Counting out his revolutions judiciously
Last week, America came together in a massive celebration to inaugurate its new president, Barack Hussein Obama. But elsewhere in the world, not everyone who cheered for Obama is prepared to forgo assets and ambitions for his sake. Obama's domestic campaign for re-election in 2012 kicked off last week and will continue without pause, with the halftime whistle being blown at the mid-term Congressional elections in November 2010. His global campaign will proceed in tandem.
Obama faces two fundamental choices - whether to risk an attempt to foster radical change or whether to try and preserve the status quo and avert disasters. He isn't out to be yet another one in a long and dreary line of presidents. (Incidentally, he actually is not the 44th president, but the 43rd, because Grover Cleveland, who returned to the presidency after four years out of office, is counted twice - as though David Ben-Gurion had been the third Israeli prime minister, not just the first). Obama won't stop until his profile is carved into Mount Rushmore alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
But this preference for revolution over maintenance requires a differentiation between primary and secondary efforts. Thus, it is likely that Obama will seek to revolutionize issues of primary concern and maintain issues of secondary concern - meaning a breakthrough in certain areas, the U.S. economy foremost among them, and restraint in others. On the international scene, anything that falls into the category of Obama's revolutions is likely to experience a powerful shake-up.
One sign that this is already happening are Obama's picks to fill senior administration positions. The most salient common denominator among the new president's appointments is a background in Congress - in other words, the political experience that comes with running for office, nurturing connections, forging alliances and knowing how to gauge the degree of support for various initiatives and compromises. Not since the Kennedy-Johnson ticket have two serving senators been elected as president and vice-president. Then there are Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, the new secretary of state, two former Congressmen (Rahm Emanuel, the new White House chief of staff, and Leon Panetta, Obama's nominee for CIA chief), and two retired leaders of the Senate's democratic majority - Tom Daschle, the pick for health and human services secretary, and George Mitchell, Obama's choice for Middle East envoy. All will find open doors to the offices of their former colleagues.
To this list must also be added National Security Adviser James Jones, whose path to the command of the Marines and of NATO forces included a stint as the liaison officer with Congress, a position in which he forged warm relationships with important figures from both parties, including Obama's rival in the presidential election, Senator John McCain. Despite his age (65), and despite having declined to take over U.S. Central Command (engaged in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan), he may yet return to active duty as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff this autumn, once the tenure of incumbent Chairman Michael Mullen comes to an end.
The world map president George W. Bush bequeathed to Obama did not change overnight. It still holds the same Russia, the same China, the same NATO alliance, the same United Nations. It's quite possible that Cuba in the post-Castro brothers era, North Korea in the post Kim Jong-il era (it was reported last week that his designated successor is his third son, Kim Jong-un, 25) and Egypt in the post-Mubarak era will require a new approach. But these are specific cases. What's new about Obama's worldview is the regional approach and the emphasis on the whole rather than on individual parts. There is no Afghanistan without Pakistan, whose border regions the Taliban and Al-Qaida have turned into mountain refuges. There is no Pakistan without India - and the accompanying national, religious and nuclear conflict, primarily in Kashmir. There is no Afghanistan, with an influx of tens of thousands of American troops, without Iraq, with a comparable or even bigger reduction in forces.
And then there is Iran. Michael McConnell, the director of National Intelligence, who will soon leave the post and make way for another retired admiral, Dennis Blair, told journalist Charlie Rose two weeks ago that Iran could obtain sufficient fissile material for a nuclear weapon by the end of this year. However, his "best guess" is that this will happen only in 2013. This is exactly what McConnell told Bush, and what he will now tell Obama (who insists on receiving intelligence briefings seven mornings a week, compared to the six weekly briefings his predecessor was given).
Last year, while serving as a senator, Obama said, "Iran's nuclear program poses a threat to international peace and security." Bush failed, he alleged, because he made do with "threats and mediators." Obama, however, wanted "to make use of all the instruments of power to ensure that Iran does not develop a capacity to produce nuclear weapons." He did not rule out the use of military force, clarifying that he would only resort to it after "direct engagement with Iran - laying out in clear terms our principles and interests."
The most effective argument, which in 2003 prompted Iran to halt its development of a nuclear warhead (though not the enrichment of uranium and the development of missiles), was Bush's invasion of Iraq. If Obama chooses to rely on McConnell's intelligence assessment, which will afford him precious time for dialogue with Tehran, it will be difficult for Israel to press for an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities this year.
Israel is a crucial player in the Iranian equation, as a designated victim that might decide to rock the boat by striking a preemptive blow. Here, too, the approach is inclusive. With its support for subversive organizations operating in other countries, its provocations of naval traffic and the buildup of its missile arsenal, Iran is undermining the stability of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. In order to assuage the fears of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Gulf states, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, were dispatched to a security conference in Bahrain last month. Both sought to reassure the region's rulers, who have watched a cavalcade of presidents pass through Washington while they - the kings, princes and sheikhs - have remained firmly in place: Obama will not shake the pillars of Bush's policy (nor will he be naive - like Carter, who stood by as the Shah's regime fell).
All the grand rhetoric about freedom, equality and democracy sounded by Bush at the behest of Condoleezza Rice only exacerbated the regional crisis - by facilitating Hamas' participation in the Palestinian elections, for one thing - and threatened those who support the West and are supported by it. Now Gates arrived at the House of Saud and other royal families of the oil-rich countries, saying, "I bring from president-elect Obama a message of continuity and commitment to our friends and partners in the region," and promising that the change of administrations "does not change our basic interests, especially in the Middle East."
This ideological framework of regional security must also include the effort to prevent Hamas from re-arming with mid-range rockets. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which in recent years has invested much effort in developing technology to locate tunnels, primarily along the borders with Mexico and Canada, is now expected to implement its knowledge in Rafah. Israel may also benefit from the shift in priorities in the Pentagon's missile defense program, from long-range missiles (of the type the Bush administration sought to install in Europe) to the interception of short-range rockets and missiles.
According to (primarily, but not exclusively, Israeli) intelligence reports, any interception of the transport of rockets must begin with diplomatic overtures toward China, which sells them to Iran; continue by assigning the mission to the naval forces battling sea piracy, terror and smuggling in the Gulf of Aden and along the coast of East Africa; and proceed by closing off the entry points into Sinai, which lead to Rafah, because the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement can be interpreted as requiring Egypt to prevent the influx of prohibited weapons, including rockets, into the peninsula. This is why a multinational force has been stationed in Sinai for the past 27 years.
The new administration's pledge of continuity in and commitment to the Middle East is also manifest in the composition of the senior team that will be handling Israel-Arab affairs: Hillary Clinton and Undersecretary of State William Burns (who also served under Rice); Jones, the (part-time) security coordinator for the region in the past year; Gates; and the presidential envoy, Mitchell. This team points to an acceleration in the Israeli-Palestinian political process and, simultaneously, a renewed push for a Syrian-Israeli accord.
More than anything, Mitchell's appointment reflects the direction and pace Obama has chosen for the region: Intensive American mediation, without which the parties will not reach a compromise; the presence of a large, strong and inter-departmental American delegation on site; shoring up support for his policy both within the administration and in Congress; imposing a firm timetable upon the parties (to freeze all settlement construction, to fight terror); intensive personal involvement on the part of the president, who will use his prestige to bolster his envoy, intervene at decisive moments in the bargaining and knock heads together when necessary.
Obama may well want to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians on the one hand, and between Israel and Syria on the other, because doing so affords him the opportunity to offer a new kind of statesmanship: He can be the one to establish a new world order. The responsibility for providing him with the right partner, who will insist on Israel's security while also being flexible in order to achieve peace, lies with the Israeli voters, who will cast their ballot two and a half weeks from now.