THE BLOG
11/08/2014 02:06 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2015

The Honeymoon Is Over

Catharina van den Dikkenberg via Getty Images

Mark Twain famously exclaimed that the reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated. Last Tuesday's elections were not precursors of the demise of the Obama administration at the hands of a newly empowered Republican-controlled Congress. Neither were they signs of a rapprochement between both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Despite Senator Mitch McConnell's preliminary offer of an olive branch to President Barack Obama, if the honeymoon is not over yet, it soon will be. The partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats almost surely will deepen over the next few months. If the president chooses to act alone on immigration during the lame duck session of Congress, a state of political war is guaranteed.

What can the White House do with the new Congressional majority when the 2016 elections will dominate much of the next two years' politics and the Republican Congress will pass a Tsunami of legislation, much or some of which the President will find unacceptable? The answer lies in foreign policy. President Obama has some dramatic opportunities if he is bold and courageous enough to pursue them.

The first relates to Iran; the second to China and the third to Pakistan and India. The deadline for achieving an agreement between the P5 Plus 1 (U.S., Russia, U.K., France, China and the EU) and Iran over preventing Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons is November 24th. This weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry meets in Oman with his colleagues and Iranian officials to finalize a deal or obtain another extension.

Beyond any verifiable deal, the real opportunity is to broker a breakthrough in Saudi-Iranian relations. This may or may not be a Nixon goes to China moment. But the combination of agreement in which Iran forgoes nuclear weapons and a détente between the two major Muslim powers would be historic. And in the fight against the Islamic State (IS), which is a potentially existential threat to the region and to Riyadh and Tehran, while the destruction of that organization would not be guaranteed, its defeat would be.

The letter sent by President Obama to Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could be a harbinger of a possible diplomatic breakthrough even though it may well be that the focus was on the nuclear negotiations and not a Saudi-Iran reconciliation. Yet, that would be a game changer in the best interests of all concerned. Perhaps the most interesting question is whether a Republican Congress will accept a nuclear deal or improved Saudi-Iranian relations in which the sanctions would be lifted. That means Tehran would be the recipient of larger oil revenues that could be used to increase its military power and grant additional aid to Bashar al Assad and Hezbollah. And Obama is no Nixon in his ability to contain the more conservative elements of the Republican Party.

The second breakthrough is with China. There are signs that China is interested in pursuing compromise and collaboration with the U.S. and its Asian neighbors, not confrontation. Improvement in those relations, particularly China and Japan, would surely relieve tensions over disputed maritime territories and mitigate the prospect of arms races. Economically, a prosperous and growing China is in everyone's interest. And agreement on environmental restrictions over greenhouse gases and pollution likewise is vitally important to dealing with the more dire consequences of climate change especially in light of the recent gloomy UN report on global warming.

The third breakthrough is achieving negotiations between India and Pakistan over nuclear weapons. Whether the first steps should be focused on confidence building measures or limitations on nuclear weapons is less important than beginning serious negotiations. Urgency arises from conditions in Pakistan as its Army attempts to eliminate the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) in North Waziristan and "blow back" that could include another Mumbai-like terrorist attack and potentially further instability in Afghanistan.

With the withdrawal of coalition forces from combat and the transition to a train-and-assist mission, should the Afghan national security forces not be up to the task, the Taliban will regain strength. That means cross-border operations from and into Pakistan by Afghan Taliban will intensify placing further pressure on the already over stretched Pakistani army while strengthening the TTP.

President Obama, despite the decision to capture or kill Osama bin Laden in 2011, is more cautious than bold and prefers "no drama" to high wire political balancing acts. Yet, if the president is to leave a lasting legacy and, more importantly, safeguard the nation, he has no option. Risks must be taken and foreign policy is the place to start.