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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Barack Obama's overseas tour

Barack Obama wants three things out of his tour of the Mideast and Europe. He wants people everywhere to think that he has the answers for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He wants U.S. Jews to believe that he is Israel's unquestioning supporter. And he wants Americans to notice that Europeans would vote for him by a five-to-one majority, if they could vote in U.S. elections.

Americans will notice that, although it will not do him much good among the key group of American voters whose support would make an Obama victory next November a dead certainty: the white poor in decaying rust-belt towns who "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them . . . as a way to explain their frustrations," as he famously put it last spring. Those people are not impressed by the views of foreigners, and they don't automatically vote Democratic any more.

Neither do Jewish Americans, and the Zionist majority among them are deeply suspicious about Obama's commitment to Israel. This is true even though he now toes the line, saying that Israel is just the innocent victim of "the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam." All the history has vanished down the memory hole, and he no longer refers to the underlying issues of conquest and settlement.

Last year's formula that "nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people" has been modified into a more satisfactory "nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people from the failure of the Palestinian leadership to recognize Israel," and Obama now declares that Jerusalem "must remain undivided."

That's enough to win him the neutrality of major Zionist organizations, although they know that he really thinks the situation is more complicated than that. So long as he gets through the Middle Eastern leg of his trip without anybody from Hamas giving him flowers, he'll be all right on that front.

The one foreign policy question that Obama cannot avoid is what to do about Bush's wars. His short-term solution is to couple his long opposition to the "wrong war," Iraq, with a newfound enthusiasm for the "right war": Afghanistan.

Obama's proposal to send an extra 10,000 American troops to fight in Afghanistan will not change the situation there. Even 100,000 American troops wouldn't change it. He may even know that, but this is his only way of dealing with the politically inconvenient fact that Bush's troop "surge" in Iraq has brought about a visible improvement in the local security situation.

The improvement may not last — the Sunni militias, and indeed Muqtada al-Sadr's big Shiite militia, too, may only be biding their time until the Americans leave — but the perception that will dominate the few remaining months until the election is that Iraq is on the way to being an American success story. Obama, quite rightly, opposed the invasion from the start, and is committed to pulling out U.S. combat troops within 16 months of taking office. So how does he fight off the accusation that he risks throwing a victory away?

By arguing that ending the war in Iraq is "essential to meeting our broader strategic goals, starting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban is resurgent and al-Qaida has a safe haven." He is right to want to bail out of Iraq as soon as possible, but he needs the Afghan war to explain it to American voters, who have been persuaded by years of propaganda that the best way to deal with terrorist threats is to invade places.

"I continue to believe that we're under-resourced in Afghanistan," he said in Washington recently. "That is the real center for terrorist activity that we have to deal with and deal with aggressively."

That's nonsense, although it is intoned by media pundits and so-called military analysts in the United States a thousand times a day. No Afghan has ever carried out a terrorist attack in a Western country, and it's not likely to happen in the future, either. Nor can the Afghan insurgency be suppressed by pouring more foreign troops into the country: The Russians had twice as many soldiers in Afghanistan in the 1980s as the West has now, and they still lost.

Not only was invading Iraq in 2003 a ghastly mistake; invading Afghanistan in 2001, although a political necessity in the U.S. after 9/11, was also a strategic error. In terms of neutralizing Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, more would have been achieved, at a far lower cost, by placing the country under a strict blockade and quarantine. In the end, Western troops will have to leave Afghanistan again, and if that means that the Taliban regain control (which is not actually very likely), then quarantine may yet have to be the long-term solution.

Does Obama realize this? Maybe not, for it is not yet accepted by any large group of American "foreign policy experts," including his own advisers. But the line about needing to pull out of Iraq in order to have a better chance of "winning" in Afghanistan sounds plausible enough to get him through the next few months.

So his trip will be a success so long as he sticks with the platitudes while he's in the Middle East, and avoids too much adulation while he's in Europe.

Gwynne Dyer's latest book, "After Iraq," was published in London recently by Yale University Press.

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