Here's a safe prediction for 2006: The Mideast will continue to be the world's hot spot. And yet, Iran, which many think will heat up this year, may stay cold--but not get friendly.
For months, the Bush administration, responding to public opinion trends, has been hinting that Americans will be a diminishing presence in Iraq. The papers are full of accounts--never quite contradicted--about a drawdown of American troop levels. And in recent days The Washington Post, reflecting White House budget thinking, has reported that Uncle Sam plans sharp cutbacks in development assistance to Iraq and also to Afghanistan.
As Republicans eye the 2006 midterm election, they seem increasingly likely to follow the advice of the late George Aiken, a GOP senator from the Vietnam era who suggested to another Texas president fighting a war, "Declare victory and go home."
But would that be an honorable outcome for America? That's a difficult question. But so long as the United States can say that Saddam Hussein and the Taliban are gone for good, it's hard to see how critics could define a U.S. redeployment as a defeat.
There's a catch, however: The Mideast might not cooperate with this plan for a smooth disengagement. The hottest issue nowadays is not Iraq, or Israel's struggle with the Palestinians, but Iran. The new president in Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is vocal about his goal of pushing both America and Israel out of the Mideast. His nuclear ambitions are plain enough; on Wednesday, The Guardianthat Iran is scouring the world for ballistic-missile technology.
So in light of the seeming certainty that Iran will get the capability both to make an A-bomb and to deliver one, what's going to happen?
One possibility is that the Americans will strike. The German news agency DDP reported last month that CIA Director Porter Goss had advised the Turkish government to be ready for U.S. military action against Iran's nuclear facilities.
Another possibility is that Israel will do the striking. The end-of-the-year prediction from neoconservative pundit Charles Krauthammer on Fox News was just that: Israel would hit Iran's nuke sites.
Most in the West would cheer the de-nuclearization of Iran. But, short of physical occupation of the country, there would be no way to make sure that all nuclear sites were neutralized. Let's face it: The U.S. record of intelligence-gathering about other countries' weapons-of-mass-destruction programs isn't too good.
Moreover, no matter how "surgical" the strikes, much collateral damage would result. Lots of Russian nationals, for example, are in Iran, doing various sneaky things. In addition, any spreading violence in the Persian Gulf would surely push oil prices higher.
And what would a bombed Iran do? Would it abandon its nuclear plans or try all the harder to get a nuke--perhaps by attempting to buy one from, say, Pakistan? One veteran conservative observer, Arnaud de Borchgrave, suggested in a recent op-ed that Ahmadinejad actually wants the United States or Israel to attack his country as a way of cementing his standing with the dominant diehard-rejectionist faction.
In addition, there'd be the question of impact on Iraq. Today, the Shia leadership in Iraq is functionally pro-American, in large measure because it sees the United States hammering the hated Sunni rivals. But how would the Iraqi Shia--including the Ayatollah Sistani, who is Iranian by birth--feel about the United States if their fellow Shia in Iran were being bombed by America or its ally?
So the third possibility is that Israel and the United States will do nothing more than seek economic sanctions against Iran--which is to say, do nothing. With oil prices high, Iran can buy all the trading partners it needs.
This third scenario, of course, is a formula for a long cold war with Iran. A cold war that, if we're lucky, would stay cold.