Obama's diplomatic offensive and the reality of geopolitics

This article was first published on the Stratfor website. Reva Bhalla is Stratfor’s South Asia analyst.

The Obama administration is only one and a half months into the job,
but between pressing “reset buttons” with the Russians, reaching out to
the Europeans, talking about reconciling with the Taliban, extending
invitations to the Iranians and rubbing elbows with the Syrians, this
is already one of the most diplomatically active U.S. administrations
in quite some time.

During the campaign, now-President Barack Obama made the
controversial statement that he was prepared to speak to adversaries,
including countries like Iran. This position was part of a general
critique by Obama of the Bush administration, which Obama said enclosed
itself diplomatically, refusing to engage either adversaries or allies
critical of the United States. Now, Obama is sending emissaries across
the globe to restart dialogue everywhere from Europe to the Middle East
to South Asia to Russia. For Obama, these conversations are the prelude
to significant movement in the international arena.

From a geopolitical perspective, that people are talking is far less
important than what they are saying, which in turn matters far less
than what each side is demanding and willing to concede. Engagement can
be a prelude to accommodation, or an alternative to serious bargaining.
At the moment, it is far too early to tell which the present U.S.
diplomatic flurry will turn out to be. And of course, some of the
diplomatic initiatives might succeed while others fail.

Nevertheless, as the global diplomatic offensive takes place, we must consider whether Obama is prepared to make substantive shifts in U.S. policy or whether he will expect concessions in exchange for a different
diplomatic atmosphere alone. Since Obama and his foreign policy team
are too sophisticated to expect the latter, we must examine the details
of the various conversations. In this case more than others, the devil
is very much in the details.


The Obama administration has made clear to Russia its desire to reset its relations with Russia, with Clinton even presenting a red “reset button” as a
gift to her counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on March 6 at a NATO summit in
Geneva. But the Russians want to clarify how far the Americans really
intend to rewind the tape. The 2004 Orange Revolution and NATO’s reach
to the Baltics crystallized Moscow’s fears that the United States intends to encircle and destabilize Russia in its former Soviet periphery through NATO expansion and support for the color revolutions. Since then, Russia has been resurgent.
Moscow has worked aggressively to reclaim and consolidate its influence
in the Russian near abroad for its long-term security while the United
States remains preoccupied in its war with the jihadists.

The Russians are pushing for a grand deal that guarantees a rollback of NATO expansion to Georgia and Ukraine, scraps plans for U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD), maintains some semblance of Russian nuclear parity in post-Cold War treaties, and ensures Western noninterference in a
region that runs from the Baltics down through Eastern Europe and
across the Caucasus and Central Asia — what Russia views as its
rightful sphere of influence. Only then can Russia feel secure from the
West, and confident it will remain a major player in Eurasia in the
long run. In return, the Russians theoretically could make life easier
for the Americans by cooperating with Washington against Iran and increasing support for U.S. operations in Afghanistan through the expansion of an alternate supply route — two key issues that address the most pressing threats to U.S.
national security interests in the near term, but which may not be
entirely worth the strategic concessions Moscow is demanding of

So far, the Obama administration has responded to Russia’s demands by restarting talks on the START I nuclear armaments treaty in exchange for Moscow allowing U.S. nonmilitary goods bound for Afghanistan to transit Russia and Central Asia. The Russians responded by permitting some supplies bound for Afghanistan to pass through the
former Soviet Union as an opening toward broader talks. The United States then privately offered to roll back its plans for BMD in Central Europe i
f Russia would pressure Iran into making concessions on Tehran’s nuclear program. But the Russians have signaled already that such piecemeal diplomacy will not cut it, and that the
United States will need to make broader concessions that more
adequately address Moscow’s core national security interests before the Russians can be expected to sacrifice a relationship with a strategic Middle East ally.

At the Geneva NATO summit, Clinton upped the offer to the Russians
when she signaled that the United States might even be willing to throw
in a halt to NATO expansion,
thereby putting at risk a number of U.S. allies in the former Soviet
Union that rely on the United States to protect them from a resurgent
Russia. This gesture will set the stage for Obama’s upcoming trip to
Russia to meet with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, but the Russians
will be watching closely to see if such gestures are being made for the
sake of public diplomacy or if the United States really intends to get
down to business.


In Europe, Obama is dealing with allies rather than adversaries, but
even here his administration’s work does not get any easier. The
willingness of Obama to talk with the Europeans far more than his
predecessor is less important than what Obama intends to demand of
NATO, and what those NATO members are capable of delivering.

A prime example is how Washington is requesting the Europeans to
commit more NATO forces to the war in Afghanistan now that the United
States feels ready to shift gears from Iraq. Despite their enthusiasm
for Obama, the Europeans are not on the same page as the Americans on
NATO, especially when it comes to Afghanistan. The U.S. argument for
strengthening NATO’s commitment to Afghanistan is that failure to do so
would recreate the conditions necessary for al Qaeda to rebuild its
ability to carry out transcontinental attacks against the West, putting
both European and American cities at risk. But the Europeans (for the
most part) view a long-term war effort in Afghanistan without a clear
strategy or realistic objectives as a futile drain on resources. After
all, the British — who currently have the largest European contingent
in Afghanistan — remember well their own ugly and drawn-out efforts to
pacify the region in three brutal wars in the 19th and early 20th
centuries, each won by Afghan tribesmen.

This disagreement goes beyond the question of Afghanistan to a long-standing debate over NATO’s intended security mission.
NATO was formed during the Cold War as a U.S.-dominated security
alliance designed to protect the European continent from internal and
external Soviet aggression. Since the end of the Cold War, however,
NATO’s scope has widened, with only limited agreement among members
over whether the alliance should even be dealing with the broader 21st
century challenges of counterterrorism, cyberattacks, climate change
and energy security. More important, NATO has pushed up against
Russia’s borders with its expansion to the Baltics and talk of
integrating Georgia and Ukraine, worrying some states that they may
need to bear the burden of Washington’s hardball tactics against the
Russians. Germany, which is dependent on Russians for energy, has no interest in restarting another Cold War. The French have more room to maneuver than the Germans in dealing with a powerful player like Russia. But the
French can only work effectively with the Russians as long as Paris
avoids getting (permanently) on Moscow’s bad side, something
U.S.-dominated policy of trying to resurrect NATO as a major military
force could bring about.

Before taking any further steps in Afghanistan, the Europeans, including those Central and Eastern Europeans who mostly take a hard-line stance against Moscow,
first want to know how Obama intends to deal with the Russians. Even
with the Poles going one way in trying to boost NATO security and the
Germans going the other in trying to bargain with Russia, none of the
European states can really move until U.S. policy toward Russia comes
into focus. The last thing the Poles would want to do is to take an unflinching stance against Moscow only to have the
United States cancel BMD plans, for example. Conversely, the United
States is unable to formul ate a firm policy on Afghanistan or Russia
until it knows where the Europeans will end up standing on NATO, their
commitment to Afghanistan and their relationship with Russia. Add to
this classic chicken-and-egg dilemma a financial crisis that has left Europe much worse off than the United States, and the gap between U.S. and European interests starts to look as wide as the Atlantic itself.


Talking to Iran was a major theme of Obama’s campaign, and the first
big step in following through with this pledge was made March 5 when Clinton extended an invitation to Iran to participate in a multilateral conference on Afghanistan, thereby
recognizing Iran’s influential role in the region. There is also an
expectation that after Iran gets through elections in June, the United
States could move beyond the multilateral setting to engage the
Iranians bilaterally.

The idea of the United States talking to Iran is not a new concept. In fact, the United States and Iran were talking
a great deal behind the scenes in 2001 in the lead-up to the war in
Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban and in 2003 during the precursor
to the war in Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein. In both of these cases,
core mutual interests brought the two rivals to the negotiating table.
Iran, facing hostile Sunni powers to its west and east, had a golden
opportunity to address its historical security dilemma in one fell
swoop and then use the emerging political structures in Iraq and
Afghanistan to spread Persian power in the wider region. The United
States, knocked off balance by 9/11, needed Iranian cooperation to facilitate the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions to uproot al Qaeda and
intimidate al Qaeda state-sponsors into working with Washington.

U.S.-Iranian relations have been rocky (to say the least), but have
reached a point where it is now politically acceptable for both openly
to discuss U.S.-Iranian cooperation on issues related to Iraq and
Afghanistan, where the Iranians hold influence and where the United
States is still engaged militarily.

Iran knows that even with the United States drawing down from Iraq,
Washington will still maintain a strategic agreement with Baghdad that
could be used as a launchpad for U.S. designs in the region as it works to protect Sunni Arabs from Iranian expansionist goals. At
the same time, Washington has come to realize that its influence in
Baghdad will have to be shared with the Iranians given their geographic
proximity and clout among large segments of the Iraqi Shia.

Though U.S. and Iranian interests overlap enough to the point that
the two cannot avoid working with each other, negotiating a
power-sharing agreement has not come easily. In Iraq, Tehran needs to
consolidate Shiite influence, contain Sunni power and prevent the
country from posing a future security threat to Iran’s western
frontier. In addition, the Iranians are looking for the United States
to recognize its regional sphere of influence and accept the existence
of an Iranian nuclear program. The United States, on the other hand,
needs to defend the interests of Israel and its Sunni allies and wants
Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions (or at least place real curbs on
its nuclear program) and end its support for militant proxies. Though
Washington and Tehran have made some progress in their diplomatic
dialogue, the demands of each remain just as intractable. As a result,
the U.S.-Iranian negotiations start and stop in spurts without any real
willingness on either si de to follow through in addressing the other’s respective core demands.

In reaching out to Iran over Afghanistan, the Obama administration
is now trying to inject more confidence into the larger negotiations by recognizing Iran as a player in Kabul in return for intelligence sharing and potential logistical cooperation
in supporting the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. But as much as Iran
enjoys the recognition and shares an interest in preventing jihadist
spillover into its territory, the Iranian regime is not about to offer
its full cooperation on an issue as big as Afghanistan as long as the
United States avoids addressing issues that the Iranians deem more
central to their national security interests (e.g., Iraq.) Complicating
matters further at this juncture is Iranian displeasure over U.S. talk
of speaking to the Taliban, a long-time enemy of Tehran that the Ir
anians will fight to keep contained, but with which the United States
needs to engage if it has any hope of settling Afghanistan.

The Taliban

Obama told the New York Times in a March 6 interview that the United
States is not winning the war in Afghanistan, and that in addition to
sending more troops, his strategy for the war might include approaching
elements of the Afghan Taliban. While he acknowledged that the
situation in Afghanistan is more complex, he related the idea to the
successful U.S. strategy of reaching out to Iraqi Sunni nationalists to
undercut the al Qaeda presence in Iraq.

The idea of negotiating with the Taliban to split the insurgency has
been thrown around for some time now, but just talking about talking to
the Taliban raises a number of issues. First, the United States is fighting a war of perception as much as it is fighting battles against die-hard jihadists. So far,
Obama has approved 17,000 additional U.S. troops to be deployed to
Afghanistan, but even double that number is unlikely to convince
Taliban insurgents that the United States is willing or even capable of
fighting this war in the long run. The Taliban and their allies in al
Qaeda and various other radical Islamist groups are pursuing a strategy o
f exhaustion
where success is not measured in the number of battles won, but rather
the ability to outlast the occupier. Considering that Afghanistan’s
mountainous, barren terrain, sparse population centers and lack of
governance have historically denied every outside occupier success in
pacifying the country, the prospects for the United States are not good
in this war.

Talk of reconciliation with the Taliban from a U.S. position of
weakness raises the question of how the United States can actually
parse out those Taliban members who can be reconciled. It also raises
the question of whether those members will be willing to put their
personal security on the line by accepting an offer to start talks when
the United States itself is admitting it is on the losing side of the
war. Most important, it is unclear to us what the United States can
actually offer these Taliban elements, especially as Washington
simultaneously attempts to negotiate with the Iranians and the
Russians, neither of which want to live next door to a revived Taliban
and both of which must cooperate with the United States if Washington
is to be able to fight the war in the first place.


After exchanging a few words with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid
al-Moallem in Egypt on March 2, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
dispatched two emissaries in what was the highest-level U.S. delegation
to Syria in four years. The March 7 visit came on the heels of a
British announcement that London will be resuming talks with
Hezbollah’s political wing — a move likely made in close coordination
with the Americans.

The Americans want Syria to end its support for militant proxies like Hezbollah and stop interfering in Lebanese affairs. But Syrian dominance over Lebanon is non-negotiable from the Syrian point of view. Lebanon historically
has been Syria’s economic, political and military outlet to the
Mediterranean basin, allowing Syria to play a prominent role in the
region. If Damascus is not in control of Lebanon, then Syria is poor
and isolated. Even though the Americans and the Syrians are holding
talks again, it is still unclear that Washington is willing to accept
Syrian demands regarding Lebanon. And unless the United States is,
these talks are guaranteed to remain in limbo.

That said, there may be more to these talks then meets the eye.
Instead of rushing to cater to Syrian demands over Lebanon, the United
States is probably more interested in using the Syrian talks (largely a
Turkish-backed initiative) to send a positive signal to Turkey — a resurgent regional power with the ability to influence matters in the Middle East, the Caucasus,
Central Asia and the Balkans. Turkey is beginning to throw its weight
in the region around again, and will have a major say in how the United
States interacts with states that Ankara perceives are in the Turkish
sphere of influence (Syria and Iraq, for example). The United States
will need Turkish cooperation in the months and years ahead,
particularly as it reduces its military presence in Iraq and attempts
to deal with another resurgent power, Russia. It comes as litt le
surprise, then, that one of Obama’s first major trips abroad will be to
Ankara. Rather than revealing any true U.S. interest to accommodate the
Syrians, the U.S. diplomatic opening to Syria is more likely a gesture
to the Turks, whose agenda for the Middle East includes reshaping
Damascus’s behavior through negotiations with the United States and
Israel and containing Iran’s regional ambitions.

Back to Reality

Obama has put into motion a global diplomatic offensive fueled by a
dizzying array of special envoys designed to change the dynamic of its
relations with key allies like the Europeans and adversaries like the
Russians, the Taliban, the Iranians and the Syrians. This diplomatic
blitzkrieg may spin the press into a frenzy. But once we look beyond
the handshakes, press conferences and newspaper headlines and drill
down into the core, unadulterated demands of each player in question,
it becomes clear that such a diplomatic offensive actually could end up
yielding very little of substance if it fails to address the real

This is not a fault of the administration, but the reality of
geopolitics. The ability of any political leader to effect change is
not principally determined by his or her own desires, but by external
factors. In dealing with any one of these adversaries individually, the
administration is bound to hit walls. In trying to balance the
interests between adversaries and allies, the walls only become
reinforced. Add to that additional constraints in dealing with Congress
and the need to maintain approval ratings — not to mention trying to
manage a global recession — and the space to maneuver becomes much
tighter. We must also remember that this is an administration that has
not even been in power for two months. Formulating policy on issues of
this scale takes several months at the least, and more likely years
before the United States actually figures out what it wants and what it
can actually do. No amount of power delegation to special envoys will
change that. In fact, it could even confuse matters when bureaucratic
rivalries kick in and the chain of command begins to blur.

Whether the policymakers are sitting in an Afghan cave or in the
Kremlin, they will not find this surprising. As is widely known,
presidential transitions take time, and diplomatic engagements to feel
out various positions are a natural part of the process. Tacit offers
can be made, bits of negotiations will be leaked, but as long as each
player questions the ability of Washington to follow through in any
sort of “grand bargain,” these talks are unlikely to result in any
major breakthroughs. So far, Obama has demonstrated that he can talk
the diplomatic talk. The real question is whether he can walk the
geopolitical walk.


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