What’s a president to do?

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November 29, 2009 by jamesessj

I sympathize, I really do.  Who would want responsibility (which always defaults to the president, fairly or un-) for the twin problems of Iran and Afghanistan?  Neither is pretty, neither is simple, neither may even be soluble.  What is a president to do?

Obama’s policy of engagement with the Iranians has obviously not reaped the rewards he had hoped for — I kinda sorta agree with one Democratic opinionmeister who opinionmeistered that the change in policy was at least worth a try, after eight years of G.W. Bush — but I also realize what Democrats never seem to, which is that in geopolitics, nice guys really do finish last.  If they finish at all.  Usually they’re left trampled and bleeding in the dust.  So it’s not surprising that making nice with Iran leads only to Iran taking advantage and going right ahead with their nuclear program.

Which, to be fair, is probably no less than they’d have done if McCain had been elected — or, for that matter, if Bush had somehow won a third term.  There’s no good solution here:  not as long as the Russians and the Chinese continue to hold out, a position which, from their vantage points, makes perfect sense.  Iran’s no particular threat to them; it’s a willing and able partner in trade; where’s the advantage in sanctions?

So what’s a president to do?  Wink and nod at the Israelis, hoping they’ll be able to repeat their stellar performance of 1982?  Push harder on Russia and China?  How?  We can’t even get the Chinese to hold a joint press conference.  And Putin has been doing, for a long while now, a brilliant imitation of Nikita Khrushchev — somebody needs to remind this guy of a little something called 1991.

Obama’s options are limited, and made further so by a world that doesn’t seem to give much of a darn.  The U.S. on its own could institute the toughest sanctions imaginable and Iran will still get what it needs elsewhere.  The U.S. on its own could instigate a naval blockade of Iran, à la Cuba in 1962, but the ramifications of such a policy are almost impossible to overestimate — what would be Iran’s response?  What would be the Arab world’s response?  And what’s to stop Iran from continuing to get what it needs over land and air?

Then there is Afghanistan.  Nobody wins in Afghanistan.  Ask the Brits.  Ask the Soviets.  Ask General McKiernan.

Of course we can’t just cut and run — the place was the incubator of 9/11 and could well fall right back into the hands of the Taliban if we were to leave.  Ten years ago the response would have been, So what, let them eat cake, but 9/11 brought home to us, literally, what can be the result of ignoring a dangerous part of the world; of pretending that what’s over there has no consequence over here.

So what’s a president to do?  It now appears that he will give General McChrystal most of the troops he asked for — this after months of soul-searching debate that, whatever one’s personal opinion of it, can’t possibly have done much for the moral of our troops already in the field or for our Afghan partners.  Obama will now be faced with the unfortunate (but self-inflicted) task of selling a war that, as one commentator put it, he’d have voted against if he were still in the Senate.  Republicans will probably stick with him; Democrats probably won’t.  Damned if he does, damned if he don’t.

So I do feel sorry for our president.  Neither of these nightmare scenarios is of his creation — both were inherited.

On the other hand…I don’t feel too sorry for Mr. Obama.  He did run for the office, and each of these nightmare scenarios was well down the road to nightmarishness before he ever got elected.  It’s not as if he woke up one morning in the White House to the shocking news that Iran was developing nukes.  (This is why I find the whole “blame Bush” — or “blame <insert previous president’s name here>” — strategy so distasteful; every president gets dealt bad hands by his predecessor, and weren’t you running because you were convinced you were the only one smart enough, capable enough, good enough, to fix those bad hands?)  He wanted the job — he’s got it.  It’s never easy being the leader of the free world.  You’ll be hated no matter which side you choose, no matter what decision you make.

There’s just no way to win.

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