The current era, the twilight of George W. Bush's administration, is a bad one for the United States. Sullied, humiliated, ridiculed, the object of scorn among many on every continent, island, and yacht on the face of the globe. If, during the harshest, most repressive years of the Soviet Union people would sing "Stalin is our father, Russia is our mother, I wish we were orphans," today Bush and America take their place in those lyrics, sung in all the world's languages. How great it will be without those annoying, bellicose, coarse cowboys; how tempting it is to hope that Barack Obama's dawn of a new day is just around the corner.
Except that it is premature to eulogize America, and it is not too late to recall that without the cowboy at the helm, the herd will disperse into a wild stampede. Who will replace America? Conditionally-united Europe? Tyrannical China? What will happen if the knights of progress, in countries whose economies have flourished thanks to smaller defense budgets, get their wish and the Americans understand that they are no longer wanted, hole themselves up at home, close the window shutters, and dissolve their alliances?
Sanctimonious naivete already suffered a blow this year when Russia smelled weakness and attacked Georgia. Indeed, James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, believes both Russia and China preferred to adopt a more cautious policy during the ongoing financial crisis, a move that stems from those countries' mutual dependency on the global economy. Were Moscow and Beijing to choose a more adventurous route, it would put a much heavier strain on America's military alignment. Some bitter surprises likely await the next president.
American isolationism will likely rouse potentially nuclear powers from their comas - countries like Germany and Japan, Australia and Turkey, South Korea and Taiwan. The new nuclear world will become a nightmare.
The illusion that a policy pursued by Obama, were he to win the election, would be the polar opposite of that of his opponent, John McCain, or Bush for that matter, will dissipate within a matter of months. In some people's imagination, Obama is the non-American American, a man for every race and religion, the individual to be chosen by the world to represent it in a summit meeting with the leader of the aliens from Mars. In reality, he is a politician who must initially make every effort to shore up his home base.
The next Congress will sport a Democratic majority, one that will not have a moment to rest on its laurels, since the entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate will be subject to a reevaluation in the November 2010 elections. If they are held responsible for failure, they are liable to find themselves ousted in favor of a Republican majority, similar to the one led by Newt Gingrich two years after Bill Clinton's victory in the presidential elections.
Obama's room for maneuver will be very limited. He knows what will be said of him if he tries to be a revolutionary. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is held in very high regard by Obama and his aides, denounced the first two defense secretaries who served in the Truman administration, James Forrestal (who committed suicide) and Louis Johnson, as mentally unstable. Johnson was a big proponent of severe cuts in the defense budget.
Much like James Baker - the secretary of state in Bush senior's administration who told Americans following Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait that the three critical issues hanging in the balance were "jobs, jobs, jobs," - Obama last week focused on the word "jobs" in discussing the significance of the financial crisis and its impact on every American household. What he did not say, though, was that the crisis also has political and security implications: the U.S. will not allow other players, be they regional powers who threaten sources of energy or groups or organizations that challenge the existing world order, to put a stranglehold on the job market. The traditional American strategy, which was undermined by the September 11, 2001 attacks, was based on halt and respond, rather than initiate and thwart. Small countries like Israel act when their backs are to the wall. With their jobs to the wall, American presidents go on the offense.
When the West is preoccupied with the bank, the West Bank returns to its natural, truncated proportions. Israel's basic instincts could tempt it to passively wait for outside diplomatic initiatives. As long as fanatical Iran is fanning the flames from Iraq (from which the Americans are slated to evacuate most, if not all, their forces by 2011) to Lebanon to Gaza, there will be no stable regional order in the Middle East. As such, a confrontation with an Iran unwilling to moderate its positions is inevitable, though Israel must remain on the positive side of the calculus by sincerely striving for peace with all its neighbors, whether it chooses to start from the Palestinian track and move outward to the Syrian-Lebanese envelope, continuing on to the Persian Gulf, or vice versa.
In light of the emerging circumstances, Israel must be convincing in its claim that it is solely interested in security rather than maintaining land acquired through war. A new era is set to begin in Washington. Since the U.S. will not break its budget promises to supply military equipment to Israel on a multi-year basis, the political support from which this aid is derived will be conditioned on Israel's behavior.
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