Obama's foreign policy opportunity

Thursday, November 15, 2012

On March 26, President Obama whispered to Russia's president, Dmitri Medvedev, that the U.S. election, once completed, would provide him with more "flexibility" in negotiations with Moscow. Now that he has won a convincing re-election, Barack Obama has a unique opportunity to make good on that promise of progress.

Given current global conditions, and an unusual set of opportunities, he can implement a range of initiatives that would, while showing "flexibility," enhance U.S. prestige and restore a bipartisan approach in foreign policy lacking in Washington for many years.

While Obama was criticized for his comment to Medvedev, in a move of diplomatic jujitsu, he can turn this questionable statement to his benefit, as well as to that of the United States.

The first step President Obama should take is to replace Hillary Clinton, who has made clear she will be submitting her resignation immediately, with a Republican at the helm of the Department of State. Fortunately for Obama, there is an ideal candidate available: U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar.

Lugar has a close friendship with Vice President Biden from their many years of alternating chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The senator from Indiana also has a good relationship with President Obama, who he accompanied on a visit to Russia in 2005, when both were U.S. senators.

Lugar, most known for legislation that funded the dismantling of Russian nuclear weapons, would be a good choice to improve relations with Senate Republicans, as well as to assure U.S. allies that Obama's foreign policy will be more serious in the second term.

His defeat in the Indiana U.S. Senate GOP primary this year meant that he was unable to run for re-election this month, making him available to serve at state, while his age -- 80 -- means that he would not be eyeing a presidential run in 2016.

While Lugar is far from conservative, as a liberal Republican he still would be a great improvement over the two main possibilities being considered by the White House -- U.S. Sen. John Kerry or current U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice.

In relations with Iran, Obama has a fortunate opening to play "good cop," with Israel as "bad cop." Israel is in the midst of an election campaign, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies likely to win an enlarged Knesset majority -- but unlikely to undertake a strike against Iran between now and the Jan. 22 vote.

In the interim, the president could send secretary Clinton to meet with the Iranians in, for example, Saudi Arabia. The message of this meeting would be that Iran has until the Israeli elections to undertake serious confidence-building measures -- freezing their enrichment effort, allowing unlimited international inspections, canceling missile tests -- or the U.S. will look favorably upon an Israeli strike, reserving the right to launch our air campaign at some point.

The message could be reinforced by a Saudi announcement about strengthening their own "peaceful" nuclear research program to remind Tehran of the regional consequences of their actions.

This could not, however, be a bluff. Given the seriousness of this threat, it is overdue for the U.S. to start acting like a superpower, with President Obama following through on his previous statements that Iranian nuclear weapons would be unacceptable.

Clinton could explain to the Iranians that this is what the president meant by "flexibility," and that they should take with complete seriousness the range of choices available to a U.S. president who has faced his last election.

Finally, the U.S. must take the lead in assisting the Syrian people in exiting their civil war. There are two actions President Obama could take immediately: arming the secular factions among the Syrian rebels, and facilitating the exile of Bashar al Assad, his family and closest associates.

President Assad, until unexpectedly called back to Damascus in 1994 to take over the nation, was living happily in London as a practicing ophthalmologist. His wife, a British citizen, might welcome the chance to return to a peaceful life, if not in the UK, then perhaps in the resort regions of southern Russia, an idyllic Caribbean Island, or the superrich enclave of Monaco.

President Obama should embrace the suggestion by British Prime Minister David Cameron that luxurious exile for the al Assads, with protection of their assets and a promise of immunity from prosecution, would be a price worth paying to bring peace to Syria.

Many observers have noted that American presidents, having been frustrated in their domestic agendas, often look to foreign policy as way to shape their legacy.

As commander-in-chief, President Obama has a greater ability to shift course quickly in our overseas relations. Should the president undertake these initiatives, as well as others of a related nature, a new bipartisanship could emerge in foreign policy, with widespread support for a set of initiatives that advance American interests. President Obama could improve his unfavorable image with Republicans and independents, as well as reassure our allies.

There certainly will be enough bitter fights over domestic policy, with the fiscal cliff, gaping deficit and judicial appointments looming both sooner and later. Certainly the United States would benefit from restoring one area -- foreign policy -- to see at least some consensus.

The test will be whether the president sees the need, in the afterglow of his re-election, to reach first for compromise in the area of his greatest autonomy.

Dr. Wayne Bowen earned his Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University, and is an Army veteran.

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