"Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in again."
-Michael Corleone, The Godfather, Part III
America under Barack Obama has begun the big geopolitical pivot from its fateful over-engagement with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to greater engagement with Asia and the Pacific. But this week showed that the transition is going to be anything but smooth.
Obama is trying to wind down the Afghan War after unwisely winding it up in 2009. Rival Mitt Romney wants to stick around. But we're going to be disengaging, one way or the other, either with a certain degree of decorum or on the run, as events this week made plain, yet again.
While the Pakistan part of our flailing AfPak strategy accelerated its devolution, matters in the Middle East deteriorated further. The Egyptian revolution that so excited humanists in America and the West has been overwhelmed by counter-revolution, while Syria slid further from ceasefire into chaos and the Iranian nuclear crisis worsened.
Pakistan, that supposed lynchpin of U.S. strategy in the Afghan War when Obama escalated it in 2009, becomes still more problematic.
Pakistan was thrown into a new political crisis after the country's supreme court pushed the prime minister, who has clashed sharply with the military, out of his job. Three judges disqualified Yusuf Raza Gilani, who was jailed for corruption during the Musharraf regime, from holding office and ordered the president to choose a new prime minister. The court ruled Gilani could not continue, after he was found guilty of contempt in April.
Then the nominee to replace Gilani as prime minister, Makhdoom Shahabuddin, who has held several cabinet portfolios, suddenly became the subject of an arrest warrant. The judge on Thursday cited Makhdoom Shahabuddin's alleged role in a scandal involving the import of a drug that can be used to make methamphetamine. Finally, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, the former water and power minister and a longtime ally of President Asif Ali Zardari, was confirmed Friday by parliament as the new prime minister.
U.S.-Pakistani relations, which dropped to a new low after the Osama bin Laden raid, really plummeted in November after U.S. helicopters killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at an outpost on the Afghan border. The big Afghan War supply route through Pakistan was closed and remains closed.
Putting things in perspective, the prime minister forced from office this week was relatively pro-U.S.
There were reports early in the week that former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak had died. But that turned out not to be accurate. His heart apparently stopped, but was revived. He remains in grave condition.
As does the state of Egypt's nascent democracy.
Dr. Mohamed Morsi, an alumnus of the University of Southern California and candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, has claimed victory in last weekend's presidential run-off election over retired Air Force General Ahmed Shafiq, Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister, and news reports have validated the former California State University engineering professor's claim.
But between the country's Supreme Court, dominated by Mubarak appointees, and the ruling "interim" military council, the first democratically elected national parliament in decades has been dismissed and most all major decision-making power pertaining to fiscal matters, defense, and the development of a new constitution has been moved away from the presidency to the military council.
The official vote count was due on Thursday. Now the official vote won't be released until this coming Sunday, if then.
Syria is an even bigger shambles.
The UN has halted its peacekeeping mission in Syria. Things simply became far too violent during the ceasefire, with the lives of the UN monitors under threat along with everyone else in rebellious areas.
Then there is the big wild card, Iran. And Israel's reaction to Iran.
In Moscow this week, everyone showed up on Monday and Tuesday for the latest round of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members: U.S., UK, France, Russia, and China, plus Germany). But as I expected, the talks went nowhere.
Iran is hurting from major sanctions, with more kicking in. But Iran refused attempts to limit its nuclear enrichment activities, and still hasn't come through on a supposed agreement earlier this spring to allow UN inspectors into facilities from which they have long been blocked.
And the U.S. and its European allies have refused to pull back on sanctions in exchange for any give on the Iranian side.
Which leaves Iran continuing to move forward on its hotly disputed nuclear program and Israel that much closer to being forced to decide whether or not to follow through on its threatened strikes against the Iranian program.
The Iranians say that Israel and the U.S. are behind cyber-attacks against their nuclear program. But let's assume that those won't suffice to alter the Netanyahu administration's agenda.
So, does all this stop Obama from his planned geopolitical pivot? Will he, and we, be dragged back into the pit of the past decade's mostly disastrous involvements, i.e., Iraq War, Afghan War, much too heavy bootprint in the Islamic world?
What's particularly interesting in looking at this arc of crisis in the Middle East and Central Asia is, frankly, how little we can do about it. Which means that the answer, despite all the shouting and the usual nasty back and forth that transfixes the media culture so as it animates our dysfunctional political culture, is largely no.
Whether Romney and other reflexive warhawks like it or not, we are not going to win the Afghan War. The allies are heading for the exits and America has turned against it. We're not going to be big shot callers in Pakistan, either.
U.S. policy benefited from Hosni Mubarak's dictatorship in Egypt, and some variant of that may be re-established. But even if it is, it would hardly be stable and there's little the US can do to make it so in the aftermath of the Arab Awakening. And trying to would be disastrous for the U.S. in the Arab world.
We've never been shot callers in Syria and that's unlikely to change, especially with Russia actively supporting the Assad regime, its decades-long ally.
The big imponderable is Iran, and Israel, whose current leaders call an Iranian nuke an existential threat. A war with Iran could upset any number of apple carts, including the entire shaky global economic recovery, such as it is.
That's the big wild card with regard to the big geopolitical pivot. The rise of China as a nascent superpower, and the rise of Asia as a whole, including Iran, shifts the world's economic and political center of gravity such that the pivot makes more than enough sense, whether the Democrats or Republicans are in power.
In fact, I think the pivot to the Pacific would already have occurred had not taken place. After all, the first major geopolitical crisis of the Bush/Cheney administration took place there.
People forget that we had a big confrontation with China early in the Bush/Cheney time, five months before 9/11. The Hainan Island incident, in which a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet, which in turn forced a crash landing and the internment of the American crew of 24, was potentially explosive.
It was only 9/11 that provided the basis for the spurious pretexts under which the disastrous '90s neocon dream of invading Iraq, which has had the effect of empowering Iran, could be carried out.
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