Monday, February 2, 2009

Obama foreign policy projections

First published on January 15, 2009 at Armenian Reporter web site.

Obama administration charts foreign policy course
Both continuity and departures from Bush presidency expected
by Emil Sanamyan and Nareg Seferian

, - President-elect Barack Obama and his nominee for Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, have in recent weeks provided rough outlines of what U.S. foreign policy will look like under the new administration, in which officials from the Clinton and Bush administrations and retired military officers have been recruited for key roles.

The new administration takes over amid the "worst recession since the Great Depression," the president-elect told ABC News on January 11.

Presenting the Obama administration's foreign policy vision to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 13, Secretary-designate Clinton acknowledged the impact of the economic crisis on the United States and the persistent need to "establish priorities." She said foreign-policy initiatives would represent a "marriage of principles and pragmatism, not rigid ideology."

"I would not expect U.S. policy to change radically in the foreseeable future," Ambassador John Evans, who served from 2004 to 2006 as U.S. envoy to Armenia, told the Armenian Reporter when asked to comment about the direction he sees the new administration taking. "I just hope for more consistent and effective attention to some of the areas that have been overlooked in recent years."

Another former envoy to Armenia, Ambassador Michael Lemmon, also said he expected "a pragmatic and thoughtful look at both challenges and opportunities" and "need to talk with those who you disagree with."

Middle East policy

Asked whether his Middle East policy would be building on his predecessor's, Mr. Obama responded, "If you look not just at the Bush administration, but also what happened under the Clinton administration, you are seeing the general outlines of an approach."

Mr. Obama declined to take a position on the Israeli invasion of Gaza, which as of this week had claimed more than 1,000 lives. He explained his silence by saying that the United States should speak with one voice and that President George W. Bush remains in office until January 20.

At the same time, Mr. Obama said he planned "a new approach" on Iran, emphasizing engagement and "respect for aspirations of the Iranian people," but also U.S. concerns with Iran's policies.

Mrs. Clinton said the administration would use all possible measures "to try to prevent" Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, adding that "we are not taking any option off the table at all." She also said initial talks with Iran would be handled by her subordinates.

And according to Mrs. Clinton, the United States will deal only with those Palestinian groups that recognize Israel, ruling out direct contact with Hamas, the Islamist organization elected to power in Gaza.

The incoming administration also promised to close the Guantanamo detention center and to enforce the ban on torture.

Mrs. Clinton also pledged to "responsibly" end the war in Iraq, possibly within 16 months, thus allowing for an increased U.S. focus on threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The United States would also work to "strengthen relationships" with friendly Arab states and Turkey to achieve its Middle East objectives, she said.

Other priorities

Challenges emanating from Middle East will likely continue to top the list of U.S. priorities under the Obama administration. Vice-President-elect Joseph Biden was touring Kuwait, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq in the last several days.

But Secretary-designate Clinton's testimony also emphasized "cooperative engagement with the Russian government on matters of strategic importance," including new agreements on the reduction of nuclear weapons holdings and nonproliferation.

At the same time, Russia's "interactions with Ukraine, Georgia, other European countries, its recent purchase of the Serbian gas utility" according to Mrs. Clinton, represent "a significant security challenge that we ignore at our peril."

In response to questions from the committee's ranking member, Sen. Richard Lugar (R.-Ind.), Mrs. Clinton said the United States would stay focused on European energy-security matters.

At the same time, according to the Cable, a blog affiliated with Foreign Policy magazine, the Obama team is considering downgrading the National Security Council position handling Russian affairs to make it subordinate to the senior director for Europe, which is something that already happened in the State and Defense Departments in the Bush administration.

Armenian concerns

Toward the end of the committee hearing, Sen. Robert Menendez (D.-N.J.) expressed hope that positions Mrs. Clinton took as a senator on issues such the Armenian Genocide and the Turkish occupation of Cyprus "won't change drastically as you move to the secretary of state."

Mrs. Clinton, like Me. Obama, has been a proponent of U.S. affirmation of the Genocide.

In response, Mrs. Clinton said the administration "will be looking very closely at those and other challenging issues with the eye of moving forward and being effective in responding to these very legitimate concerns."

Amb. Evans, when asked to comment on the issue, said, "Armenian-Turkish relations hold out some promise of improving, ideally in a way that both does justice to the historical record and opens up new positive perspectives for the region." He reserved judgment on potential changes in U.S. policy on the Armenian Genocide.

In the hearing, Mrs. Clinton made no mention of regional conflicts, such as the one in Karabakh, which Ambassador Evans hopes would remain in focus of U.S. attention.

"The five-day conflict in Georgia last August reminded everyone of the continuing challenges to peace and stability in the Caucasus," he said. "Near the top of the list of problems to be dealt with there is the unresolved conflict over Karabakh."

"I think a new administration will want to build on what has been done so far" in the Karabakh peace process, "and perhaps to intensify those efforts," Amb. Evans predicted.

But Amb. Lemmon, who served in Armenia from 1998 to 2001, cautioned that "it is immensely difficult for any outsiders to be more interested in conflict settlement than for the parties to the conflict themselves."

While the United States could potentially compel parties to reach a deal, he said, this would not be an agreement that is likely to bring about a viable and sustainable peace in the long term.

What the State Department under Hillary Clinton would look like:

James Steinberg
, deputy national security advisor under President Bill Clinton between 1997 and 2000, will be deputy secretary of state. In recent years, Mr. Steinberg has been dean of the Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

According to the New York Times, the State Department's number three, William Burns, appointed in 2007, is staying on as undersecretary for political affairs, the department's most senior career post.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Richard Holbrooke and Dennis Ross - who were top Clinton-era envoys for former Yugoslavia and Israel-Palestine, respectively - are expected to deal with Middle East issues as special advisers to the secretary of state; Mr. Holbrooke would focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Mr. Ross on Israel and Iran.

According to The Associated Press, Philip Gordon of the Brookings Institution, who was in charge of European affairs in the Clinton era, is considered as most likely to be the next assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, the position now held by Dan Fried.

And according to the Foreign Policy, Russia expert Michael McFaul of Stanford University is also being considered for a senior State Department or National Security Council position.

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