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Friday, January 30, 2009

Some Thoughts on President Obama's Al Aribiya Interview and Aimless Foreign Policy

There were times during the interview when I saw a bold and refreshing new foreign policy vision from President Obama, however, for the most part, I saw a vision that was terribly naive. This interview, along with several other foreign policy maneuvers, give me the feeling that President Obama has a very aimless foreign policy.

First, President Obama committed a cardinal sin. Our disagreements stop at the water's edge. As such, this particular line is very troubling.

All too often the United States starts by dictating…in the past on some of these issues…and we don’t always know all the factors that are involved.

In the movie, The Godfather, Michael Corleone tells his brother Fredo to never take sides against the family. A similar dynamic is in play here. Whatever President Obama may feel about prior President's foreign policies, he should never under any circumstances criticize those foreign policies when meeting with people outside the United States. It shows weakness and it puts us on the defensive. President Obama has backed himself into a corner now and he's made his own job that much harder.

Whenever he moves aggressively on any foreign policy matter, he leaves himself now open to being told that the "United States is trying to dictate". Imagine if he lobbies the Saudis to increase oil supply, the Saudis could easily tell President Obama that he is trying to dictate policy to them. Whenever the United States does anything that anyone around the world finds objectionable, he can be told that we are "dictating policy". It is exactly such seemingly innocuous statements that wind up haunting Presidents. By breaking the cardinal rule of leaving disagreements at the water's edge, he has now made a major foreign policy blunder.

On top of this, President Obama has sent George Mitchell to the Middle East to "listen". One of the biggest concerns I have with meeting with Iran is what is our agenda. I believe that the best foreign policy missions have specific and narrow goals. Instead, George Mitchell is sent to the Middle East to listen. So far, President Obama's goals in the Middle East is "to be more engaged". It's very hard to turn such broad goals into a specific policy. If all we do is listen, then here's what will happen. Everyone in the region will blame everyone else for all the problems. That's exactly what happened when President Bush sent Colin Powell on a similar mission. The Israelis blamed Yasser Arafat for the violence. Arafat then blamed the Israelis for the violence. Of course, ultimately, Powell's trip accomplished nothing.

This seems to be President Obama's problem with Iran. He wants to be magnanimous, conciliatory and to reach out. His goal is simply to get to a point where there is direct talks. He has no goal for those talks. As such, here is what the President said.

Iran has acted in ways that's not conducive to peace and prosperity in the region: their threats against Israel; their pursuit of a nuclear weapon which could potentially set off an arms race in the region that would make everybody less safe; their support of terrorist organizations in the past — none of these things have been helpful, " Obama said.

"It is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but (also) where there are potential avenues for progress.

"If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us."

Here is how Iran responded.

First is a fundamental and effective change… The second … is a change of tactics. It is very clear that, if the meaning of change is the second one, this will soon be revealed,” he said.

“The US stood against the Iranian people in the past 60 years,” President Ahmadinejad said in reference to the military coup the US engineered against the nationalist government of Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953.

“Those who speak of change must apologize to the Iranian people and try to repair their past crimes,” he said

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad felt no need to be magnanimous. Instead, he took the U.S. to task. As such, President Obama looks like the weak player trying desperately to meet with an adversary that will only engage once the U.S. admits to prior wrongs. This only happened because President Obama's only goal is to get direct diplomacy started. Meanwhile, Iran used this as an opportunity to set its own demands for such talks. Once again, President Obama has boxed himself in.

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