Only seven weeks into his presidency, President Obama has already made fresh overtures to countries like Syria, Iran and Russia, fulfilling a campaign pledge to reach out to America's adversaries in hopes of settling tensions and shoring up U.S. interests around the globe.
But ... working with the Taliban?
In an interview with the New York Times over the weekend, the president pointed to the success the U.S. military had in persuading Sunni insurgents in Iraq to turn away from Al Qaeda, and he suggested that the U.S. would consider working with moderate Taliban elements in Afghanistan to do the same.
"There may be some comparable opportunities in Afghanistan and in the Pakistani region," Obama said.
But some foreign affairs analysts cringed at the suggestion.
David Rittgers, a legal policy analyst with the Cato Institute who served three tours with the U.S. Army's Special Forces in Afghanistan, said the statement would mark the most extreme attempt so far to engage an adversary.
He said negotiating with moderates at the local level, some of whom might fall under the multifaceted umbrella of the Taliban, could be possible and worthwhile. But he said any attempt to divide and conquer the Taliban would probably fail, and he said Obama had given the Taliban leadership "propaganda strength" in publicly suggesting that outreach is possible.
"They really are negotiating from a position of strength. What are we going to offer them?" Rittgers said. "I don't know where we're going to find the common ground, with the exception of leaving their drug money alone."
He said the Taliban does not offer the same opportunities as the Sunnis in Iraq, because whereas the Sunnis could be economically motivated, many in the Taliban control drug money and are economically independent.
Shortly after the Obama interview was published, a Taliban spokesman told Britain's Guardian newspaper that the overture was a sign that Americans are "tired and worried."
He challenged Obama to find so-called moderates in the Taliban: "They will not be able to find such people because we are united around the aim of fighting for freedom and bringing an Islamic system to Afghanistan."
Some analysts have also questioned whether the moderates are plentiful or influential enough to make a difference.
"The notion of moderates ... I'm not sure they exist," said Simon Henderson, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But he said it is "worth trying" to reach out to persuadable elements of the Taliban.
"This is a distraction which (Obama) wants to settle down and also to contain," Henderson said. "It's a cancerous growth which he would like to cut off completely but in fact can't."
Obama told the Times he understands that dealing with the complex nature of the Taliban is challenging. And some argue that the need for discussions with these groups is a political reality.
Afghanistan expert Barnett Rubin co-authored an article in Foreign Affairs in December urging the U.S. to distinguish political opponents of the U.S. from global terrorists like Al Qaeda -- suggesting members of the Taliban could be swayed. Rubin envisioned an agreement that would prohibit the Taliban from allowing Afghanistan to be used for launching international terrorism, in exchange for an agreement from the U.S. and NATO to end military action.
"Any agreement in which the Taliban or other insurgents disavowed Al Qaeda would constitute a strategic defeat for Al Qaeda," the article said.
Obama has won both praise and criticism for his efforts to mend troubled relations with other U.S. adversaries.
Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled a major shift when she said the U.S. would send two envoys to Syria to begin "preliminary conversations." It would mark the highest-level U.S. administration visit in more than four years to Syria, which has been called a state sponsor of terrorism. The Bush administration withdrew the U.S. ambassador to Syria in early 2005 to protest the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. (Syria officials have been investigated in the killing, though Damascus denies involvement.)
State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Monday that Syrian behavior is still of "great concern" to the Obama administration.
"We want to work with Syria, but it does take, you know, two to tango here. And up until now, Syria hasn't played that positive role that we've wanted to see in a number of areas, with regard to foreign fighters in Iraq, with regards to interference in Lebanese affairs," he said.
Further, Congress is poised to pass a spending bill that includes provisions to ease restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba.
Wayne Smith, with the Center for International Policy, said Obama should go even further than that in order to send a friendly signal to Latin America ahead of the upcoming Summit of the Americas, a meeting of North, South and Central American countries. He said Obama could move to lift restrictions on academic travel, for instance.
"All this can be done with the stroke of a pen," Smith said. He said normalizing relations with Cuba might actually prove less challenging than some of Obama's other diplomatic aims.
"This is much easier than talking with the Taliban," he said.
The Obama administration is also reportedly planning to invite Iran to an international conference on Afghanistan in late March.
And the administration has escalated outreach to Russia in recent weeks, with Obama writing a letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Though Obama denied it, some officials suggested the letter floated the possibility that the U.S. could junk its plans for a missile defense shield Moscow opposes in exchange for Russia's help in stopping Iran from building nuclear weapons.
Clinton also met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week, saying the talks marked a "fresh start" in resetting relations with Russia.