Barack Obama came to office promising to work with allies in the war on terror. But recent events are proving that's easier said than done: on three critical fronts, America's partners are proving unable—or unwilling—to help. Consider: last month Obama visited Iraq, from which he's promised to withdraw all U.S. troops by 2011. In Baghdad, the president urged Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to improve security and reach out to Iraq's Sunni minority (both key prerequisites to an American pullout). Maliki, however, is "feeling his oats" as his strength grows and the U.S. departure approaches, says Brookings Institution expert Michael O'Hanlon. That's making Maliki less accommodating to Sunnis and other minorities, delaying oil-sharing deals and plans to assimilate ex-insurgents into the Army. The result? A new wave of suicide bombings and gunfights between militants and government forces.
Obama's next stop was Istanbul, where he called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to cooperate ahead of an upcoming Mideast peace conference in Washington. But even if they wanted to—and it's not clear they do—both men would be hard-pressed to deliver. Netanyahu's a right-winger who leads a coalition that includes even more hawkish parties that would bolt at the first hint of a deal, bringing down his government. And the Palestinian Authority, discredited by its passivity in this winter's Gaza war, barely controls the West Bank. Hamas extremists rule Gaza, have refused to cooperate with Abbas and bitterly oppose rapprochement with Israel.
Then there's Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai, a close U.S. ally, is widely seen as feckless and has grown so unpopular that he might lose reelection in national polls this August. After seven years of war, the Taliban is stronger than ever, and Karzai seems unable to crack down on militants, the drug trade or corruption—in recent months, his own brother has been accused by the United States of links to the opium industry. Lately, Washington has begun venting its frustration, shaking up its military strategy for Afghanistan and defining down what "victory" there will mean.
Bad as that is, perhaps the worst problem Obama faces is next door in Pakistan, which is rapidly spinning out of control. Obama has beseeched President Asif Ali Zardari to throw more troops against the Taliban, who have recently seized territory close to the capital. But Zardari can't control Pakistan's Army, which has yet to devote enough resources to the fight. And new signs suggest he's lost his only other power base: the Pakistani people, who gave him an abysmal 19 percent approval rating in a May 11 poll (down from 60 percent in 2006). While Obama's problem with Zardari is similar to those on other fronts—an unreliable ally—there's one big difference here: failure in Pakistan is just not an option, since jihadists could wind up with Islamabad's nukes. Obama knows he can't permit that. But to stop it, he shouldn't plan on much help from his friends.