues for the last few years and (perhaps a hopeful sign) turned down an offer of a high State Department position under Condoleezza Rice; and Hillary Clinton, after a brief flirtation with the Palestinian cause in the 1990s, has been as a Senator among Israel's most reliable supporters. Any real impetus for change will have to come, evidently, from the President himself. With domestic affairs so pressing, I suspect we will not see any for at least a couple of years, and during that time various confrontations from South Asia to the Mediterranean will probably escalate.
P.S. I did see Valkyrie. It is in my opinion the best movie of the season so far (I've seen Doubt, Benjamin Button, and Slumdog Millionaire, but not Frost/Nixon or Revolutionary Road), but one of the most accurate historical movies I have ever seen. The mostly-British cast was also excellent.