Expect nothing, live frugally on surprise.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Waiting for Inauguration Day: Free advice for Obama

The Russians want him to hold off on the installation of a missile defence shield in Poland. The Europeans want him to renounce the idea of “regime change” when it comes to Iran, while the Israelis want to be sure he does not give Iran a pass when it comes to nuclear weapons. Oh, and let’s not forget the Taliban, which issued a statement this week urging him to “put an end to all the policies being followed by the Republicans, and pull out US troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.”There is a world of advice out there for President-elect Barack Obama. Within minutes of his election, the calls from foreign governments began, Obama aides say, and they have not stopped. While the first telephone exchanges between Obama and foreign leaders were limited to pledges of future cooperation and invitations to visit, those leaders and their aides have also been contacting Obama’s advisers and their surrogates with suggestions on how an Obama administration should conduct, and change, American foreign policy.There are also signs that some foreign governments are moving to alter the playing field even before Obama takes office. North Korea has said it would not allow international inspectors to take soil and nuclear waste samples from its main nuclear complex;

Iran said it successfully tested a new long-range missile that it claimed was capable of reaching southeastern Europe; and Russia rejected an American proposal meant to assuage Russian fears over the planned missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic.
The foreign efforts to sway the new team are normal during any presidential transition, but they are accelerated in this case, foreign policy experts say, because of the historic nature of Obama’s election and the significantly different course that world leaders expect him to pursue in American foreign policy.“We have heard a lot of important ideas from our friends and allies,” said Denis McDonough, a foreign policy adviser to Obama. “We consider them closely in an effort to be a partner that listens, as the president-elect shapes his agenda to advance the US interests from his first day in office.” But until Inauguration Day, McDonough said, the Obama team will be in a listen-only mode.Even before the election, senior advisers to Obama — including Anthony Lake, the former national security adviser — had been meeting with European officials, including Pierre Vimont, the French ambassador to Washington, and Nigel Sheinwald, the British ambassador. British and French officials are urging the Obama team to work on tone and mood before sitting down to talk with Iran, out of concern that Obama’s pledge to open talks with Iran without preconditions could lead to trouble.Vice President-elect Joseph R Biden Jr has said he thinks the Bush administration should explicitly assure the Iranian leadership that it would not seek a regime change, as one part of the incentives and sanctions that the US and Europe have been offering in hopes of prying Iran away from its nuclear programme. Obama, for his part, has been a little less clear.In an interview in September he said, “I think it is important for us to send a signal that we are not hell-bent on regime change just for the sake of regime change, but expect changes in behaviour, and there are both carrots and there are sticks available to them for those changes in behaviour.”European officials say that Obama’s advisers have played their cards close to the chest. “They come in, they listen and they say, ‘Thank you very much,’ ” said one official of a European embassy. The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, said over breakfast with reporters in Washington this week that he thinks “the personality of Barack Obama can make a difference” when it comes to Iran. Israel has been pushing, too. A senior Israeli official said that the Israeli government is in touch with Obama’s close aides, in particular with Dennis B Ross, President Clinton’s former envoy to the Middle East. “For us, it’s Iran,” the official said, adding that Israel wants to make sure that Obama will tackle the Iran issue as soon as he takes office. “We can’t afford a vacuum.”Russia, too, has already made a proposal, one that is close to Moscow’s heart. Last Friday, Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr V Grushko said that Russia would not deploy missiles in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave that borders Poland, if Obama were to scrap the Bush administration’s planned missile defense shield. As for the Taliban, it seems unlikely that Obama will be acceding to its call for American troops to be pulled out of Afghanistan. He said during the campaign that, to the contrary, he would increase the number of American combat brigades deployed there.Still, there could be room for compromise. Along with its usual invective against the Bush administration, the Taliban called in its statement for Obama to “respect the rights of the people to independence and observe the norms of human rights.”“In short,” the Taliban statement said, “he should set out on a policy that will have a message of peace for the war-stricken world.”


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