To say President Obama's Tuesday speech to the nation laying out his plans for Afghanistan will be the most critical moment yet in his 10-month old presidency is risking understatement.
The expected deepening of U.S. military involvement, coupled to a change in its objectives, represent a high-risk strategy in a crisis in which every option is laden with danger – for the nation and for the Obama presidency.
A whole batch of issues that the Jewish community cares about are in play here and will be affected by how the administration's shift on Afghanistan works out. Here are just a few examples:
- Iran. If, as critics on the left charge, Obama is walking deeper into a mire that will sap his presidency the way Vietnam sapped and ultimately destroyed Lyndon Johnson's, it's hard to see how U.S. leadership will succeed in keeping Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
U.S. military intervention in Iran will be more unlikely than ever as an already-overextended military and a hemorrhaging federal budget cope with the costs of an Afghan “surge.” If this turns into Vietnam, The Sequel, it's hard to picture how the American people will support military action against Iran.
The counterargument is that success in Afghanistan will give Washington the credibility it needs to deal more effectively with Iran without resorting to force. But success in Afghanistan is, at best, years away, by which time working to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitious may be a moot point.
- Middle East peace talks. Sure the administration will keep going through the motions. But they will be understandably preoccupied by the Afghan roll of the dice. No matter what they do on Afghanistan, they know they will get pummeled from the right; the last thing they'll want is a fight with pro-Israel forces over new pressure on Israel.
I know, administrations can multitask. The question is, with Afghanistan involvement deepening, will they be willing to focus much attention on another world crisis where the chances of success are slim and the risks of mistakes huge?
Don't count on it.
- Pakistan. At the risk of saying the obvious: Pakistan is on the verge of becoming a failed state, dominated by Islamic extremists; it already has a sizable nuclear stockpile and missiles to deliver them; it has a sordid record of proliferation.
A nuclear Iran is a big potential threat to Israel and to the West; a nuclear Pakistan is a threat TODAY. And it's far from clear how the emerging Obama administration strategy will deal with it.
- The domestic agenda. President Obama needs all the political capital he can muster to advance an ambitious legislative agenda that faces huge obstacles in a divided Congress. If his Afghanistan decision backfires – or SEEMS to backfire – kiss that capital goodbye, and along with it much of his domestic program.
That's real bad news for Jewish groups that are banking heavily on the narrow window of opportunity afforded by a Democratic Congress and administration to move their own domestic programs forward.
I'm not saying sending more troops to Afghanistan is the wrong move, although I've read enough history to know the risks of fighting in this most alien of lands. As I said, I recognize that Obama inherited a no-win situation: an 8-year-old war that was going badly when he was inaugurated, depleted U.S. resources and international credibility, an Afghan pubic sick of the war and sick of American troops on their soil and an all-but-bankrupt national treasury.
But that doesn't change the fact that everything he does and tries to do from here on will depend hugely on this high-risk gamble. And by deciding to send more troops, he may well have chosen the highest risk option.
I've been pondering of late the nonexistent response of the organized Jewish community to the Afghanistan mess. I'm guessing even groups that are normally skeptical about U.S. military intervention,like the Union for Reform Judaism, are keeping quiet because they understand the stakes but don't see any real good way out.
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