As the United States waded ever deeper into the
Indochinese quagmire in the early 1960s, the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara
called for "two, three, many Vietnams" to bog down the superpower
in unwinnable Third World conflicts that would drain its treasury and overstretch
While today's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not quite as costly
at least as a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP) as then,
Guevara's vision, echoed nearly 40 years later by Osama bin Laden, of an increasingly
stressed hyperpower that now confronts its worst financial crisis since the
Great Depression must weigh heavily on whichever candidate moves into the White
House Jan. 20.
Indeed, even as both Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama talk about the urgency
of sending thousands more troops to Afghanistan to cope with the growing Taliban
threat potentially magnified manifold by the ongoing insurgency across the
border in the tribal territories of nuclear-armed Pakistan the transition
set to begin next Tuesday next Tuesday will offer the president-elect a critical
window to contemplate possible exit strategies not only in southwest Asia,
but westward to the Mediterranean, as well.
A series of interlocking "grand bargains" backed by the relevant
regional players as well as major global powers aimed at pacifying Afghanistan;
integrating Iran into a new regional security structure; promoting reconciliation
in Iraq; and launching a credible process to negotiate a comprehensive peace
between Israel and the Arab world must offer a very tempting, if extremely
challenging, prospect to any new resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Restoring stability to the Greater Middle East and reducing its on-the-ground
troop presence would not only greatly reduce the $15 billion a month Washington
spends on military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the stress on the U.S.
military, and the unprecedented hostility toward among the world's more than
one billion Muslims. It would also permit the new president to focus on tackling
the global financial crisis and the deteriorating economic situation at home,
including key issues such as health care and the declining middle class, that
the public believes, as made clear by this election campaign, have been too
While no senior policymaker has yet used the phrase "grand bargain,"
the notion that the problems faced by Washington in the Greater Middle East
and thus, implicitly, the solutions, too are deeply interconnected.
Gen. David Petraeus, who Friday formally took the reins of U.S. Central Command
(Centcom), which covers the entire region and Central Asia, and who is certain
to have a major say in future strategy, clearly understands this as well as
"Where Central Command can help is in looking at this overall challenge
as a region, and helping regionally by looking not just at Afghanistan, but
also of course Pakistan, at the Stans, Iran, and even some of the other countries
in the greater region that have been long involved, such as the Kingdom of
Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf states, and even leaders in Lebanon,"
he told the New York Times in a September interview.
In one indication of his thinking, Petraeus reportedly requested permission
last week to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the subject of a 3-year-old
diplomatic boycott by the Bush administration, only to be turned down by the
The notion of a "grand bargain" has been most commonly raised in
recent years in connection with Iran in which, according to its most persistent
proponents, former Bush Gulf experts Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, Washington
would provide security guarantees to the Islamic Republic, normalize bilateral
ties, and develop a cooperative approach to regional security including
Iraq and Afghanistan in exchange for a halt to Tehran's alleged pursuit
of nuclear weapons and support for Hezbollah, Hamas, and other groups Washington
But a "grand bargain" was also recently raised in connection with
Afghanistan and Pakistan by two prominent experts, Pakistani journalist Ahmed
Rashid, who has reportedly consulted with Petraeus, and New York University
Prof. Barnett Rubin, in the influential Foreign Affairs journal, in
called for a two-pronged strategy.
The U.S. and its NATO allies, they argued, should support efforts which
already appear to be underway by the governments of both Afghanistan
and Pakistan to reconcile with predominantly Pashtun Taliban insurgents on
both sides of the border on the condition that they break all ties to al-Qaeda
and other international terrorist groups.
At the same time, Washington should pursue a "high-level diplomatic initiative
designed to build genuine consensus on the goal of achieving Afghan stability
by addressing the legitimate sources of Pakistan's insecurity," especially
vis-à-vis India, which, along with China, Russia, and Iran, would be
brought into the negotiations to provide the necessary assurances.
The latter concept of a regional initiative backed by the great powers is
not so different from the "New Diplomatic Offensive" proposed two
years ago by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) co-chaired by former Secretary
of State James Baker designed to permit the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops
over a 15-month period.
The ISG stressed the importance of directly engaging both Syria and Iran,
as well as key Sunni-led Arab allies, in a regional framework, backed by the
UN, the European Union, and other extra-regional powers, that would address
the security needs of all of Iraq's neighbors and dissuade them from fueling
sectarian conflict within Iraq. It also called for Washington to condition
its future support for the Shia-led Iraqi government on its efforts to reconcile
with the country's Sunni community.
Strongly objecting to any withdrawal timetable, Bush largely ignored these
recommendations and instead "surged" tens of thousands more troops
into Iraq to curb sectarian violence. Two years later, with the hoped-for national
reconciliation still unrealized and the Iraqi government, increasingly influenced
by Iran, refusing to sign a bilateral accord that would permit U.S. troops
to stay at least until 2011, a new president may wish to take the ISG report's
back off the shelf.
The ISG's "New Diplomatic Offensive" also linked the stabilization
of Iraq and the securing of U.S. interests in the Middle East to a comprehensive
Arab-Israeli peace settlement for which a great-power framework, the Quartet,
already exists. While Bush has sought, albeit halfheartedly, to negotiate an
Israeli-Palestinian accord now considered out of his reach due to pending
Israeli elections in February over the past year, he has done nothing
to encourage more-promising Turkish-mediated talks between Israel and Syria.
In the last month, however, senior Israeli officials have called on their
Arab neighbors to revive the 2002 Arab League Peace Initiative originally
a Saudi proposal to offer Israel normalized relations with all League members
in exchange for its return to the 1967 borders and the establishment of a Palestinian
state that would share Jerusalem as the way forward on all fronts at
the same time.
Like the other three, this fourth possible "grand bargain" will
depend critically on strong U.S. backing, as well as that of the other great
And, as with the other three, much will hinge on the positions of Saudi Arabia
which not only launched the Arab Initiative, but also helped hosted talks
last month between senior Taliban associates and the Afghan government and
enjoys considerable influence in Pakistan and Iran, whose geo-political
gains since the Iraq invasion have greatly enhanced its ability to play the
spoiler from Afghanistan to the eastern Mediterranean. The outcome of Israel's
elections will also weigh heavily in the balance.
Nonetheless, if the Arab Initiative gains sufficient momentum to induce Tehran's
allies, especially Syria and Hamas, to join the bandwagon, Iran, according
to some analysts, will likely acquiesce, particularly if its security interests
are addressed in the other possible bargains that the new president may be
considering after next Tuesday's elections.
(Inter Press Service)