The Making of a New Global Strategy

The Obama administration started with a bang in developing its own strategy toward different regions of the world. There are several ingredients in that strategy. The new president has promised a return to multilateralism. It’s searching for common ground with Russia. There are outstanding invitations for negotiations with America’s traditional adversaries like Iran and North Korea. And the administration’s approaches to Palestine, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are likely to be radically different from those the Bush administration pursued unsuccessfully.

This is a huge agenda. But Obama’s administration has the enormous virtue of freshness, both metaphorical and substantive. It promises to press the reset button on U.S. foreign policy and avoid the inertia that trapped George W. Bush.

Promising Start

The new president is off to a good start. He already spoke to the Islamic world, stating that America will deal with it respectfully and on the basis of pragmatism; he invited Iran to unclench its fist and initiate an era of negotiations on the basis of mutual respect; and he appointed George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke as special envoys for the Middle East and South Asia, respectively. He also sent Vice President Joe Biden to talk to the Europeans and to the Russians.

Cumulatively speaking, this is a radical departure from the Bush administration. Now, an intricate series of negotiations must start. What the Obama administration must keep in mind is the fact that although it’s approaching a number of actors with an open mind and unclenched fist, it may not get an immediate enthusiastic response or positive results.

Russia, for instance, has increasingly adopted a policy of unilateralism and hubris, which were hallmarks of the Soviet Union. Russia cannot assert itself in that manner toward its neighbors and then wonder why they so eagerly seek the shield of NATO. Russia’s neighbors are watching warily, and with dismay, the unraveling democratization in that country. They don’t know what to make of Russia’s energy-related assertiveness, which has taken the form of neo-mercantilism. They watched in horror Russia’s over-reaction to Georgia’s decision to confront it militarily.

Before Vice President Joe Biden suggested in Munich that the United States wants to “press the reset button” on ties with Moscow, Russia had already been busy working up a deal with Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev encouraged the United States to leave the Manas Airbase, a development that will make it more complicated for the United States to keep open supply lines to its forces in Afghanistan. Russia, however, changes its policy as slowly as an aircraft carrier changes direction, and it will be awhile before positive responses to U. S. overtures might emerge.

Shift with Iran

The U.S.-Iran ties have mammoth complications of their own. The first hurdle is the bad blood related to America’s support for Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi from 1953 through 1978. That era has the same legacy of shame and bitterness for Iran as China’s memories of its “decades of humiliation” at the hands of the West and Japan. At the same time, the United States hasn’t forgotten the ignominy it suffered during the “hostage crisis” of the late 1970s, which helped make Jimmy Carter a one-term President.

The second hurdle is America’s Iran-Libya sanction legislation, which Iran associates (quite correctly) with regime change. The Obama administration must categorically nullify all such legislation before any serious negotiations can take place between Washington and Tehran. The United States has to accept the legitimacy of the Iranian government if it wishes to negotiate from a position of mutual respect.

The third hurdle is Iran’s nuclear research program, which the United States regards as aimed at developing nuclear weapons. While it’s hard to categorize America’s concerns as baseless, Iran does have legitimate security concerns. Iran has the same sense of insecurity that drove India to seek nuclear weapons. At least India had some semblance of security guarantees from the Soviet Union. Iran has had no such support or guarantees from any major power. What country would come to its assistance if the United States were to decide to bring about regime change in Iran? Certainly no great power came to Iraq’s rescue when the Bush administration similarly threatened Iraq. Indeed, Iraq might not have gone through the bloody process of regime change if it had nuclear weapons. These considerations are uppermost in the minds of the ayatollahs, who are regularly demonized in America’s press and academic journals.

Negotiations between the United States and Iran have to seriously address Iran’s security concerns. Given the nature of hostile attitudes that prevailed between the two countries, it will be difficult for the lone superpower to guarantee Iran’s security and foreswear all actions aimed at regime change. Even some European countries’ attempts to give verbal security guarantees to Iran won’t do. Thus, the nuclear issue remains a very obdurate problem between the two. The Obama administration must summon all its creativity to resolve this aspect of U.S.-Iran conflict before any semblance of “normalcy” is restored between the two.

Changes Elsewhere

With Pakistan and Afghanistan, the challenge for the Obama administration is no less daunting than the preceding issues. Al-Qaeda has emerged as a major force in both countries. The question is how to deal with the rising tide of religious extremism and problems of failing and weak governments. President Barack Obama has wrongly backed a surge in the number of troops in Afghanistan, since that approach supposedly helped to reduce the spiral of violence in Iraq. But the situations aren’t comparable. What stabilized Iraq was the fortuitous confluence of the decision of the “Sons of Iraq” to cooperate with the U.S. military against al-Qaeda, along with the U.S. military’s decision not only to strengthen its number but also to implement its “clear, hold, and build” strategy. The Obama administration appears to be mistakenly applying the Iraq approach to Afghanistan, without a comparable military strategy or a new alliance with forces on the ground. It’s about to commit itself with the wrong-minded approach of using the military tool of America’s national power to resolve an enormously complicated situation.

Pakistan is a larger challenge than Afghanistan. It not only negatively affects the stability of Afghanistan but also similarly affects the internal stability of India. The Mumbai terrorist attacks have proven that fact. The most ignored — and extremely important — fact of South Asia is that neither India nor Afghanistan will be stable or peaceful places until highly visible measures are taken to soothe the security-related concerns of Pakistan involving India. An important aspect of that concern is the lowering of India’s presence in Afghanistan, which Pakistan (rightly or wrongly) perceives as threatening its own security. The Bush administration ignored that fact, and the Obama administration will ignore it at the risk of damaging its own interests in South Asia.

Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have emphasized America’s resolve to use pragmatism, cordiality, realism, and firmness in its foreign policy toward the troubled regions of the world. They have set about to soothe the security-related concerns of America’s friends and especially its competitors and adversaries. The coming months will test their authenticity and their audacity.

Ehsan Ahrari is a professor of security studies at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, HI. He has been writing about the strategic affairs of the Middle East and South Asia for over two decades, and is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. Views expressed herein are strictly those of the author’s.