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Obama’s State of the Union and U.S. Foreign Policy

January 25th 2011

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U.S. President Barack Obama will deliver the State of the Union address tonight. The administration has let the media know that the focus of the speech will be on jobs and the economy. Given the strong showing of the Republicans in the last election, and the fact that they have defined domestic issues as the main battleground, Obama’s decision makes political sense. He will likely mention foreign issues and is undoubtedly devoting significant time to them, but the decision not to focus on foreign affairs in his State of the Union address gives the impression that the global situation is under control. Indeed, the Republican focus on domestic matters projects the same sense. Both sides create the danger that the public will be unprepared for some of the international crises that are already quite heated. We have discussed these issues in detail, but it is useful to step back and look at the state of the world for a moment.

Afghanistan

The United States remains the most powerful nation in the world, both in the size of its economy and the size of its military. Nevertheless, it continues to have a singular focus on the region from Iraq to Pakistan. Obama argued during his campaign that President George W. Bush had committed the United States to the wrong war in Iraq and had neglected the important war in Afghanistan. After being elected, Obama continued the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq that began under the Bush administration while increasing troop levels in Afghanistan. He has also committed himself to concluding the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of this year. Now, it may be that the withdrawal will not be completed on that schedule, but the United States already has insufficient forces in Iraq to shape events very much, and a further drawdown will further degrade this ability. In war, force is not symbolic.

This poses a series of serious problems for the United States. First, the strategic goal of the United States in Afghanistan is to build an Afghan military and security force that can take over from the United States in the coming years, allowing the United States to withdraw from the country. In other words, as in Vietnam, the United States wants to create a pro-American regime with a loyal army to protect American interests in Afghanistan without the presence of U.S. forces. I mention Vietnam because, in essence, this is Richard Nixon’s Vietnamization program applied to Afghanistan. The task is to win the hearts and minds of the people, isolate the guerrillas and use the pro-American segments of the population to buttress the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and provide recruits for the military and security forces.

The essential problem with this strategy is that it wants to control the outcome of the war while simultaneously withdrawing from it. For that to happen, the United States must persuade the Afghan people (who are hardly a single, united entity) that committing to the United States is a rational choice when the U.S. goal is to leave. The Afghans must first find the Americans more attractive than the Taliban. Second, they must be prepared to shoulder the substantial risks and burdens the Americans want to abandon. And third, the Afghans must be prepared to engage the Taliban and defeat them or endure the consequences of their own defeat.

Given that there is minimal evidence that the United States is winning hearts and minds in meaningful numbers, the rest of the analysis becomes relatively unimportant. But the point is that NATO has nearly 150,000 troops fighting in Afghanistan, the U.S. president has pledged to begin withdrawals this year, beginning in July, and all the Taliban have to do is not lose in order to win. There does not have to be a defining, critical moment for the United States to face defeat. Rather, the defeat lurks in the extended inability to force the Taliban to halt operations and in the limits on the amount of force available to the United States to throw into the war. The United States can fight as long as it chooses. It has that much power. What it seems to lack is the power to force the enemy to capitulate.

Iraq

In the meantime, the wrong war, Iraq, shows signs of crisis or, more precisely, crisis in the context of Iran. The United States is committed to withdrawing its forces from Iraq by the end of 2011. This has two immediate consequences. First, it increases Iranian influence in Iraq simply by creating a vacuum the Iraqis themselves cannot fill. Second, it escalates Iranian regional power. The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq without a strong Iraqi government and military will create a crisis of confidence on the Arabian Peninsula. The Saudis, in particular, unable to match Iranian power and doubtful of American will to resist Iran, will be increasingly pressured, out of necessity, to find a political accommodation with Iran. The Iranians do not have to invade anyone to change the regional balance of power decisively.

In the extreme, but not unimaginable, case that Iran turns Iraq into a satellite, Iranian power would be brought to the borders of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria and Iran’s border with Turkey would extend. Certainly, the United States could deal with Iran, but having completed its withdrawal from Iraq, it is difficult to imagine the United States rushing forces back in. Given the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan, it is difficult to see what ground forces would be available.

The withdrawal from Iraq creates a major crisis in 2011. If it is completed, Iran’s power will be enhanced. If it is aborted, the United States will have roughly 50,000 troops, most in training and support modes and few deployed in a combat mode, and the decision of whether to resume combat will be in the hands of the Iranians and their Iraqi surrogates. Since 170,000 troops were insufficient to pacify Iraq in the first place, sending in more troops makes little sense. As in Afghanistan, the U.S. has limited ground forces in reserve. It can build a force that blocks Iran militarily, but it will also be a force vulnerable to insurgent tactics—a force deployed without a terminal date, possibly absorbing casualties from Iranian-backed forces.

Iran

If the United States is prepared to complete the withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2011, it must deal with Iran prior to the withdrawal. The two choices are a massive air campaign to attempt to cripple Iran or a negotiated understanding with Iran. The former involves profound intelligence uncertainties and might fail, while the latter might not be attractive to the Iranians. They are quite content seeing the United States leave. The reason the Iranians are so intransigent is not that they are crazy. It is that they think they hold all the cards and that time is on their side. The nuclear issue is hardly what concerns them.

The difference between Afghanistan and Iraq is that a wrenching crisis can be averted in Afghanistan simply by continuing to do what the United States is already doing. By continuing to do what it is doing in Iraq, the United States inevitably heads into a crisis as the troop level is drawn down.

Obama’s strategy appears to be to continue to carry out operations in Afghanistan, continue to withdraw from Iraq and attempt to deal with Iran through sanctions. This is an attractive strategy if it works. But the argument I am making is that the Afghan strategy can avoid collapse but not with a high probability of success. I am also extremely dubious that sanctions will force a change of course in Iran. For one thing, their effectiveness depends on the actual cooperation of Russia and China (as well as the Europeans). Sufficient exceptions have been given by the Obama administration to American companies doing business with Iran that others will feel free to act in their own self-interest.

But more than that, sanctions can unify a country. The expectations that some had about the Green Revolution of 2009 have been smashed, or at least should have been. There is likely not massive unhappiness with the regime waiting to explode, and we see no signs that the regime can’t cope with existing threats. The sanctions even provide Iran with cover for economic austerity while labeling resistance unpatriotic. As has been argued before, sanctions are an alternative to a solution, making it appear that something is being done when in fact nothing is happening.

There are numerous other issues Obama could address, ranging from Israel to Mexico to Russia. But, in a way, there is no point. Until the United States frees up forces and bandwidth and reduces the dangers in the war zones, it will lack the resources—intellectual and material—to deal with these other countries. It is impossible to be the single global power and focus only on one region, yet it is also impossible to focus on the world while most of the fires are burning in a single region. This, more than any other reason, is why Obama must conclude these conflicts, or at least create a situation where these conflicts exist in the broader context of American interests. There are multiple solutions, all with significant risks. Standing pat is the riskiest.

Domestic Issues

There is a parallel between Obama’s foreign policy problems and his domestic policy problems. Domestically, Obama is trapped by the financial crisis and the resulting economic problems, particularly unemployment. He cannot deal with other issues until he deals with that one. There are a host of foreign policy issues, including the broader question of the general approach Obama wants to take toward the world. The United States is involved in two wars with an incipient crisis in Iran. Nothing else can be addressed until those wars are dealt with.

The decision to focus on domestic issues makes political sense. It also makes sense in a broader way. Obama does not yet have a coherent strategy stretching from Iraq to Afghanistan. Certainly, he inherited the wars, but they are now his. The Afghan war has no clear endpoint, while the Iraq war does have a clear endpoint—one that is enormously dangerous.

It is unlikely that he will be able to avoid some major foreign policy decisions in the coming year. It is also unlikely that he has a clear path. There are no clear paths, and he is going to have to hack his way to solutions. But the current situation does not easily extend past this year, particularly in Iraq and Iran, and they both require decisions. Presidents prefer not making decisions, and Obama has followed that tradition. Presidents understand that most problems in foreign affairs take care of themselves. But some of the most important ones don’t. The Iraq-Iran issue is, I think, one of those, and given the reduction of U.S. troops in 2011, this is the year decisions will have to be made.

George Friedman writes for STRATFOR, from where this article is adapted.


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