Saturday, December 17, 2011

"In Washington, the attitude is one of ‘moving on’......"

Both President Obama and Secretary of Defense Panetta attended ceremonies this week to mark the withdrawal of the last US combat forces from Iraq and thus the end of a nearly decade-long war. Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki was in attendance. The rest of the United States barely noticed. The Congress was absorbed with internal wrangling over last-minute budgetary fixes and popular opinion has long lost interest in the war. For Obama, however, ending the war represents the eventual fulfillment of a campaign pledge which, his advisers believe, will stand him in good stead in forthcoming foreign policy debates with Republican challengers. While some conservative commentators criticize the Administration for failing to maintain a larger residual force in Iraq, this does not enjoy any resonance with wider political opinion. Here, the attitude is one of ‘moving on’. A similar psychology is in active play with regard to Afghanistan. Even though most expert opinion holds deep concerns about the viability of a pro-western government following the coalition’s withdrawal in two years, there is little appetite for extended engagement in the country as a whole. A Republican president, were one elected in 2012, would have to pay heed to this fact, even if his campaign rhetoric suggested a more robust policy of delaying the departure of US troops. Of more immediate concern is the rising role of the Egyptian military in confronting democratic change. There are few friends of the Muslim Brotherhood in Washington. Nonetheless, there is growing alarm that heavy-handedness by the army may play into the hands of extremists. US officials recognize that their influence in Egypt is limited, but they are seeking to moderate the actions of the Egyptian military leadership. With the situation in Syria continuing to drift, as US analysts see it, toward civil war, the exhilaration over the “Arab Spring” with which the year begun has turned to profound trepidation that the region may be on the brink of new instability. The intelligence community is keeping a watchful eye on Iranian activities. As before, however, we see no evidence that the Administration is minded to confront Tehran militarily.

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