“Obama’s Mideast Experts Emphasize Talks,” by Jay Solomon

Obama's Mideast Experts Emphasize Talks
Former Diplomats Help Senator Hone Possible Agenda
June 16, 2008; Page A7

WASHINGTON — In fine-tuning his foreign-policy agenda, Barack Obama is turning to a core group of Middle East experts who have spent more than a decade, in Democratic and Republican administrations, exploring avenues to engaging Iran and Syria.

Chief among them are Dennis Ross, former President Clinton's lead Mideast negotiator; James Steinberg, a deputy national-security adviser under Mr. Clinton; and Daniel Kurtzer, a career diplomat who developed Mideast policy under President Bush and his father.

[Barack Obama]

Some of these experts, such as Messrs. Ross and Steinberg, don't describe themselves as formally part of Sen. Obama's campaign for president. But their involvement illustrates the increasing influence on Sen. Obama's thinking of some of the Democratic Party's foreign-policy veterans, now that the long nominating process is over.

These three men were among the principal authors of Sen. Obama's speech this month on the Middle East before a pro-Israel lobbying group, according to the Obama campaign. The speech was viewed as the candidate's most expansive yet on international affairs. The U.S. senator from Illinois pledged during the address to break from the Bush administration and explore high-level engagements with Iran and Syria in a bid to stabilize Iraq and the broader Middle East.

In interviews, these strategists describe a campaign that sees potential diplomatic openings in the Middle East should Sen. Obama be elected in November and begin pulling U.S. combat troops out of Iraq. But they also acknowledged that there are real lessons to be learned from previous U.S. efforts to engage Tehran and Damascus, during the 1990s, which drew mixed results.

Sen. Obama's philosophy is that you "approach the world, and you approach it through engagement: You shore up alliances, and you engage with enemies," said Mr. Kurtzer, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005. "But occasionally you have to hit them, too."

Sen. Obama's call for high-level engagement with Tehran has sparked controversy on the campaign trail and fueled charges from political opponents in both parties that he is dangerously inexperienced in foreign policy. Sen. Obama has refined an initial campaign pledge made last year to meet with Iran's leadership unconditionally during his first year in office.

Sunday, Iran's leadership responded coolly to an offer, made by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany, of new economic incentives in exchange for Tehran's suspending its nuclear-development work. Iranian leaders suggested they wouldn't agree to any deal that requires Tehran to suspend its uranium-enrichment work.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain noted this month that the Clinton administration's effort in 1998 to open a dialogue with Tehran's former reformist leader, President Mohammad Khatami, was rebuffed and did nothing to retard Iran's pursuit of nuclear technologies.

Sen. McCain believes any attempt to reach out to Iran's current hard-line government, particularly President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, could result in a worse outcome.

"Such a spectacle would harm Iranian moderates and dissidents as the radicals and hard-liners strengthen their position and suddenly acquire the appearance of respectability," Sen. McCain said.

Members of Sen. Obama's brain trust, however, draw a different lesson from the Clinton overture. Mr. Ross thinks it illustrates the need to reach out to the right leaders in Tehran, rather then the most public ones. Mr. Ross says Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the only official inside Iran's theocracy with the power to authorize and execute the suspension of Iran's nuclear program and its support for militant groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

"The key is to understand that the channel needs to be to the supreme leader," said Mr. Ross, noting that Washington likely would need to make contact secretly or by using a third party.

Advisers to Sen. Obama play down charges from conservatives that there is a downside risk if U.S. efforts to engage Iran fail to halt Tehran's nuclear program immediately. They stress that any overtures would be made only after extensive deliberations inside Washington, as well as with U.S. allies. But they said such an initiative would unify the international community on Iran, while shifting the blame for any failure to resolve the nuclear issue squarely onto Tehran.

"There are no guarantees diplomacy will succeed, but you also know that if it doesn't you've strengthened your hands with other people," said Mr. Steinberg, who served as deputy national-security adviser from 1996 to 2000.

Sen. Obama announced this month his willingness, should he be elected, to back a recent Israeli initiative to explore peace talks with Syria over the disputed Golan Heights region. The Bush administration has been lukewarm to supporting this peace track, because of charges that Damascus has been actively working to destabilize Lebanon and the Palestinian territories as well as facilitating the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq. Washington also charged Syrian President Bashar Assad in April with secretly developing a nuclear program, a charge Damascus denies.

Members of Sen. Obama's Middle East team, however, said they believed Damascus should be tested diplomatically because success could undermine Syria's military alliance with Iran. They said such a development could drastically shift the power balance in the Middle East while stanching the flow of arms to Hezbollah and Hamas. Syria also could become a partner in stabilizing Iraq, they say.

"You have to go through every detail with the Syrians to reach a comfort level with them," said Mr. Kurtzer. "If they reach the comfort zone, they say 'yes.' "

In the final days of Mr. Clinton's administration, Israel and Syria appeared close to a land-for-peace deal, which ultimately collapsed. Mr. Kurtzer believes in retrospect that not enough time was made in building a consensus between Damascus and Jerusalem before trying to hammer home an agreement. Mr. Ross, meanwhile, believes significant economic incentives would need to be offered by Washington to Syria as part of any comprehensive pact that would draw Damascus away from Iran's orbit.

"When Syria negotiates, they want something from us. They want the economic payoffs," Mr. Ross said.

Write to Jay Solomon at jay.solomon@wsj.com

Comments (1)

Observer said:

Well when it comes to the ME, “change we can believe in” does not seem to be that deep. What we have here is the first anchor of the next administration’s policy rooted in the old establishment in DC. There is is really no new thinking here on the part of Obama. Now, he is in the process of securing the establishment endorsment of his candidancy and improve his prospects of winning the middle ground of independents and Reagan Democrats.
The post Ottoman world that the ME represents is quickly fading. Every country in the region is a failed state not able to meet the minimum requirement of the contract between the rule and the ruled.
We are in of a very rough ride and Obama is going to be saddled with huge problems and when he fails, every knife will be out to finish the slaughter. He will be given a year at most in 2009.

June 17th, 2008, 2:51 pm


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