Are some Democratic legislators who are squabbling over health care secret supporters of the Taliban? Are some Republican legislators in cahoots with Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
I’m dead serious when I ask those questions, as we pass another anniversary of 9/11. President Obama must make critical decisions this fall about policies toward Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran — decisions forced on him early in his term because of wrongheaded policies by the previous administration.
Eight years after the twin towers fell, militant Islamists in all three countries are on a roll. They think the United States is on an economic and political downslide. Fearful at first of Obama — because of his global appeal — they now sense he may be done in at home by his own party, and by sharp Republican opposition.
“Both the internal and external signs of this Western liberal democracy show that it’s approaching defeat and collapse,” said top Ahmadinejad aide Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi last week, echoing past comments by his boss. I believe Hashemi is wrong. But psychology figures powerfully in the unwillingness of Iranians (or the Taliban) to compromise — and we are giving them good reason to believe they are winning.
A U.S. president who fails on his signature issue — health care — won’t have the strength and public support to deal with new challenges by Islamists. He will be seen at home and abroad as seriously weakened. Yet neither party seems much bothered by this threat.
Among Democrats, many liberals are so mesmerized by their allegiance to one provision of health care or another, that they fail to consider the consequences to an Obama presidency of failure. Many Democrats also doubt Obama’s policy on Afghanistan. But I believe he can still make smart choices about troop levels, provided he isn’t fatally wounded first by the politics of health care.
Yet such wounds are just what some Republicans hope to inflict. Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina put it bluntly: “If we’re able to stop Obama on this (health care) it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”
Never mind that the stunning challenges Obama faces regarding the Taliban result from eight years of neglect of Afghanistan by the previous president in favor of Iraq. “President Bush had eight years to build up an Afghan army, to invest in agriculture and jobs there, and he didn’t do it,” says Ahmed Rashid, one of the world’s leading experts on the Taliban.
And never mind that Republicans like Sens. Lindsay Graham and John McCain are supporting the president on the Afghan issue. The lure of the DeMint scenario seems to have blinded much of the GOP to the dangers that slash-and-burn politics pose to our policy abroad.
So, for those Democrats and Republicans whose narrow focus puts our foreign policy at risk, let me lay out those dangers:
As our top military brass have bluntly said, things are getting worse in Afghanistan. I needn’t remind you this is the country in which the 9/11 tragedy was hatched.
Afghan Taliban are gaining ground, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda still plot inside their Pakistani safe haven, and Pakistani jihadis are trying to destabilize a country with nukes — and to provoke a war with India, which also has nuclear arms.
Any U.S. hope of improving the situation requires a reversal in the current victor mentality of Taliban adherents. The U.S. military hopes to achieve this by demonstrating our commitment to secure and aid Afghans, even as we train up the Afghan army to replace us. If the Taliban is convinced of our commitment, chances rise that we can peel off mid- and low-level members who are in the fight for money or jobs.
But if the Taliban believe we, and Obama, are weak, they will refuse to bargain. Similarly, so long as Iranian leaders believe that our democracy is approaching collapse, they will feel confident in refusing to negotiate about their nuclear program and flouting Obama’s September deadline for them to do so.
The same top Ahmadinejad aide who predicted America’s fall said Iran will not even talk about halting its uranium enrichment program.
This leaves Obama with two choices: trying to rally the U.N. Security Council around new sanctions, which will be made all the more difficult if the world perceives him as failing at home; or turning to military action. His options might expand if he were strengthened at home.
So legislators on both sides of the aisle should start thinking beyond their narrow self-interest. If Democrats fail to find a health care compromise they may doom their president’s foreign policy, and their own reelection chances. They will certainly be helping the Taliban, by undercutting Obama’s ability to craft a policy that could save Afghanistan.
If Republicans adopt the South Carolina approach — don’t fight on policy, fight to destroy Obama — they’ll undercut national security. Shouting “You lie” — the words of South Carolinian Joe Wilson — is easy and cheap. But do Republicans really want to give Ahmadinejad a boost?
George W. Bush’s policies immeasurably strengthened Iran, and now we all must deal with the consequences. Isn’t it time for some grown-up behavior on Capitol Hill?