By David Ignatius
Wednesday, December 30, 2009; A13
The headlines at year's end conveyed the eerie feeling that the world is running on replay: Terror plots aboard airliners, strikes against al-Qaeda training camps and an Iranian nuclear program that rolls on despite nearly a decade of efforts to stop it.
You never cross the same river twice, as the saying goes. History is always moving and changing. But the problems the United States faced in 2009 in the Muslim world were deep and intractable, and less amenable to solutions than the Obama administration might have hoped. We can remind ourselves that Islam's adaptation to the modern world (which is at the root of much of this violence) has been far less bloody than was Europe's in the 19th and 20th centuries. But that's little comfort in the airport security line.
It was telling to read the comment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, about how tougher policies might have stopped accused Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab: "I'd rather, in the interest of protecting people, overreact rather than underreact." Honestly, isn't that something Dick Cheney might have said back in 2001?
Here are some of the puzzles I'll be trying to understand better in the year ahead:
-- Are we beginning a new counterterror war in Yemen? The answer seems to be yes, but the Obama administration is wisely following the model of Afghanistan 2001 by using proxy forces (in this case, the Yemeni government) to attack al-Qaeda. That's a lot better idea than sending in U.S. combat troops.
The partnership with Yemen is delicate, which is why U.S. officials have said so little about it. But there's a growing American program to aid Yemeni counterterrorism forces, and it appears that U.S. precision-guided weapons were used in a Dec. 17 attack on three al-Qaeda hideouts, killing 34 operatives. This is precisely what America should have done against Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, before Sept. 11, and it's the right policy now.
Yemen is the scene of a second proxy war, this one by Saudi and Yemeni forces against the al-Houthi rebels along the northern border, who have Iranian support. Again, the sensible U.S. course is to help others do the fighting.
-- Can we curb Iran's nuclear program? The clock on President Obama's timetable for engagement was supposed to run out New Year's Eve. But the administration is adding a little extra time by keeping the door open for talks before a vote on new U.N. sanctions, probably in March or April.
Diplomacy shows little promise of stopping Tehran, but neither does anything else. So the administration has encouraged Turkish mediation efforts to find a compromise on the Oct. 1 plan for enrichment of Iranian fuel outside the country, which Tehran appeared to accept and then rejected. The White House has also approved Sen. John Kerry's idea of visiting Tehran, but Kerry has wisely dropped that for now, when the Iranian regime is killing protesters.
Is regime change in the air in Tehran? Last weekend's demonstrations revived that hope, but it's premature. The regime is expanding its network of repression while the opposition -- lacking a strong leader -- remains unable to mount sustained, organized protests.
-- Will Iraqi democracy be 2010's big success story? Visiting Anbar province several weeks ago and listening to the governor of Ramadi talk about his big development plans, I found myself wondering if maybe the cruel Iraq story might have a happy ending after all. This was the province where al-Qaeda declared its first emirate, just a few years ago, and now the governor is handing out a special Financial Times report on business opportunities there.
When I meet Iraqis these days, they all want to talk politics: Which party is ahead in the March parliamentary elections? Can Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani or Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi unseat the incumbent prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki? It's the kind of freewheeling political debate you can't find anywhere else in the Arab world. I want to believe it's real, even as the terrorist bombs continue to explode in Baghdad and other cities.
What I know about 2010 is that it will be another year of ebbs and flows in the Middle East. It will be another year of American expeditionary wars and anti-American bombings. If there's one perverse positive sign out there, consistent over most of the past decade, it's the failure of al-Qaeda's extremist ideology. We have an enemy that makes even more mistakes than we do.