The administration of President Barack H. Obama has started the highly intricate process of developing its own strategy with a bang in different regions of the world. Here are the ingredients of that strategy: multilateralism, looking for a fresh start–which promises to be substantially different from the preceding administration–search for common ground involving Russia, invitation of negotiations with America’s traditional adversaries like Iran and North Korea, and at least the initial hope that approaches toward Palestine, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are likely to be radically different than the one the Bush administration pursued unsuccessfully. This is a huge agenda. But Obama’s administration has the enormous characteristic of freshness, metaphorically as well as substantively, in the sense that it is not carrying any baggage that had so infamously bogged down George W. Bush in an ostensibly endless inertia.
President Obama has insisted in talking to everyone, especially to America’s traditional adversaries. Talking is better than not talking, he uncomplicatedly observed during the presidential campaign. America’s strict observance of this principle promises to open a lot of doors. It will also lower the feeling of fear and paranoia on the part of Iran and North Korea, who were simplistically and wrongly depicted by the Bush administration as members of an imaginary “axis of evil.”
Multilateralism has served America’s interest in its entire post-World War II history. The United States led the Herculean task of rebuilding global economic institutions and regimes like the United Nations, the Bretton Woods Agreement, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. America had the required economic prowess while other global actors–the Soviet Union, the U.K. and France–were simply exhausted with their economies devastated by the ravages of war. But it was the frame of mind and global vision of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt more than America’s economic power that enabled the United States to become the leader of the so-called “free world,” a position it has never really relinquished, even today.
America’s leadership position was seriously–and hopefully not permanently–damaged in the post-9/11 era, when unilateralism and the hubris of the Bush administration acted like termites, voraciously eating up most of the goodwill that the United states had created all over the world.
Obama is off to a good start. He already has spoken to the world of Islam, stating that America will deal with it respectfully and on the basis of pragmatism; he has invited Iran to unclench its fist and initiate an era of negotiations on the basis of mutual respect; and he has appointed George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke as special envoys for Middle East and South Asia, respectively. He has sent his Vice President, Joe Biden, to talk to the Europeans and to the Russians.
Cumulatively speaking, this is a radical departure from the Bush administration. Now, an intricate series of negotiations must start. What the Obama administration must keep in mind is the fact that although it is approaching a number of actors with an open mind and unclenched fist, it may not get an immediate enthusiastic response or positive results.
In the case of Russia, the United States is faced with a country that has decided to become significant by taking the wrong route of unilateralism and hubris, which were hallmarks of the Communist superpower. Russia cannot assert itself in that manner toward its neighbors, who have the bitter experience of being the captives of the Former Soviet Union (FSU) throughout the Cold War years, and then wonder why they so eagerly seek the shield of NATO. Russia’s neighbors are watching warily, and with dismay, the incessant de-democratization of that country. They do not know what to make of Russia’s energy-related assertiveness, which has taken the form of neo-mercantilism. They watched in horror Russia’s clear over-reaction to the stupid decision of Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia to confront it militarily.
While Vice President Joe Biden is suggesting that the United States wants to “press the reset button” of ties with Moscow, Russia was busy working up a deal with Kyrgyzstan, whereby its President, Kurmanbek Bakiev, invited the United States to get out of the Manas air base, a development that will complicate America’s logistical problems of keeping the supply lines open to its forces in Afghanistan. However, the stateship of Russia also works like an aircraft carrier: it changes its direction rather slowly. Thus, it will be awhile before positive responses to the U.S. overtures might emerge. While it does not pay to be overly pessimistic about Russia’s response, one does not have to hold ones breath for a long time to envisage such a development. The signals regarding Russia’s willingness to cooperate, or not, will come soon enough.
The U.S.-Iran ties have mammoth complications of their own. The first hurdle is the bad blood related to America’s support for Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi from 1953 through 1978. That era has the same legacy of shame and bitterness for Iran as China’s memories related to the “decades of humiliations” at the hands of the West and Japan. At the same time, the United States has not forgotten the ignominy it had suffered during the “hostage crisis” of the late 1970s. That crisis also played a dominant role in making Jimmy Carter a one-term President.
The second hurdle is America’s Iran-Libya Sanction Legislation, which Iran envisions (quite correctly) as aimed at bringing about “regime change.” All such legislation has to be categorically nullified before any serious negotiations take place between Washington and Tehran. The United States has to accept the legitimacy of the Iranian government if it wishes to give real meaning to negotiating with it from the position of “mutual respect.”
The third hurdle is Iran’s nuclear research program, which the United States regards as aimed at developing nuclear weapons. While it is hard to categorize America’s concerns as baseless, one must also fully understand Iran’s security concerns. Iran has the same sense of insecurity that drove India to seek nuclear weapons. At least India had the tacit support of, and some semblance of security guarantees from, the FSU while it was around. Iran had no such support or guarantees from any major power. What country would come to its assistance if the United States were to decide to bring about regime change in Iran? What great power came to Iraq’s rescue when Iraq was similarly threatened by the Bush administration? Could Iraq have gone through the bloody process of regime change if it had had nuclear weapons? These questions are uppermost in the minds of the Ayatollahs, who are cavalierly and regularly demonized in America’s press and academic journals.
The negotiations between the United States and Iran have to seriously address Iran’s security concerns. Given the nature of hostile attitudes that have prevailed between the two actors, it is hard to imagine a scenario when the lone superpower can believably guarantee Iran’s security and foreswear all actions aimed at regime change. Even some European countries’ attempts to give verbal security guarantees to Iran will not do. Thus, the nuclear issue remains a very obdurate problem between the two. The Obama administration must summon all its creativity to resolve this aspect of U.S.-Iran conflict before any semblance of “normalcy” is restored between the two.
If one were to believe North Korea, it is already a nuclear power. It has had a legacy of confronting a number of U.S. presidents who have threatened it with the use of nuclear weapons. About the only realistic possibility under which Pyongyang might unravel its nuclear weapons is if it is protected under the nuclear umbrella of the People’s Republic of China. That angle has not been pursued either by the U.S., the Chinese, or the North Koreans, at least in their unclassified diplomatic meetings. In the absence of a nuclear umbrella, it is well-nigh impossible to imagine a circumstance under which Kim Jong Il would give up his nuclear weapons. It might not be a bad idea for the Obama administration to consider pursuing that angle in future negotiations with the North Koreans and the Chinese.
The Palestinian-Israeli issue is a hostage to the upcoming Israeli elections. If Benjamin Netanyahu is elected, then all bets are off about any resolution that is acceptable to the Likud and Hamas. These two parties are equally fundamentalist and bull-headed about pursuing their respective version of the solution. George Mitchell is likely to forget how complicated the Irish conflict was while he will tries to find common ground between the inflexible positions of Hamas and Likud. On this issue, the U.S. strategy is likely to face frequent impasses.
Regarding Pakistan and Afghanistan, the challenge for the Obama administration is no less daunting than the preceding issues. Those two countries are places where al-Qaida has emerged as a major force. The question is how to deal with the rising tide of religious extremism and problems of failing and weak governments. President Obama wrongly considers that the immediate solution is in increasing the number of troops, since that approach supposedly helped lower the spiral of violence in stabilizing Iraq. The fact is that it is much more complicated than that. It was the fortuitous confluence of the decision of the “Sons of Iraq” to cooperate with the U.S. military against al-Qaida, along with the U.S. military’s decision not only to strengthen its number, but also to implement the “clear, hold, and build” strategy that helped stabilize Iraq. The question is whether the Obama administration has correctly understood what actually transpired in Iraq, or is it merely repeating the process of raising the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan as a panacea for stabilizing that country. The burden of evidence thus far is that it has not understood the intricacies of Afghanistan and is about to commit itself with the wrong-minded approach of using the military tool of America’s national power to resolve an enormously complicated situation.
Pakistan is a larger challenge than Afghanistan, in the sense that it not only negatively affects the stability of Afghanistan but also similarly affects the internal stability of India. The Mumbai terrorist attacks have proven that fact. The most ignored–and an extremely important–fact of South Asia is that neither India nor Afghanistan will be stable or peaceful places as long as highly visible measures are taken to soothe the security-related concerns of Pakistan involving India. An important aspect of that concern is the lowering of India’s presence in Afghanistan, which Pakistan (rightly or wrongly) perceives as foreboding to its own security. The Bush administration ignored that fact; and the Obama administration will ignore it at the risk of damaging its own interests in South Asia.
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have emphasized America’s resolve to use pragmatism, cordiality, realism, and firmness in its foreign policy toward the troubled regions of the world and about soothing the security-related concerns of America’s friends and especially its competitors and adversaries. The coming months will be crucial to test their authenticity of purpose.