Politics

Hitting the 'reset' button

Updated:

BOSTON — Ever since Franklin Roosevelt, the first 100 days of every new presidency is put under scrutiny, and in Barack Obama’s case you would have to say that few presidents have thrown so many balls up into the air in so short a time.

Some worry that he is trying to do so much, that Washington notoriously cannot pat its head and rub its tummy at the same time. But these are no ordinary times and there is so much to un-do as well as do, following on a presidency as destructive to American interests as the Bush-Cheney administration.

Foreign policy has been transformed. The unclenched fist has replaced do-it-my-way-or-else.

Obama has set a date for the end of Bush’s war in Iraq, and made the Afghanistan war his own with reinforcements. But nothing has been really settled in Iraq between Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, and violence is creeping upwards again.

Afghanistan could yet become Obama’s Vietnam. But as General David Petreaus says, “You can’t kill or capture your way out of an industrial strength insurgency.” New ways will have to be found to stabilize the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Look around the world. Obama has hit the reset button with Russia, and committed himself to the Panglossian task of ridding the world of nuclear weapons. He is opening up to Syria and Iran, and has set a new tone with traditional allies in Europe. He has changed the game vis a vis Cuba, and tried to put the U.S. on a new course in the rest of Latin America. North Korea, however, remains firmly opposed and has even restarted nuclear bomb-making.

There are those, mostly on the right, who are saying that Obama is being rolled, that he is too soft, and that he should strive to be more feared. Former Vice President Dick Cheney snarls from exile that Iran still needs regime change and that torture has been good for us. But that worldview has failed, and Americans are ready for new approaches.

Old hostilities die hard, however, 50 years in Cuba’s case, 30 in Iran’s. The inevitable two-steps-forward-one-back syndrome was made clear in Cuba’s case when Raul Castro said everything that divided us could be put on the table, and Fidel said no it could not.

From Iran, with its disparate centers of power, mixed signals are what you would expect. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says he is ready to put new proposals on the table to resolve differences with the west, and then goes back to blasting Israel. Then he turns around and demands a fair trial for Roxana Sabari, the imprisoned Iranian-American journalist who has been sentenced to eight years for espionage. Look for her to be released later this year as a humanitarian gesture.

The response from Iran’s speaker of the parliament, Ali Larijani, to Obama’s sunshine was revealing. He said: “Our problem with America is not an emotional problem,” but then went on to demonstrate that it was. “America must know that this is a complex problem that goes back 30 years,” he said. “The Americans stood against the Islamic State of Iran by supporting Saddam in his eight-year war against Iran.”

Other Iranians will go back half a century in the grievance game, to when the CIA engineered a coup against Mohammed Mossadegh to keep the Shah upon his throne.

Time and patience will be needed in trying to begin new relationships, and Obama knows that he has to make sure that old allies are not hurt and surprised by gestures towards old enemies. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Beirut was largely to reassure Lebanon that no deal would be made with Syria that hurts Lebanon.

The Israel-Palestine issue will be a tough nut to crack with a new right-wing government in Jerusalem. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a past master at foot-dragging when it comes to land for peace deals. But the administration has already hinted that Israel cannot expect the same old green light that the Bush administration bestowed for anything it wants to do to the Palestinians.

Optimists point out that big and unexpected breakthroughs can come from right-wing leaders. Did not Menachem Begin agree to give back the Sinai to Egypt? Didn’t Ariel Sharon get Israel out of Gaza? But don’t expect any Nixon to China mega-shifts from Netanyahu without a lot of push from Obama, and maybe not even then.

If Obama is serious about really trying for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine question he absolutely has to put unrelenting and unbearable pressure on Israel to stop settlement expansion in the West Bank — something that no American nor Israeli government has ever managed to do.  

For Which it Stands: 100 Days

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