Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Big Reset?

Mrs. Clinton recently visited Russia's Foreign Minister (Mr. Lavrov) in Moscow with a gift--a big red button. In English, it said "Reset." But in Russian, the word was closer to "overload" or "overcharge." It was, of course, a gaffe. And indeed, whatever translator gave her that button has probably been sacked. Mrs. Clinton was able to laugh it off, but the button may be more telling than we'd like to admit. The Big Reset, with more than just Russia, is off to a rocky start.

Russia: Medvedev and Putin gave Mr. Obama a grand raised eyebrow when Mr. Obama's letter to Moscow was leaked. While the Russians are not thrilled about the missile shield in Eastern Europe, they know the US is much more worried about Iran than Moscow is of Poland. Russia is going to try to squeeze Washington, and by being the first to balk and ask for a deal, the US injures its bargaining position. Now this may be worth it. But exactly how much can the US and Russia cooperate? The BBC has a pretty good article teasing out points of contention and cooperation, but there's not a whole lot that looks like the US and Russia can make relations immediately peachy, unless the US sells itself and its allies out.

Iran: Obama's Iran policy seems schizophrenic. Indeed, he seems to be taking a tough or soft stance on Iran depending on who he's talking to. To the Iranians, he looks to be offering his hand in friendship, trying to open an Embassy, and seeking Iranian help on Afghanistan. At the same time, he is asking the Russians to lean on the Iranians about Tehran's nuclear program, and trying to calm the Israelis on the Iranian issue by promising a tough stance (and calling Iran a "Grave Threat"). Iran has picked up on this, shockingly enough, and has said that Obama is "just as warmongering" as Bush. Mr. Obama is starting to find out that his charisma is not going to get him as far abroad as it does in the US--he cannot simply show up on the scene and improve prickly relations without delivering on policy.

Taliban: Surprisingly, it may be the Taliban with whom the US has the greatest hopes of a serious reset. Mr. Biden may be a bit optimistic when he sees a conversion of 70% of all Taliban fighters given the right incentives, but he has a good point. The Sons of Iraq program helped to end the Civil War in Iraq by giving disenfranchised Sunnis a chance to participate in the government, make enough money to feed their families, and keep their neighborhoods safe. Trying to co-opt moderate Taliban elements is similarly possible. The big difference: In Iraq, Sunni leaders were willing to wheel and deal with the US and Baghdad, and gave the Sons of Iraq program their blessing--the fringe elements were not running the show. In Pakistan, these fringe elements are largely in charge--without their blessing, co-opting the "moderate" Taliban is going to be a fair bit harder.

The US does indeed need a reset with Russia, Iran, and the Taliban, lest life become a lot more difficult in the near future. Obama's recent attempts to cause these resets look largely rhetorical--perhaps he is waiting for lengthly talks before he proposes policy changes. But no reset will happen if policy stays the same--Iran has made this completely clear. This fact will force the Obama administration to have to make a tough choice--while he has an opportunity to make a policy reset, he'll actually have to ask if a good relationship with each of these countries is even possible without placing unacceptable costs on the US or its allies.
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