WASHINGTON - 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 its military.
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 which 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 Avenue.
Restoring stability to the Greater Middle East and reducing its on-the-ground troop presence would not only greatly reduce the 15 billion dollars 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 long neglected.
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 inter-connected. 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 anyone.
"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 three-year-old diplomatic boycott by the Bush administration, only to be turned down by the White House.
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, normalise 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, support for Hezbollah, Hamas, and other groups Washington considers terrorist.
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 which they 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 U.N., the European Union, and other extra-regional powers, that would address the security needs of all of Iraq's neighbours and dissuade them from fuelling 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 unrealised 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 stabilisation 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 half-heartedly, 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 neighbours to revive the 2002 Arab League Peace Initiative -- originally a Saudi proposal to offer Israel normalised 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 powers.
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.
Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy, and particularly the neo-conservative influence in the Bush administration, can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.