ZAKI LAIDI Paris
N o sooner did US President Barack Obama welcome home American troops from Iraq and laud that countrys stability and democracy than an unprecedented wave of violence – across Baghdad and elsewhere – revealed the sev
erity of Iraqs political crisis. Is that crisis an unfortunate exception, or, rather, a symptom of the failure of Obamas Middle East diplomacy, from Egypt to Afghanistan? Upon taking office, Obama set four objectives in the Middle East: stabilize Iraq before leaving it; withdraw from Afghanistan from a position of strength and on the basis of minimal political convergence with Pakistan; achieve a major breakthrough in the Middle East peace process by pushing Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to freeze settlements; and open a dialogue with Iran on the future of its nuclear programme. On these four major issues, Obama has clearly achieved little.
With regard to Iraq, since George W Bushs presidency, the United States has strived to exert a moderating influence on Shia power, so that the country can create a more inclusive political system – specifically, by passing a new law on sharing oil- export revenues among the Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish communities. Unfortunately, the precise opposite happened.
Kurdistan has embarked on a path toward increased autonomy, while the Sunnis are increasingly marginalized by a sectarian and authoritarian Shia- dominated central government. This has implications for the regional balance of power, because Iraq is growing closer to Iran in order to offset Turkey, which is seen as protecting the Sunnis.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al- Malikis remark during a recent trip to Washington that he was more concerned about Turkey than Iran exposed the huge gulf between Iraq and the US, which now appears to have lost all significant political influence on Iraqi affairs. Indeed, in a disturbing development, the US decided not to play its last remaining card in dealing with al- Maliki: arms sales.
There can no longer be any doubt that the occupation of Iraq was a huge strategic defeat for the US, because it ultimately served only to strengthen Iran. Yet Obama lacks a medium- term vision to deal with the seriousness of the situation – an oversight that, sooner or later, will cost the US dearly.
One of two things will happen: either tighter containment of Iran through sanctions on oil exports will produce positive results and weaken Iran, or containment will fail, leading the US inexorably toward a new war in the Middle East. It is not unlikely that some in US foreign- policy circles regard the deepening Iraqi crisis as a building block in constructing the case for military intervention in Iran.
But Obama is nobodys fool. He has registered the US Congresss hostility toward Iran and the desire to confront the Islamic Republic militarily. He believes, however, that he can avoid extreme solutions; in diplomacy, anything can happen, and the worst- case scenario is never guaranteed.
The problem is that Obama has a strong tendency to overestimate Americas ability to influence weaker actors. What is true for Iraq is also true for Afghanistan: Obama can pride himself on having eliminated Osama bin Laden, which was undoubtedly a success, but one that failed to address the root of the problem.
Despite a 10- year military presence, involving the deployment of more than 100,000 troops at a cost of $ 550 billion, the US still has not succeeded in creating a credible alternative to the Taliban.
Worse, its political alliance with Pakistan has frayed.
Indeed, US- Pakistan relations have regressed to their level before September 11, 2001, a time marked by deep mutual distrust. Pakistani leaders obviously bear a heavy responsibility for this state of affairs. But if the US has been unable to involve Pakistan in resolving the Afghanistan conflict, that failure simply reflects Americas refusal to give the Pakistanis what they wanted: a shift in the regional balance of power at the expense of India.
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