Afghanistan and Mideast Pose Big Tests for Obama

By David Ignatius
Sunday, August 23, 2009

It's crunch time for the Obama administration on two of its toughest foreign policy challenges -- the Arab-Israeli peace process and the war in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, these tests are coming at a moment when Obama is weakened by the health-care debate and has less political capital to spend.

Obama and his aides understood long ago that they would have only a limited window of opportunity. Way back in the summer of 2007, when few people gave him much chance of winning, Obama quizzed former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski about what a president could accomplish in his first six months, when his popularity was greatest.

In the hours after Obama's victory in November, one of his senior advisers confided that he wished a Middle East peace initiative could be launched that very moment, when the president-elect's halo of victory was brightest. His charisma was a national asset, but it wouldn't last forever.

The real foreign policy tests will start as soon as Obama begins to make some hard, and politically controversial, decisions on the Palestinian issue and Afghanistan. These would be tough problems even if the president were still coasting on the high poll ratings of several months ago, but now, with his popularity down and Congress in a partisan frenzy, they will require a different level of leadership.

The Arab-Israeli breakthrough that Obama has been seeking since his first day in office will near the make-or-break point this week as his Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, meets with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. If they can agree on terms for a freeze on Israeli settlement construction, that would open the way for talks on creating a Palestinian state.

But along the way, there's politically draining haggling. How long would the settlement freeze last? And would it cover the estimated 700 construction projects already underway? Mitchell is hammering out compromise language, but it's likely to leave both sides unhappy. And what about the Arab response? In exchange for the freeze, Obama expects reciprocal Arab moves toward normalization of relations. But that's likely to be a modest list -- a resumption of trade and diplomatic contacts and perhaps some concessions on Israeli overflights and landing rights. Nothing there to get Israelis very excited -- or to ease anxiety about what many fear is Obama's pro-Arab tilt.

The White House is debating whether Obama should launch his initiative with a declaration of U.S. "parameters" for a final settlement. The Arabs favor such a statement, as do many U.S. experts such as Brzezinski. But Mitchell is said to favor a more gradual approach, in which Israelis and Palestinians would begin negotiations and the United States would intervene later with "bridging" proposals.

A good compromise would be an Obama statement of U.S. "principles" for negotiations, rather than explicit parameters. But even that approach is likely to upset Netanyahu and Israel's supporters in Congress. Will Obama have the political clout this fall to withstand their pressure as he pushes for a settlement? That's where health-care reform and the peace process become intertwined.

Then comes Afghanistan. Following the Afghan presidential election, there will be new pressure on Obama to resolve some of the issues he fudged in his Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy last spring. The White House leaned in two directions in that document -- toward a limited counterterrorism mission against al-Qaeda but using ambitious and costly nation-building tactics to achieve the goal.

Waffling won't be possible much longer. The U.S. military commanders in Kabul want a commitment for more troops and additional resources next year. But Vice President Biden is leading a growing camp of skeptics within the administration who argue that it's time to scale back the mission, not expand it. Meanwhile, the latest Post-ABC News poll shows growing public opposition to a wider war.

It's easy to describe the ideal outcome in Afghanistan -- a military buildup that rocks the Taliban enough that it will be prepared to negotiate a deal allowing U.S. troops to begin withdrawing next year. And that's the essence of the U.S. strategy. But to make it work, the enemy must be convinced that the president is politically strong enough to stay the course, despite domestic opposition.

Sound familiar? That, of course, was the dilemma that President Bush faced in Iraq. Now that Obama is commander in chief, he faces a similar challenge. A few months ago, when he was at the height of his popularity, Obama made it all look easy. Now, we get the political reality check -- and Leadership 101.

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