An offering with a hitch

What happens if Barack Obama keeps US troops in Afghanistan for the long haul, modernises the American nuclear infrastructure as a counterweight to the signature of the New Start treaty with Russia, and gets tough – real tough, going beyond sanctions – on Iran?

By John Vinocur

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Published: Fri 19 Nov 2010, 9:56 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:29 AM

The president gets support from a group of Republicans who are concerned about a potential wave of isolationism coming from ‘an unholy alliance’ of right- and left-wing outriders in Congress who disdain the country’s engagement in the world.

And Obama receives an acknowledgment from one of the Republican Party’s leading spokesmen on national security that, “If he does a good job in keeping us safe, I would not be surprised if he gets re-elected.”

Of course, some not-so-small fine print slips in here: a second-term Obama White House also presupposes an economic rebound and avoiding a major terrorist attack. But Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina – described by Bob Woodward in his book Obama’s Wars as regarded by Obama as “the most reasonable Republican ally” on issues like Afghanistan – is saying that his party’s ascension in Congress can mean foreign policy support for the president in exchange for demonstrations of a new firmness, particularly on Iran.

The context for the offer is striking: Obama’s just-completed Asian week of doubt and rejection concerning his trade and monetary policies, and the real possibility that the White House finds softer support among Democrats than Republicans for bilateral trade agreements and an extended Afghan mission.

Could factors like these lead the president to take Graham’s proposition seriously? At a conference on international security organised by the German Marshall Fund of the United States 10 days ago in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, called Obama (while harshly criticising his Iran policy) “one of the great stories in American history” and promised that the Republican internationalists in Congress would be ‘influencing new members’ supported by the Tea Party movement.

At a round-table discussion in Halifax and in a later conversation, Graham set out what sounded like a quid pro quo arrangement. On Afghanistan, he said he thought that Republicans “would feel comfortable standing with the president” because the “likelihood of defunding the war, and a precipitous withdrawal, is going down.”

In relation to the possibility of US engagement being officially extended into 2014, Graham told me he could well imagine the departure of a US brigade from the country to meet the July 2011 date set for the start of a turnover to Afghan forces.

A similar tone of cooperation was heard on a Senate ratification vote for the New Start agreement limiting US and Russian nuclear capabilities.

“The administration’s challenge to get Republican support is to show some real serious investment in our nuclear infrastructure, and, quite frankly, I think they’re moving in that direction,” Graham said.

The senator’s own Big Iran Caveat enters here. The Republicans’ rise, he said, “is good news for the president if he wants to be bold on Iran. If he decides to be tough on Iran, I think you’re going to see a lot of Republican support for the idea we cannot let Iran develop a nuclear weapons.”

He told me he wanted to see the application of “crippling sanctions” on Iran – a term once used by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, then abandoned in a flood of White House caution. But Graham also said he believed neither that sanctions would stop the mullahs’ drive for nuclear weapons, nor that a US containment policy would block elements of Iranian weapons from the falling into the hands of “really bad people….”

So what’s the state of play on dealing with Iran? In Halifax and Washington, there were assertions and descriptions from officials and experts from several countries of the current sanctions’ biting results, deterrent action by so-called special forces inside Iran, the Teheran government’s disarray, and the Americans’ continuing attempts to slow Iran’s progress toward a weapons status through a plan that would tacitly accept a degree of nuclear enrichment by the Iranians – an initiative that some allies say would remove the heart of existing international nonproliferation agreements.

McCain argued that Obama had done nothing brave to support Iran’s opposition forces. And a non-American official, in a position to know, talked of Russia and India sliding around agreements on sanctions.

Even the idea that Iran might could conceivably enter negotiations on its nuclear effort was in serious doubt.

In these circumstances, according to Graham, the Republican notion of a swap in their cooperation with the president involves Obama’s “need to start talking more openly” about possible military solutions.

If Graham were giving advice to the president, eventual strikes would not just be to neutralise the Iranian nuclear programme, “but to sink their navy, destroy their air force” – and, “neuter the regime.”

Could Obama be listening? Yes. In Woodward’s book, it was in reply to Graham, expressing concern at a private Oval Office meeting last year about withdrawal from Afghanistan, that the president remarked, “I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”

Now, times have changed. But not likely to the extent of validating the implausible.

A really hard-nosed White House line on Iran in exchange for some help on other foreign policy issues from a Republican Party that isn’t sure of being able to handle its own Tea Party insurgents?

Here’s a shard of an answer: It’s been months since Obama last said an Iranian nuclear weapon was “unacceptable” – which, in classic diplomatic language, means no less than “this shall not stand.”

John Vinocur writes a regular column in the International Herald Tribune

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