President-elect Barack Obama is a deeply talented man with a preternatural ability to excite the American public. It is hard to overstate the historical importance of his victory. The appointment of a black American to the most powerful office in the land marks a new high point in our country’s twin narratives of race and opportunity. Globally, America once again writes a new chapter in the saga of mankind’s long march toward equality.
But neither Obama’s prodigious gifts nor the historical impact of his administration will be able to extricate the United States from the most unpopular aspect of the George W. Bush years: military entanglement in Muslim Asia and the Middle East. When it comes to Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Barack Obama will come up against the same challenges faced by our current president, and will be limited to using the same crude tools.
Barack Obama’s emphasis on diplomacy and internationalism will do nothing to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons. The mullahs in Tehran are not open to compromise, and cannot be made any more pliable by the impositions of a stricter sanctions regime. Any attempts at diplomacy or institution of sanctions are, from here on out, aimed at building an evidentiary case that every non-military option will have been exhausted. Once that case can be made, Obama will either give the order to bomb Iran or let the Khomeinist regime in Tehran assert complete regional hegemony. There will not be, nor has there ever been, a third option.
Obama and Joe Biden can talk about ending the war in Iraq all they want, but in reality Obama’s administration will be obligated to honor the coming Status of Forces agreement between Baghdad and Washington. Such an agreement will likely require U.S. combat troops to remain in parts of Iraq through 2011. Obama portrays himself as a tireless proponent of international cooperation, and breaking a critical agreement with a new and important ally would signal a crisis in American geostrategic legitimacy.
Whether or not it is called a surge, an increase in combat troops is coming to Afghanistan. Obama himself has already agreed to as much. Last month, commanders asked for 10,000 reinforcements. That number went to 15, 000, and now stands at 20,000. The additional troops will engage in more trust-building operations with Afghans, but also in more fighting. Casualties will rise before they subside, and American civilians will be understandably horrified as images and death-tolls are rehearsed on the nightly news.
There’s undoubtedly a lot of truth in Barack Obama’s talk of change. With Democratic control of the Presidency, the House, and the Senate, our country is sure to see some swift and sharp turns in the domestic agenda. And we will likely witness an American repositioning in foreign policy situations of less immediacy. But no president — not even Barack Obama — can remake national security entirely in his own image.