A new start with the Muslim world, as President Obama pledged in his inaugural speech, has a sine qua non: a Palestinian settlement, a quest that has eluded the past five U.S. presidents.
Following Israel's invasion of Gaza and its 22-day campaign of airstrikes, tank, and artillery bombardment that left 1,300 Palestinians killed for the loss of only 13 Israeli soldiers, a Palestinian state remains a diplomatic chimera.
Peace Now activists to the contrary, the perennial Israeli-Palestinian crisis is one Obama can afford to leave in the hands of the diplomatic pros who have built careers on the "Mideast peace process." Following the Feb. 10 elections, Israel's next prime minister is likely to be Benjamin Netanyahu, the 59-year-old Likud leader who will spare no effort to prevent the emergence of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
For Palestinians, even the most moderate ones, a Palestinian state must have as its capital Arab East Jerusalem, anathema to an overwhelming majority of Israelis. Obama, therefore, should resist being drawn into what will remain a quagmire as far as anyone can see into the future.
For Muslims, the appointment of former Sen. George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, as a sort of deputy secretary of state for the Middle East was a good omen. Mitchell, whose father was an Irish janitor and mother a Lebanese immigrant who worked in a textile mill, earned tremendous bipartisan respect as the Democratic Senate majority leader (1989-1995). For six consecutive years he was voted "the most respected member of the Senate" by a partisan group of senior congressional aides.
Mitchell, 75, also was the diplomatic magician who was asked in 1996 to chair the negotiations that led to the historic accord that ended decades of bloody conflict over Northern Ireland. He was showered with honors, ranging from the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the U.N. Peace Prize.
After leaving the Senate in 1995, Mitchell served as chairman of the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit dedicated to the prevention of crises in international affairs. His Middle Eastern expertise came and grew quickly when President Clinton and Israeli and Palestinian leaders asked him to chair an international fact-finding committee on violence in the region. Mitchell's report asked the Israelis to freeze (not dismantle) their settlements in the West Bank, which they didn't, and for the Palestinians to crack down on terrorism in the West Bank, which they did.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be flanked by another regional deputy for Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan, now the most urgent crisis. Richard C. Holbrooke also has an impressive record as a diplomatic troubleshooter in widely scattered parts of the planet. This reporter met him in Vietnam in 1964 when he was part of a trio of diplomatic whiz kids in their mid-20s, along with John Negroponte and Frank Wisner, all Vietnamese speakers who went on to climb the highest rungs of diplomacy.
Holbrooke, nominated seven times for the Nobel Peace Prize, made headlines as the "Bulldozer of the Balkans" when he brokered a peace agreement among the warring factions in Bosnia that led to the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords. He has served as assistant secretary of state for Asia and again for Europe, ambassador to Germany and to the United Nations, and lost out thrice as secretary of state (to Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright, and Hillary Clinton, whose presidential campaign he served as principal foreign policy adviser).
Both Mitchell's and Holbrooke's mandates in the Mideast and South Asia are bound to overlap in Iran, now the purview of Dennis B. Ross, a perennial Mideast negotiator pressed back into service to open a new dialogue with Iran's mullahs. They wield more covert influence behind the scenes in Iraq than America's overt presence with 140,000 troops and its largest embassy in the world, which cost $1.3 billion for 21 buildings on 104 acres that were once Saddam Hussein's palace complex, with 1,200 U.S. diplomats and staff from 14 federal agencies plus 3,000 support and security personnel. And the mullahs are determined not to relinquish the nuclear weapons option.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently returned from his fourth visit to Tehran, this time to be received one-on-one by supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Maliki denounced "major crimes against the Palestinian people in Gaza." He also has praised Iran's "constructive" role in "fighting terrorism in Iraq."
Maliki escaped Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1979, the year of the Iranian Revolution, and spent eight of his exile years in Tehran, the rest of the time in Damascus, always working for the Islamic Shi'ite Dawa party. It is hard to see how the United States can leave Iraq militarily 16 months hence without some kind of a geopolitical settlement with Iran, which shares a 1,000-mile border with Iraq.
Iran, conversely, is bound to use Iraq as leverage for what the mullahs want: tacit U.S. recognition of Iran's role as guardian of the Gulf, the same role the United States gave Iran under the Nixon Doctrine in the early 1970s.
Obama soon will find himself in high-stakes geopolitical poker. Former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman says, "Iran's leverage is extraordinarily high," adding, "If things in Iraq are going OK, and the Iranians have the power to disrupt things and do, then Obama's goose is cooked."
Obama has no intention of allowing his goose to be cooked by ayatollahs in Tehran or flat-Earth Taliban mullahs in Afghanistan. But Iran, which also borders Pakistan and Afghanistan, can be helpful against Taliban insurgents, as indeed it was in October 2001 during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
So there are many moving parts in a regional crisis that stretches from the Arab-Israeli deadlock on the Mediterranean to the Afghan-Chinese border, with Iran's ticking nuclear plans in the middle. A holistic politico-military approach would be the better part of geopolitical valor. Failure to think this one through six moves ahead could lead us into a military confrontation with Iran.
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