The Public Eye: Obama’s Foreign Policy

The Public Eye
Wednesday February 11, 2009 - 07:14:00 PM

During his first 100 days in office, the deteriorating economy will occupy most of President Obama’s attention. Nonetheless, he will have to attend to a host of international problems. By May 1, his foreign policy should be apparent. 

The most pressing issue is Iraq. As Obama favors assigning heavyweight representatives to each major international hotspot, his main Iraq representative is likely to be Vice President Joe Biden. While Obama remains committed to a U.S. troop withdrawal within 16 months, his near-term focus will be on strengthening the Iraqi government. Look for Biden to work directly with Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki to resolve thorny issues like equitable distribution of oil revenues and governance of Kirkuk. The thrust of Obama’s policy is likely to favor partitioning Iraq into three semi-independent states, one for the Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis. 

Next, Obama will focus on Afghanistan-Pakistan, specifically the area lying between Kabul and Peshawar, where Al Qaeda and the Taliban have reconstituted their forces. Obama’s representative to the region is the seasoned Richard Holbrooke. He’ll negotiate directly with the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, encouraging them to pursue terrorists with more vigor. It’s a daunting task, as the sphere of influence of Afghani President Karzai is restricted to Kabul; warlords run most of the country, their power fueled by the lucrative opium trade.  

Meanwhile, the Taliban is resurgent in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan and the central government of Prime Minister Gillani seems powerless to do anything about the situation. As our troops leave Iraq, many will be redeployed o Afghanistan. Look for the US military to be more aggressive carrying the fight to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. 

Peace in Central Asia won’t be possible without a new relationship with Iran. Obama’s representative is likely to be Middle East expert Dennis Ross. Look for Obama to push for high-level negotiations with whoever the new Iranian President will be—their elections will be held on June 12. A recent article in The New York Review of Books proposed a sensible basis for a multilateral diplomatic initiative that includes Iran’s nuclear ambitions, connections with Iraq and Afghanistan, and relationship with Hamas and Israel. 

All these problems contribute to the continuing Israel-Palestine conflict. President Obama’s representative in the Middle East is the experienced George Mitchell. He’s already on the ground conferring with Israelis and Palestinians, as well as leaders in Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. On his first day in office, Obama struck a different tone by asking Israel to open up the border between Gaza and Egypt. He needs to follow up by forcing concessions from both the Israelis and Palestinians. 

From Syria to Pakistan, Obama will attempt to cut off support for terrorism. Notably, his first full-length interview was with an Arab television network, Al-Arabiya. Our new President avoided the phrases “war on terror” or “Islamic fascism.” Instead of utilizing pat Bush-era terms, Obama referred to Al Qaeda and the Taliban as extremists, “that will use faith as a justification for violence;” making a distinction between them and Muslims in general. This signals not only a change in tone but also recognition that, because Al Qaeda and the Taliban represent a tiny minority of the Arab world, a carefully constructed diplomatic initiative can align U.S. interests with those of the Middle East and Central Asia. 

Obama plans an early visit to Canada, but his first overseas junket is likely to include Iraq and Afghanistan. Look for our new President to attend a highly visible meeting with Arab leaders to bolster the image of the United States and promote Obama-style diplomacy in the region. 

While US attention was focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, our relationship with Russia deteriorated. This is reflected in the Russian invasion of Georgia and the Bush Administration decision to deploy the anti-missile defense system in Poland. Look for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to lead Obama’s initiative to smooth out relations with the former USSR. If the US expects Russia to help resolve issues with Iran, security issues such as the deployment of missiles along the Russian border will have to receive high-priority attention. 

Of course, Obama cannot afford to neglect China and Secretary Clinton’s first overseas junket is likely to include a stop in Beijing to discuss a range of thorny issues including global climate change, valuation of the Yuan, Tibet, and relations with Iran. 

Obama’s foreign policy team also includes Susan Rice, his Ambassador to the United Nations—a position Obama has elevated to cabinet-level status. Dr. Rice was an important foreign policy advisor to the Obama campaign and a former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. Look for her to strengthen our reputation at the UN and propose administration policy for Africa. 

Obama has assembled an impressive foreign policy team, which is reassuring given the scope of challenges he’s facing. While the economy will be his primary challenge, all of these international issues will need his attention. We’re fortunate America elected a president who can multi-task.