11/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Obama's Summiteering: High Altitude Headaches and Rumors of War

As any hiker knows, high altitudes often lead to headaches, and President Barack Obama has had a few at his New York summits. They center around AfPak, the perennial question of Israel and Palestine, and Iran. And today the latter went front and center, with war a real possibility in the wake of this morning's revelation of a secret Iranian nuclear facility.

President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy appeared together this morning in Pittsburgh to charge that Iran has a secret nuclear facility in violation of its agreements.

Even as he unleashed another masterful speech on the global stage, Obama struggled with a few emerging realities.

First, that his latest apparent strategy of nation-building in Afghanistan is bound to fail without about 200,000 troops, which the nation simply wouldn't allow, to back it up.

Next, the eternal quandary of Israel and Palestine, with the new right-wing Israeli government refusing, in various forms of gobbledygook, to stop settlements by religious fundamentalists on the disputed West Bank and various Arab actors refusing to fully recognize Israel.

And finally, the apparent intransigence of Iran, which says it doesn't want nuclear weapons even as it apparently insists on its right to them, notwithstanding its signature on the Nonproliferation Treaty.

President Barack Obama uncorked a strong speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

While there was no particular meeting amongst Obama's raft of public and private summits in the Big Apple on Afghanistan -- though there was a big meeting on Pakistan, where things are going much better than earlier this year -- this mountainous graveyard of venturesome empires loomed large nonetheless. That's because the secret report to Obama by his new Afghanistan commander, General Stanley McChrystal, was somehow leaked on Sunday to Bob Woodward.

Not that its overall conclusions were a surprise, as they'd been telegraphed for weeks. Without still more troops -- how many more was left unclear, though it's clearly a lot -- the current strategy in Afghanistan of counter-insurgency will fail. Not that counter-insurgency, a euphemism for nation-building in perhaps the least hospitable place for building a modern nation imaginable, is necessary to deny Afghanistan to Al Qaeda as an operational base. But that is how a mission creeps from one goal to another very different one. As I've been writing here for months on the Huffington Post, including this piece a little over a week ago.

Of course, we expect generals to hope for more troops. It's in their nature. But what is especially interesting about the leaked McChrystal report, not that the conventional media is reporting this, is that the former Joint Special Operations Command chief is not saying that the US will "win the war in Afghanistan" with more troops, at any level of increase.

He is simply saying that the current strategy will fail with the current force level. Which is on the level of a truism.

The reality is that all the hoo-hawing over how bad things have supposedly just gotten in Afghanistan ignores the fact that things have actually gotten better. And Obama knows this. For he gave the order that made things better, and thus allowed most to finally see how bad things were there.

Here's what I mean. Absent the Marine offensive he ordered some months ago in southern Afghanistan, in which British forces and Afghan forces also participated, there would never have been a presidential election on August 20th.

So, does the mission creep to nation-building in one of the most inhospitable places in the world continue? Or does the mission refocus on the original goal: Counter-terrorist action to prevent Afghanistan from being a base for Al Qaeda? Which does not involve extending the writ of a dodgy Hamid Karzai presidency all across the country. Assuming that he ends up being re-elected, which is still in doubt. Amidst delays and major allegations of election fraud, there's a big recount underway in an election which happened 36 days ago.

Not surprisingly, Obama didn't say too much specific about Afghanistan in his big UN speech. He's rethinking his drink there, and not for the first time this year.

Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu took the UN to task for years of silence on terrorist rocket attacks.

On Israel and Palestine, Obama did get his tripartite mini-summit with Israel Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But there's intransigence on all sides in what may be an historically intractable situation.

Netanyahu, fronting the most right-wing government in Israeli history, has issued a series of seemingly contradictory statements on West Bank settlements by religious fundamentalists, but the bottom line is they are continuing. Which, they say, is a non-starter for the Palestinians. And the Palestinians are split, with Abbas unable to speak for the more radical Hamas, which seems deeply opposed to Israel. And other Arab states have not been very forthcoming with additional recognition of Israeli rights.

Yet Obama gets credit for pushing on this, which helps with the overall task of dampening opposition to America in the Muslim world, the raison d'etre for Obama's historic June 4th speech in Cairo.

That greater goodwill toward America is on the verge of being tested in the rising showdown over Iran and its nuclear program.

Even before this morning's dramatic revelation by Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy of a secret Iranian nuclear facility, Obama had made some progress on the Iranian question.

With an American president presiding for the first time in its history, the UN Security Council agreed on some beginning steps to rein in nuclear weapons.

At his mini-summit on Wednesday with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, Obama succeeded in getting Medvedev to say that stronger sanctions on Iran may well be necessary.

Russia is key on this, because the principal sanction the US has in mind is squeezing Iran's gasoline supply. Iran is very vulnerable to this because, although it is a major oil producer, it has to import gasoline because of its lack refinery capacity. That's a hangover of the Ayatollah Khomeini's fundamentalist revolution 30 years ago, which led to an Iranian brain drain and the refusal by oil companies to renovate Iran's energy infrastructure.

Now Russia is the world's biggest oil producer, having surpassed Saudi Arabia. It has plenty of refinery capacity and is geographically situated to get the gasoline to Iran which it needs to circumvent American-led sanctions against it. The US is able to use its own economic and political clout to pressure companies from getting gasoline to Iran. Most of the companies providing Iran with gasoline are Swiss-owned, which might be one reason why Medvedev went to Switzerland before coming to New York.

Moscow, which can also supply Iran with the world's most advanced anti-aircraft systems, has been unalterably opposed to a new round of sanctions. This is playing out in the foreground of a major behind-the-scenes discussion between the US and Russia over how how much influence Moscow has over the former Soviet Union. Which, naturally, is barely mentioned in the conventional media, fixated as it is on rowdy town halls and other non-serious behavior.

It's not in Russia's interest for Iran to become a nuclear power. But it is in Russia's interest to use the stumbling block that Iran provides for the US and much of the West to block attempts to, for example, further expand the military reach of the US and NATO into the Russian periphery. Obama made a good start last week with Russia by scrapping, as I long expected, the Bush/Cheney era anti-missile shield in Eastern Europe.

Naturally, the conventional media essentially ignored the importance of the Obama-Medvedev meeting, and the substance of how US sanctions against Iran would play out and Russia's significance in that.

After all, Obama's noteworthy speech to the UN General Assembly about mutual responsibility for shared threats was followed immediately after by Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi's interminable speech, in which he ran through the usual anti-American litany and called for the removal of the UN from New York to somewhere else, at one point appearing to suggest it be headquartered in Libya. Which would be a lovely way to permanently marginalize an already troubled institution.

But he said he loved Obama's speech, repeatedly calling the president a "son of Africa" and "my son" -- Gadhafi has reinvented himself as an African leader -- saying that what he's heard is new and promising but could change unless Obama is president "forever." I can only imagine the right-wing cable chatter over that.

And Fidel Castro liked Obama's speech, too, putting out a statement calling it the bravest speech given by an American president. More grist for the chatterfest.

Moving back to the substance of things, it turns out that China, which generally joins with Russia in opposing tougher sanctions on Iran, has already started shipping gasoline to Iran. We'll see if that lasts in light of today's revelation, or in the face of potential US trade sanctions.

Iran has played a delaying game on negotiations with the US and the rest of the Perm 5 plus 1 -- the permanent five UN Security Council members (US, UK, France, China, and Russia) plus Germany. Those are the countries which will at last begin negotiations on October 1st with Iran.

Obama, Brown, and Sarkozy unveiled a potential game-changer this morning in the form of an intelligence report revealing a large secret Iranian nuclear facility that they say is inconsistent with a peaceful nuclear power program. They're demanding that Iran immediately allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials to inspect the plant. And they want an explanation from Iran by the time negotiations begin October 1st.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to deny the Holocaust, saying that Israel is founded on "a lie."

Iran, apparently aware that Western intelligence knew about the plant, made a vague reference to some sort of new facility in a communication earlier this week with the IAEA.

China has already reacted by saying it's very troubled by what Iran has been doing in secret.

Of course, before we get carried away, it's important to ask a few questions.

Namely, does this facility actually advance an Iranian nuclear weapons program? And if so, by how much?

After all, the head of Mossad said in June that Iran is several years away from having an actual nuclear weapon.

Then there is the question of actions leading to reactions, and what that might mean.

For example, a successful US-led constriction of Iran's gasoline supply could lead to Iran trying to close one of the world's most critical chokepoints, the Strait of Hormuz. That would choke off much of the world's oil supply, and could crash the global economy. It would also crush the Iranian economy, but that might not be the principal concern for the regime in Tehran.

How would Iran close the Strait of Hormuz? While its navy could be blown out of the water by the US Navy, Iran could use missiles to disrupt shipping. Or it could lay mines in the strait itself.

Naturally, mines can be cleared. But that would place US and Iranian forces nose to nose. And that's how wars can start.

There is, of course, another scenario which jumps straight to war, at least of a sort.

The long-rumored Israeli air strikes against Iranian nuclear sites could actually take place. Recall that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has just declared the Holocaust to be a hoax and Israel to be founded on "a lie."

These air strikes would be virtually impossible without at least tacit support from the US. Like the Bush/Cheney Administration before it, the Obama Administration has been discouraging of this.

That might change now.

We're moving into a rugged new phase around Iran.

Of course, there is always the possibility that the pressure for tougher sanctions on Iran has been so ratcheted up that they actually go into effect. But then again, there is an Iranian reaction to that, should they choose not to submit to very stringent inspections, in the Strait of Hormuz. Which would lead to a major confrontation.

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