Will the Afghanistan mess affect Obama’s Middle East plans?

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

It’s a conceit of the organized Jewish community: we somehow believe that every time administration foreign policy officials sit down at the White House, Topic A is the Israeli-Arab conflict.


Guess what; at the Obama White House these days, they have a lot bigger worries than whether there’s going to be an agreement with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over settlements. But it’s also true that those other woes could have a big, but unpredictable, impact on the administration’s Mideast plans.


At the top of the “big trouble” list: Afghanistan.


In the last year of the Bush administration the tide was already turning, with Taliban forces resurgent. The Obama administration’s “surge” has resulted in a sharp increase in U.S. casualties without noticeably changing the situation.


I called Shoshana Bryen, senior director for security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), and heard what can only be a boatload of bad news for the administration.


“The problem of Afghanistan is, in fact, like the problem of Vietnam; it’s an internal enemy, with deep roots in the population,” she said. “When you’re talking about ‘protecting’ the population from the Taliban, you’re talking about protecting them from their cousins. That’s just not possible.”


And then there’s the little matter of Pakistan.


“The reason to look at Afghanistan at all is that we desperately don’t want a nuclear Pakistan falling into the hands of the Jihadists,” Bryen said. “We’re hoping that if we stabilize Afghanistan, there won’t be anybody to overthrow Pakistan. The problem is, they’re in Pakistan.”


Politically, support for the war is plummeting in this country, with the anti-war left planning a big mobilization on the issue this fall and conservatives like columnist George Will beginning to call for a pullout. Meanwhile, polls show sinking public support.

If he stays the course, President Obama could face his very own Vietnam, and the resulting controversy could pretty much kill his ability to enact his top domestic priorities; if he pulls out, the Republicans will howl that he “lost” Afghanistan to the Jihadists, George Will notwithstanding.


So the question: what does this mess mean for other U.S. foreign policy priorities? Will it make the administration more willing to go for broke in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, or will it be even more cautious about getting entangled in what so often have proven lose-lose negotiations in the Middle East?


The answer is, it’s not clear.


I’ve talked to several experts in the past week who believe the Afghan mess, along with an increasingly complex situation in Iraq and domestic problems like his troubled health care reform push, will limit the Obama administration’s appetite for new, major foreign policy initiatives, especially those with as low a probability of success as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


But traditionally, administrations facing impossible situations at home or abroad seek to distract the public by pressing for a great victory in some other part of the world.


“For some presidents, pressuring Israel and the Palestinians harder has been a way of creating the impression of movement,” Bryen said.


My guess at this point is that with Afghanistan shaping up as a major disaster and the president’s top domestic priority in serious trouble, he will play a cautious game on the Israeli-Palestinian front. There are enough officials in high places who know exactly how bad the odds are of moving the Israelis and Palestinians to an a agreement, and what the political costs might be of any failure – political costs the administration doesn’t need at this time.


But I could be wrong.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.