Presidential politics has gone kaleidoscopic. Between Mitt Romney's split decision on a not so Super Tuesday for him and the big geopolitically-driven crises President Barack Obama has to manage, it's easy to get lost in the weeds. Here's a view of the forest.
The Republicans who would be president are the least of Obama's problems, and what they've been doing over the past few months only makes that more so. Obama is most threatened now by a looming war involving Iran and Israel and a collapsing war in Afghanistan. There are a variety of crosscuts with those real and potential wars.
* The Republicans say: Fight on!
It's not easy to see how Mitt Romney's current rivals win the nomination, especially so long as there are two major challengers instead of one. And it's not hard to see how Romney keeps failing to seal the deal.
On Tuesday, we had 10 states voting, with Super Tuesday contests in Idaho, Alaska, Georgia, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont, and Virginia. It wasn't easy to say in advance what would happen because big news media organizations all shot their budgets very early on, with endlessly repetitive polls of the same contests, anticipating a Romney romp. Oops.
It was a much smaller Super Tuesday than in 2008, when some 24 states held contests, the most ever on one day. By that point, John McCain had already essentially won the nomination by knocking Mitt Romney out in early contests in California and Florida, though Mike Huckabee soldiered on.
Romney won 6 of 10 states this time, but lost badly in several important states to Rick Santorum, his chief challenger now, and Newt Gingrich. And Santorum came within a mere 12,000 votes of beating Romney in Ohio, the biggest prize of all, despite being outspent by Romney and his super PAC by 5 to 1.
Romney is the frontrunner only by virtue of massive spending and relentless negative advertising. If Santorum had not been robbed by false reporting out of Iowa of a Romney win, when actually Santorum won as I warned might be the case, the dynamics would be very different. If, with Iowa misreported, Santorum had stepped aside and given Gingrich a straight shot at Romney, the dynamics might be very different. So, too, now if Gingrich were to give Santorum a simplified one-on-one race.
But Gingrich, who took 15 percent in Ohio, most of which would probably have gone to Santorum otherwise, giving him a comfortable win instead of an eyelash loss, isn't stepping aside. Which makes it very difficult for a Non-Romney to win most of the primaries. But not all that difficult to give Romney fits and continue to skirt implosion. We saw again last week how that can happen with Romney scrambling to contain the damage from his statement that he opposed the narrowly defeated Senate bill to allow health plans to cut contraception coverage on religious or "moral" grounds. A few hours later, the Romney campaign announced that Romney had been confused by the question and of course supports the bill. Which is merely his latest big flip-flop as this hollow man candidate continues to kow-tow to the far right.
* Iran locks down.
Meanwhile, elections in another country, Iran, will further undergird the very tense geopolitical crisis in the Middle East. Very conservative candidates did very well in Iran's parliamentary elections, which will make life more difficult for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who backed a more moderate conservative faction in the elections. What about the ballyhooed Iranian moderates, and the Green Revolution of 2009 during which many hopeful types in the U.S. and elsewhere imagined that a new day was dawning?
Iran's theocratic regime has cracked down very effectively.
The more moderate Iranian presidential candidates of 2009 are under house arrest. And the protests died under the harsh hand of a tough security state.
* The geopolitical risk premium of the Iran crisis helps drive high gasoline prices.
Most of the big drop in oil prices which came after the Osama bin Laden raid has disappeared. Though whether gas price increases are proportionate to oil price increases is a very different question.
* Obama is playing for time on the Iran crisis, and may be gaining some.
Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, speaking Monday night at AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), rattled his saber again with regard to Iran.
He stressed that the Israeli government will pursue its own course if it must on Iran and its nuclear program, saying that in the post-Holocaust era of the Jewish people that Israel must be responsible for its own defense.
On Tuesday, Iran, in a now familiar turn in the sequence of events -- with far right electoral victories secured in Friday's parliamentary elections and the moderate opposition reform movement of 2009 thoroughly squashed -- announced that UN nuclear inspectors can visit a secret facility denied them late last month.
And European Union foreign minister Catherine Ashton announced that the UN Security Council permanent members (U.S., UK, France, Russia, and China) plus Germany will enter into another round of negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program.
But, and this is the familiar part of the sequence, there are no concessions by Iran as a precondition of talking. And Iran is not granting open access to the potential nuclear facility, which is a military facility.
Where UN inspectors go, and when they go, must all be worked out in advance.
In other words, if the inspections ever do take place, there is ample time to move incriminating evidence elsewhere.
In the meantime, however, there may not be air strikes.
Meanwhile, as Iran sorts out its disputes amongst the elites of the theocratic regime, it keeps moving forward with its nuclear program.
* Iran is playing for time, too.
How are the sanctions impacting dynamics in the Iranian crisis? Obama hopes they have a big impact. But Iran may be coming up with workarounds.
India seems to be increasing its oil purchases from Iran, saying that it will abide by existing UN sanctions only and not follow the lead of other countries or international organizations.
Indeed, India is sending a high-level trade delegation to Iran to investigate further trade between the two nations and has set up a financing mechanism to get around the moves by the U.S. and other financial powers to block Iran's banking instruments.
* Afghanistan and Pakistan constitute a very big mess for U.S. policy.
While the furious public protests in Afghanistan have ebbed, and there have been no more murders of American troops by their Afghan colleagues in the past few days, there is no sign of fundamental easing in the crisis.
U.S. investigators say five service members made mistakes in handling the Islamic religious materials at the center of the controversy, and will be disciplined internally. That hardly seems likely to satisfy the Afghans, whose own investigators are saying that Afghans were repeatedly lied to about the disposition of the materials.
And, with the NATO summit coming up in Chicago in May -- which Pakistan says it won't participate in -- President Hamid Karzai is showing no sign of give on his insistence that the U.S. agree to turn over all prisons to Afghan control and cease night-time raids in exchange for an ongoing status of forces agreement with the U.S. from 2014 on.
* The Russian policy "reset," which has aided the Afghan War effort with supply routes to Afghanistan through the former Soviet republics of Central Asia -- something made necessary by Pakistan pulling back -- is in trouble.
Sunday brought Russia's presidential election, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will return to the presidency he handed off to his former chief of staff, Dmitry Medvedev, four years ago, despite Putin's substantially diminished popularity and a growing protest movement. Putin won with an official 64 percent of the vote, which is probably too high to avoid inviting much cynicism about the result in a country in which cynicism is a fine art. More protests are on tap.
And so is a geopolitical stance that is significantly less pro-U.S. than that of Medvedev, who enjoyed eating burgers with Barack Obama and trading quips with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Putin blames Westerners for inciting protest against him, and notoriously made Obama late for his big speech in Moscow by keeping him in a meeting after summoning him to his dacha. He's not looking to do Obama any favors.
* All of which is to say that none of Obama's biggest problems are named Mitt, Rick, or Newt.
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