Labor Day marks the traditional kickoff of the political-campaign season, although in recent years that season has never ended. The current financial/economic situation — and, most importantly, the unemployment rate — will be issue No. 1 in this fall's congressional and state-level campaigns. Yes, even larger than our local decisions about marijuana legalization and control of state liquor sales.
But just below the surface lurk foreign policy/national security issues that will grow in importance going into the 2012 national elections. An overseas crisis, or domestic terrorist incident, could become issue No. 1 this fall, if it were sufficiently large and dramatic. Let's sort these issues out. Some will be more important two years from now than they are today.
Iraq: Only some 50,000 U.S. troops, none in a combat role, remain stationed in Iraq. Present plans call for their withdrawal by the end of 2011. But there is a big question: What if, by then, the country remains unstable and Iranian and Al Qaida influence appears to be growing?
An Iraqi government is yet to be formed, many months after national elections earlier this year. Terrorist bombings and other incidents are again on the upswing. Their objective, of course, is to demonstrate that Iraqi military and security forces cannot maintain order within the country. This is the classic tactic, historically, of insurgent groups trying to undermine those in power. Ordinary citizens, anywhere, value daily security over everything else. When those governing cannot provide it, they are rejected.
Neighboring Iran has been infiltrating and funding Shiite factions and, additionally, providing arms and money to terrorists. It seeks to control, or have a major voice, in whatever eventual Iraqi regime emerges. Other Iraqi neighbors also have a hand in domestic intrigue there.
Why can't Iraqi leaders get their political act together? Can't they see that, without a functioning and publicly accepted central government, chaos could reign? The answer is that the country historically has been divided among Shiiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, and factions within those groups, and there is no tradition of peaceful, democratic consensus-building among them.
Factions do not compromise; they contest each other for power. It is quite possible that, a year from now, not much will have changed from the status quo. That is, a credible, respected central government will not yet be in place, and those seeking power will simply be waiting for the U.S. to clear out before making their final moves.
Afghanistan: The situation there is even more perplexing. We have many more troops stationed in Afghanistan than in Iraq and they are actively in combat. Afghanistan, also, is a country without a tradition of viable, democratically elected central governments. It has over centuries shed outsiders who were confident of their power to change the society or control events.
The Taliban are not popular among ordinary Afghans. But, on the other hand, neither are local officials, perceived as corrupt and ineffectual. The tribal culture's traditions date back centuries. A well known Afghan saying: I against my brothers; my brothers and I against our cousins; my brothers, cousins, and I against everyone.
The principal domestic industry there is production and marketing of narcotics. Neighboring Pakistan — playing a double game — allows Taliban and Al Qaida fighters and their weapons to move freely across the Pak-Afghan border and to find refuge on Pak territory.
President Obama initially pointed to a mid-2011 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Since then, he and Pentagon leaders have clarified that mid-2011 would mark only the beginning of a drawdown.
We have made progress in recent months with special-operations forays against Taliban and Al Qaida leaders. But, longer term, there is no possibility whatever of a decisive military victory that could empower an accepted central government. The notion of "winning hearts and minds" is a nice one but largely irrelevant. Afghans will cast their lot with whomever can provide order and security in their immediate living areas. Time is not on our side.
Pakistan: It has nuclear weapons. Its central and regional governments are unstable. Its intelligence services, dating back to 9/11, have continued to nurture Al Qaida, Taliban, and other Islamic fundamentalist groups within its border regions.North Korea may be backward, starving, and suffering from totalitarian rule, but it continues to play a role because we must respect its nuclear card.
It receives billions in American military and economic assistance, but until now its principal leaders have believed themselves capable of humoring us without having to take difficult steps to suppress militants. Their principal concern has remained their long rivaltry with India; they see terrorist groups as useful allies in that rivalry.
They want to stay on the right side of the Talban because they calculate that, quite soon, the Taliban will again be running next-door Afghanistan. Our nightmare: That Islamic fundamentalists could outrightly seize power in the country and acquire control of Pakistan's nuclear weapons.
Iran: The United States continues to seek tough economic sanctions to punish Iran for its drive toward nuclear weapons. They have worked only at the margins. Neighboring countries, Russia and China among them, will continue to act in their economic and strategic interests. They will not join the U.S. in trying to isolate Iran. They will facilitate direct and indirect assistance to Iran in acquiring a nuclear capability.North Korea may be backward, starving, and suffering from totalitarian rule, but it continues to play a role because we must respect its nuclear card.
Iran's ruling clerics will continue to use the U.S. opposition to demonize this country and mobilize domestic feelings against the U.S. (think of Fidel Castro's similar long tactics in Cuba). Israel has threatened to take out Iran's nuclear facilities militarily, if and when its nuclear capability appears imminent — as it might be within two years.
Would the U.S. join Israel in such a strike? Unlikely. Would it be drawn into defending Israel against a counter-strike by Iran and other Arab/Muslim nations? Almost certainly. Despite dissatisfaction among next-generation Iranians who want to westernize and open their society, the clerics' present ruling status is not in danger.
North Korea: The country has shrewdly played, time and again, its only card in international diplomacy — namely, its nuclear capability. North Korea may be backward, starving, and suffering from totalitarian rule, but it continues to play a role because we must respect its nuclear card. It also could launch a devastating conventional-forces attack against South Korea, if and when it chose to do so.
North Korea has supplied nuclear equipment and material to aspiring nuclear powers and terrorists. It has undertaken overtly warlike acts toward South Korea. It has threatened Japan with missile tests and confrontations in international waters. Only next-door China, its economic and food lifeline, has the power to quiet North Korea.
China does not want a war in the region. But it does suit China's purposes that the United States, South Korea, and Japan should be forced to allocate money and military forces against possible hostile actions by North Korea.
The U.S. and North Korea's neighbors also fear what might happen if anti-regime forces were to rise up in North Korea. The regime, in desperation, could kill millions with nuclear and non-nuclear attacks.
All of these perplexing matters have replaced the old U.S.-Soviet Union Cold War rivalry as this country's principal concern. They also outweigh, as immediate threats, any long-term attempts by China toward regional and global hegemony.
I have not even mentioned here, of course, the fallout that would follow a new 9/11-type attack on the U.S. homeland or a major ally by terrorist groups, now operating out of several countries. Depending on its timing, it could be a game-changer as Americans prepared for a 2012 national election.
Time to rethink: All of these problem areas have something in common. It is not within the power of the United States, or the U.S. and its principal allies, to force its will through either force or diplomacy. We can, at best, contain and limit the problems. The futures of Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and North Korea all lie within the hands of the inhabitants of those countries.
None operates within our context or aspires to be Des Moines. I, for one, would call it success if, in September 2012, things were no worse in any of these places than they are right now.
In the meantime, of course, deliberate choices must be made about U.S. policy. It is clear that Americans will not tolerate much longer the levels of manpower and money now being allocated to Iraq and Afghanistan. After inevitable reviews in 2011, Obama must decide where our national interests truly are and are not involved.
Does it truly matter to us who governs Iraq, so long it is not governed by an aggressive regime possessing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons — the reason cited for our initial intervention there?
Does it matter who governs Afghanistan, so long as the country no longer serves as the principal base for international terrorists — the reason cited for our initial intervention there?
Does it truly matter if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, which many other countries already possess — so long as it is deterred from using them (and if moderates appear on their way to power within a decade)?
Reviews surely will conclude that the situations in Pakistan and North Korea remain vital to our interests and that a Middle East war, involving Israel, must be averted. They surely will be at the top of the agenda two years hence and in future years.