The success of Barack Obama’s presidency will depend on his domestic accomplishments: health care, financial reform and the overall state of the economy. His presidency could be wrecked by foreign policy developments; it cannot be redeemed by them. The five big foreign policy challenges that the Administration confronts—North Korea, Iran, Middle East peace, Af-Pak and Iraq—offer no opportunities for big wins, but there could be big losses. It is not clear, one year on, that the President sees things this way, but eventually he will, because that is all reality will offer.
Kim Jong-il may decide, along with the few other people that run North Korea, that it would be wise to end the regime’s nuclear program. Such a decision would not be driven by pressure from outside actors. The Six-Party Talks, now suspended, did not end North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs because the countries that could pressure the regime, South Korea and China, are more worried about destabilization than nuclear weapons. The population of North Korea is 22 million, only about 45 percent that of South Korea. Its per capita income at purchasing power parity is $1,800, less than 7 percent that of South Korea. The collapse of the North Korean regime would present severe challenges for South Korea and burden China as well. While the best outcome for five of the six members of the Six-Party Talks is a non-nuclear and stable North Korea, the second-best outcome for Japan and the United States (and probably Russia) would be a non-nuclear, destabilized North Korea, while the second-best outcome for China and South Korea is a stable, nuclear North Korea. Given this divide, the Obama Administration will not have any more success than the Bush Administration in ending North Korea’s nuclear aspirations.
Iran will get nuclear weapons. This could be a very bad outcome. There are at least four reasons why Iran might use nuclear weapons. First, it would not have an assured second-strike capability, making it more likely that it would launch on warning, including warnings that might be false. Second, internal divisions within the Iranian regime will make it difficult to establish unified control over weapons, making organizational failures, such as mistaken commands that could lead to the use of nuclear weapons, more likely. Third, the millenarian views of some members of the regime, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, could make a war to end history—at least a history dominated by the West—an attractive policy option. Finally, in the face of internal pressure, the regime might calculate that providing weapons to Hizballah could precipitate a crisis that would revive its internal fortunes. The reasons that nuclear weapons have provided stability for the great powers—unambiguous destruction and assured second-strike capability—do not apply to Iran.
Despite the fact that Iranian nukes are so dangerous, the Obama regime will not be able to prevent them. Russia and China will not support the kind of sanctions that might convince the leaders of Iran to reconsider their present course. An attack against Iran by the United States or even Israel might be the best course for long-run world peace, but it would engulf the Administration and weaken its chances of success on domestic issues.
The Obama Administration will not broker a Middle East peace. The Palestinian Authority does not control Gaza. Compromise with Israel would de-legitimize Hamas in the eyes of its own supporters. The mailed fist has worked for Israel: Since the much maligned Lebanon war, attacks from the north have stopped completely; since the war in Gaza, rocket launches have greatly diminished; since the construction of the security barrier and more ambitious IDF operations in the West Bank, terrorist attacks have been tightly controlled. Direct negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis will be futile because the level of distrust between Israel and the Palestinians is prohibitively high. Active third-party engagement by the United States, the European Union, and leading Arab states might, just might, produce a peace deal, but given the demands of his domestic agenda, President Obama will not take on such a role.?
There is no good strategy for Afghanistan. In the 2008 campaign the President described Afghanistan as a war of necessity. In March 2009, he ordered a review of Afghanistan policy, which endorsed a counterinsurgency policy. A counterinsurgency strategy, however, requires a local political structure upon which the components of effective governance, including the military and police, can be placed. Afghanistan does not have such a structure. The Karzai government is not only corrupt, but incompetently corrupt. Foreign assistance and opium create perverse incentives: Public officials become responsive to foreign donors or drug smugglers, not to their own population. Without a stable institutional structure, the idea of building up the Afghan army so that the United States and its allies can withdraw is a chimera. Training is not the problem. The problem is what happens to men after they are trained. Do they take their guns and walk back to their villages or do they remain with their units to fight the Taliban? They will only pursue the latter course if there is a government that can command their loyalty.
The safe haven in Pakistan, which will not be eliminated, precludes a decisive victory over the Taliban, because the interests of Pakistani and American leaders are not aligned. Elements within the Pakistani government have proliferated nuclear weapons, backed terrorism within Afghanistan and India, and protected the Afghan Taliban regime now in exile in Quetta. The Pakistan military will attack those Taliban elements that are a threat to Pakistan. They will not attack the Afghan Taliban, which would be an ally should it ever regain power in Afghanistan. America has given billions of dollars to Pakistan. It is helpful to think of this money as a bribe to the Pakistani military to allow U.S. counter-terrorism operations in the border areas rather than as support for an ally in need of money and materiel.
There are options for Afghanistan that involve a combination of counterinsurgency in areas of the country where effective local authority could be established (something that will be impossible so long as Kabul controls local appointments) and counter-terrorism in Pakistan and areas of Afghanistan where local governance cannot be supported. Turning this option into an operational strategy and selling it to the American public is a challenge that President Obama will have to embrace.
In this sorry list of foreign policy problems, Iraq looks like a bright spot. American troops will withdraw. The present Iraqi governmental structure might remain in place. But a better bet would be that Iraq will be a military dictatorship within five years. Given the institutional weakness of the government and the continued focus on building up Iraq’s security forces, the army will become the strongest institution in the country, as it was during most of Iraq’s modern history. Assuming the military would be prepared to keep Iraq away from transnational terrorism and to maintain a distance from Iran, this might be a satisfactory, although far from ideal, outcome for the United States. An imperfect democratic regime would do more to ensure long-term stability in the country and the region.
Foreign policy is a challenge that Obama must manage rather than master. The President must maintain a stance of activism and engagement despite what must be a recognition that peace in the Middle East, stability in Iraq and Afghanistan, and de-nuclearization in Iran and North Korea are illusory goals. So he must focus on the success of his domestic agenda: That is where positive change is possible.