Sir Walter Scott wrote, "Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive." If Scott were still alive, he might well have been describing the state of U.S. diplomacy at the dawn of the Obama era. Admittedly, Obama’s focus on the economy leaves little room for creative thinking in the foreign policy realm, and the slow process of replacing Bush administration appointees has meant that many State Department and senior intelligence positions are not yet staffed with officials who are part of the new regime. Administration sources report that there is a large bureaucratic gap between the cabinet-level officials and their immediate staffs and the second- and third-level officials who normally develop and implement policy.
Intelligence analysts are increasingly nervous about the stop-and-go, multidirectional course of U.S. diplomacy in the broad arc of Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries running from Istanbul to Kabul. The Obama administration appears to be interested in rapidly engaging in an updated version of "The Great Game" played in the 19th century in central Asia between Russia and Great Britain, pursuing a wide-ranging divide-and-control solution to the region’s many political ailments. While it is a great leap forward to see the United States thinking strategically, something that was recommended by Adm. William Fallon before he was defenestrated by the Bush administration, the concern is that too much "broad thinking" results in a formulaic response that blurs many of the real issues that have to be addressed with maximum flexibility. Détente with Iran, for example, could end the threat of a new major confrontation and help stabilize Afghanistan, but it also increases insecurity for the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, so a collective security arrangement will really amount to a complicated series of tradeoffs. Also, Obama must recognize the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it impacts on every other country in the region and spills over to the broader Muslim world. Comments by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would suggest that while Obama is willing to prod the Israelis on issues such as the settlements, he is not yet prepared to engage them in a serious and sustained fashion.
One senior analyst has expressed concern that the Obamas are still not seeing the forest for the trees and are attempting to divide troubled parts of the world into "bite-sized pieces" to make them easier to digest, seeking ad hoc solutions that ultimately will fail because they are at best only temporary in nature. But it is also necessary to concede that there have been several positive developments, all more or less in line with Obama’s promise to open up lines of communication with adversaries. It appears that this is part of a broader strategy to use stick-and-carrot approaches to create and exploit divisions among opponents of U.S. policies. While it is reasonable to assume that it might be easier to deal with Syria if it can be isolated and not part of a much larger problem called Syria-Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas, the fault lines that must be exploited to bring about such a development are not clearly defined, and the ties that bind the players are often subtle, including ethnic and religious links that go back centuries.
Ironically, Obama is attempting an inclusive foreign policy while relying on many officials who are Bush administration holdovers and disinclined to seek either compromise or agreement. Jeffrey Feltman, acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, is one such holdover. He is a foreign policy hawk who was the Bush administration’s ambassador to Lebanon, where he was consistently a hardliner against any recognition of Hezbollah as a legitimate player in Lebanese politics. In early March he made a trip to the Middle East accompanied by Daniel Shapiro of the National Security Council, traveling to Syria to meet with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim. Arab sources suggest that there was a fair amount of finger-pointing during a four-hour meeting but also some agreement. Syria, eager to escape U.S. sanctions and its perceived pariah status, was paying attention and is waiting to see how serious Washington is about changing the Middle Eastern equation. Damascus has signaled its willingness to continue with the peace talks with Israel that have been taking place in Turkey, even though the Israelis now appear unwilling to make any compromises to obtain an agreement. If the U.S. could nudge the parties together, it would have to be considered a very positive development.
The Obama administration would like to keep Tel Aviv and Damascus talking, something that the Bush administration sought to torpedo, but the status of Hezbollah continues to be a problem. Acting Assistant Secretary Feltman has even admonished the British for speaking to Hezbollah’s political wing, stating the U.S. view that there is no such thing, that it is all one terrorist group. The State Department would also like to separate Syria from Iran in particular, but also from its involvement in Lebanon, which will be a lot trickier, because both Lebanese and Syrian politicians and businessmen have overlapping interests on both sides of the border. To illustrate the complexity of the situation, Saudi Arabia is also involved in the Lebanese situation. Riyadh normally opposes Syrian ambitions, because it has its own agenda among Lebanese Sunnis, but it is increasingly nervous about Lebanese Shi’ites like Hezbollah. The Saudis also would like to squeeze the Iranians out of the region, which means improving relations with Syria as part of an Arab-solidarity program. A number of Lebanese leaders have called for quadripartite talks involving Syria, Iran, and Washington as a way of negotiating out of the situation, but the Obama administration is not yet prepared to take that step, because it would have to deal with Hezbollah as part of the Lebanese government, triggering a major reaction from the Israel Lobby. Turkey has also indicated its willingness to serve as an intermediary for talks between Iran and Obama, who is showing surprising understanding of the regional dynamics by visiting Ankara as his first overseas trip to a Muslim country and might find Prime Minister Erdogan a useful intermediary.
Obama is also trying to jump-start the diplomatic process using former Clinton administration officials as non-official emissaries who are reporting only to him, not to the Department of State, in an attempt to break the logjam that developed from widespread hostility to Bush’s Manichean world view. Unofficial and off-the-record discussions have already taken place with Iranian officials, with the Russian leadership, in Pakistan, and in Caracas with the Chavez government. Israel’s new hard-right government with an openly racist foreign minister will be a test for the Obamas, but one can expect the same pattern to repeat, with open diplomacy backed up by secret contacts that will attempt to find grounds for compromise.
Back to the "Great Game" metaphor: if Obama wants to cut separate deals with those opposed to U.S. policies, just as the British did with the Afghans, he will have to proceed carefully and be willing to compromise with friend and foe alike. It appears he would first like to separate Syria from Iran and end its role in Lebanon, then open a bridge to Iran itself to end the threat of a new war in the Middle East and engage the Taliban from two fronts. He would then be free to focus on the Pakistan-Afghanistan problem. Glue together a political solution for the Afghans that is acceptable to Islamabad and New Delhi, declare victory, and leave. An improved relationship with Russia will hopefully keep Moscow out of the mix, except as a positive force, and the development of a proactive foreign policy, as opposed to Bush’s reactive one, just might convince the Europeans that Washington’s initiatives are worth supporting. Taking genuine steps to bring about a Palestinian state would also help on every front, but it is clear that the Israelis and their friends in Congress are already preparing to stop any moves in that direction. Obama’s ability to shift the Israelis will, quite likely, determine whether or not his entire foreign policy program will or will not succeed.