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Does health care reform mean Obama really does have a Middle East strategy?

What does last night's victory on health care reform say about President Obama's Middle East strategy? A lot of people have already pointed out how it could strengthen his hand abroad by showing domestic strength, free up bandwidth to engage more vigorously on foreign policy, or reduce his need to cater to Congress on key issues.  All of those may be true, but I had a slightly different reaction.  For most of the last year, I've been torn between two general views of Obama's Middle East policy. One says that he's got no strategy, that his team is making things up as it goes, reacting to events, and has no clear idea of how to achieve his lofty goals. The other says that he's been playing a long game, keeping his eye on the long-term objective while others get lost in the tactics and the public theatrics.  I've gone back and forth, hoping it's the latter while seeing way too many signs of the former.  I still don't know which is right, but last night's  passage of health care reform suggests that maybe, just maybe, his administration really does know how to play a long game... in the Middle East as well as on domestic priorities. 

The "no strategy" perspective doesn't need much rehearsal, since we all know it quite well. In this version, Obama stumbled into a useless and losing battle with the Israeli government over settlements and has neither recovered the confidence of the Israelis  nor satisfied Arabs or Palestinians. His administration has been overly focused on getting to negotiations for their own sake, with little conception of how those negotiations will produce the desired outcome of a two-state solution. Meanwhile, goes this argument, Obama has pursued engagement with Iran despite its limited prospects, pursuing talks for the sake of talks and ignoring calculated insults and historic opportunities to push for regime change.  This is pretty much the Washington DC conventional wisdom (which is almost in itself a good reason to believe that it's wrong).

The "long game" version is that Obama has a signature method when tackling difficult, long-term objectives, whether health care, Israeli-Palestinian peace or Iran. Obama's method is to lay out an ambitious but realistic final status objective in stark terms and then to let political hardball unfold around those objectives. His most fervent opposition gets more and more outraged, raising the rhetorical pitch until they discredit themselves with key mainstream audiences who recoil from their overheated, apocalyptic and nutty words. And then, just as the Washington DC conventional wisdom declares his ambition dead, they suddenly wake up to the reality that he's won. How'd that happen? The final outcome isn't as pure as many would like, but it's nevertheless a substantial, major achievement against all expectations.

So does health care reform offer a roadmap for Obama's Middle East strategy? On Iran, this has been a fairly explicit strategy. Obama's "two track engagement" involved reaching out to Iran with an open hand, sort of like he did to Republicans on health care. If they took up the offer, great -- he gets a negotiated grand bargain with widespread, bipartisan support. If they don't, then he is in a much stronger position to paint them as obstructionists with a relevant audience -- independents in U.S. politics, the international community in the case of Iran.  And while the battle is waged openly over broad public opinion, much of the real action is focused on a few key swing votes (shaky Democrats in health care, China and Russia and various Arab and Muslim states on Iran sancti0ns).  I suppose that if you wanted to extend the metaphor, the Green Movement and the Tea Parties would play similar roles, albeit in opposite directions --- unexpected outbursts of popular anger and mobilization which throw off the momentum of the strategy (and may or may not ultimately matter when the final scorecard is read).  The "long game" read of the health-care/Iran comparison then would suggest a coherent, common method to dealing with intractable problems.

Obama's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian  conflict is less explicitly constructed along the health care reform/Iran model, but there are still similarities. Obama laid out a grand vision of a two-state solution which would finally deal with an intractable issue which most reasonable people have long agreed needed to be resolved for moral and strategic reasons.  Many people warned that he was over-reaching. Others were frustrated that he seemed to be playing too passive a role, leaving a floundering process to his deputies (George Mitchell, Congressional Democrats). Some complained that he was going way too far, others that he wasn't going nearly far enough. The optimistic, "long game" view would be that  the Obama administration has patiently suffered Netanyahu's provocations in order to allow the Israeli government to reveal itself as outside the mainstream and unreasonable, and win over mainstream support for the American vision. When the theatrics are over, hard-ball politics will commence, Obama will engage personally at the closing stages, and a realistic final status agreement will be reached which doesn't satisfy the purists on either side but which represents a major accomplishment far beyond what had been previously expected. 

 So is there really a "long game"? I still really don't know. The problem with long games is that they can get derailed by day to day turbulence, even if they are well-conceived -- especially if people panic. The media and policy crowd can rarely follow a long game, since they tend to be distracted by bright shiny balls and over-react to the latest headlines. Even a well-conceived long game strategy  might be internally flawed:  in Iran, for instance, the focus on sanctions rather than on a grand bargain may be a conceptual flaw in the long-game itself, while in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the conceptual flaw may be the over-reliance on the existing Palestinian Authority, under-appreciation of the significance of Gaza, a failure to grapple with the ongoing demographic and physical transformations of the West Bank, and the limited appetite for peacemaking in today's Israeli public. 

I wouldn't push this too far. But Obama's health care victory should at least get people to reconsider the strategic logic behind his administration's Middle East strategy... and give at least some support for the optimistic reading that on the big picture, Obama may actually know what he's doing. 

AFP/Getty Images

Marc Lynch

AQ-Iraq's counter counter-insurgency manual

All Iraq-watching eyes are quite naturally focused on the election results which continue to dribble in, with some hope of final results soon.   There's plenty to watch: Ayad Allawi's Iraqiyya list edging ahead of Nuri al-Maliki's State of  Law, a six vote difference between the Kurdistan Alliance and Iraqiyya in Kirkuk, escalating complaints of fraud, the taunting of prominent individuals who performed badly in the open list voting system.  We'll have to wait even longer for the final results to be processed through the complex reallocation of votes from losing lists to those over the threshold.  But in the meantime, I've been mulling over an interesting document which I just found on the forums:  A Strategic Plan to Improve the Political Position of the Islamic State of Iraq.   Call it the jihadist version of David Petraeus's FM 3-24, a counter-counterinsurgency manual and a frank lessons-learned analysis by an adaptive and resilient organization which has not given up in the face of setbacks.   How does al-Qaeda in Iraq's umbrella organization hope to rekindle the spark of jihad?

The 55 page document, published under a pseudonym, is a remarkably frank "lessons learned" analysis which does not shy away from identifying where the ISI's strategy went wrong.   It's not an "official" document, whatever that means, but it's fascinating nonetheless and demonstrates some deep thinking about the fortunes of the Islamic State in Iraq.    It explains its setbacks, which it argues came at the height of its power and influence, on what it calls two smart and effective U.S. moves in 2006-07: an effective U.S. media and psychological campaign, which convinced many that the "mujahideen" had committed atrocities against Iraqis and killed thousands of Muslims; and the Awakenings, achieved through its manipulation of the tribes and the "nationalist resistance."   The document doesn't mention the "Surge" much at all, at least not in terms of the troop escalation which most Americans have in mind.     

Building upon a lengthy post-mortem on the Awakenings and the media campaigns, the Strategic Plan sets out a detailed agenda for the coming years during and after the U.S. withdrawal.   It calls the coming war "a political and media war to the first degree", with the winner "the side that best prepares for the period following the withdrawal."  It recognizes that the Islamic State can not control all of Iraq through military force alone, and that only a wise political strategy can succeed.  It then offers a detailed five point plan, including a process to unify the ranks of the jihad, in part by reaching out to the old nationalist resistance and convincing them to return to the fold;  detailed military preparations, including recommendations to conserve men and resources until the right time; and an enhanced media operation designed to rebut the most damaging charges against the Islamic State and carefully tied to a coherent political strategy.  Perhaps its most striking concept is a detailed plan for creating "Jihadist Awakenings", mimicking the U.S. engagement of the tribes to create broader popular support.  

This is one of the more interesting documents from the Iraq-focused forums I've come across in a while -- pragmatic and analytical rather than bombastic, surprisingly frank about what went wrong, and alarmingly creative about the Iraqi jihad's way forward.   I've said often that I find a resurgence of the Sunni insurgency unlikely at this point, for many reasons, and this document does little to change that assessment.  Unifying the former insurgency is easier said than done, the Iraqi political process and state capabilities have changed dramatically, and the damage to the image of the Islamic State isn't fading.   But this is a reminder that the insurgency was adaptive and resilient, is capable of adjusting its strategy to new conditions, can learn from its mistakes, and will try to take advantage of any Sunni frustrations in the coming years.    Even if the insurgency isn't on the brink of resuming, and Iraq isn't yet unraveling, this is the sort of thing to which I hope the right people are still paying attention.   

 UPDATE (Monday):   A number of people have asked for a copy of the document. I've emailed it to those who asked over email, while others want me to post it here. I've been leery of posting or linking directly to documents from the jihadist forums since some unpleasantness a while back with people, shall we say, following the links back.    But since so many people have asked, I'll make an exception, post the link to al-Hanein, and hope I don't regret it!