The sea change often comes at night, its signals to the sailor subtle ones, but sometimes large and sudden. This has been a pre-inaugural period of extravagant speculation by Barack Obama supporters, with an unprecedented investment of hope — and also of anxiety, as if, after this, there might not be another chance. More than one Obama supporter has warned himself, or secretly assumed, in the aftermath of the celebration of Obama’s victory, “now prepare to be disappointed.”

Obama has luck, but on the record of his career it has been earned luck, the best kind. For that reason, the most heartening news item I have seen during the entire pre-inaugural period was published in the International Herald Tribune on Jan. 14, six days before the presidential inauguration. It reported that the president-elect “has signaled to top military commanders that he is not satisfied with their timetable for a reduction of American troops in Iraq and has asked for options to accelerate the withdrawal.”

Obama campaigned on a promise to have all American combat troops out of Iraq by May 2010, 16 months after he takes office. Last month, a Pentagon delegation discussed the matter with the president-elect, and afterward its members said they had told him that his schedule was not realistic. The Iraq government had to be protected, American troops were needed for security, the future was uncertain. …

This was not the first instance of military defiance. Under George Bush, there were calculated leaks from the military to the press that the deadlines for departure agreed to by the Bush administration in its negotiation of an Iraq status-of-forces agreement were unsatisfactory.

That document required all U.S. combat troops to be out of Iraq’s cities by May of this year, and the rest of American troops gone by the end of 2011.

After it was signed, there were off-the-record comments to the press that “combat troops” is an elastic category; removing equipment would take much longer than the document called for; and after all, this deal was with a fragile Iraq government facing elections, and agreements can be renegotiated.

The status-of-forces agreement was presented off the record as something to keep Iraqi politicians happy and give Bush the exit he wanted, but in fact the United States would remain in control of Iraq, as it had meant to do from the beginning.

Shortly afterward, the biggest American embassy ever built, or even ever imagined, was opened with pomp and ceremony in the (fortified) Green Zone.

When Pentagon officials met with Obama last month, there again were winks and nods to the press. Obama was a naive and inexperienced politician from Flyover Land. He could and would be “handled.”

Now Obama has handled them. He has said, no doubt very politely, that he is the president and the military services are constitutionally required to carry out his policy, not their own. This naturally has produced journalistic murmuring of “clashes” between Pentagon and White House. If there should be clashes, the Pentagon will lose. The military have become accustomed to getting whatever it wants from presidents and Congress. That must end, and it is essential that the new president and his military advisers make this clear, however politely.

I began with a comment on luck. That referred to the plunge into the political abyss by the Israeli rightist forces, which are accustomed to claiming that they “own” the U.S. Congress. Israel’s useless, senseless and self-destructive assault on the people of Gaza, and upon the U.N.’s headquarters and warehouses of food and medicine, has proved globally devastating to the reputation and moral credit of Israel. Even in the United States, there has been a precipitous drop in support for what Israel has been doing, and for Israeli policy in general.

In international political circles, there is disbelief that Israel could imagine that this attack on Hamas, with its civilian casualties and physical destruction of Gaza, would “strengthen” the position of the Palestine Authority and of Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party. It is a death blow to them. Israel behaves as if it has completely lost touch with reality.

Thus Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s arrogant utterance that he personally caused the United States to reverse its position on the U.N. Security Council resolution last week demanding a Gaza cease-fire. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had helped organize support for that resolution and had committed the United States to vote in its favor.

Olmert told an Israeli audience that, last Friday, upon hearing of Rice’s position, he immediately telephoned George W. Bush. Told that Bush was delivering an address in Philadelphia, Olmert replied, “I’m not interested,” demanding to speak to Bush. Bush then left his Philadelphia podium and, according to Olmert, the Israeli prime minister instructed the American president that “the U.S. cannot possibly vote in favor of this resolution.” Bush then telephoned Rice and ordered her to abstain from the vote.

That’s Olmert’s story, or Israeli megalomania, presented to the Israelis with pride, but unlikely to be received by Americans with pleasure.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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