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Irony man

Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of "God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World."

Reinhold Niebuhr’s observation that U.S. history is often ironic has rarely seemed as relevant as it does today.

First, there is the spectacle of the war in Iraq. At the beginning, most observers thought the war would be short and sweet, and many Democrats supported it, despite their qualms, because they believed it was political suicide to oppose it. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was one Democrat who supported the authorization to use force against Saddam Hussein, a vote widely hailed at the time as showing her as tough and realistic. Ironically, her stance on the war gave Barack Obama the opportunity he needed to deny Clinton the Democratic presidential nomination.

The fighting dragged on, the Bush administration floundered without a strategy, and the conflict became deeply unpopular. Expert opinion swung around to the view that the war was hopelessly lost. But at just that moment, with the debate turning to how we could best live with defeat and disaster, Gen. David Petraeus’ surge strategy helped turn the war around. It’s not over by any means, and the security gains are reversible, but the 18-month troop surge has put the U.S. on the road to a win in Iraq.

But the irony is we have a presidential contest between Obama, whose entire primary candidacy was driven by his unshakable position as the toughest and most pessimistic critic of the war, and John McCain, an unrepentant supporter of the war who called for the surge at a time when the rest of the establishment was running for cover.

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Yet during Obama’s visit to Iraq last week, it was the presumptive Democratic nominee who was enjoying a love fest with embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who told the world -- including U.S. voters -- that Obama’s timetable was on the right track and that the quicker U.S. forces got out of Iraq, the better.

The net result, ironically, is that the antiwar candidate who predicted failure is benefiting most from the war’s success. Thanks to the surge he opposed, the policy Obama championed -- a relatively swift and steady withdrawal of U.S. combat forces over 16 months, conditions permitting -- no longer looks dangerous, irresponsible or an invitation to defeat.

Military progress in Iraq is transforming the international situation in other ways and creating more ironies. The Bush administration was unwilling to negotiate with Iran when the U.S. seemed permanently stuck in an Iraq that would only grow worse. But as the situation there improves, the U.S. has a stronger hand -- and with its coalition of Western allies still holding together, the administration has gingerly initiated nuclear talks with Tehran.

For Obama, this is a godsend. Once savaged for his calls to negotiate with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s nuke-seeking, Holocaust-denying, threat-spewing government, he can now point to the Bush administration’s example.

But, ironically, Obama is using his new maneuvering room to toughen his stand rather than soften it. In Afghanistan and possibly Pakistan, he wants to send in more troops, take a harder line with Islamabad and crush the elusive Taliban beneath his heel. He says the administration hasn’t fought hard enough and has been too willing, out of a misguided deference for allied opinion, to let countries such as Pakistan push us around. Meanwhile, those soft and dithering Europeans need to do more. More troops. More ambitious goals. Deeper commitment. Oh -- and by the way -- our goal must be to build democracy in the Mideast, starting with Afghanistan.

In Israel, Obama went to great pains to tell anxious Israelis that his commitment to Israel’s security is “unshakable” and that Tel Aviv would have no stronger or more reliable ally than an Obama administration. Like President Bush, Obama has promised Israel that he would never ask it to make concessions that endanger its security.

Obama also appears to have cleared up the ambiguity in his stance on Iran. The world community, he told the Israelis, “must prevent” the mullahs from getting a nuclear bomb. Presumably, that means if negotiations fail to stop Iran from enriching uranium, and sanctions don’t do the trick either, the world community will have to explore other options.

Obama’s pilgrimage abroad points to a larger truth: In the midst of a bitter political year, a loose bipartisan consensus on the Mideast may be emerging. And, irony of ironies, the consensus, seemingly embraced by Obama, seems closer to Bush’s views than to those of the antiwar activists who propelled the Illinois senator to the nomination.

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Here’s what that consensus says:

On the war on terrorism: The terror threat is real, and we can’t prevail by just fighting defense. Ultimately, we have to take this war home to the people who made it, and that means the caves of Afghanistan -- and any place in Pakistan that the Pakistanis cannot secure on their own. The military budget will grow; the U.S. presence in Central Asia will increase, at least for now. This is similar to what a Bush White House would do in a third term.

On Iraq: Bush screwed up the war in many ways. But we cannot afford to let hostile forces control this strategic country, nor can we allow Iraq to sink into genocidal strife. We will not leave Iraq like we left Vietnam. Here too Obama’s current stance is, in practical terms, very close to Bush’s.

On Israel/Palestine: Continuity is the theme once again. Although the U.S. must bring new energy and determination to resolve this dispute, we can’t and won’t throw Israel under the bus. Israel’s confidence in U.S. foreign policy remains a vital asset; to lose it would diminish the chances for peace.

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On Iran: Intensive multilateral diplomacy, including direct U.S.-Iranian talks when appropriate, is our preferred strategy to keep Tehran from building a bomb. We are willing, even eager, to live in peace with a non-nuclear Iran. The next president will have to pursue negotiations while considering all the options -- a policy that represents, at most, a small evolutionary change from the current Bush position.

Not everyone will like this consensus. But, overall, the U.S. seems to be edging toward it. If the policies flowing from this consensus work (always a big “if” in the Middle East), Iraq could be the first in a string of U.S. successes in the region. That, surely, would be the biggest irony of all: a stable U.S. presence in the Middle East based on a meeting of the minds between Obama and Bush.


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