Note: The following guest post is by Ralph Bressler, the Chair of James City County Democratic Committee a distinguished retired Foreign Service Officer and someone whose opinion I value highly …
The still new Obama administration has many problems on its plate, topped of course by the financial crisis. There is a risk that it could suck the air out of the Obama administration just as the Iraq war did the Bush administration. The worldwide recession poses a national security risk as well as threatening our prosperity; some experts predict instability in previously calm areas. But meanwhile more traditional challenges to our national security must be addressed now.
In addressing these problems President Obama has stated that he will place a greater reliance on diplomacy as opposed to military force. According to the new head of the National Intelligence Council (retired ambassador Chas Freeman) in a lecture last year, it is time to ask whether military hegemony is a reasonable goal. A less belligerent approach can assure our security more effectively, at a cost we can afford. But Freeman contends that unless something is done to beef up our diplomatic service, Americans will have to continue to look first to the use of force in our foreign relations, and our military will continue to be asked to do things that civilians can do better. Defense Secretary Gates has called for sharply increased funding for the State Department, which is included in the new budget.
The most urgent challenges facing the new administration are the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fortunately things finally are going better in Iraq. However, as our military withdrawal begins we need to leave in a way that maximizes the prospect that Iraqis can restore peace among themselves. Considerable progress has been made on the security front. But many political issues have not been resolved, such as how are oil revenues to be shared and how much autonomy the regions should enjoy.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan and along the Afghan-Pakistan border, we are in a war of attrition, and we are not winning. In Congressional testimony Defense Secretary Gates has stated that we need to reduce civilian casualties and that military dominion cannot succeed. Gates does not believe that sending additional troops beyond those now committed would be useful. A major surge such as the one in Iraq will not work; every military power that has tried to subdue Afghanistan has failed. Gates has said that our goal should be to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorists to use to attack the U. S. or our allies, not to create a democracy. To do this we need to reach an accommodation with the Pashtun nationalists living on both sides of the Pakistan/Afghanistan border that would include the expulsion of al Qa‘ida.
Another urgent problem is the broken peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians and restoring order in Gaza. Even though the Israelis and the U.S. refuse to recognize Hamas because it is a terrorist organization, the Israelis do negotiate with them on issues such as ceasefires. George Mitchell, the new peace envoy, has said that attacks on Israel must stop and borders must open to reduce tensions and improve the lives of residents of Gaza. The Israelis agree with these goals, but insist that they will work only with the Palestinian Authority. But the Palestinian Authority has no presence in Gaza, having lost the election and a subsequent civil war to Hamas.
At some point Hamas will have to be brought in if we are to end the fighting in Gaza. The initial steps can be done in secret or through third parties such as Egypt, but we need to start the process. Fatah, the predecessor group to the Palestinian Authority, was a terror organization that for years called for the destruction of Israel; today both the government of Israel and the United States support it as the legitimate ruler of the Palestinians. With time Hamas might also become more reasonable. The only way to find out is to engage with it.
After progress in Gaza, Mitchell’s next task will be the peace process. On the West Bank this will be very difficult as there are so many Israeli settlements, which continue to be built, that it will be difficult to have contiguous territory for a Palestinian state. The Israelis have some tough decisions to make. If there is no Palestinian state, not too many years in the future there will be more Arabs than Jews living in Israeli controlled territory. If they are given equal rights Israel will no longer be a Jewish state. If they are not given rights, Israel will be accused of being another South Africa.
There are other important issues crying for attention such as North Korea and Iran that space does not permit me to address. But the Obama administration has an excellent national security team in place, and will be able to ensure our safety in spite of the difficult challenges we face. Its approach of relying more on diplomacy and less on force will result in a stronger United States, and could lead to progress on problems that have bedeviled us for years.