WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration promises sweeping changes in American foreign policy, and some U.S. adversaries are nibbling the bait.
Vice President Joe Biden hit most of the right notes in his Munich speech this weekend, declaring -- among a long list of initiatives -- Washington's readiness to push the "reset button" with Russia, talk with rather than browbeat Iran and revitalize the bruised NATO alliance.
At the 45th Munich Security Conference on Saturday, Biden painted the global landscape in new colors, drawing stark contrasts with the Bush administration, which had alienated many American friends and deepened animosity among its enemies.
"The U.S. administration sent a very strong signal, and the signal was heard," Russian deputy prime minister Sergei Ivanov said Sunday.
Over the weekend, Iranian parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani spoke of a "golden opportunity for the United States" -- suggesting that if Washington was serious about conciliation, Tehran could respond in kind. Larijani said the U.S. needed to change "to a chess game instead of a boxing match."
Any changes in American strategy toward Russia, Iran or any of the other international actors now at odds with the United States could have huge political consequences. They would set off an explosion of opposition from American foreign policy traditionalists, neoconservative thinkers especially.
The Bush administration was guided by the blunt view that America was the only superpower -- after the collapse of the Soviet Union -- and had the economic resources and military strength to insist that Washington's will be done.
That produced the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq in spite of heavy opposition from most European allies -- Britain and, to a degree, Italy excepted. Iraq policy in turn has bedeviled U.S. efforts to pacify Afghanistan and hunt down Usama bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan. The Europeans have been far from wholehearted in supporting that U.S. military effort, which has gone seriously awry.
Then there's Iran. Since the Islamic revolution and the extended crisis over the hostage-taking of American diplomats 30 years ago, the one-time ally has become an implacable foe. And it's a foe with serious ambitions, including the destruction of Israel, support of anti-Israeli organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah and construction of a nuclear arsenal.
Iran is bent on becoming a regional power in the Middle East and its chances of success have been much advanced by events in neighboring Iraq, where the U.S. ouster of Saddam Hussein removed a major brake to Tehran's ambitions.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin is fighting U.S. efforts to promote NATO membership for countries that border Russia and were former satellites or even republics of the old Soviet Union.
NATO expansion -- which began in earnest under President Bill Clinton -- led the Bush administration to declare plans to install a missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland, compounding Kremlin anger and insecurity. While Washington insists those missiles are designed to counter any Iranian attack on Europe, even Russia, Moscow is not buying the argument.
Finally, Al Qaeda remains determined to continue its campaign to knock the United States off keel. Many analysts fear bin Laden's next assault will be even deadlier than the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, including biological or nuclear weapons.
But Obama is in the midst of a honeymoon with most of the rest of the Islamic world, which, for now, accepts his promises of respect and evenhandedness after nearly a decade of believing it was held in low esteem by the Bush administration. The Arab subset of that world is likewise enthralled with Obama and his energized efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Serious progress on any of these foreign policy puzzles may require:
- Backing away from NATO expansion and quietly letting the Russians know plans for missile defenses in their former sphere of influence are up for negotiation. Washington might demand a less belligerent stand on Georgia, where Russia is threatening to expand its military presence in two breakaway ethnic zones. Obama might also win a reversal on Kyrgystan's recent decision to boot the United States from an air base that is critical to supplying American forces in Afghanistan. Moscow says Kyrgystan made the decision independently, but the move coincided with the Kremlin promising a huge loan to its economically failing former republic.
- A tacit acknowledgment of Washington's readiness to accept and respect Iran as a major player in the Middle East, but only if Tehran obliterates its nuclear program, accepts Israel as a recognized member of the neighborhood and ends support for Hamas and Hezbollah.
- Successfully pressuring Israel to make peace with the Palestinians by withdrawing to pre-1967 borders and sharing Jerusalem as a capital. That would cement U.S. relations with the Arab world and could empower the United States to make further demands on isolating Islamic extremists, including Al Qaeda.
Such strategic changes might convince the world Obama plans to do more than just talk about a new era in U.S. foreign policy.