NEW YORK — In the early weeks of Barack Obama’s presidency, the players have been invited to the table and dealt their hands.
The president has made his choices for the cabinet and other top posts, subject to the approval of the U.S. Senate. It’s been a messy but necessary process that will continue for months. With the exception of the CIA director designate Leon Panetta, the Obama foreign policy team now sits firmly in place.
(In Munich Feb. 7, Vice President Joseph Biden pledged a departure from the Bush administration's foreign policy.)
Former Sen. George Mitchell has been appointed as special envoy in the Middle East and former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke has responsibility for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both of these experienced players will now move to jump-start vital conversations that had fallen by the wayside in the Bush years. Similar moves could be afoot for the on-again, off-again North Korea nuclear talks, and the president’s oft-referenced intention to extend a hand to Iran.
Regardless of whether the president chooses to run policy on these other prickly topics with “special envoys” or through the State Department bureaucracy, these four crises — Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan-Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran — represent the four corners of the diplomatic box America finds itself trapped within.
As in no other moment in American history, progress in any of them leaves the United States heavily reliant on other countries. Multilateralism is no longer a policy choice: It’s a fact of life.
This turn of events has many smart people talking of “grand bargains,” and rightfully so. In each of these conflicts, an outside power now exercises as much or more influence over events than the United States.
Take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Gone are the days when a presidential envoy’s most urgent task was getting the Israelis and Palestinians to agree to compromise on territorial and political issues.
Those problems — the status of Jerusalem, the demand for Palestinian right of return, what to do with Jewish settlements — all still exist.
But unlike the 1990s, other players now have a seat at the table. The EU and the Russians form part of the “Quartet” that sponsors talks. Turkey, Israel’s closest Muslim ally, has of late actively tried to seal a deal that would return the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for a genuine peace treaty with Israel.
But the real unpredictable player at the table here is Iran.
Invited or not, Iran, by virtue of its influence over Hezbollah and Hamas, its alliance with Syria, and its nascent nuclear capabilities, holds a de-facto veto over regional agreements. Add its ability to stir trouble in Iraq, and Iran looms as a pivotal factor in any Arab-Israeli peace
Similarly, in any talks with Iran that may develop, the notion that lifting U.N. economic sanctions and opening full diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic will necessarily entice Iran to foreswear nuclear weapons is slightly naïve. Iran launched a satellite into space last week in spite of years of economic sanctions, and for all the talk of “worried mullahs”
as low oil prices put additional pressure on the Iranian economy, it is important to understand that mullahs don’t think like us.
Indeed, the western consumerism that these “enticements” would bring could be more fearsome for the clerics than the economic benefits.
At the end of the day, the United States will be forced to rely on someone with leverage over Iran.
That country is Russia. Moscow has been part of the talks aimed at preventing Iran from going nuclear, but also has built the Iranians a nuclear reactor and would like to contract for more.
Russian firms do more business in Iran than those of any other nation, and each country has found the other an occasionally useful ally, if only as a way to force the Americans to understand the consequences of ignoring their interests. No deal that prevents Iran from fielding nuclear weapons can happen without Moscow. Period.
Russia made a similar point with regard to Afghanistan this week, essentially paying $2.1 billion to Kyrgyzstan in exchange for delivering an eviction notice to the United States, which had been using a Kyrgyz airbase to supply the war effort.
But in Afghanistan, Russia’s influence is literally on the margins. The Europeans' NATO forces play their part, too, and are indispensible to Obama’s current plan for a troop surge. But seven-and-a-half long years after 9/11, the key player here is the same it was on Sept. 11, 2001: Pakistan.
The relationship with the fractured, opaque Pakistani state has broken down profoundly. Its army tires of doing what it sees as “America’s bidding,” though the billions of dollars in economic and military largesse which has flowed in since 9/11 have helped modernize a military that had begun to fall hopelessly behind its traditional foe, India.
The civilian government is undermined by the airstrikes conducted inside Pakistani territory, and even if it privately has no love for the targets of those Hellfire missiles, it can’t help but be infuriated by the civilian casualties and the appearance of powerlessness they imply. And as
India’s foreign minister noted Thursday, Pakistan’s intelligence services continue to train and provide support to the Taliban and terrorists directed at India.
The dilemma is one Americans of a certain generation will remember: Just as South Vietnam could never be secured against the Viet Cong as long as Cambodia and Laos served as safe havens, neither can Afghanistan be secured without Pakistan gaining control over its territory. Pakistan, here, is the indispensable nation.
The situation is similar in the Far East. There, over the past decade, talks under the “Six Party” rubric have involved North Korea in negotiations with the United States, China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan.
No one is under any illusion that Russia, Japan, or even South Korea itself can do much to forge an agreement that would convince the North Koreans to dismantle their nuclear arsenal. For years, the Six Party structure was little more than a way for the U.S. and North Korea to talk without having diplomatic relations.
Now, however, the picture is vastly more complicated.
Since the testing of its own nuclear weapon in 2006, North Korea appears less impressed by carrots or sticks. In fact, in this conflict, China now calls the tune. Only China, which supplies most of North Korea’s energy and is the North’s only true commercial partner, has any leverage over North Korea.
Iran, Russia, Pakistan, China are the cards that are showing on the table. You, Mr. President, are the croupier. And it’s time for the House to play its hand.
Other GlobalPost columns by Michael Moran: