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In thrall to the Bargain

June 30th, 2009 - 4:11 am

Spengler, at the Asia Times, tries to trace the outlines of Barack Obama’s elusive Grand Bargain and doesn’t think it will work. “In Obama’s imagination, a Sunni Arab coalition – empowered by Washington’s turn against Israel – would encircle Iran and dissuade it from acquiring nuclear weapons, while an entirely separate Shi’ite coalition with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would suppress the radical Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This was the worst-designed scheme concocted by a Western strategist since Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery attacked the bridges at Arnhem in 1944, and it has blown up in Obama’s face.” Put that way, it does seem unlikely.

But it raises the question of why, without assuming that the President is a fool, that Barack Obama should think it would work. The apparent answer from the Asia Times article, is that Obama calculated from static assumptions; he did not allow for the dynamics of the situation; didn’t work out what the Sunnis and Shi’ites — and Israel — would be doing while he was setting up his Grand Bargain. Spengler writes:

Offering Iran a seat at the table in exchange for setting a limit to its foreign ambitions – in Lebanon and Gaza as well as Iraq – seemed to make sense on paper. But the entity that calls itself revolutionary Islam is not made of paper, but of flesh and blood. It is in danger of internal collapse and can only assert its authority by expanding its influence as aggressively as it can.

After the election disaster, Iran’s revolutionary leadership urgently needs to demonstrate its credibility. Israel now can say, “A country that murders its own citizens will have no compunction about massacring its enemies,” and attack Iran’s nuclear capacity with fewer consequences than would have been imaginable in May. And if an Israeli strike were to succeed, or appear successful to the world, the resulting humiliation might be fatal to the regime.

Israel may not be Tehran’s worst nightmare. Iraq’s Sunnis are testing the resolve of the weakened mullahs. The suicide bombing that killed 73 people at a Shi’ite mosque in Kirkuk on June 20 and a second bombing that killed another 72 Shi’ites in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum most likely reflect Sunni perceptions that a weakened Tehran will provide less support for Iraqi Shi’ites. Although Shi’ites comprise more than three-fifths of Iraq’s population, Sunnis provided the entire military leadership and are better organized on the ground. America’s hopes of enlisting Iran to provide cover for its withdrawal from the cities of Iraq seem delusional.

In other words, even if Barack Obama believes that nothing in Iran has changed, everyone else seems have to have assumed the contrary. Everyone is recalibrating their actions in response to recent events in Iran. Israel is digging in its heels; the Sunnis are probing for Persian weakness and Teheran, weakened by internal dissension, may not be in a position to “provide cover for [American] withdrawal from the cities of Iraq”. This spells disaster for Obama’s calculations, which may have misfired even if events in Iran had not supervened. Spengler continues:

The prospect of civil wars raging simultaneously in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq is no longer improbable. The Israel-Palestine issue is linked to all of these through Iran, whose credibility depends on its ability to sustain such puppies of war as Hezbollah and Hamas. Whether or not the Israelis take the opportunity to strike Iran, the prospect of an Israeli strike will weigh on Iran’s proxies in the region, and keep Israel’s borders in condition of potential violence for the interim.

America’s great good fortune is that no hostile superpower stands ready to benefit from its paralysis and confusion.

But given time and the “strategic void” which Spengler accuses Obama of creating, events may draw Regional Power adventurers into opportunity as a moth to a flame. If things start to cascade then there will be trouble. As an airplane relies on corrections from its control surfaces to stay within its safe envelope, so has the global system long relied on measured, but timely and forceful interventions and signals from Washington. With the control cables disconnected or disdainfully unused, Spengler has set up a scenario where things spin out of control. That’s worrisome, especially if, as he says, there is no Plan B. Like all predictions, no one can say if his warnings will come true, though it might be useful to throw out little markers to see if things are headed that way or not. On reflection, Obama should have done the same thing too. No plan, it is said, ever survives contact with reality. There is no reason to believe a plan will unfold as designed, even if it is the President’s. The future is vouchsafed to no one. Nelson, sailing to an uncertain fate off Trafalgar wrote “something must be left to chance; nothing is sure in a sea fight above all. … But in case signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.” Nothing in history is written or foreordained; the trick of leadership is to know what to write on the occasion.


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