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Foreign Policy, Not the Economy, May Define the Obama Presidency

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Even as the Obama administration may be consumed by efforts to stem the depth and duration of the recession, we appear to be at a tipping point in foreign affairs that can lead to positive new directions or a new downward spiral in regional conflicts.

The opportunities at hand are complex and interconnected. And unlike the high stakes, three-hand game among Russia, China and the United States of the Nixon era, which subsumed all of the smaller countries into bit roles, the diplomatic world today involves a wide range of actors, each of whom has real interests, has signaled their readiness to play, and can each affect the potential outcomes for the others.

The historical background is important in several regards. First, the global economic collapse has illustrated the interdependence of national economies, while at the same time demonstrated the risks to individual states that flow from that interdependence. Accordingly, many national leaders find themselves at a point where they have to choose--both as a matter of policy and politics--whether they are in or out, whether they accept the rules of globalization, free trade, and interdependence, or whether they will opt for a return to economic protectionism and political self-preservation.

Second, the election of Barack Obama signaled the end of the neoconservative era in US policy, and portends a renaissance of realism in foreign affairs and diplomacy based on national self-interest. As much as war might be the proven solution to depressions past, Americans have grown weary and cynical over calls to arms and regime change over every looming international confrontation, and the rest of the world seems ready to embrace new directions as well.

Russia, for one, has been pushing for an alignment of interests since Vladimir Putin first called George Bush to pledge Russia's support after the 9/11 attacks. Putin sought--but ultimately failed--to build a new strategic relationship with the US around a number of specific areas of common interest--stemming the Jihadist threat emerging in Chechnya and Muslim former Soviet republics, defeating the Taliban, controlling Iran's nuclear ambitions, and controlling drug trafficking--for which Russia could leverage the reinstatement of the Bush '41 and Clinton-era US commitments to curtail NATO expansion toward Russia.

Now, after several years of declining relations, and with the ruble in free-fall, Putin is signaling a desire to try again. After years of trying to swing a big stick to get our attention--cutting off natural gas supplies to Ukraine and Europe, sending arms to Iran and Venezuela, and sending tanks into Georgia--Russia is trying a bit of carrot--opening its territory for the US to resupply its troops in Afghanistan and delaying the deployment of missiles in Kaliningrad.

Iran, meanwhile, is looking to get into the carrot and stick game. Like Russia, Iran grates at being disrespected and has sought out strategies that might force the US to bargain on equal terms. Certainly, as President Obama announced his plans for withdrawing from Iraq, it was not lost on many that Iran--almost single-handedly--can determine whether those plans can succeed.

Iran has much to offer--enabling an exit from Iraq, moderating the role and conduct of Hezbollah, and, of course addressing the nuclear issue--and has much to gain--recognition of its role as a regional power, reducing the threat of American troops on both its eastern and western boarders, fears of being frozen out in a US-Russian rapproachment, and an end to American threats of regime change.

Like Russia, Iran's economy is in shambles, and the June presidential election looms to be a critical moment. The entrance of former president Mohammad Khatami into the presidential race in early February may signal that Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei is willing to move toward a moderation of Iran's hard line direction and rhetoric, embodied in current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and substantively address the concerns of the international community.

Syria, another long-time target of US regime change, also needs to demonstrate its bona fides at this moment of political change. Just as Russia reached out to Syria over the past several years to demonstrate its continuing ability to stir the always-simmering Middle East pot, Syria can on its own significantly influence the next trajectory in the politics of the Middle East.

Like Iran, Syria controls one long border with Iraq, and can influence the outcome of President Obama's exit strategy. Similarly, as the home of the Hamas political leadership, and as the long-time suzerain of Lebanon, the Syrian intelligence apparatus can directly control the direction and temperature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Like others, Syria has its interests--in territory and regime survival--for which it will play its cards.

Achieving our foreign policy goals requires that each of these key nations change their approach to us and to others. We have tried threats of regime change and war, and we are broke and tired. Ironically, however, this has led to a moment of opportunity where each country may be motivated to move in a new and positive direction.

For Russia, Iran and Syria, this is a moment of opportunity. Their leaders, Putin, Khamenei and Assad, are rational and cunning adversaries. Each has demonstrated the ability to work with us when it served they and their country's interests, or to resist our threats and recriminations when it did not. Each of them has a hand to play, and yet each knows that they risk being left behind if they fail to seize the moment.

For Barack Obama, as well, this is a moment of opportunity. But as he has suggested when speaking of the economic challenges we face, in the world of foreign policy, our major challenges are interconnected. He cannot put any aside for another day.

Iraq. Afghanistan. Iran. Pakistan. Al Qaeda. Israel-Palestine. Lebanon. Energy. Venezuela. For each of these, Russia, Iran and Syria--in one combination or another--can be the fulcrum for success or failure.

This is the President's moment.

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