Team Obama’s debut on the world stage at last weekend’s security conference in Munich was highly anticipated. With his pledge for a “new era of cooperation,” Vice President Joe Biden struck the right note for a European audience still haunted by the Bush administration’s “with us or against us” approach. But once the memory of Bush fades, Europeans will realize the price of Barack Obama’s multilateralism. Like the U.S. president, they’ll be forced to define what kind of multilateralism they want and what they’re willing to sacrifice for it. More than any other issue, Afghanistan will produce this moment of truth sooner than might be expected, while determining NATO’s relations with Iran to a greater extent than expected.

On the surface, Biden’s rejection of “rigid ideologies” and his claim that the United States “is sincere in seeking [its allies’] advice” and counsel, was balm for the European soul. Many in the audience remember the performances of John McCain and Donald Rumsfeld in Munich six years ago when, on the eve of the Iraq War, they accused Germany of “calculated self-interest” and lambasted its “vacuous posturing.”

Below the surface, however, Biden’s speech also rang of the past. His pledge to “work in a partnership whenever we can, and alone only when we must,” reminds one of Bill Clinton’s a la carte multilateralism. But these aren’t the golden 1990s, when U.S. power was at its zenith. In this first decade of the 21st century, the capitalist West is facing defeat in Afghanistan and is on the verge of “the worst recession in a hundred years,” as British minister Ed Balls put it in perhaps only slight exaggeration. This combination will force the Obama administration to stop cherry-picking issues on which it wants to cooperate and forging ahead on those issues it believes it can still handle alone. Necessity will dictate a more pragmatic multilateralism, in which all sides humbly accept what is realistically possible.

Afghanistan’s Moment of Truth

“I have never seen anything like the mess we have inherited,” Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke said as he assessed the Afghan situation in Munich. “It is like no other problem we have confronted, and in my view it’s going to be much tougher than Vietnam.” In light of the sobering situation on the ground in the Hindu Kush, Biden understandably reiterated the president’s call for a greater European commitment in Afghanistan.

But how is the new American administration going to sell such a request to its NATO allies if America’s top brass is apparently clueless of the actual mission and endgame in Afghanistan? When the president demanded an answer from his military advisers, they were unable to give one. But even if Pentagon strategists come up with a convincing plan, Obama will have a hard time selling it to his European allies when he makes his first visit to Europe to celebrate NATO’s 60th anniversary in April.

Britain, from which America expects two more battle groups, is already called “Europe’s next Iceland” because it faces state bankruptcy. British armed forces are so stretched and in such a sorry state that last week’s Economist dedicated an entire special section to it. If Britain can manage to send even one additional battlegroup, that’s still more than France or the Netherlands will contribute. While Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen just announced that the country’s troops may have to stay in Afghanistan past 2010, sending any additional troops are an anathema. France, meanwhile, “will reject any immediate request by U.S. President Barack Obama for reinforcements to Afghanistan because it has already deployed enough troops,” according to French Defense Minister Hervé Morin. In the second half of 2008, France reinforced its troops in Afghanistan with 500 men and Eurocopter EC-665 Tiger attack helicopters.

The issue of additional troops for Afghanistan will prove most controversial in Germany. Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier, in other respects a staunch transatlantist, demanded an exit strategy for Afghanistan in the German press the day Biden spoke in Munich. Steinmeier will face Angela Merkel in parliamentary elections this September, knowing that voters will oust whoever commits more German lives in a highly unpopular war. But the new multilateralism of the Obama administration is sensitive to the public mood in partner nations. Consequently, German Secretary of Defense Franz Josef Jung could report with great relief that he hasn’t been approached with a request for more troops, and Washington will likely defer the issue until after the German elections. But even then, a shift from peacekeeping operations under International Security Assistance Force command to combat missions in southern Afghanistan, as demanded by Washington, will be out of the question for Germany.

Afghanistan will show both Europe and the United States the limits of the transatlantic partnership. Even for governments eager to prolong the multilateralist moment in Washington, European citizens won’t tolerate the waste of money and lives in Central Asia while experiencing double-digit unemployment, social welfare cuts, and hundreds of billions of bailout euros going to banks. The power of the streets, as demonstrated this winter from Athens to Paris to Riga, will dictate that charity begins at home. The Obama administration will have to take this reality into account when formulating its multilateralist approach to the Afghan quagmire, and adapt accordingly.

Additionally, it will have to reconsider its dealings with Iran. Like transatlantic relations, U.S.-Iranian relations will be dictated by necessities in Afghanistan.

A Thaw with Iran?

On February 4, the U.S. Treasury Department branded the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), the Iranian offspring of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist organization. This step, demanded by Iran for years, constitutes a 180-degree turn in U.S. Middle East policy. The Bush administration had consistently praised PJAK as a vital ally and, according to journalist Seymour Hersh and others, employed it as a proxy to fight Tehran in Iranian Kurdistan. With this surprise move, the Obama administration again demonstrated that it’s willing to engage Tehran in an all-encompassing dialogue, and to depart from the Bush administration’s dangerous and unrealistic aspirations for regime change. True, Biden qualified this conciliatory gesture in Munich with his insistence that Iran suspend its nuclear enrichment. But to conclude from his admittedly vague statements, as foreign policy analyst Jeremy Hammond does, that Obama’s approach to Iran would be a continuation of Bush’s policy is premature.

The United States may soon find itself unable to afford such ambiguity and mixed signals. A successful recent Taliban attack on a vital bridge at the Khyber Pass, the artery through which most of NATO’s Afghanistan supplies run, highlighted the precarious situation of America’s supply lines — a task complicated by the imminent arrival of 30,000 additional troops. The same week, Russia succeeded in bribing the government of Kyrgyzstan to close Manas Air Base, a hub for supplies coming into Afghanistan from the north. At the same time, Russia offered Washington transit for non-military supplies through Russian territory — an obvious attempt to control Operation Enduring Freedom’s supply lines. The third route, from the Pakistani port of Gwadar to Kandahar, runs through Taliban territory. NATO’s only other option would be a recently opened road connecting the Iranian port of Chabahar with Zaranj in Afghanistan.

For many, NATO-Iranian cooperation on Afghanistan may seem farfetched. And yet this is exactly what NATO’s American military commander, Gen. John Craddock suggested on February 2: “NATO would not oppose individual member nations reaching bilateral deals with Iran for the transit of supplies to Afghanistan.” It remains to be seen how this meshes with the same countries imposing stricter sanctions on Iran for its failure to suspend nuclear enrichment. But remember: Tehran was among America’s closest supporters in toppling the Taliban in 2001.

In fact, Iran and the United States could easily find common interest. As Islamabad-based security expert Farrukh Saleem has observed, “America needs Iran to fight the Taliban-al-Qaeda combo in Afghanistan and America needs Iran to supply rations to NATO troops in Afghanistan. Iran needs America to break Iran’s isolation and Iran needs America so that Iran can once again attract global capital in the face of a $100-a-barrel drop in the price of crude.” The deteriorating supply situation in Afghanistan may force President Obama to choose between Russia and Iran.

The quagmire of almost Vietnam-sized dimensions in Afghanistan will force President Obama’s hand in many ways, leaving him with options unacceptable a year ago. It will make painfully clear that NATO’s transatlantic alliance is insufficient to meet the challenges of today, as European incapacity to expand its role in Afghanistan demonstrates. Consequently, the United States will look further afield for countries to cooperate with, even to current antagonists like Russia or Iran. In that regard, a Clintonian multilateralism á la carte is out of the question. The situation demands instead a pragmatic multilateralism dictated by necessity.

Hannes Artens is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus and the author of The Writing on the Wall, a political novel cautioning against war with Iran. He has also worked with the Carter Center and a think tank advising the German parliament on U.S. foreign policy. He can be reached at hannes (at) hannesartens (dot) com.

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