Iraq is responsible for Barack Obama. Only later, much later, came the economic crisis and the collapse of Wall Street, the well-oiled election machine and the budgets of hundreds of millions, Oprah Winfrey and Bruce Springsteen. But when the almost unknown senator from Illinois announced his daring candidacy for the presidency in the heavy snow of the winter of 2007, the tailwind was supplied by his opposition to the war in Iraq.
Obama was distinguished from Hillary Clinton and the other leading candidates by the fact that he came out against the war at its inception. Like Senator Eugene McCarthy in 1967, Obama garnered sweeping support even though he came from the margins, because he was the outstanding antiwar candidate. He opposed Bush's war in Iraq from the start, and he made the most far-reaching proposal: to end the war quickly.
Obama's proposal was a disaster. Had it been adopted, the United States would not have tried the new Bush-McCain-Petraeus "surge" campaign, which has dramatically calmed Iraq in the past year. Had his position been adopted, the United States would have withdrawn within 16 months and left behind it an Iraq in flames, an unstable Middle East and a world with rising extremism.
The fact that the outgoing president made a mistake in becoming embroiled in Iraq does not blur the fact that the president-designate was mistaken in proposing to escape from that entanglement. Obama's worldview from his ultra-dovish home in Chicago was no less simplistic and dangerous than Bush's worldview from his Texas ranch. Had Obama been sitting in the White House last year and implemented his policy, the world would have been a much more dangerous place than it is today.
Next year Obama will be sitting in the White House. He will try to heal the sick economy and mend a divided society, but the world will not wait. The Iranian bomb is ticking, the war in Afghanistan is encountering difficulties, and Pakistan may be the biggest danger of all. From Islamabad to the Gaza coast, from the Taliban to Hamastan, western Asia is bubbling with threats. Some of the possible scenarios are horror stories.
Obama must formulate an overall, balanced and level-headed worldview to deal with these scenarios. If he doesn't, he will quickly discover that just as the Middle East ignited his torch, the Middle East is liable to extinguish it. If he is as simplistic and one-dimensional as Bush, he will sink like Bush in the quicksand of a merciless continent.
The conclusion is clear: Obama must not return to the narrow-minded ideological thinking that caused him to propose what he did in early 2007. He must formulate a policy that does not ignore the rules of the game in the world's toughest neighborhood of bullies. He must use his insight into history to prove that he is not just another naive democrat heading straight to hell on the path of good intentions.
Obama must rid himself of political correctness and courageously face the cruel reality. In a painful and deep process he must find his own unique synthesis. He must combine the desire for peace and justice with an understanding of the laws of physics of conflict and power.
The first mission is Iran. It is also the big opportunity. Thanks to man and God Obama has received a year of grace. He must not miss the opportunity. Anyone who understands that a nuclear bomb in Iranian hands is intolerable, but attacking Iran is unacceptable, must use the year of grace to create a third way. Obama is the perfect choice to be the admiral of the third way. He can harness his popularity to get Europe to apply tough sanctions on Iran. He can use his diplomatic sophistication to get Russia and China to join the international sanctions against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Obama can leverage his unique moral status to get the moderate Islamic world as well to help stop Shi'ite nuclearization.
Obama can be a genuine world leader who leads in preventing a global crisis as bad as the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. To formulate and implement the third way, he must leave Jimmy Carter-style conciliation behind. He must understand that just as Carter's weakness was responsible for Iran falling to Khomeini's extremism, a Carter-style Obama is liable to be responsible for a large part of the Middle East falling to extremism.
If that happens, no enlightened plans for health insurance, education and environmental protection will help. If Obama does not stop the ayatollahs' centrifuges, he will be a worse president than even George W. Bush. On the other hand, if he chooses to be John F. Kennedy rather than Jimmy Carter and demonstrates creative diplomatic determination, he will not only be the great dream he is now. He will be its fulfillment.
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