Reality Checks: Iran, the Gulf, Afghanistan

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Yesterday, there was a bit of discussion in the White House senior staff meeting about why the United Nations Security Council resolution adopting new sanctions on Iran wasn't likely to get much coverage by the press that day. (It didn't; the musings were correct.) The answer, maybe, is that the "surprise" of new sanctions -- the diplomatic success that the U.S. can rightfully claim -- was already reported, and that the actual adoption of the sanctions was more like a coda.

But there's also that gusher in the Gulf, which pushes everything else off the front page and out of the first block. At some point, the media is going to stop reporting on oily pelicans, tar balls, flow rates; BP itself is going to plug the leak ... the leak of internal information, that is, which is forcing their stock prices down ... and somehow, the White House is going to have to convince Americans to deal with the reality that a huge environmental catastrophe in the Gulf is an ongoing and dynamic new normal, one that cannot easily or mess-lessly be mitigated. The presidential empathy trips to the Gulf have to stop at some point. Despite protests to the contrary, they do divert resources, and there are plenty of other things for the president to be doing. As with the Iran sanctions, the ability of the White House to manage expectations will be tested, because people really (and rightfully) rest their judgments of competence on how well things seem to be going versus how well they think they should be going.

And that brings us to Afghanistan, which is not going very well. Hamid Karzai suddenly and capriciously fired the two members of his government that got along well with the United States. Coalition forces seem to be getting the hang of the COIN strategy in some areas, but the nature of Afghanistan fiercely resists it other areas. The political situation really has improved ... not at all.

So far this month, 18 coalition troops have been killed in Afghanistan, including the friend of one of my closest friends. Virtually every article I have read about the war features quotations from squadron colonels who say something to the effect of, well, we're making progress, but we need more time and more resources. In December, Obama is expected to review the Afghan surge, and it ought to surprise no one that most people in the military and the Pentagon policy team, led by Undersecretary of Defense Michelle Flournoy, are likely to urge him to stay at it -- to slow down any draw down of U.S. troops (and maybe, maybe, even add some troops) ... and certainly not to decide that rapidly withdrawing combat brigades is the right course of action.

President Obama will resist.

It will be a test of wills, bracketed by politics: can Democrats win a war? (Does Iraq count? Should it?) Is Afghanistan a winnable war? Should it be?

There will be a significant political debate on the eve of the first rounds of the 2012 elections. Given how nasty and unproductive these debates tend to be, this one won't be pretty. The right policy, whatever it is, will be heavily influenced by what latitude Americans, and Democrats in Congress, give the president. That, in turn, will be influenced by whether the military is able to show some progress and also by what else is going on in the world.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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