A Perilous Pivot
Warning Signs for Obama in the Mideast

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, March 1, 2009

President Obama is pivoting the United States from fighting the "wrong" war in Iraq to "winning" the "right" war in Afghanistan, as candidate Obama promised. While there are several holes in his formulation, there is also much to admire in the way he is proceeding.

Obama's style of weighing options and making decisions is disciplined and crisp. He has recruited intelligent, experienced people to make the White House the center for devising a global strategy, not just assembling a set of policies. He has shifted the nation's angle of vision to a wide regional one extending from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. Think of it as Med-Ind, instead of AFPAK, for the moment.

That is, the pivot Obama is making is much larger and more difficult than he has acknowledged. He seemingly made a down payment on a new Afghan strategy by dispatching 17,000 additional U.S. troops there. But concern is spreading through Med-Ind that the move masks a determination by Obama to draw down -- after a decent interval -- the American presence and power in that area.

The president is clear that he intends to order all U.S. combat troops from Iraq before the 2010 U.S. midterm elections. And diplomats and analysts in touch with the White House increasingly suspect that the Obama team hopes for major reductions in Afghanistan before this four-year presidential term ends -- even absent major progress.

Let's hope things go well and permit these withdrawals. But either way, Obama's reformulation of U.S. vital interests in Med-Ind should take into account the unintended consequences of burden-shedding:

-- Security in this turbulent region is not a zero-sum game for Americans alone. It cannot be measured only in reduced U.S. spending or casualties, however welcome such reductions are. Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other American allies in this region -- as well as Europe and Japan -- will react to any whittling away of American commitments by building up their military capabilities and ambitions.

-- That buildup would include beneficial results for Americans. But it would not be focused on the terrorist networks that target the United States. It would be focused on Iran and its suspected nuclear weapons program and subversion of other governments in the region. One immediate consequence of an attenuated long-term U.S. presence would be to raise greatly the odds of an Israeli military strike on Iran before the end of 2010.

-- An American drawdown would also intensify the threat of nuclear proliferation across the Arab world -- especially if pulling back the U.S. military shield that has been in place since 1991 comes in the context of Obama's promised engagement with Iran. A sudden Iranian-U.S. rapprochement would be seen by Arabs and Israelis alike as part of American exit strategy from the region's multiple conflicts.

"Regional security is not the business of Iran alone," Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, said in Washington last week. "We need a regional nuclear-free zone, to deal with the known Israeli nuclear-weapons problem and the potential Iranian one." Otherwise, "others in the region will pursue the same course."

His comments echoed my observations at a recent seminar on nuclear proliferation in Cairo sponsored by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Arab delegates, and most noticeably those from Egypt -- which has long sought to develop a nuclear energy program -- made it clear that they were not interested in accepting the highly restrictive safeguards contained in the recent U.S.-United Arab Emirates nuclear energy agreement. The Arabs seemed to want to keep all options open, including the bomb, if Iran crosses the nuclear threshold.

That makes it imperative that the Obama administration take the following steps:

(1) It should strongly support the UAE agreement in Congress as a model of nuclear cooperation and, more broadly, give urgent priority to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons through the Middle East.

(2) It must commit publicly to pursuing engagement with Iran in a transparent manner, not through secret talks and not through extended haggling. An informal French suggestion for a "one-shot" direct negotiating effort that would be followed by tougher sanctions on Iran if it failed has merit.

(3) The president should continue to emphasize the positive results of the U.S. experience in Iraq, as he did on Friday. When I asked Moussa, an ardent anti-imperialist, if there was more national reconciliation and harmony in Iraq today than under Saddam Hussein, he immediately replied: "Yes, even if it is after six years of a very sad experience."

I could almost feel Hussein rolling over in his grave.


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