Obama’s Arc of Crisis

The Majalla |

By Parag Khanna

What was, what is, and what might be yet to come after Obama’s first year in office.

The first year of Obama’s administration has passed so quickly that it would be unfair to focus only on reviewing the events of the past twelve months without examining with equal vigor the trends that Obama’s election and foreign policy have set in motion and scenarios for the year ahead.

At the outset, it is important to note that in a year which for Obama was equally marked by domestic and foreign policy crises—with issues like the economic recession blurring that divide—the U.S. did not take the course that many would have predicted: retrenchment. Instead, he made four major trips overseas, his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, seems to have spent as much time abroad as in Washington, and special envoys were appointed to focus round-the-clock on Palestine, Afghanistan-Pakistan, North Korea, and other hot-spots.

Within Obama’s first one hundred days, he over-turned decades of American foreign policy which sought to identify and isolate so-called “rogue states” or “states of concern.” He reached out in a variety of ways to Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea and others, instigating a positive dynamic whose potential, though yet to be realized in any of these cases, holds promise for the future. Equally importantly, he set a new tone in relations with major powers, particularly Russia as it relates to arms control and China on re-balancing the global economy. This makes him the first American president to truly appreciate the reality of a multi-polar world and a geopolitical marketplace in which not even a superpower has enough leverage to isolate its enemies when other great powers can engage and provide them with diplomatic, financial, and military lifelines. Taken together, this shift in diplomatic mentality and tone was the main justification for Obama being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Ultimately, however, Obama will be judged on whether or not he is deserving of that prize on the basis of his handling of the arc of crisis stretching from the Near East to Central Asia. This is the region where American interests and the lives of its troops are continuously on the line.


Palestine remains an ever-present thorn in the side of the White House. Already during the U.S. presidential campaign there were mixed signals over his position, with Hillary Clinton (who later became Secretary of State) signaling resolute commitment to Israel, and the Obama campaign sacking a prominent advisor for his non-governmental dialogues with Hamas. Several attempts at generating early momentum through Israeli-Palestinian summits were met with an icy reception as newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to punish Obama for his criticism of West Bank settlement expansion. Even when they finally met, it only served to highlight the divide between these historic allies.

One year on, there is less reason to be hopeful than in past years. A two-state solution has become the outcome most profess to want and few are working towards. No particular “road map” or “peace plan”—whether American, Saudi, or Israeli—stands out as having sufficiently broad appeal. Expressing pre-emptive frustration with the lack of American support for the Arab peace plan, Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal declared early this year, “We don’t want any new American plan from Obama. Just help us implement the existing ones.” George Mitchell, Obama’s special envoy for the conflict, continues in vain to do just that.

Then there is the question of what will it take to deliver a breakthrough in the coming year and beyond. First, there must be reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah rather than a counter-productive civil war across the two Bantustans of the West Bank and Gaza. Only then can the Palestinians regain negotiating strength vis-à-vis Israel. For its part, Israel is best served reining in its increasingly pugnacious settlers before they become a destabilizing force in Israel itself. That they support Netanyahu has created a deep rift between Israel’s stated policy and its actual practice, and the consequences could be severe for Israel as much as for the Palestinian territories. Foreign powers and donors then need to get on the same page. Egypt’s renewed role as a corridor and broker in Gaza must be used constructively to lift the territory from its chaotic, disheveled state towards investments in factories and the seaport. The so-called “arc” of road and rail infrastructure linking Gaza and the West Bank must vigorously move ahead, creating jobs and physically building Palestinian unity. Independence without infrastructure is futile.


2009 will be remembered as the year that Afghanistan replaced Iraq in America’s geopolitical conscience, and yet in 2010 Iraq may remain as much a headache as ever. Even as the U.S. quickly draws down the number of troops active there, constant car bombings attributable to Sunni insurgent militias targeting the Shi’a led government, military and police of Nouri Al Maliki are indicative of how fragile the veneer of Iraqi democracy remains. Particularly the country’s election law, still biased against minorities and reinforcing the Maliki bloc and Maliki’s powers, remains contentious with no workable compromise in sight. There is good news in foreign investment moving ahead in the energy sector, but energy prices have fallen and Iraq remains some time away from operating at full capacity.

Even more fundamentally, that Iraq will remain a single, sovereign, unified state remains an open question. Federalism is of course preferred by the Arab Sunni and Shi’a populations, but the northern Kurds clearly have different ambitions. As one of their guerilla leaders, Jalal Talabani, transitions out of the national presidency, Kurdish calculations could shift even further in 2010. With the Kirkuk census postponed indefinitely, so too is genuine clarity as to what territories will actually constitute Iraq several years from now.

Given the Kurdistan Regional Government’s success in recruiting foreign investors, warming relations with its neighbors, especially Turkey, and serving as a willing host to residual U.S. forces, we can see where Kurdish plans are eventually, and justifiably, headed. Indeed, if Kurdistan can balance its landlocked geography with a stable role as an energy source for pipelines across Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, then all sides could benefit. But we can just as soon imagine that the vacuum left by the withdrawal o U.S. forces will gradually give way to a Saudi-Iranian, Sunni-Shi’a proxy war over the rump Iraq – with Iraq again being the loser.


Obama’s greatest personal disappointment with respect to his first year handling Mideast diplomacy must surely be Iran. The Islamic Republic, sometimes mentioned by name but always implied during Obama’s lofty campaign speeches, was meant to be the main thrust of his “open hand” foreign policy. Iran’s June 2009 presidential election, however, pushed both the country and Obama into a lurch. How could he extend a hand to a regime which rigged elections and so brutally cracked down on protestors led by a dignified opposition candidate? Furthermore, how to find a window and interlocutor in Iran in the midst of the most open confrontations within Iran’s otherwise labyrinth and opaque leadership since 1979?

And yet Obama made the right decision in two ways. He didn’t wag his finger at Iranian president Ahmadinejad, knowing too well that this would only bolster his anti-imperialist credentials on the Iranian street. But Obama also resumed the nuclear dialogue with Iran at the first decent moment, giving the green light to a face-to-face meeting between State Department veteran William Burns and Iranian negotiator Saad Jalili.

Nonetheless, revelations as to a third major nuclear reactor program and announcement of a dozen more planned facilities—the former as disturbing as the latter is farcical—now drive the options and possibilities for engagement with Iran more than any shift in American doctrine. Obama will largely be in reactive mode over the coming months: reactive to Iranian decisions, IAEA reports, and Israeli intimations. It may be up to the Iranian people, who continue to agitate daily while breaking through barricades in more visible clashes every few months, to change the internal dynamic which now stands in the way of external diplomacy.

“Af-Pak” or “Pak-Af”?

It is likely that no geopolitical hotspot will define Obama’s presidency like Afghanistan-Pakistan. Obama spent 2008 on the campaign and 2009 as president making South-Central Asia his war, and in 2010 we will all bear witness to the impact of strategies finally shaped over the past year. The surge of 30,000 troops, bringing the overall NATO total to over 100,000, will have precisely eighteen months to achieve marked progress in Afghanistan, as measured by training effective Afghan security and police forces, pushing the Taliban out of major urban centers across the country, and establishing sound provincial and district level governance. Each of these goals is fraught with nearly insurmountable obstacles. The Afghan National Army remains a rag-tag force, riddled with ethnic tensions, poor training and equipment, frequent desertions and high turnover. Indeed, it remains unclear as to whether supporting such a long-term project of Afghan “national security” is at all in anyone’s interest, not least given its likely infeasibility. Co-opting and partnering with local community and tribal militias seems a sounder strategy given the social fragmentation of Afghan society and the tight deadlines NATO forces are working under. Secondly, two years is not a long time for the Taliban to wait in the mountains as they have been trained to do for decades. They could still overwhelm urban centers after Western forces withdraw just as they have almost effortlessly swarmed in and around under NATO’s very eyes in recent years. The strategy to reinforce sound local governance remains the best one, hopefully generating a momentum and stability which Afghans themselves will prize enough to want to fight off the Taliban. But it is by no means guaranteed that it can work as quickly as the Obama administration and American public would like.

Then there is the “Pak-Af” view, namely that nuclear-armed, over-populated, and strategically located Pakistan is the far more pressing regional crisis, and while any gains in Afghanistan will likely not resonate beyond the immediate region, failure in and of Pakistan may have global repercussions. America’s response to this, the Kerry-Lugar legislation offering $1.5 billion in annual non-military assistance, unfortunately carries many of the same flaws which characterized American assistance in the 1980s: pouring millions of dollars into ministries better skilled at hiding, squandering, and siphoning funds than using them for service delivery to the people. Ramping up America’s embassy in Islamabad to staff over 1,000 people also seems like a robust complement, but few if any of these Foreign Service officers and security personnel will have the requisite local knowledge to build leverage within the Pakistani establishment to ensure that the money is spent right.

There is positive potential in special envoy Richard Holbrooke’s convening of Afghan and Pakistani ministers in the areas of intelligence, border control, and economy, but ingrained strategic calculations continue to trump America’s hopes. Pakistan sees America’s withdrawal from the region as imminent, justifying its perennial pursuit of “strategic depth” in a weakened Afghanistan while also trumpeting inflated fears of a proxy struggle with India there as well. Still, the long-neglected regional approach, which encourages Indian development projects, Chinese natural resource investments, and Iranian gas pipelines, is the only strategy which can meaningfully embed both countries in a regional architecture that withstands America’s looming military exit. Landlocked regions cannot be occupied from afar forever.

Looking Back to Look Ahead

The entire Southwest Asia, Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, and Indian Ocean region is becoming the geopolitical center of gravity. From nuclear proliferation to energy security to piracy, the main choke points, threats, risks, protagonists, antagonists, imperial forces and rising powers are all ever more present here.

What is the fate of America in this Greater Middle East? A worst-case scenario comes to mind not from an analysis of the past year, but rather from a powerful analogy a half-century old: the 1956 Suez Crisis. Then it was Britain and France, desperately clinging to influence in a decolonized region, who responded to Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal by plotting with Israel to invade the Sinai and restore European control over the canal’s operations. The U.S. responded by threatening to dump the Pound/Sterling, Saudi Arabia embargoed oil exports to Britain and France, and the United Nations launched its first major peacekeeping operation in the Sinai. The consequences were long-lasting: Britain was humiliated and never again projected significant military power overseas, France lost trust in its European and NATO allies and pursued its own nuclear weapons program (which then benefited Israel), and, lesser known, Canada changed its flag to the Maple Leaf to remove any symbols of association with British colonialism.

Could America’s Iraq blunder, heavy military footprint in the region, and waning diplomatic credibility combine into a perfect storm which leads to its eventual ejection? While small Persian Gulf states such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates value America’s security umbrella vis-à-vis Iran, Saudi Arabia has increased its courting of India and China as strategic partners in the energy and military sectors. There is no immediate replacement for American hegemony in the Middle East, but most in the region would prefer to fumble along in their own affairs that continue under America’s gaze. Obama’s first year gives only faint hope that he can reverse that view – if indeed it is even desirable to do so.

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