Obama’s tough choices

It’s easy to see why President Obama is so eager to fly off to Copenhagen to boost Chicago’s chances of winning the Olympic Games. After all, if there’s one thing at which he’s already shown himself to be a master, it’s selling.

The country, however, doesn’t need a pitchman in chief -- Billy Mays in a bully pulpit. Eventually, selling is not enough, and it comes time to deliver. The stuttering success of the stimulus package has won the president some breathing room on the economy, but the administration needs to do something about job creation in the very near future; a recovery that pushes up stock prices and Wall Street bonuses but leaves more than one in 10 Americans out of work is no recovery at all.

Similarly, on healthcare, Obama can let the legislative process unwind a bit further, but pretty soon he’ll need to acknowledge that a bill that compels everyone to buy health insurance without simultaneously creating a public option to act as a ceiling on prices isn’t reform -- it’s a windfall for insurance companies.

When it comes to the two most urgent foreign policy issues -- Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the war in Afghanistan -- the president has even less leeway. The problem is that, in both cases, all the choices are bad, and a day of glad-handing, gravlax and cold Aquavit won’t change that.


There is no getting away from the Iranian crisis, on which negotiations begin this week. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was right when -- in an unfairly neglected speech to the U.N. General Assembly last week -- he argued: “The most urgent challenge facing this body is to prevent the tyrants of Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

The situation, however, is complicated. As the New York Times reported, Western intelligence agencies are deeply divided on the state of Iran’s nuclear program. The CIA believes, based on electronic intercepts and penetration of Tehran’s computer network, that no weapons design has gone on since 2003. The Israelis believe the program has resumed; the Germans that it never stopped; the French that progress toward a bomb is more advanced than generally acknowledged.

Discovery of a heretofore secret Iranian nuclear facility, made public last week, suggests that Tehran’s weapons program may be much more widely dispersed than previously thought. Whatever the case, it’s also clear that the irrational and deceitful theocrats in charge in Iran will not willingly surrender their nuclear ambitions. Perhaps the stringent economic sanctions being talked about will force them into it, but -- like its missiles -- Iran’s nuclear program is under the control of the radical Revolutionary Guard, which in recent years has emerged as a powerful economic force along the lines of China’s People’s Liberation Army. It has its own businesses, factories and ports, all sorts of import-export enterprises and even control of the country’s telephone and Internet services. It might be able to weather sanctions that will make life a misery for the rest of the country.

There’s no clearer case, however, for a military solution -- whether executed by the U.S. or Israel. Unless we are willing to commit troops, which is unthinkable, even severe airstrikes only would delay a program whose components appear carefully dispersed. Moreover, they almost certainly would unleash a wave of Iranian-supported terrorism, and no sane planner can discount Tehran’s ability to close the Strait of Hormuz through which the gulf’s oil flows.

No good choices.

Afghanistan presents another murky problem. Our military commanders are right that a new strategy based on proven counterinsurgency tactics is the only way forward -- and that such a strategy will require vastly more troops on the ground. But Afghanistan is the graveyard of great powers’ well-conceived strategies, a nation so dysfunctional that it can’t quite fall completely apart or coalesce around a working government. In other words, it’s one of the worst places in the world for the sort of nation-building that is counterinsurgency’s logical end point.

The president also was right, however, when he called Iraq “a war of choice” and Afghanistan “a war of necessity.” But what made the latter struggle necessary was not the presence of the Taliban but the Taliban’s creation of sanctuaries from which Al Qaeda struck at the United States. If it were possible to disengage from Afghanistan without allowing Osama bin Laden and his followers to reestablish havens there, it would be a tragic choice for the Afghan people but a wise one for Americans.

Again, no good choices.

To gloss John Kenneth Galbraith’s famous remark, foreign policy -- no less than politics -- often consists in choosing between the disastrous and the merely unpalatable.