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Analyst Says Obama Faces Long-Term Foreign Policy Challenges

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama
U.S. President-elect Barack Obama
As Barack Obama takes office on January 20, he faces challenges in nearly every aspect of foreign policy, according to Anthony Cordesman, a leading analyst with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully, Cordesman says those challenges are particularly acute in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan region, but also include Russia and China. Cordesman also discusses the role Secretary of State designate Hillary Clinton will play in forming the administration's foreign policy.

RFE/RL: The current fighting in Gaza shows that relations between Israel and the Palestinians have reached a crisis stage. Critics of U.S. President George W. Bush say it's clear he hasn't been properly engaged in the peace process, and now the problem is about to be handed over to President-elect Barack Obama. How do you assess this long-running challenge for the new administration?

Anthony Cordesman: The Obama administration does not inherit situations where sudden rapid changes and reform are going to be possible. It is, however, a region where change can occur over time. If we look at what is happening in the Arab-Israeli crisis, there is an obvious need for finding some form of stable cease-fire, which can offer Israel security, and at the same time do more than simply halt the fighting in Gaza, move forward toward some form of economic development, security, and Palestinian statehood. But when you look at the division within the Palestinian movement, or within the Israeli political structure, that's going to take years of effort, and it's going to take a great deal of dedicated time by the administration.

RFE/RL: Then there's Iraq, with its two branches of Islam opposing each other, often violently. Meantime, the U.S. Defense Department is working on plans to withdraw the bulk of American combat forces from Iraq, in line with Obama's stated goal of having them out of the country within 16 months. What's the overall challenge there?

Cordesman: There've been significant military victories [in Iraq], but they have exposed political problems and divisions within Iraqi society -- not simply Kurd versus Arab or Sunni versus Shi'ite, but political fracturing within all of these sectarian and ethnic groups. And it's going to take time and a lot of active American diplomacy, as well as efforts to create effective Iraqi security forces, to move Iraq toward a move Iraq toward a more stable structure.

RFE/RL: As for Iran, Washington's history with Tehran hasn't been good, and it never really seems to improve. For the past few years the issue has been Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program. The Bush administration has refused to speak formally with Iran, and Obama says his administration will do so unconditionally. Will it be that easy to repair the two countries' relations?

Cordesman: Whatever happens with Iran, it's not going to be quick and easy. People talk about some kind of overall agreement or simply dialogue for dialogue's sake. But for the United States to evolve a stable relationship with Iran, it not only needs dialogue, it has to come to grips with Iran's ability to change its position on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Israel's security, on the possible pursuit of nuclear weapons, on a clear effort to develop long-range missiles, and a major expansion of its capabilities for asymmetric warfare in the Gulf, which potentially threaten or allow Iran to intimidate its neighbors. This isn't going to happen suddenly or quickly. So what you're really talking about is a constant process of engagement. It has to be backed by aggressive diplomacy, and diplomacy which offers carrots as well as sticks.

RFE/RL: Russia also has been in the news recently in its dispute over gas supplies with Ukraine -- a dispute that's left much of Eastern Europe in the cold. Again, Moscow's critics are accusing it of using its energy resources as a weapon. How does this challenge the incoming Obama administration?

Cordesman: The Obama administration is going to have to decide how much it wishes to confront Russia and how much it wishes to be patient, and negotiate, and work with it. There's been a tendency, under both the [Bill] Clinton and Bush administrations, to really confront Russia, not always deliberately, on all of its borders at the same time, not simply to move forward in areas that used to be part of the NATO-Warsaw Pact structure, but to move into Ukraine, to move into the Caspian area, and because of the war on terrorism, to move into Central Asia. A lot of that expansion has been done in terms which, from Russia's viewpoint, been more provocative than a matter of supporting democracy or moving forward in developing Europe. Now if the Obama administration can be successful over time in finding better ways to deal with Russia, perhaps on a less confrontational basis, it may be able to find a more stable solution. But this is, again, something that's going to take years of effort.

RFE/RL: And what about China? For years, China's been a major trading partner with the United States, but there are concerns on this side of the Pacific about Beijing's human rights record. How does this problem confront a new U.S. administration?

Cordesman: In the real world, you have to take account of the fact that simply because we have a set of values in the United States, there's not guarantee whatsoever that the world's going to evolve in the direction we are going in. Now in talking about China, the reality is that we now deal with a country in the middle of a potential economic crisis that could create really serious stability problems, and that, at a minimum, is going to challenge how much the present economic structure of China can underpin it's political stability. We have to understand that, we have to understand that there are a whole new set of challenges that are going to grow out of that, and they will affect human rights as well as every other dimension of our relationship. And one of the key issues here is: How does China fit into a new international economic structure where it is emerging as a major center of economic power?

RFE/RL: Now perhaps the thorniest question: the challenge posed by Afghanistan and Pakistan. How do you assess it?

Cordesman: In Afghanistan, we don't know what the Obama administration is going to do. The same is true of Pakistan. They are, effectively, at this point, one conflict. We can't secure Afghanistan without the cooperation and improved security in Pakistan. But we have to understand that when we talk about the war on terrorism, the key focus of that war is no longer Afghanistan, it never was Iraq, it is now Pakistan. We're now talking about virtually doubling troop strength for the U.S. forces inside Afghanistan, we're talking about finding new ways to execute economic aid that is effective and not corrupt. And these are plans which have come basically -- almost from the outside of the Bush administration and moved into its budget and its planning cycle without yet being executed. So the Obama administration is going to inherit plans and strategies from an administration which didn't execute them, but is trying to make them a legacy.

RFE/RL: What sort of talents will Hillary Clinton bring to her new job as secretary of state?

Cordesman: There's no question that Senator Clinton is an extraordinarily intelligent, capable person, somebody who has a unique reputation for getting into detail, for doing proper staff work, for actually researching -- and mastering -- the ability to handle complex issues. Now what that means in practice [is questionable], with so many people coming into government; with the fact we are fighting two wars, and that means the Department of Defense often has to be given priority in given situations. Are we going to have an effective team, or are we going to have egos? Historically we've always had both, and the question has been the proportion. And until we watch what happens in action, it's very easy to either praise or condemn.

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