On AfPak, Is Obama Clever or Stupid?

LBJ is the name that comes to mind after Obama's decision to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. When he inherited the Vietnam War from JFK, LBJ had a big domestic program -- the "War on Poverty" -- to push through Congress. To LBJ, Vietnam was a "distraction," in Obama-speak. So LBJ would not make a full-scale commitment to win or to get out: He tried to do both in little dribs and drabs that gave the enemy enough respites to regroup before each carefully deliberated "escalation." Obama says he wants to walk away in eighteen months, but right after the Democrats lose the next congressional elections, will Obama want to be the president who lost AfPak, and therefore left Pakistani nuclear weapons at the mercy of a victorious Sunni Taliban?

And then there are the Shiite "Taliban" next door, the Twelver Cult that runs Tehran. Israeli rumors point to an imminent preemptive assault on Ahmadinejad's nuclear facilities, with the tacit but very real support of the Saudis, who are just fifty miles from the Bushehr nuclear plant and who have been the major target for Khomeinist radicals for thirty years. Israel is the country most vociferously threatened by Ahmadinejad, along with the Great Satan -- that's you and me -- but Iran really wants to control Arabia.

Just look at the map. There are several major reasons for Iran to want Saudi Arabia.

One is the prestige of controlling the holiest cities of Islam -- Mecca and Medina -- which would give Tehran huge religious and political clout throughout the Muslim world. For the first time in history, Shiite Islam would control the emotional center of Islam, which they have been claiming for almost a thousand years.

Two: It's easy to conquer Arabia from Persia. The two countries are effectively nextdoor to each other, with only the Americans standing in the way. The Iraqis can't defend themselves against an armored attack from Iran once the Americans retreat. When Tehran gets nukes, nobody will be able to resist it among its neighboring nations. Therefore, Tehran can gain control over the entire Arabian Peninsula, including the Gulf States. That means enormous oil wealth, which Iran desperately needs. The Saudi family has controlled Arabia for only a century or so, and they do not have a longstanding claim to it.

Three: By conquering Arabia, Iran would become by far the biggest power in the Muslim world. They would control forty percent of the world's oil, especially the flow to Europe and China. By collaborating with Russia, Tehran could control OPEC and have near-monopoly control over oil prices. Russia is approaching domination of natural gas supplies to Europe. The Europeans are chomping at the bit to surrender, having been infiltrated over the last century both by Soviet Marxism and now by Islam. The Left-Islamist alliance that is even now controlling big European cities from Paris to London might well beget a powerful anti-American alliance.

None of this involves Israel, which is a much harder nut to crack than Arabia. Israel has well-prepared defenses and a huge retaliatory capacity. In another five or ten years, it may have enough anti-missile defenses to stop a mid-level nuclear attack from Iran. Israel also has the capacity to retaliate against Iran with nuclear weapons, or perhaps with conventionally exploded electromagnetic pulse weapons. (In theory, any kind of explosive can be used to drive an EMP. You don't have to go nuclear.).

That doesn't mean Ahmadinejad won't attack Israel, but that the military cost of doing it is much higher, and the benefit is much less. Iran has been playing its power games like a careful chessmaster: move by move, to surround and weaken its enemies. That is why three client states controlled by Tehran are now surrrounding Israel: Lebanon via Hezbollah, Syria, and Gaza via Hamas. With that kind of power position, Iran would presumably try to overthrow Fatah on the West Bank in order to fully surround Israel. At some point, that will force Israel into a preemptive war.

What about America?  That question gets right back to my title: Is Obama clever or stupid? If he is stupid, he will turn into LBJ and become purely reactive to the clear and present danger of nukes in the hands of an Islamist suicide cult. That danger arises both in AfPak (with Sunni suiciders) and in Iran (with Shiite suiciders). If Obama is clever, his Afghanistan strategy is going to focus on limited but defensible control of the Afghan cities, and constant harassment of Taliban outside of the cities. The real goals will be to deny the Taliban a safe haven and to turn Afghanistan into an American base in order to keep a tight leash on Pakistan, which has its own nukes, not to mention Iran and the Persian Gulf.

Look at the map of that region. There are two hotspots of great danger: Iran and Pakistan. There is one enormous resource that would give a hostile power control over Europe and much else: the oil fields of Arabia.

If Obama is purely reactive, with a self-destructive need to please his peacenik wing, he will lose everything in both foreign and domestic policy. Then Obama becomes Jimmy Carter -- an embittered and vengeful wasp to sting the future administrations that take over America's direction. If Obama is proactive, and if his small Afghan surge is designed to build protected areas in Afghanistan and keep the Taliban on the run, then the United States can exercise a great deal of power at the center of the world's worst troubles: Pakistan, the Persian Gulf, and Arabia. That is a sensible strategy because today, American forces need to replenish their strength for the greater battle to come.

The first indication will come not in Afghanistan, but in the Israel-Iran standoff. Israel is widely expected to strike Iranian nuclear facilities in the coming months. That is not easy, but it is probably within the capacity of the IDF, which has had thirty years to prepare for this day. The key question is whether American air and naval forces will support the Israeli strike, either covertly or overtly, and whether the United States will block Iranian counter-strikes. We control the air and sea in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, though the Iranians constantly try to challenge us. The Saudis will certainly give Israel secret permission to overfly Arabia on their way to Iran because their survival is on the line. The Saudis are no doubt also pressuring the U.S. and Europe to defend them against the hated Persian Shiites.

The question therefore becomes, where are Obama and the United States? We've seen three months of delay and obfuscation from Obama. That is partly to keep his Left flank happy. Militarily, there was no good reason for the delay, and it might well have increased the dangers to American personnel.

But Obama is not well-informed, to say the least, on military and international affairs. Those three months might be his learning curve. BHO is still the bright Harvard graduate student who wants to turn everything into a little seminar, to show how smart he really is. Well, here's a chance to show if he has learned what's important. If he is being clever, he has learned to think strategically -- not just about Afghanistan, but about the entire region. If he is being stupid, he will allow other nations to drive his step-by-step decisions like LBJ and Jimmy Carter did.

The key in politics, including international affairs, is to anticipate events and to shape them before they become irreversible. If that is happening today, then this very odd administration may yet pull a rabbit out of the hat in foreign policy.
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