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With the United States fighting two wars on foreign soil, Barack Obama promises to end the bad one, in Iraq, and to escalate the good one, in Afghanistan. He still opposes the troop surge that has dramatically lowered the level of violence in Iraq even as he proposes a troop surge sure to increase the violence in Afghanistan.
That course would appear to suit most Americans, who are weary of the war in Iraq but share Obama’s view that Afghanistan is "the central front” in the war against terrorism. But how long will Americans be willing to stay the course in Afghanistan, which could become another quagmire? And what price are they willing to pay in blood and treasure? The cost of a protracted war, even a good one, would burden the domestic agenda of an Obama presidency, making it more difficult to fund his health care plan and provide middle-class tax relief without adding trillions of dollars to the national debt.
Obama is right when he says the situation in Afghanistan is "precarious and urgent” and that more troops are needed to turn back a Taliban resurgence. More Americans were killed in Afghanistan last month than in Iraq. However, he risks making a costly mistake if he believes there is a military solution to Afghanistan’s problems.
The troop surge Obama proposed would have to come mostly from the stressed ranks of U.S. forces, including many now serving in Iraq. Our NATO allies have made it clear we cannot count on them to share more of the military burden. Obama also must know that a military escalation would increase civilian casualties in Afghanistan, making it even harder to win the popular support the U.S. military will need for a successful outcome. Before you know it, Afghanistan could feel like pre-surge Iraq.
In a Financial Times commentary, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, warned Obama to be careful not to stumble into the trap Afghanistan has been for foreign occupiers.
"It is important for U.S. policy in general and for Obama more specifically to recognize that simply putting more troops into Afghanistan is not the entire solution,” wrote Brzezinski, an Obama supporter. "We are running the risk of repeating the mistake the Soviet Union made. . . . Our strategy is getting in deeper and deeper.”
In his talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Obama focused on military concerns, with little or no discussion about the country’s poverty, government corruption and other travails. These concerns are not meant to dim the afterglow of Obama’s trip last week to the Middle East and Europe to burnish his foreign policy credentials.
By almost any measure, the trip was a political tour de force, the debut of American political theater on a global stage. Obama’s star power was in full glow. The images, including the one of him speaking to a crowd of 200,000 Germans in Berlin, were Reaganesque, if not quite presidential. Obama is the anti-Bush much of the world has been waiting for, and he plays that role almost flawlessly.
The apparent Democratic nominee navigated the Israeli-Palestinian political minefield without a misstep. He met with U.S. military commanders, chowed down with the troops and held talks with the leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama held firm on his promise to withdraw most U.S. combat troops from Iraq in his first 16 months as commander in chief.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, warned against a timetable. But Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, said Obama’s withdrawal plan sounded about right to him. It was enough to make John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee who has supported the war — and the surge — from day one, appear almost irrelevant to the Iraq debate.
Beyond the imagery and lofty rhetoric, what should Americans make of Obama’s big adventure abroad? It was more show than substance, more about domestic politics than about what an Obama foreign policy would look like. Except for his withdrawal timetable in Iraq, Obama was careful not to stray too far from the Bush administration’s line on Israeli security, the threat of a nuclear Iran, and the need for more troops in Afghanistan.
Obama reassured Israelis — and Jewish-American voters back home — that he would not pressure Israel to make any concessions to Palestinians that would compromise Israel’s security. About the only thing he offered the Palestinians was a promise to make the peace process a priority on his first day in office.
On Israel’s main security concern these days — a nuclear-armed Iran — Obama could have been reading from President Bush’s script. An Iran with nuclear weapons would be a "game-changing” development that the West could not tolerate, Obama said during his visit to Israel. Like Bush, he said that while he would prefer to use high-level diplomacy and sanctions to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear program, he would "take no options off the table” in confronting Iran’s nuclear threat.
Israeli hawks, including conservative opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, praised Obama’s hawkish stance on Iran.
Anyone expecting Obama to chart a new course in Middle East had to be disappointed. As the world could learn soon enough, Obamania is no substitute for a wise foreign policy grounded more in dangerous realities than in domestic politics.
(Philip Gailey is editor of editorials for the St. Petersburg Times. E-mail gailey(at)sptimes.com)