international analysis and commentary

The two wars that did not bark in the night

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One of the peerless Sherlock Holmes mysteries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle centers on the response of a certain dog, which fails to bark in the night as it ought to. From this small discrepancy, Holmes (as ever) unravels a seemingly baffling mystery.

The logic behind this hundred year old story applies to the midterm election results. President Obama’s foreign policy initiatives, particularly his conduct over the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, were the two dogs that failed to bark in the night.

Even given the country’s general historical preference to value domestic politics over whatever is going on in international relations, the 2010 midterms were particularly skewed to domestic and economic concerns. Exit polling revealed that almost half of those voting (46%) did so viewing America’s sluggish economy as the primary matter at hand. Given persistent 9.6% unemployment, this is entirely understandable.

But what of the fact that America has been involved in two shooting wars at once? If the midterms were largely a negative referendum about the President’s fondness for governing a center-right country from the center-left, curiously, almost entirely neglected was the administration’s conduct over issues of war and peace.

The grade for what has been going on in Baghdad, the wrap-up of a war that most Americans would simply rather forget, has been a comment teachers have made since time immemorial for poor students who somehow limp along: ‘Bobby is doing poorly, but his progress is not yet disastrous’.

So it is with Iraq. A common, weary, Washington consensus has settled over George W. Bush’s catastrophic effort to impose democracy at the point of a gun. At the geo-strategic level, there is no doubting that the Iraqi incursion has unwittingly and disastrously left American enemy, Iran, as the dominant power in the vital Persian Gulf (beside gaining great direct influence over what goes on in Baghdad through al-Sadr and to a lesser extent al-Maliki). This is the single most important outcome of the neoconservative experiment in Iraq, and a bill the American people are doomed to keep on paying.

For all this, Iraq is also unlikely to entirely fall apart. Neither its major internal players (the Shia, Sunni and Kurds), nor powerful neighbors such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan wish to live in or next door to the political black hole an entirely failed state would represent. As such, Iraq seems, by all accounts, fated to unhappily limp along, a sort of “Lebanon light”, neither wholly falling apart nor emerging as a successful country.

And this is an outcome, given the dire days of the mid 2000s, which the White House can entirely live with. America will continue to draw down troop levels in Iraq, will chafe at having less and less influence as the process gains speed and will worry about Iran’s undue influence (without doing much about it). Obama will get credit with his Democratic Party base (whose affections post-midterm he genuinely needs to regain at all costs) for keeping his promise to manage the end of the war. That is the undisputed glide path we are on. As such, the less said about the place, the better.

At first glance, silence over Afghanistan makes even less electoral sense. Following a much commented upon and agonizing internal struggle, the President decided to go ahead with a limited surge in country, giving the generals the troops they wanted in exchange for accepting a rather strict timetable of July 2011 to begin to wind down the ambitious efforts to pursue a policy of counterinsurgency, of nation-building on the ground.

But for all the thunder and lightning over the surge strategy, the President’s decision had the tactical benefit of politically buying everyone off in the short term: Democrats hated the surge but loved the timeline; Republicans hated the timeline but loved the buildup; neocons loved that nation-building was still the operative White House policy; realists were very pleased that Kabul did not seem to be the next open-ended American commitment to remake societies of which we knew little. In short, the decision had something politically for everyone.

But storm clouds are gathering. For the generals and their allies are pursuing an ‘in-in’ strategy while many in the Obama camp adopt an ‘out-out’ strategy. These dueling narratives are set to collide in July 2011.

For no one holding either view truly thinks Afghanistan can be turned around in so short a time.

The moment of truth for the whole of Obama’s efforts to re-craft American foreign policy in line with the realities of the new multipolar world is fast approaching. But it is a battle that is half a year away. For both sides for the moment, it is better to ignore the coming storm and keep their powder dry.

As was true during the Vietnam era, domestic political calculations, as Lyndon Johnson found as well, tend to crowd out facts on the ground in countries far away. This is understandable, but it leads to policies crafted around deals made in Washington, rather than setting strategies based on international realities. And this, as much as anything else, explains American foreign policy failures of the past 40 years.