The news was not good when Barack Obama opened his newspapers upon returning to work from his Easter holiday (assuming that the American president had a holiday, beyond a family photo-op at church).
There are no good options on the horizon, many analysts say, for reining in Mr. Karzai or for penalizing him, without potentially damaging Western interests. . . .Many fear the relationship is only likely to become worse, as Mr. Karzai draws closer to allies like Iran and China, whose interests are often at odds with those of the West, and sounds sympathetic enough to the Taliban that he could spur their efforts, helping their recruitment and further destabilizing the country.
The Iraqi capital echoed with explosions . . . as insurgents sought to exploit political uncertainties created by painstakingly slow talks on forming a new government, with three suicide car bombings at diplomatic targets killing dozens of people and other scattered attacks disrupting areas across Baghdad. It was the third day in a row of violent attacks . . .The furious drumbeat of attacks, at a delicate moment, was taken as a concerted attempt by insurgents to retake the initiative after years of retreat and to undermine confidence in Iraq's security forces as the American-led forces proceed with their withdrawal of all combat troops from the country before September.
From this part of the Middle East, Palestinians continue to talk about a unilateral declaration of independence while the Israeli government (without whom such a declaration is likely to be meaningless) continues its extended holiday without responding to American demands for concessions.
Beyond the details that may be sufficiently depressing for official Washington lies the possibility that we are seeing signs of the limits to American power. Perhaps Obama's preference for engagement is not enough. Or there may be nothing that is enough when three focal points of American foreign policy initiatives are beyond the capacity of the United States to obtain what its president wants.
Afghanistan is a prize that no one should desire. Its ostensible leader (it is doubtful that anyone can claim to be a national leader in that sizable place forever confounded by ethnic, tribal, and local divisions) may simply want to be left alone to select those who may help him navigate the problems of staying in office, without holier than thou Americans bothering him about corruption, opium, or sticking to their targets for defeating their enemies. Who better than the leaders of Iran and China to provide him with options, each of which has a border with Afghanistan, and is tangling with the United States?
Iraq is a different problem, but no less complicated by ethnic and religious divisions, as well as sharing borders with, Syria, Iran, and Turkey. Not only can the Iranians aid their fellow Shi'ites but they can also cause problems for the United States while they are at it. Syrians and Turks can continue to tweak the tail of the American eagle with bits of assistance and bits of nuisance, depending on circumstances.
In none of this are there issues of great power defeat or victory, but the scoring of points.
Not the stuff of serious players?
Start with the recent Obama victory in health care. It looks to me that the united Republican opposition had more to do with political points than actually shaping policy on an important issue. If policy had been primary, surely they could have contributed some of their votes to a deal on features important to them.
Or maybe the Democrats were scoring points, and taking advantage of an opportunity to keep the Republicans in a corner, away from the policy goodies?
The points to be won in Afghanistan and Iraq have to do with frustrating the proclaimed goals of the current American president. The Chinese and Iranians do not expect to take over the United States, Afghanistan, or Iraq, but to remind the White House of its place while they continue to do what is important for them.
Palestinian assertions are the weakest and most pathetic of those considered here. While there are many in Palestine and elsewhere who would applaud a unilateral declaration of independence as a way of scoring points against Israel, they would be well to remember Rhodesia's UDI (unilateral declaration of independence), supported at the time by little more than South Africa and right wing English speakers in several other places. Palestine has been down this road before. What claimed to be the legislative body of the Palestine Liberation Organization declared the independence of Palestine in 1988, at a time with the organization was isolated in a small patch of Algiers. The issue surfaced again with speculation that Yassir Arafat was maneuvering toward such a declaration in 2000. That was at the beginning of the second intifada. At one of its later events Arafat's successors had to clear some of the rubble in the courtyard of their headquarters building in order to make room for his grave.
For some years now one or another formulation of a Palestinian ruling body has enjoyed diplomatic recognition in many countries, perhaps 100 or more, but it is not close to control over what may be described as even a limited version of what they claim as their own.
Points here, points there. It's a tough game these international politics. No victories that last for long. Always another nuisance, or worse, to spoil one's conception of the good life.
Is there any solution other than whimsical acceptance?
Some issues are worth fighting for, but they must be chosen with care. It is better to pursue points or frustrate an adversary than to send in the troops whose eventual removal is likely to be problematic. But on occasion it is appropriate to use force.
One question for us powerless, but curious folks is: Is it appropriate for Israel to do what damage it can to the nuclear facilities of a government whose leader says time and again that Israel must be destroyed?
Someone with more authority than me will have to answer that, one way or the other, sooner or later.
Given the failure of engagement and sanctions, continued threats from Tehran, and the problems likely to be associated with an Israeli attack, it is not wise to wager too much on what course will be chosen. Or on the outcomes of whatever is chosen.
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at April 05, 2010 01:02 AM
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem