Now He Must Declare That the War on Terror Is Over
Obama's preference for diplomacy can help to forge new, individual relationships with Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan
A day of joy but also another day of horror. Even as American voters were giving the world the man whom opinion polls showed to be the overwhelming favourite in almost every country, his predecessor's terrible legacy was already crowding in on the president-elect.
Twenty-three children and 10 women died in the latest US air strike in Afghanistan, a failed war on terror that has only brought worse terror in its wake. In Iraq, explosions killed 13 people. Obama's stand against an unpopular war was the bedrock of his success on Tuesday, even though the financial meltdown sealed his victory. Now he must make good on his promises of withdrawal.
On Iran, the last of the toughest three issues in his foreign in-tray, his line differed sharply from McCain's. In contrast to the Republican's call to "bomb, bomb, bomb Iran", Obama offered dialogue. Though he qualified his initial talk of having the president sit down with his Iranian counterpart, he remains wedded to engagement rather than boycott.
In this arc of conflict - Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan - Obama's approach is preferable to Bush's or McCain's. The century-old paradigm of Republicans as the party of realism and the Democrats as the party of ideologues was turned upside down by the neocons. Bush led an administration of crusaders and took the country to disaster. Obama offers a return to traditional diplomacy.
Nevertheless, his position contains massive inconsistencies. While his instincts are cautious and pragmatic, he has not repudiated the war on terror. Rather, he insists that by focusing excessively on Iraq, the Bush administration "took its eye off the ball". The real target must be Afghanistan and if Osama bin Laden is spotted in Pakistan, bombing must be used there too.
This is a cul-de-sac. If the most important single thing that Obama should do quickly is to announce the immediate closure of Guantánamo Bay, the corollary has to be a declaration that the war on terror is over. Accept that terrorism is a technique. It is not an ideology. The west faces no global enemy, no worldwide Islamofascist conspiracy. Foreign crises should be treated on a case-by-case basis. Their roots lie in the complex interplay of local tensions, social grievances, economic inequalities, unemployment, food and water shortages and cultural prejudice that plagues so many countries. If fundamentalists of this ideology or that religion try to exploit that, they only scratch the surface. Don't hand them the gift of overreaction.
In Afghanistan that means separating the issue of the Taliban from that of al-Qaida. Nato's tentative new policy of talking to the Taliban should be expanded, so that foreign troops can be withdrawn from the south. The trend should be to bring troops out, not send more in. Erratic air strikes only enrage the population and foster the Pashtun resistance that is the foundation of the Taliban's support. Similarly in Pakistan Obama should forge stronger ties to the new government and give it funds to bring development to the North-West Frontier Province. Let Pakistani politicians take the lead in working with tribal authorities.
In Iraq the contradictions in Obama's policy centre on his plans to keep a "residual force". His promise to withdraw all combat troops by June 2010 will be welcomed by a majority in Iraq's parliament, which has been refusing to accept Bush's draft agreement, partly in the expectation that Obama would offer terms that better respected Iraq's sovereignty. But what does Obama mean by a residual force? He says it would hunt al-Qaida militants, protect the vast US embassy, and train the Iraqi army. Officials on his team say it could number as many as 50,000 troops. Even if much of this force remains on bases and is barely visible to Iraqi civilians (much as the 4,500 British at Basra airfield are), it cannot avoid symbolising the fact that the occupation continues. Obama should seize the opportunity to withdraw the US from Iraq with dignity. Only a total pull-out can remove the anger over the US occupation felt by most Arabs throughout the Middle East.
Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia will resist this. They will tell Obama that a US retreat hands victory to a resurgent Iran and Shias everywhere. But it is not a US withdrawal that will help Iran. Bush's war has already done that, since it was bound to empower Iraq's majority community. The best way to prevent Iran's strong relationship with the government in Baghdad from becoming a regional threat is for the US to engage with Iran and forge a new relationship.
Of course, that is easier said than done. By coincidence, American voters elected Obama on the anniversary of the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran. American attitudes are still distorted by feelings of anger, humiliation and revenge going back 29 years. Iranian leaders are also wary, assuming reasonably enough that Bush was bent on "regime change" and Obama's softer policy may contain the same sting.
In his anniversary speech, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, praised the hostage seizure, as usual, as a blow against "global arrogance" - the shorthand now used for the US instead of the "Great Satan". But Khamenei raised the stakes by insisting the US must apologise for Bush's efforts to undermine Iran. He attacked what he called "the various plots the US government has hatched against Iran for the past five years". "Americans have not only refused to apologise for their acts but have also continued with their hegemony," he continued. "We are for safeguarding our identity, independence and dignity."
Nevertheless, most analysts in Tehran believe Iranian politicians want a new start. "The only opponents of dialogue with the US are hardliners in the conservative camp," Dr Hossein Adeli, a former ambassador in London who heads the Ravand thinktank, told me last week. "They're scattered among various factions. The mainstream of the conservatives favour dialogue with the US, as long as they conduct it themselves. Only if the reformist were running the dialogue might the conservatives oppose it."
In spite of his preference for dialogue, Obama refers to Iran's government as a "regime", and calls it "a threat to all of us". He also favours sanctions as long as Iran fails to suspend its uranium enrichment programme. Nor has he ruled out military action. But Iranians say the basis for compromise exists. The challenge for Obama is to show the world whether he is ready to offer Tehran a grand bargain rather than a big bang.