Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Where do we go from here?

In my last pre-election post, I bemoaned the political situation in the US as one party getting it wrong and the other not getting it at all. I didn't make any predictions, but the election results were more favorable to the Democrats than I expected. It looks as if they might control both houses (counting Lieberman as a Democrat). Expect two years of gridlock. (A better outcome would have been a Dem Senate and Rep House, but, oh well.) I think my mistaken view was based on concentraing too much on Bush and Iraq. This election was, of course, about Congress, not Bush, and voters have lots of good reasons to be very unhappy with the congressional Republicans. We also live in an era of rapid political cycling. What used to take years now takes months. But there are implications beyond Congress nonetheless.

There will be intense pressure on Bush to force Rumsfeld out and to leave Iraq as quickly as possible, by 2008 at the latest. (The Pentagon's original timetable for Iraq was to leave in 2008 anyway.) Iraq will move from a half-baked civil war to a fully-baked one, and Iran will effectively control the southern half of Iraq, to the extent that anyone controls it. It's been the case that American foreign policy since 9/11 has been strangely favorable to Iranian interests, and the Iranian government has been both riled up by American intervention in the region, but at the same time, liberated by the removal of two regimes (the Taliban and Saddam) that they viewed as threats. Even with the recent drops in oil prices, expect Iran to feel its oats as never before in the next 2-3 years, running up to the moment when they have functional nuclear weapons. The Iranians are likely not to use those weapons, but once they have them, expect a regional arms race. The Republicans will make big hay out these developments in 2008, especially after soldiers start returning from Iraq and embarass the Democrats. But the Republicans can't expect voters to give them a free pass on spectacular incompetence forever.

More generally, especially after 2008, expect a gradual American withdrawal from global commitments. The Democrats are still in the confused state of having no foreign policy and most of them still look back nostalgically on the post-1945 era of America leading willing allies. What they don't realize yet is that the post-1945 liberal internationalist era, with its institutions, processes, and so on, is dying, if not dead already. The US will be in less and less of position to prevent regional arms races, regional conflicts, and trade wars. American foreign policy is headed towards a much narrower construal of US interests. Democrats, once the party of foreign affairs, have largely lost interest in the rest of the world. The implication is that US allies will have to start figuring out their own futures and redeveloping their own military and foreign policies. Expect regional instability in east Asia, for example, a much lower profile for the US in the Middle East, and a polite American write-off of Europe. Unilateral Israeli action has already become more comon, with no imaginary pot-at-the-end-of-the-rainbow "peace process." The whole range of Middle East conflicts has now gone full circle back to being religious, not nationalistic. Few in the US really understand this yet, but we soon will.

The voter mood in the US hasn't suddenly become more liberal. The large number of conservative or "blue-dog" Democrats winning in this election indicates something else, roughly similar to the early 1990s. The voter mood is populist - anti-free-trade, anti-immigration, and suspicious of foreign policy involvements. The Republicans have stirred the expectations of populist voters, then disappointed or angered them. That's a sure way for politicians to get into trouble. Read what George Will has to say: The Iraq war, like the Alaska bridge, pungently proclaims how Republicans earned their rebuke. They are guilty of apostasy from conservative principles at home (frugality, limited government) and embrace of anti-conservative principles abroad (nation-building grandiosity pursued incompetently).

POSTSCRIPT: Rumsfeld has resigned. His apparent successor, Robert Gates, has a tough job ahead of him, pulling out American troops from a country with an accelerating civil war. Unlike Vietnam, the so-called (Sunni) "insurgency" will not win, but will be crushed by the Iranian-backed triumph of the Shi'ites. Within a couple years, Iraq will be three countries. American relations with key Sunni allies (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt) will be strained beyond anything seen before.

Expect darkness to reign in the Middle East for the next while, starting with another war in Lebanon, superficially against Israel, but in reality to break Lebanon for good. The same forces will be at work in Iraq.

Thoughts-in-parallel from Michael Totten.

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