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William Bradley

William Bradley

Posted March 11, 2009 | 07:37 PM (EST)

Obama's Daring Tour D'Horizon: The New President Engages Multiple Crises and Probes for Opportunity


President Barack Obama and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said this morning following their Oval Office meeting that the G-20 (group of 20 leading economies) must work in concert to stimulate the global economy and better regulate financial markets.


In the midst of the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression, President Barack Obama is making major moves elsewhere. That doesn't mean he's not focused on the domestic economy; quite the contrary. To follow the conventional media, he's doing little else. What it does mean is he pursuing a big agenda in geopolitics.

If the economic crisis were not so grave and the conventional media so insular, any one of these moves would be big news. Obama, aided by National Security Advisor Jim Jones, the former NATO and Marine Corps commander to whom he has given added powers, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary and former CIA Director Bob Gates, and roving troubleshooter Vice President Joe Biden, has dispatched envoys around the world since his inauguration less than two months ago.

Their missions? To deal with festering crises in South Asia and incipient chaos in the Middle East, prepare an orderly withdrawal from Iraq, engage in new ways with great powers Russia and China, and get leading economies to move in concert with the US to prevent economic collapse in much of the world by stimulating the global economy and regulating financial markets.

The scene-setting was publicly underway in earnest last month when Biden and Jones represented the Obama Administration at the annual international security conference in Munich, where Biden said the new government intends both to reach out more and ask more of allies, and to "push the reset button" on relations with Russia. After this week's North Atlantic Council meeting, where Biden focused on the twin crises in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the scene shifts next week to the G-20 finance ministers meeting. Which itself is preparatory to the G-20 summit next month in London.


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov conducted a joint news conference last week in Geneva.

Clinton toured Asia, then the Middle East, before talking with NATO foreign ministers in Brussels and then meeting in Geneva with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

But these are the overarching, high-profile events, themselves mostly uncovered by the conventional media. At a level beneath this, Obama has dispatched an unprecedented series of special envoys and emissaries to deal with both problem areas and areas of opportunity. Which are occasionally the same. Here are some of them.


Vice President Joe Biden told European allies this week in Brussels that Afghanistan and Pakistan are a joined crisis that threatens collective security.

** "AfPak." The troubled war in Afghanistan and the deepening instability of neighboring Pakistan are now viewed by the Obama Administration as a joined crisis.

Biden, on a diplomatic offensive with NATO and European allies in Brussels at the beginning of the week, said that most of the Taliban presently confounding US plans in Afghanistan could be engaged because they are not committed Islamist radicals.

Biden said the same tactics used in Anbar province in Iraq, where radical Sunni Muslims were co-opted by American financial support, could work in Afghanistan as part of President Barack Obama's strategy for winning the war raging since 2001.

"Five percent of the Taliban is incorrigible, not susceptible to anything other than being defeated," Biden told a press conference at North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters in Brussels at the beginning of the week. "Another 25 percent or so are not quite sure, in my view, of the intensity of their commitment to the insurgency. Roughly 70 percent are involved because of the money."

Biden warned that terror groups are using Afghanistan and Pakistan as staging areas to plot new attacks against allied interests around the world. "It is from this same area that al-Qaeda and its extremist allies are regenerating and conceiving new atrocities to visit upon us," Biden said.

Increasingly, it looks like the 17,000 additional US troops being sent to Afghanistan are there to buy time in a bid to bring some stability the country in advance of a deal that denies it as a base for Islamic jihadist terrorist attacks but reaches a compromise with elements of the Taliban.

Things are less clear with regard to Pakistan, safe haven for Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and cadre, where the beleaguered central government has given up part of the country to sharia law and, in a political factional fight, kicked out a functioning regional government.


Al Jazeera reported on secret talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera reported last month that the Afghan government, with British involvement, is negotiating with elements of the Taliban leadership, including one of its most vehement anti-US figures, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. It may be that most anyone is on the table, with the exception, as the US commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, noted today, of Taliban leader and close bin Laden ally Mullah Omar himself, who was deposed from power in Afghanistan in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks.


** Mumbai. The terrorist siege of India's commercial capital Mumbai nearly led to war with Pakistan. But after the Pakistani government acknowledged the deep involvement of Pakistani nationals in the attack and promised to crack down, the full boil eased off to simmer. Both the Obama and Bush administrations deserve credit for crisis management on this. There's no fundamental resolution as yet, but it may be that India sees how whipsawed Pakistan's government is between rising Islamic fundamentalists and the traditional security state. A failed state Pakistan would be far worse.


President Obama has announced the timeline for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.


** Iraq. Obama has begun ending the war in Iraq. Most US combat forces will be out of the country in 18 months, with virtually all troops gone by the end of 2011. Obama chose a middle path between his campaign agenda and the course urged by General David Petraeus.

Obama will withdraw 12,000 US troops from Iraq in September. They will be joined in withdrawal by 4,000 British troops. That will end the British presence in Iraq.

The US troop withdrawal amounts to a reduction of US combat power in-country from 14 brigades to 12. The US withdrawal is gradual at first, leaving most troops in place for national elections. Last month's provincial elections around the country went well, but the national elections will be the major inflection point.


** Iran. Empowered by the removal of Saddam Hussein, Iran has been emboldened to become an even greater regional power, with major clout inside Iraq and the desire for more, and nuclear ambitions. Obama is directly engaging Iran, formally inviting it to participate in a conference on the crisis in Afghanistan, where Iran helped the US take down the Taliban regime in the wake of 9/11. But Iran won't provide the US a new supply line to Afghanistan, needed with the growing instability in Pakistan.

Word is that after this formal multilateral engagement with Iran around Afghanistan, the Obama Administration will engage it bilaterally after Iran's June national elections. Pragmatic religious conservatives with whom America has worked in the past are gaining power in Iranian politics.


** Syria. The Obama Administration is already directly engaging Syria on a bilateral basis, having dispatched not one but two special envoys to Damascus. One representing National Security Advisor Jones, the other representing Secretary of State Clinton.


** Israel. Weeks after national elections, Israel's government remains unsettled. The centrist Kadima, under Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, surprised the experts b finishing first ahead of former Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu's conservative Likud. But with parties on the right with a clear majority in the new parliament, President Shimon Peres asked Netanyahu to form a government. He's been trying to cobble together a national unity government with the centrist Kadima and the liberal Labour, without much success. If Netanyahu has to form a right-wing government, drawing on the anti-Arab party headed by ultra-rightist Avigdor Lieberman, which finished third ahead of Labour, and other right-wing parties, this will create a serious problem for the Obama Administration.

Clinton went to Israel and met with all the parties, assuring Netanyahu of continued American support. But a government with even heavier Lieberman influence -- he was strategic affairs minister in the most recent government -- would yield an Israel more isolated from the rest of the world.


Russian President Dmitri Medvedev met yesterday in Moscow with former U.S. Senators Gary Hart and Chuck Hagel, whose bipartisan commission will present a report next week.

** Russia. Moscow is very much back on center stage in geopolitics.

Clinton was in Geneva last week to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Russia has already opened up new supply lines for US and NATO troops fighting in Afghanistan, something made necessary by in the increased instability in Pakistan.

That came about last month, after a State Department emissary dispatched to Moscow found the talks fruitful. Russia agreed to allow supplies to US and NATO forces in deeply troubled Afghanistan to transit not only its former Soviet republics in Central Asia, but also Russia itself. Moscow has even offered the use of Russian military aircraft in the US supply effort into Afghanistan.

The agreement came at a good time, as the usual supply lines through increasingly unstable Pakistan are becoming increasingly untenable. Islamic jihadists have repeatedly bombed the Khyber Pass route and others, along with supply depots and convoys themselves.

The US and Russia are discussing a compromise on the missile defense shield the Bush/Cheney Administration proposed to build in Poland the Czech Republic, ostensibly aimed at Iran, which is infuriating to Moscow. The compromise could trade the shield, which is not popular in the countries which would host it, for Russian success in negating Iran's nuclear weapons program. Or it could involve a multi-national unit administering the system. The Russian media has reported that Obama sent a private letter to President Dmitri Medvedev raising that prospect.


Not everything went well in the Clinton/Lavrov meeting. Clinton presented the Russian foreign minister with a "reset button" symbolizing the aim of new US/Russian relations. But the word was mistranslated as "overcharge."

Obama and Medvedev will have a mini-summit next month in London when both are in town for the G-20 summit. This is believed to be preparatory to an Obama trip to Moscow and full-scale summit later this year.

At Obama and Clinton's urging, NATO is resuming normal relations with Russia. These ties were suspended in the wake of last summer's Russia-Georgia War.

Meanwhile, former Senators Gary Hart, a former Democratic presidential frontrunner, and Chuck Hagel, the maverick Republican, led an American delegation that met with Medvedev yesterday in Moscow. Their bipartisan commission will issue a report next week calling for a new relationship of cooperation between America and Russia.


** China. On her first trip as secretary of state, Clinton went to Asia, anchoring her trip in China. China and the US have an extraordinary mutual dependency; China provides us with finance, we provide it with a market for its exports, products its own population can't consume. Some say Clinton was looking for Chinese help with the collapsing insurance giant AIG.

The two countries need one another, but have a natural rivalry in the Pacific Basin. Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi met in Washington again today, in part to go over an incident in the South China Sea in which Chinese naval vessels reportedly harassed a US surveillance ship.

This may have been a new form of testing the US, with China developing more of a naval presence. Or it may simply have been a form of testing of a new administration similar to Chinese harassment of a US surveillance aircraft at the beginning of the Bush/Cheney Administration.


** G-20. This is the group of 20 leading economies, comprising 19 nations and the European Union. (Larger EU countries have their own G-20 memberships.)

Obama emissaries are making preparations for next week's meeting of the G-20 (group of 20 leading economies) finance ministers. Which in turn is preparatory for next month's G-20 summit in London.

Leaders of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are signaling that they do not have the resources needed to keep some of the poorer nations afloat this year, and that the US and other leading economic powers will have to help out more to avert increased global chaos. Eastern Europe is in a deepening crisis, along with developing nations in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

The G-20 finance ministers will discuss this, as well as moves needed to stabilize their own financial systems.

Obama wants European leaders to commit to a big economic stimulus program of their own, but some are balking, saying they don't want to incur the debt.

And there are complaints in the British press that planning for the London summit has been hindered by dealing with an understaffed Obama Treasury Department. Some of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's choices for deputy and assistant secretary spots haven't panned out.

It's a daring and in some ways daunting set of trouble-shooting chores and probes for opportunity that Obama has set in motion. It would be a tremendous flurry of activity even were the new administration not dealing with the biggest domestic economic crisis since the Great Depression.

It will be fascinating to see how these moves, and more, play out. And play out they will, over an extended period of time. They won't all work. Some will be dead ends, and new opportunities may present themselves from the probing. Of course, new crises could be in store as well.


You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.