By William Pfaff
Barack Obama’s trip to Europe, the Near East and Iraq was a personal but not a policy triumph. He and his charming wife, Michelle, seem the most popular people on Earth at this moment, but that is a slippery plinth upon which to stand, as the two of them undoubtedly recognize.
Otherwise, it is impossible to say what will come from the G-20 conclusions because there remain so many disagreements over the origins of the crisis and its right remedy. However, no one is holding the American president responsible for finding the solution to the world crisis, any more than he can be held responsible for the condition in which he inherited American-international capitalism. He was in Springfield, Ill., as the crisis was forming, and before that was helping people on the streets of Chicago, and in neither place was he in a position to make globally ruinous credit bets.
Political-military policy is another matter, and there he started badly by announcing escalation in Afghanistan, and found meager enthusiasm in response to his appeals for enduring help in pursuing that war. Other NATO members find in this a depressing inability by Pentagon planners (and Senate critics) to grasp what seems the fundamental lesson to have been learned in Southeast Asia.
Increasing the number of Western troops and near-complete Americanization of the war contributed decisively to the Vietnam and Cambodian catastrophes. (I take note that Vice President Joseph Biden was the dissenter on the “Af-Pak” decision, warning that the war would prove a morass, as it will.)
One fears that the president has fallen for the oldest false dichotomy in the Pentagon repertoire, and the easiest one to sell to the American public. It is the “soft” version of George W. Bush’s Manichean view that the world is divided between the Evil Folks and the Good. The Good Folks, being what they are, are naturally pro-American, once they get to know us.
Thus President Obama may have been convinced that a large part of the Afghan insurgents are Good Taliban, misled by anti-American preachers. They are just trying to improve the lives of their people, and praying for peace at the neighborhood mosque. Then there are the Evil terrorist Taliban misled by false preachers.
The former can be persuaded to work with NATO by showing that what we want is Afghanistan’s freedom and prosperity, which can be done by building schools, digging wells and promoting women’s education.
Meanwhile, in the war the president dropped into in Iraq, serious trouble was supposed to have been solved by the surge and by Gen. David Petraeus. But immediately before the president arrived, six car bombs went off in Shiite neighborhoods, killing 30 and wounding many more. This seems to have been caused by the tension between the Shiite-dominated government and Sunni “Awakening” fighters who were paid by the U.S. Army to pacify their own tribal districts and parts of Baghdad.
Beginning this week, they are supposed to be paid by the Iraq government, members of which see little reason to pay their tribal enemies, with whom the war may soon resume. There are now 50,000 of these Sunni “Sahwa” fighters in Baghdad (there were 200,000 across the country), looking for the jobs they were promised in government security and police forces. Some observers foresee a resumption of fighting, perhaps toward the levels (around 300 deaths per day) of 2006-2007.
Turning to less pressing matters, it seems that President Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dimitri Medvedev, are now pals. The president may have promoted Turkish-Armenian reconciliation, but Nicolas Sarkozy is still against Turkey joining the European Union, whose composition, he suggested, is not Washington’s affair. North Korea shot off its rocket, but not too many in Washington think Congress is going to accept the nuclear test ban Barack Obama favors or reduce the stock of American missiles. However, the president and Medvedev can talk some more, and we can all hope.
Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.