Stalled Out All Over the World

Our Afghan ally lacks legitimacy. The Mideast peace process is stuck. Iran flouts our wishes, and Iraq is falling apart. Leslie H. Gelb on how Obama can get foreign policy back out of the ditch.

Despite America’s best efforts, President Hamid Karzai is the declared winner after the runoff election was canceled Monday, leaving little hope for a legitimate government in Afghanistan. Now what?

Despite Washington’s pressures, Israeli and Palestinian leaders can’t agree on terms to resume negotiations. Now what?

Despite reasonable negotiating efforts by the Obama administration, Iran rejects the very fair idea of sending most of its uranium abroad to be turned into medical research chips for Iran. Now what?

If the various leaders of these countries and movements are determined to persist in their murderous, corrupt, and self-destructive ways, Obama’s overwhelming logic won’t convince them otherwise.

And President Obama can hardly forget about an Iraq where the country seems headed again toward civil war, as U.S. troops continue their withdrawal as mandated by the Iraqis. Now what?

Barack Obama has arrived at a terrible moment of truth in foreign policy. He has done little to make these four crises less critical. Americans knew that electing Obama, a man without any real experience in foreign affairs, was a risk. But the widespread feeling was that he couldn’t do worse than George W. Bush, who had bequeathed him all these miserable situations. Well, he hasn’t done worse than Bush, but he hasn’t accomplished much either. And now we will see whether he and his team can pull themselves together and fashion a strategy that allows the United States to head off, or at least better roll with, the inevitable international punches-until conditions ripen for the effective application of American power.

And the body blows will inevitably come. We are dealing with people in all these and other cases who hate their fellow citizens and/or the United States so much that they’d much rather kill each other and destroy themselves than accept America’s genuine attempts to improve their lives and give peace a chance. Obama has to learn that Washington’s sweet reason means almost nothing to such people. If the various leaders of these countries and movements are determined to persist in their murderous, corrupt, and self-destructive ways, Obama’s overwhelming logic won’t convince them otherwise. American troops can mute the horrors, but only so long as they are present in force. Take them away and killings resume as usual. And with or without these sacrificing troops, the peace they fight for always hides beyond the horizon.

Tina Brown: Hillary Finally Doffs Her BurqaPeter Beinart: Hope Amid the Rubble in PakistanHoward Altman: Al Qaeda’s Man in AfghanistanLee Siegel: Generals Can’t Be TrustedJust stare at some blatant facts that Americans generally don’t like to look at, facts about what Washington can and can’t do in a world drowning in conflicts both internal and external.

—Karzai, who is almost totally dependent on American support, tells us to go fly a kite when we encourage him to conduct honest elections and then do a fair runoff election. And Abdullah Abdullah, the great opposition hero in certain American circles, refuses the runoff himself. How on earth does this great Afghan patriot think the Obama administration, which wants to help Afghanistan, can possibly do so without some semblance of a legitimate government in Kabul? Does he foolishly believe we can hand the government over to him? There is no way any nation with half a brain would—or certainly, should—stay in Afghanistan and fight and lose lives and throw away billions of dollars under these circumstances. The sooner Mr. Obama apprises our Afghan friends of this reality, the better for us—if not for them. We will survive it; they probably won’t.

—For months, the White House has been beating up on the right-wing government in Israel to suspend all settlement activity on the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Did anyone with any experience in these negotiations actually advise Obama that any Israeli government would throw away those bargaining chips without a single concession from the Palestinians, except their agreeing to talk? Did Obama believe this himself? He must have. Perhaps he also learned something from the fact that the Palestinians wouldn’t take half a loaf to get the talks started; that is, they weren’t prepared to make any compromises of their own in subsequent talks to get further Israeli concessions on the West Bank. All Obama can do at this point is to step back, as the British did in Northern Ireland, and focus energies on building coalitions for peace in Israel and the Palestinian territories—constituencies to support compromises that leaders on both sides are presently unwilling and politically unable to make at the negotiating table.

—Obama offered Iran a good deal on sending the bulk of its uranium stockpile to Russia for upgrading for medical uses—while being silent on America’s previous demand that Tehran end its nuclear program. President Ahmadinejad’s rejection shows that Iran’s nuts still have the last say in their nation’s fruitcake. America’s hawks insist that Obama now ratchet up economic sanctions and let Israelis proceed with plans to bomb nuclear targets in Iran. It is beyond stupid to threaten these actions. Washington can’t enforce tougher sanctions without Russia, and Moscow won’t play. And only neocons, their recent costly sins forgotten by TV and op-ed editors, fail to absorb the horrible consequences for Israel and the United States if we support an attack on Iranian soil. While no one is happy with a policy of restraint, the best of a bad set of options for Obama is to let internal tensions within Iran take that country in a more natural and reasonable direction.

—As for Iraq, the Shiite-led government in Baghdad told us to get our troops out, and that’s what is happening. Some, like New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, want America to refocus on Iraq and do something. But it is not at all clear what that something is, let alone whether we could do it. The reason the Maliki government told us to leave was that Shiites felt themselves strong enough to take over the whole country and didn’t want us to block their path to power. Obama might remind them that re-Sadaamizing the country won’t go down well here. Americans will feel an obligation to help the Kurds, as in the past. And Sunni Arab states, like Saudi Arabia, will supply arms to their brethren in central Iraq as well. There’s nothing much else we can do.

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Maybe these last nine months have taught Obama something about international realities. Perhaps he’s been helped along this path by Pakistan’s telling us to shut up and let them run their country they way they want (providing safe haven for the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda, indulging in widespread corruption, etc.), despite America’s new $7.5 billion aid program. Perhaps Obama also glimpses something about our NATO allies when they proclaim Afghanistan’s central importance to world security and yet dispatch few, if any, troops to die alongside our men and women.

The United States can’t and shouldn’t walk away from these problems. Futility and neo-isolationism are contrary to American interest. The Obama administration should re-emphasize its willingness to be a fair mediator of disputes, its leadership role in stopping bloodshed, and its continued willingness to expend American lives and treasure to fight extremism and terrorism. But Obama should impose one unambiguous condition: that those we seek to help demonstrate their willingness to compromise with their adversaries against more devastating adversaries, run decent governments for their own people, and organize and fight for their own freedom.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.