THE BLOG
03/09/2009 12:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

New Era Of Engagement

by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, and Ryan Powers

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Over the weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton returned from a five-country, seven-day tour of the Middle East and Europe. The Los Angeles Times wrote that while it was "[b]illed as no more than a modest 'listening tour,' Clinton's trip offered the most complete picture yet of how the new administration hopes to overhaul American relations with the world." A State Department spokesperson explained before the trip that Clinton hoped to "reconnect" the U.S. with Europe and the Middle East in an effort to consolidate "some of this enormous political goodwill on both sides of the Atlantic, harnessing it to a common agenda -- not an American agenda, but a common transatlantic agenda." The trip was significant because it demonstrated that President Obama and his administration are committed to making good on a number of key campaign promises, including engaging in "vigorous diplomacy" with sometimes hostile regimes like Iran, devoting significant resources to negotiating a "comprehensive peace" in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and working closely with other world powers, like Russia, to reduce the risk of such threats as nuclear proliferation.

ENGAGING IRAN: During her trip, Clinton met with a group of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels to discuss, among other things, the war in Afghanistan. Clinton called the conflict "NATO's biggest military challenge." As part of addressing this challenge, Clinton called for a "high-level conference on Afghanistan at the end of March" and specifically asked that Iran be involved in such an effort. "If we move forward with such a meeting, it is expected that Iran would be invited as a neighbor of Afghanistan," Clinton said. Despite Iran's recent unwillingness to participate in French-led talks in Paris, Iran and NATO have several common interests in reducing the level of violence in Afghanistan. The West and "Shi'ite Iran share a common dislike for the hardline Sunni Taliban." As Clinton pointed out last week, both the U.S. and Iran "want to see an end to opium and heroin production in Afghanistan; Washington because it helps fund the Taliban and Tehran because the drugs are smuggled across the border and feed the habits of up to 2 million Iranians." Despite the Obama administration's willingness to engage Iran on specific regional issues, direct talks with Iran in the near future seem unlikely. According to Politico, administration officials have seen "little indication that Iran is willing to make even token steps, to ease back on either its nuclear program or its support for terror groups." But by "keeping the possibility of direct talks on the table and collaborating at forums like the upcoming Afghanistan conference, the administration thinks it can undercut the reluctance of its allies and Moscow to move forward" with tougher economic sanctions if Iran continues its nuclear program. "There's a great deal of concern about Iran in the entire region," Clinton explained. "It is clear that Iran intends to interfere in the internal affairs of all these people and try to continue their efforts to fund terrorism, whether it is Hezbollah or Hamas or other proxies."

COMPREHENSIVE MIDDLE EAST PEACE: Speaking at the international Gaza reconstruction conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Clinton reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to "a comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors." To this end, Clinton pledged $900 million dollars in "assistance to the people of Gaza and the West Bank." The U.S. contribution will include "$300 million in U.S. humanitarian aid for the war-torn Gaza Strip, plus about $600 million in assistance to the Palestinian Authority." Further, while she appeared to recognize Israel's right to link opening the Gaza border to a cease-fire agreement with Hamas, Clinton stressed that the U.S. expected Israel to allow "humanitarian aid to get into Gaza in sufficient amounts to alleviate the suffering of the people." Further demonstrating U.S. commitment to a two-state solution, Clinton referred to Israel's plans to "demolish Palestinian homes in Arab East Jerusalem" as "unhelpful" and called the Palestinian Authority "the only legitimate government of the Palestinian people." Finally, demonstrating that the Obama administration is committed to acting on its commitment to "comprehensive peace," Clinton dispatched Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state, and Daniel Shapiro, the top Mideast official at the National Security Council, to Syria, where they met for more than three hours with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem and Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to President Bashar al-Assad. While Feltman advised that observers should "keep expectations in check," he also said the talks were "constructive" and that there was much "common ground." During the meeting, the U.S. urged Syria "to stop interfering in Lebanon, to stop supporting terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas and to control the flow of insurgents crossing its border into Iraq," while Syria asked that the U.S. "take a more active role in Israel-Syria peace talks." Addressing the Israel-Syria talks, Clinton said that the importance of the Syrian "track of the peace effort cannot be overstated."

HITTING THE 'RESET BUTTON' WITH RUSSIA AND THE WORLD: In Geneva, Clinton met her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, for the first time. Clinton attempted to renew U.S.-Russia relations after the Bush administration and NATO isolated Russia in response to its invasion of Georgia last summer. She presented Lavrov with a "reset button" that was meant to, as Clinton put it, represent "what President Obama and Vice President Biden and I have been saying and that is, 'We want to reset our relationship.' And so we will do it together." Clinton explained that the U.S. would need to cooperate with Russia in a number of areas including the war in Afghanistan, ensuring Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon, and nuclear disarmament. In particular, Clinton signaled the Obama administration's willingness to compromise on a controversial Bush-era plan to construct a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. "We believe that Russia and the United States have the opportunity to cooperate on missile defense, to do joint research and joint development and even eventually, assuming we can reach such an agreement, joint deployment," Clinton said. Clinton's sentiments echoed what Obama said in a letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in which he explained that, "to the extent that we are lessening Iran's commitment to nuclear weapons, then that reduces the pressure or the need for a missile-defense system." More broadly, Clinton tried to hit the reset button on the perception of the U.S. abroad by appearing on several popular television shows in Palestine and Turkey, as well as meeting with "young professionals in Belgium," and women's leaders in Israel.