The commitment of US diplomatic and military resources to the Greater Middle East, guided by a twin strategy uniting counter-terrorism and an ambitious program of social and political transformation, will remain the clearest legacy of the Bush Administration. It is also the clearest location of divergence for President-elect Obama, most starkly demonstrated with regard to the war in Iraq.
Obama has consistently opposed the project from its inception, viewing it as a distraction from the post-9/11 counter-terrorism mission. Nonetheless, while he has repeatedly called for a withdrawal of forces by mid-2010, we anticipate a less precipitous drawdown. Politically and strategically, a collapse of the Iraqi state would be devastating for the new Administration. Rather, the President-elect – drawing on the advice of regional US commanders – will seek to accelerate efforts to stabilize the political environment in Baghdad, predicating the withdrawal of US combat forces on their replacement with local troops.
The withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq is also driven by concerns over the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. The President-elect has characterized the containment and the eventual suppression of Islamic militancy in Afghanistan as a fundamental US strategic priority. He has already committed to the deployment of two additional combat brigades as well as over $1 billion in aid. The Obama Administration’s policies will emerge more clearly following the release of a full strategic review of current US policy. However, it is already clear that any approach will incorporate the broader implications of ongoing Taliban activity in the border regions of Pakistan. Our judgment is that the stress on combat assets, combined with political weakness in Pakistan, and the President-elect’s expressed predilection for engagement, will result in a careful, highly focused but low-key diplomatic outreach to moderate Taliban members in 2009 early in the new Administration.
Significant uncertainty surrounds the President-elect’s approach towards Iran. While Obama indicated on the campaign trail a commitment to pursuing sanctions and “tough, direct diplomacy” in dissuading Tehran from its atomic ambitions, any increase in tension would have implications for stability in Iraq. As we have previously indicated, some analysts in Washington believe that this situation could encourage the President-elect to attempt a “grand bargain”. However, this in turn runs up against the strategic interests of Washington’s allies in the Gulf, who fear an expansion of Iranian influence.
The next Administration’s attitude towards Iran will also hold consequences for relations with Israel and the Palestinians. Already, the leader of the Kadima Party Tzipi Livni has warned against extending a diplomatic hand to the sponsors of Hamas and Hezbollah. Additionally, should a significant divergence in approach towards Iran’s nuclear program emerge, the risks of unilateral action by Tel Aviv would increase. On the Peace Process, while Obama has recently indicated that he regards a negotiated two-state settlement as a priority, we suspect that this will remain contingent upon both the nature of his interlocutors, and his ability to overcome the myriad of more immediate political and economic challenges upon which his electoral mandate is based.