The Washington Diplomat (February 2009)
Obama takes office in the midst of continuing bloodshed in the Gaza Strip — just one of several Middle East issues that will dominate the new president’s foreign policy agenda, among them Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With the death toll pushing 1,100 and no real solution in sight, Obama’s options are clearly limited. Neither Israel nor the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) seem eager to make any concessions, and Israel appears determined to destroy Hamas’s capability to fire rockets at its southern cities and towns, despite the heavy Palestinian civilian death toll its air and ground offensive has caused. Since the current outbreak of fighting on Dec. 27, Obama has been largely silent on Gaza, and it’s not known what course of action he’ll take following his inauguration.
The U.S. agenda is complicated by upcoming Israeli elections in February and by the animosity between Hamas, which rules Gaza, and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, which controls the larger West Bank. Governments such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia clearly don’t want to see Hamas emerge as the victor here, but at the same time they cannot be seen as tacitly supporting Israeli military action that takes Palestinian lives.
In the meantime, Israel’s onslaught has sparked massive anti-American demonstrations from Paris to Pakistan, further inflaming passions and endangering U.S. efforts to bring stability to the troubled Middle East.
A new report by two influential outfits, the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations, spells out just what Obama’s priorities should be in this volatile region of the world. The report, “Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President,” took 18 months to compile and involved 15 top Mideast experts.
“The mounting challenges include sectarian conflict in Iraq, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities, failing Palestinian and Lebanese governments, a dormant peace process and the ongoing war against terror,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations. “The old policy paradigms, whether President George W. Bush’s model of regime change and democratization, or President Bill Clinton’s model of peacemaking and containment, will no longer suit the likely circumstances confronting the next administration in the Middle East.”
Above all, the report clearly states that Arab-Israeli peacemaking, “after seven years on the back burner of American foreign policy, needs to be a major priority” as soon as Obama takes office.
In Israel — one of only a handful of countries whose citizens preferred Sen. John McCain over Obama — enthusiasm for the president rose after Obama visited the Jewish state in July and proclaimed that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided.”
Sallai Meridor, Israel’s ambassador in Washington, said he expects “easy cooperation” with Obama, who has “extraordinary abilities to listen, understand and analyze.”
Speaking at a Dec. 2 conference in Washington to promote U.S.-Israel business ties, Meridor said that by 2028, Israel aims to rank among the world’s 10 to 15 richest countries as measured by per-capita income — but that it cannot meet that goal without the United States, which gives Israel around $3 billion in foreign aid per year.
“In 20 years, we will have a population of 10 million and annual per-capita GDP of $50,000,” up from the current $23,000, he said. “This will be largely dependent on what we do in Israel. But at the same time, it will also depend on our unique relationship with the United States. We will never, ever take this relationship for granted.”
David Brodet, former director general of Israel’s Finance Ministry, was also at that conference. He told The Diplomat that “yes, there is some uncertainty [about Obama], but the basic relationship between the United States and Israel is so profound and solid that it’s not a question. We are very optimistic and eager to cooperate with the new administration.”
The Arab world, meanwhile, isn’t quite sure what to make of an American president whose middle name is Hussein and whose consistent opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq helped get him elected — yet who professes unconditional support for Israel.
“The region as a whole really expects the change Mr. Obama promised, in other words, a change from what proved to be the completely bankrupt policies of the Bush administration,” said Ahmed Salkini, spokesman for the Syrian Embassy in Washington.
“Hopefully, there will be a more pragmatic approach to our region and our issues,” he added. “Our number-one goal is the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the return of the Golan Heights to Syria. This is our primary national interest. We’re hoping the Obama administration will focus on this.”
Among other things, Salkini said Syria wants Obama to send a U.S. ambassador to Damascus — the post has been vacant for years — and be removed from the State Department’s blacklist of countries that support terrorism (only Cuba, Iran, Syria and Sudan remain on that list after North Korea’s recent removal).
He also suggested the United States stop insisting that Syria end its close economic and political support of Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which the State Department considers a terrorist group. “Instead of trying to peel off Syria from Iran, the U.S. should capitalize on our good offices with Iran, so we can help bridge the differences you have with them,” he said.
“We look forward to a return to the historic U.S.-Syrian relations, where we were able to sit down and discuss our shared interests, our grievances, everything,” Salkini told The Diplomat. “We always had an open dialogue, even during the most difficult times. Obviously, eight years of Bush’s policies have completely failed. They achieved nothing, and if anything, they only managed to isolate the United States.”
Yet Bush himself counters that, partially thanks to U.S. policies, “the Middle East in 2008 is a freer, more hopeful and more promising place than it was in 2001.”
In a recent speech to Middle East scholars in Washington, the former president cited Lebanon’s so-called Cedar Revolution against Syrian influence, Libya’s decision to get out of the nuclear weapons business, and increased Arab enthusiasm for democracy as things to be proud of.
Defending his decision to invade Iraq in 2003, Bush said he welcomed “a framework for the drawdown of American forces as the fight in Iraq nears a successful end.” Under a U.S.-Iraqi security pact agreed to in early December, the Pentagon must withdraw its 146,000 troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 (see January 2009 cover profile for more details).
And despite the failure of the Annapolis Conference to produce any kind of framework agreement by the end of 2008, Bush insisted that “on the most vexing problem in the region — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — there is now greater international consensus than at any point in modern memory.”
Like the Middle East, this region is home to some of the world’s most dangerous places — Afghanistan, Kashmir and the tribal areas of Pakistan come to mind — and will undoubtedly take up much of Obama’s foreign policy agenda.
Regional tempers flared in late November, after Pakistani-trained terrorists launched a daring attack on the Indian financial capital of Mumbai, killing more than 170 people at two luxury hotels, a train station, a Jewish learning center and other targets.
“Increased tension between India and Pakistan is a source of serious concern for us,” confirmed Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan’s ambassador in Washington. “We think stability in the region is interlinked, and more tension between India and Pakistan will benefit only the extremist circles in both countries.”
Understandably, Afghanistan is by far the largest benefactor of U.S. aid in the region. At the beginning of the U.S. invasion there to find Osama bin Laden and overthrow the Taliban following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, reconstruction assistance came to around $2 billion a year. Annual aid has since risen to $6 billion, with much of that going to build up Afghan security forces.
“The Afghan people appreciate what President Bush and Mrs. Bush did for them,” Jawad told The Diplomat.“We do face challenges, but the real solution is to build up the capacity of the Afghan national army and police force.”
Some 60,000 coalition forces are currently stationed in this Texas-size country of about 25 million. The United States accounts for around 32,000 troops, with the remainder coming from 40 countries including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France, Germany, Spain and Great Britain.
But if Obama approves the option to send another 30,000 troops, mostly from Iraq, to Afghanistan, he’ll nearly double the U.S. presence there to 62,000.
Since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, there have been 1,014 coalition deaths — including 624 Americans, 128 Britons, 100 Canadians, 25 Spaniards, 25 Germans and smaller numbers of deaths from 17 other countries that have contributed troops. Another 2,605 U.S. personnel have been wounded in action, according to the Pentagon.
In July, Obama made his first trip to Afghanistan, meeting with President Hamid Karzai in Kabul and visiting U.S. troops at Jalalabad airfield in Nangarhar province. Jawad said the new president understands that the current level of combined U.S. and NATO forces is not adequate to overcome the serious challenges faced by the war-racked country, where the Taliban is mounting a strong resurgency.
“Obama has a clear position on the need to enhance U.S. assistance and increase the number of troops in Afghanistan,” he said. “We are looking forward to changing some of the promises he made during the election campaign into strategy — not only to stabilize Afghanistan but the whole region. Afghans have a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for the administration, and we would like to capitalize on that.”
As bad as things are in Afghanistan, they may ultimately get worse in neighboring Pakistan — a nuclear power that has already fought three wars with its nuclear-armed neighbor, India.
Since the Mumbai attacks, the war of words between India and Pakistan has continued. In the aftermath of the attacks, Obama was asked about Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s response. He said: “Thus far, President Zardari has sent the right signals. He’s indicated that he recognizes this is not just a threat to the United States, but a threat to Pakistan as well.”
The terrorist threat inside Pakistan, in fact, possibly makes it one of the biggest threats facing the United States. Thomas Fingar, the nation’s recently retired top intelligence analyst, told reporters during an early December roundtable that Pakistan “may be one of the single most challenging places on the planet.” He went on to say that as Obama settles into office, “Pakistan has got to be near the top of the list of places and problems getting attention.”
Added Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution: “Seven years after 9/11, the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan remains the frontline in the war on terror. Pakistan is suffering from its greatest internal crises in decades, while Afghanistan remains far from stable with a resurgent Taliban. Absent serious progress on both tracks, Islamic militancy and radicalization in the tribal areas will continue to present serious foreign policy challenges.”
Even so, Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington, told The Diplomat in a recent cover interview that “the state of U.S.-Pakistan relations is much better than it looks in the pages of some newspapers because the papers only focus on events, not the overall process. Our two countries are working out ways of making the war against terror a more effective war, in which the leading role will be played by Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
Washington-Islamabad relations though took a turn for the worse after U.S. forces started launching attacks against suspected terrorist camps inside Pakistan, prompting angry protests from the new government of President Zardari.
Those attacks only underscored an argument that Obama has been making for several years now. In one of his primary debates against his newly designated secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, Obama famously said: “If the United States has al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or top-level lieutenants in our sights, and Pakistan is unable or unwilling to act, then we should take them out.”
FORMER SOVIET BLOC
It’s not a return to the Cold War, but relations between the United States and Russia aren’t exactly the best these days.
The signs are ominous — ranging from Moscow’s newfound military ties with Venezuela and Cuba to its brief war with neighboring Georgia last August. Even though world oil prices have tumbled from their all-time high of $147 a barrel last July, over the long term oil exports have enriched Russia substantially — boosting Vladimir Putin’s popularity, despite a clear erosion of democracy during his term of office, and helping the man who succeeded him as president, Dmitry Medvedev.
“U.S.-Russia relations are in the grip of a deep crisis during the most unsettled of political seasons, when top leaders are in transition in both countries,” argues Rose Gottemoeller, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a branch of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Over the next six months, an agenda based on familiar issues and guided by eminent leaders is the best hope for avoiding a more serious clash. Now is the time to hold tightly to the superstructure of the U.S.-Russia past relationship, but only in order to have a stable foundation to think about the future. And that future must be approached in an entirely new way, drawing Russia into the system of European security as it has never been involved in the past.”
Russia has long been incensed over the Bush administration’s plan to build missile defense installations in Eastern Europe. But the Kremlin said Obama might be willing to negotiate the so-called NATO “missile shield,” which calls for a radar base in the Czech Republic and 10 missile interceptors in Poland.
“There has been no easing of our concerns,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters Nov. 24, hinting that Obama may prove more flexible on this issue than his predecessor. “Our concerns can only be removed by one thing: the renunciation of plans for unilateral establishment of a missile defense system and an agreement to work together from scratch.”
Among Gottemoeller’s advice to Obama and Medvedev for immediately reducing tensions between Washington and Moscow: First, prevent the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), due to expire in December 2009, from being swept away. Extending START for five years, but agreeing to negotiate and ratify a replacement within one year, is a realistic option that should be pursued.
Second, the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty provides an opportunity for direct talks with all of the major players — NATO members, Russia, Georgia and Ukraine. “Confidence in Russia is deeply diminished following the Georgia crisis,” Gottemoeller said, “but the treaty is a good way to begin slow and painful re-engagement with the Russians toward a new system of security in Europe.”
Finally, convene a commission of past presidents — U.S. and Russian — to resolve how to weave Russia and its security interests into the full fabric of European security. Such measures are especially vital to Europe, which relies heavily on Russia for its energy needs — a reliance many say Russia exploits for its own political purposes.
That argument flared up of course with the recent Ukraine-Russia gas dispute. On Jan. 12, when Russian state-run monopoly Gazprom resumed shipping natural gas to Europe, where a five-day standoff with Ukraine had left tens of thousands of homes and buildings without heat in freezing weather. The gas cutoff affected 15 countries, with Bosnia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia and Slovakia among the worst hit.
At issue were allegations by Gazprom that Ukraine was siphoning off gas intended for the rest of Europe. Despite an EU-brokered deal that brought the gas flowing to Europe once again, Gazprom is still not supplying natural gas to the Ukrainian government for domestic consumption. The two countries cannot agree over the price Ukraine should pay for gas in 2009, and the amount Russia should pay for transporting gas through the Ukrainian pipeline system. As a result of the price dispute, Gazprom has not supplied gas to Ukraine since Jan. 1.
Indeed, Russia’s ability to dominate the transportation of energy to Europe from Central Asia and the Caspian Sea region remains a top concern. But the lack of democracy in many Central Asian so-called “stans” — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, as well Belarus and others that comprise the former Soviet Union — has also been criticized by both the United States and Europe. Still, it’s not certain to what degree Obama will sound the alarm on political reform in these nations, especially since many have enjoyed stable economic growth thanks to high energy prices.
Ethnic tensions though may force Obama’s attention on the region. Ethnic strife and breakaway movements continue to plague Azerbaijan, Moldova, Georgia and elsewhere in the Caucasus. Obama, in a Nov. 18 phone call to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, voiced his support for Georgia’s territorial integrity, and in particular its sovereignty over the disputed breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which have been recognized by Russia as independent states.
Saakashvili has also talked by phone with Vice President Joe Biden, who visited Georgia shortly after the clash with Russia in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and immediately helped to push through Congress a $1 billion aid package for the country to rebuild.
Georgia isn’t the only worry though that’s keeping policymakers in Washington up at night. Of particular concern to the new administration is the potential sale of aging Soviet nuclear warheads to rogue states or terrorist groups. In his early days in the U.S. Senate, Obama actually worked closely with Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana on nuclear proliferation issues, joining the GOP legislator on a 10-day trip to Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Russia to assess efforts to secure Soviet nuclear and other weapons stockpiles.
The thought of nukes getting into the wrong hands also worries Erlan Idrissov, Kazakhstan’s ambassador in Washington. He says that Kazakhstan at one time had the world’s fourth-largest nuclear arsenal, with a combined strength bigger than that of China, France and Great Britain.
“More than 1,400 ugly and dangerous nuclear missiles were deployed in our territory during Soviet days. We successfully managed to make sure the legacy inherited from that time was properly addressed, securely and wisely,” Idrissov told The Diplomat. “When President-elect Obama called my president [in late November], this was one of the topics they discussed. Obama recognized the importance of cooperation, and both presidents committed themselves to continue such cooperation in the future.”
ASIA / PACIFIC
Uncertainty over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and continuing fallout from the world financial crisis rank among the top concerns for countries in the vast Asia-Pacific region, which will be looking to Obama for leadership on both counts.
“We are concerned about three issues: Afghanistan, where we have troops; nonproliferation on the Korean peninsula, and the economic crisis,” said New Zealand’s ambassador to the United States, Roy Ferguson.
“We’re particularly concerned that countries keep seeking to liberalize trade through the WTO and regional agreements,” he added. “Obviously, we’d like to see an outcome to the Doha round, and we were delighted when the current administration agreed to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership [Agreement] with Singapore, Chile, Brunei and New Zealand. Since the U.S. agreed, Peru and Australia have said they’d also like to be a part of it.”
Ferguson also said he’s “excited about the emphasis the Obama administration wants to put on climate change and renewable energy” — issues in which New Zealand is recognized internationally for its leadership and innovation (see cover profile in August 2008 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
Yet outside New Zealand, Australia and Japan, the Asia-Pacific region is home to some of the world’s worst polluters, a byproduct of Asia’s stunning economic growth. Despite that growth, it’s also home to four of the world’s last remaining communist states: China, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea. And with the threat of famine in North Korea worsening by the day and little progress on the nuclear proliferation issue since Washington removed Pyongyang from its blacklist of terrorist-supporting states, it’s clear why North Korea ranks so high on the region’s list of perennial headaches.
According to a Bloomberg news analysis published Dec. 8, “Obama will probably build on tactics employed during Bush’s second term, an engagement policy overseen by chief negotiator Christopher Hill that culminated in October’s decision to remove North Korea from a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.”
Yet it’s not at all clear if Hill (profiled in the December 2008 issue of The Washington Diplomat) will keep his job in the Obama administration. Even if he does, there’s no guarantee North Korea will reverse its recent decision to ban inspectors from analyzing soil and nuclear waste to verify the extent of its weapons program.
“If Kim Jong-il assumes that America’s new president will go to Pyongyang at the drop of a hat to fulfill a campaign promise to talk to the world’s dictators, he’s in for a surprise,” Peter M. Beck, North Korea specialist at Washington’s American University, told Bloomberg. “Under a best-case scenario, future negotiations will be long and difficult.”
On a more positive note, in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, reaction to Obama’s victory is overwhelmingly positive, especially because the politician spent much of his childhood there.
Likewise, the people of Japan — and particularly the 23,000 residents of an isolated little fishing village named Obama — are thrilled with America’s new leader. But Obama’s image in the Land of the Rising Sun could be tarnished if he makes too many concessions to the North Korean regime, which in the 1970s and ’80s abducted Japanese citizens (including a few from Obama) and brought them to North Korea, where most were never heard from again.
“With Kim Jong-il suffering serious health problems, the Japanese will be looking at how Obama changes U.S. policy toward North Korea,” BusinessWeek reported recently. It added that “Obama’s willingness to talk directly to U.S. adversaries such as Pyongyang has created some worries in Seoul that South Korea’s voice in determining the fate of the Korean peninsula could weaken.”
South Korea is also concerned that Obama will attempt to renegotiate a 2007 free trade agreement — the largest such U.S. deal since NAFTA. The International Trade Commission says the new FTA will boost annual U.S. exports to South Korea by at least $10 billion and increase imports from Korea by around $6 billion. But Obama has called the pact “badly flawed” and may insist on greater access to the Korean market for Detroit’s troubled auto industry.
Dominating the region, of course, is China, with its 1.4 billion inhabitants and ever-exploding economy — except that in 2009, China’s economy isn’t expected to grow as fast, though it should still proceed at a furious pace compared to other world economies.
The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a prominent Beijing think tank, predicted GDP would expand only by 9 percent this year, after 9.8 percent growth in 2008. Nevertheless, China — like no other country on Earth — is in a unique position to defeat protectionism that threatens to exacerbate the worsening financial crisis, argues Albert Keidel, a scholar with the Carnegie Endowment.
“China’s global trade surplus for goods and services last year was 9 percent of its GDP. That is huge in a relative sense. As the world enters a deep recession, a surplus like that is a lightning rod for protectionist strikes by a range of charged-up domestic political forces virtually everywhere — not least the U.S. Congress,” said Keidel, arguing that China can do more to resist protectionism than any other major world economic power.
“By whatever means necessary, China needs to reduce its global trade surplus dramatically — ideally to zero and below by sometime in 2010,” he added. By shrinking its trade surplus quickly, Keidel explained, Beijing “could help prevent an unraveling of the international trading system on which China’s — and the world’s — well being so critically depends.”
On the bright side, relations between China and Taiwan, which Beijing has long considered a breakaway province of the People’s Republic, seem to be improving at last. Under the leadership of newly elected President Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan has abandoned the confrontational stance of previous governments and is reaching out to China, as part of what Taiwan’s top diplomat here calls a “very clear, pragmatic” foreign policy.
Jason Yuan, head of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in Washington, says the lack of full diplomatic relations hasn’t stopped the United States and Taiwan from enjoying a warm friendship.
“People in Taiwan are very happy for our friends in the United States, for their success in carrying out these historic elections in November, and for once again providing a gleaming example of the democratic process,” Yuan told The Diplomat, stressing that his government is strongly committed to reducing tensions across the Taiwan Strait. Recent negotiations have already produced limited agreements on establishing direct flights, shipping and postal links between the two adversaries.
“President Ma has worked very closely with the Bush administration to improve Taiwan-U.S. relations, and looks forward to further improving those relations and advancing our bilateral ties with the incoming Obama administration,” Yuan said, expressing satisfaction at recent approval — despite Chinese opposition — of a $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan consisting mainly of Apache attack helicopters, Harpon missiles, Javelin anti-tank missiles and other sophisticated weaponry.
Next on Yuan’s wish list: having the United States include Taiwan in its visa waiver program and signing a bilateral free trade agreement. As it stands, he says, “the United States is our third-largest trading partner after China and Japan, and we are America’s ninth-largest trading partner.”
Noting that 2009 marks the 30th anniversary of the U.S.-Taiwan Relations Act, he said the new president and his foreign policy team have pledged to uphold the landmark act and “maintain consistency in U.S. policy” toward the prosperous island of 23 million people.
“We hope to work closely with the Obama administration to enhance our economic ties, with a view toward negotiating a bilateral free trade agreement,” Yuan said. “I’m optimistic that these relations will be strengthened in the years ahead.”