The cover story by Jeffrey Goldberg in the September issue of Atlantic Monthly dealing with the possibility of an Israeli or U.S. attack on Iran has generated enormous interest and concern in varied circles throughout the country and the world. Other journalists, public officials, academics, and all kinds of voices in the blogosphere have debated, repudiated, lauded, or decried the story.
Regardless of the accuracy of Goldberg’s analysis and/or the probability of his predictions, discussions of a possible attack on Iran were everywhere. Iran was its usual bellicose self and the United States attempted to moderate and qualify at least the immediacy of the threat and accuracy of the timeline. Official Israeli sources were extraordinarily quiet and circumspect.
At the same time, at the end of last week, the White House announced that the Israelis and Palestinians planned to begin direct negotiations in Washington on Sept. 2 with formal, regular meetings set to commence on the 28th. Once again, the supporters and the skeptics had a field day. The enthusiasts saw this breakthrough as dramatic and transformative. Cynics, meanwhile, saw the arrangement as totally contrived and unrealistic, with neither side capable of sustaining a genuine process to produce the American-stated commitment to seeing an agreement reached by the end of one year.
Into this mix came serious political caveats on both sides. The Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas declared that he was being pushed into a dialogue with his own terms of discussion having been rejected and with the Hamas forces in Gaza denouncing the arrangement.
In Bibi Netanyahu’s view, he was entering discussions that could self-destruct by the end of September if he is not able to muster the political clout to finesse an extension of the West Bank settlement construction moratorium.
The saddest part about both of these occurrences was how they overshadowed the truly pivotal events in U.S. Middle East policy unfolding in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the last U.S. combat battalions made the trek out of Iraq, what remained was not only the political cost ahead but also the continuing signs of military instability in that troubled country. As the troops made their way across the desert, U.S. losses in lives and treasure became more starkly dramatic than ever.
The tragic toll of America’s combat role in a controversial and still inconclusive conflict is more than 4,400 U.S. soldiers killed and over 31,000 wounded. Despite the so-called democratic Iraqi elections last January, the country still has no viable government in place. More critically, there was little sense that genuine political change had been achieved.
The United States was leaving “only” 50,000 support troops in the country, while the suicide bombers of all religious persuasions continued to escalate their deadly attacks, and no one but wide-eyed dreamers saw long-term positive gains emerging after almost eight years of conflict. And despite no authoritative statement to that effect, it appeared unlikely that United States forces will resume a combat role in Iraq.
Meanwhile, it was announced that the number of private government contractors to protect American diplomats, aid workers, and military brass operating largely in Baghdad will be doubled to 7,000.
At the same time, an array of mixed signals accompanied discussions about the new surge in Afghanistan, which could spell the end — almost before the beginning — of the expanded U.S. role in the fight against the Taliban. There were new, widespread reports of corruption at the highest levels in the Kharzai government, renewed dangers facing combat troops in the mountain villages, and a reinvigorated Taliban. Entering into this confused situation was Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s replacement, the newly appointed commander, Gen. David Petraeus. He quickly addressed the president and the Pentagon’s timetable for a U.S. withdrawal next summer, drawing an immediate reply from his boss, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who suggested that the withdrawal timeline was real and that the general would comply with it.
So, into the debate about how to address the threat posed by a possible nuclear Iran and the likelihood of success or failure in the Israeli-Palestinian talks came the reality of U.S. lives and financial resources beginning to affect those willing to pay attention to the immediate issues.
Ironically, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to generate little significant public concern. With Americans still overwhelmed by economic problems, current polls show that only 6-10 percent of the public identify either war as a salient issue.
All of this emerges just as the nation prepares for what may prove to be dramatic mid-year elections. It leaves the political leadership in the United States, beginning with the president, with the dilemma of how to play out the new Middle East developments, while staring at the human and financial costs of the two real wars.