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While President Obama and his White House team are tackling a full-blown economic crisis on the domestic front, they also face a number of complex foreign policy challenges – in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, Pakistan and elsewhere. Central to the Obama campaign was the pledge that the new administration will take a different tact than the previous one in its international relations strategies. R. Nicholas Burns is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics who spent 27 years in the U.S. Foreign Service.
Q: Many political scientists have argued that repairing U.S. relations with our allies around the world must be a top priority for this administration. Would you agree, and if so, how can this be achieved?
Burns: I think it’s very important for the United States to accentuate our ties to our allies, to rebuild them as much as possible, and to convey a sense that we’re in this together and that our allies are going to be necessary partners of ours to achieve pretty much everything the Obama administration is going to face.
There’s no question the defining issue of our time is globalization, which means that countries cannot succeed if they’re isolationist. They certainly cannot succeed if they’re unilateralist. If you think about the major challenges before the United States over the next five to ten years — climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, international crime and drug cartels, the threat of pandemics — all of those require a different way of working together. The United States cannot be successful on any one of them if we act alone, and therefore our allies are the key way forward for us — binding ourselves to them, working with them, establishing policies with them through consultation so that we can be effective together.
I think you’ll see President Obama early on in the global financial crisis work through the G-20 group of countries. On the NATO issue in Afghanistan, how can we be successful there? He’ll accentuate ties with the NATO allies. And so I do think this will be a hallmark of his presidency and he’s right to establish this as a priority from day one.
Q: The president has already indicated he plans to scale back U.S. military involvement in Iraq while escalating the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Do you see these plans taking shape in the year ahead, and if so, will this be an effective strategy?
Burns: I think President Obama faces a dizzying array of foreign policy challenges, probably the greatest set of foreign policy challenges of any American president in our lifetime, so he’s going to have to prioritize. And obviously the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, given the tremendous commitment the United States has made and the losses that we’ve suffered, represent the top of his agenda. He’s going to have to focus on both of them to establish successful policies.
In Iraq that will mean some kind of a drawdown of U.S. forces on an established timeline that he’ll have to negotiate within our government and with the Iraqi government. And he’ll have to try to drawdown American troops in a way that doesn’t weaken and destabilize the Iraqi government, because there is a very fragile consensus right now among the power groups — the Shi`ia, the Kurds and the Sunnis — but we cannot assume that will hold, especially at a time America will be withdrawing forces and playing a lighter role in Iraqi society.
In Afghanistan the challenge might be more profound. Afghanistan could become for President Obama the kind of challenge Iraq was for President Bush. President Obama has said he wants to increase the American military presence, to add at least two more brigades, he wants foreign countries to add military forces, but most people assume — and I certainly believe — that there really is no military solution to the problems of Afghanistan.
The military can be useful in providing short-term stability, in pushing back the Taliban, in trying to counteract the aggressive actions and operations of the Taliban, but this is a tribal and village-based society. This is really a battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people and therefore we cannot succeed by military force alone. We have to combine our military force in a more effective counter-insurgency strategy by the use of humanitarian assistance, economic programs, longer-term programs to build infrastructure in the country — certainly rule of law programs to establish a more coherent civilian-led government in Afghanistan. That’s a very tall order, and I think that as Iraq begins to recede in the American political consciousness, Afghanistan will become a bigger issue and a more difficult issue.
We have to work to convince our allies to play a bigger role. There is a crisis of sorts in NATO. NATO is an organization that is one for all and all for one. We went into Afghanistan five years ago, yet most of the NATO allies in Europe are not doing their part. Some have essentially sat out the war by refusing to go to the south and east where the challenges are, and others are not providing the economic and humanitarian assistance that is also necessary. So when President Obama goes to his first NATO summit at the beginning of April in France and Germany, he’s going to have to push very hard for greater European commitment in Afghanistan.
Q: How can and should the Obama Administration work with Pakistan in helping reduce the threat of international terrorism?
Burns: Well, Pakistan’s going to be a key country for the success or failure of United States foreign policy in South Asia.
South Asia is now a region of the world that is without any question vital to the United States. We wouldn’t have said that 10 or 15 years ago. It is now because of the unstable nature of the Pakistani government and because of the fact that both the Taliban and al-Qaeda enjoy safety havens, unfortunately, inside Pakistan and because of Afghanistan itself. And so Pakistan has become perhaps the key problem country for United States foreign policy in 2009 and 2010.
Here is a new government, civilian led, but very weak and unstable in a country that has nuclear weapons and in a country that does have the two most vicious terrorist groups opposite the United States on its soil. The stakes are very, very high, and obviously President Obama and his team are going to have to be able to work well with Pakistan, because Pakistan is a friend, and try to support the Pakistani government, but at the same time challenge that government. There’s no question that both [former] President Musharraf and this civilian-led government have not done enough to counteract the military actions of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. There’s no question they haven’t done enough to stabilize the perhaps ungovernable regions of their country along the borders of Afghanistan. The key problem in the war in Afghanistan is the presence of these terrorist groups inside Pakistan and their ability to move across the border and attack American forces. We’re really fighting a war in a region that encompasses both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Economist said famously a couple of months ago, “Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world.” If it’s not the most dangerous, it’s close to it — it’s also one of the most important for our country.
Q: The Bush Administration was unwilling to engage in direct talks with the government of Iran, but President Obama has indicated that he would be willing to consider such negotiations. Can this tactic be successful in helping reduce the threat of nuclear weapons in that region?
Burns: Well along with Pakistan, along with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran may loom as the most difficult and perplexing foreign policy challenge for Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It’s been 30 years since the Ayatollah Khomeini launched the Iranian Revolution and during those 30 years the United States has not had diplomatic relations with Iran. The United States has had no appreciable presence of business people, or students, or journalists. We have been literally cut-off from each other, and there has been no sustained dialogue between the two governments since 1978.
Now Iran represents a profound threat to American interests in the Middle East. It is seeking a nuclear weapons capability. It is the major funder and supporter of most of the Middle East terrorist groups that are a threat to us, a threat to Israel, a threat to the moderate Palestinians, a threat to our friends in the Arab world. And Iran, of course, as a neighbor to Iraq and Afghanistan, is playing a major role in each conflict. And so I think that President Obama is exactly right that it is in our interest to talk to the Iranians. It’s in our interest to reach out and try to see if there are positive solutions to all these problems in South Asia and the Middle East, and to test the proposition of whether or not the Iranian government, which is a difficult government, can now respond to that overture and begin to work with us. I don’t see any benefit from continuing to try to stonewall Iran, or to refrain from any kind of diplomatic contacts.
I think that President Obama is right, we need to now begin that process, but it has to be in a very tough-minded way. Because on the nuclear question for instance, if Iran agrees to talk, but doesn’t agree to slow down its nuclear research, then President Obama, working with the Chinese, the Russians, and the Europeans is going to have to argue for stronger sanctions against Iran. And if we wish to avoid a military conflict with Iran, and that should be our wish, to avoid it if at all possible, we’re going to have to devise some more complicated and sophisticated diplomatic and economic strategy to coerce Iran, and to pressure it on the one hand, but to open the door for negotiations on the other. So I think it’s an extremely complex set of issues that the President will now be dealing with, and I think his instincts are right, it’s time to break this taboo, and begin to talk to the Iranians.
Q: How should the administration work with other regional players in attempting to carve out a long-term peace in the Middle East?
Burns: Well along with South Asia, there’s no question the Middle East is the critical region for the United States in the world. It’s where all the fires are burning: the Iraq war, the lack of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the challenge posed by Iran, the problems with Lebanon — the wider problem of the lack, frankly, of American credibility and influence in the wider Muslim and Arab world due to anti-Americanism for the last decade or so. And so there has to be a major effort to rebuild American strategy in the region, and American’s relations with those countries.
I think it was a very good choice by President Obama to appoint George Mitchell to be the Middle East special envoy. He is a very serious, sophisticated and experienced diplomat. He’s had success in the past on seemingly intractable problems like Northern Ireland. He seems to be the right man for the job, but I think we cannot have any illusions, these problems present an enormous challenge for the United States.
Take the Israeli-Palestinian challenge. It’s nearly been 61 years since the creation of the state of Israel, and for all those 61 years the Israeli people have not had a day of peace, but the Palestinian people have not had a day of justice. A lot of people think they know what the solution is: a two-state solution. A new Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem that would live side-by-side in peace with Israel, but it’s the getting there that’s the problem.
President Obama and Ambassador Mitchell are going to find that the Israelis are divided. The Israelis are approaching historic elections and we’re going to have to see the result of those elections and the policy of the new government. The Palestinians are also divided — not just between Hamas and Fatah, and Gaza and the West Bank, but there are also significant divisions within Hamas itself. And so for any peace movement or peace negotiation to succeed, the parties to the conflict are going to have to be sufficiently united that they can go to the negotiating table to make the incredibly tough decisions — war and peace decisions, decisions about land, decisions about the welfare and future of the people themselves — that are going to be necessary to establish a final peace agreement. I don’t think we have any alternative but to try.
If the United States said essentially, it’s too hard, we can’t spend our capital here, then I think it would be a disaster for American interests in the region, and for our credibility, but also a disaster for the people, the region. So America has to lead, and has to lead in a very effective and purposeful way, but we can’t have any illusions about how difficult this is going to be. So I think it was interesting when President Obama made his first two major appointments in foreign policy below the cabinet level. He chose special emissaries for the Middle East and South Asia. I think that’s where the action will be.
And here is an interesting historical point: for most of the last 100 years the United States has been a country that’s focused globally, it’s been a global power. We have paid more attention to Europe than any other region, because that’s where the fires were burning in the 20th century, with the first World War, with the rise of the fascist powers in the ‘30s, with the second World War, with the Cold war, five decades long, and with the Balkan Wars of the 1990’s. There’s no question as President Obama begins his term in office that America’s strategic attention has now shifted away from Europe, maybe for positive reasons, because Europe is a successful, democratic, prosperous region. And now these very difficult problems in the Middle East, and South Asia, I think that will be the crucible of the Obama presidency, it will be where he and his team are tested, and he’ll need the support of all of us to be successful in those two regions.
Interviewed by Doug Gavel on February 5, 2009.