No exit

The way to peace in the Middle East is down a road we’ve never taken

Is it Groundhog Day, or am I just suffering from delayed ejaculation? Try as I might, I can’t quite pop my cork over President Barack Obama’s reign so far. His more ardent supporters may still cling to him like a campaign bumper sticker on a Prius, but I’m wondering how a guy who’s so damned smart can fail to heed philosopher Santayana’s aphorism that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

We’re not talking about ancient history here, either. Correct me if I’m wrong, Reaganites, but did not the Great Communicator and our wily intelligence services hasten the collapse of communism by suckering the Soviet Union into an unsustainable occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s? Did not the Soviets withdraw in shame, their modern army defeated by ragtag mujahedeen rebels, their economy in shambles?

Of course, our covert support for the mujahedeen had an unintended consequence, the phenomenon author Chalmers Johnson calls “blowback.” Their Soviet foe vanquished, radicalized Muslims trained in guerrilla tactics by our own CIA were in need of an enemy. Osama bin Laden, scion of one of Saudia Arabia’s wealthiest families, pointed them in our direction. The twin towers came down, the United States took the bait, and voilà!

Here we are, mired in Afghanistan and Iraq, right where OBL wanted us.

That at least is how some folks tell it, and while I for one continue to doubt whether bin Laden is alive or even existed in the first place, the fact remains that some 200,000 American troops are bogged down in the Middle East, with no easy way to extract them. Couple that with unrest in Pakistan, our continued belligerence toward Iran and the collapse of the global economy, and we’re one spark away from a conflagration that could spread from Israel to India in a flash.

Although I voted for Obama last November, by then I’d already grown leery of his commitment to ending the war in the Middle East. His principled opposition to the war in the primaries had morphed into his ludicrous contention that the “surge” in Iraq was working by the time the general election rolled around. When Obama and his transition team began planning to increase troop strength in Afghanistan even before the newly elected president took the oath of office, I braced myself for the worst.

Pleasantly, the worst hasn’t occurred. Obama has been described by some in foreign-policy circles as a “realist,” which in terms of Middle Eastern diplomacy means he’s willing to entertain solutions to the region’s ongoing problems that may not necessarily be agreeable to Israel, our chief ally. Those solutions range from reducing U.S. aid to Israel for failing to halt construction of settlements in the unoccupied territories to jump-starting the long-stalled initiative to create two independent states, Israel and Palestine, side by side in the desert.

That’s not to say any of these options are on the table. But the mere fact such ideas are being discussed at all is a minor coup for the realists, who’ve been left out in the cold ever since Colin Powell stopped short of Baghdad in 1992. Dick Cheney wasn’t lying last week when he said he’d rather have Rush Limbaugh in the Republican Party before Powell. Reluctant warriors aren’t Cheney’s type. They insist on realistic things, like an exit strategy.

Does Obama have an exit strategy? At this point, it remains unclear. His administration has been working behind the scenes to defuse tension between Israel and Iran, much to the displeasure of hard-line hawks in Congress as well as Israel. Yet prior to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, D.C., this week, Obama himself ratcheted up the rhetoric, and the cable news networks were once again abuzz about an Iranian nuclear-weapons program that even our own CIA admits doesn’t exist.

This is sounding all too sickeningly familiar. There may be no easy way out, but one thing seems certain. Repeating the mistakes of the past isn’t going to work. I hope the president has a good memory.