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Memo to the next president

In his memo-to-the-next-president column in Friday’s New York Times, David Brooks offers candidates Barack Obama and John McCain some advice about how to deal with Iran. Because it’s unrealistic to expect that the White House has the power to neutralize the Iranian threat, Brooks writes, all the next president really can do is contain and wait for the radical regime in Tehran to fall:

Your job is to restrain Iran’s momentum until the fundamental correlation of forces can shift. For amid all the doleful news, there is a hopeful tide. Opinion is turning slowly against extremism. The über-analyst Dennis Ross says that he has noted it among the Palestinians. Michael Young writes that opinion is shifting against Hezbollah in Lebanon. Peter Bergen, Paul Cruickshank and Lawrence Wright have in their different ways written about the intellectual crisis afflicting Al Qaeda. It may not happen over the next four years, but as Ross has noted, where Islamists rule, they wear out their welcome.

Your job may be to wage rear-guard political battles until the ideological tide can turn. It’s not glamorous work, but governing isn’t campaigning. You volunteered for this.

Unfortunately, this optimism is misplaced. I’m not sure where Brooks or these analysts see Islamism wearing out its welcome. In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s power and political support is growing. Whereas three years ago Gaza was ruled by the Israelis and two years ago by the Palestinian Authority, today it is ruled by an Islamic terrorist group, Hamas, that repeatedly has stymied Israeli and moderate Palestinian efforts to contain it (see: Hamas’ breach of Gaza-Egypt border, Israel’s inability to neutralize Gaza rocket threat, etc.). In Afghanistan, the Taliban is making a comeback. In Pakistan, the Islamists are gaining ground. And in the Middle East, every day sees Iran’s sphere of influence grow. Though Iran’s current president may be stumbling at home due to the country’s faltering economy, the unelected, fundamentalist Shiite clerics that really control things in Iran still have a stranglehold on the country.

Brooks’ analysis is more wishful thinking than “The Reality Situation,” as he calls his column. The Iranian regime may well fall on its own, but hoping that it will happen before Iran becomes a nuclear power is a callous gamble. Attacking Iran may not be the answer, but crossing one’s fingers and waiting for Islamism to recede, rather than actively confronting radical Islamists who seek to spread their brand of fundamentalism through the force of violence, is just plain foolhardy.

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