Just a brief note on Obama’s response to foreign-policy questions at his first press conference tonight.
Give that he has been focused almost exclusively over the past week on getting his stimulus package through Congress, I thought his extemporaneous answers to the few foreign-policy questions he was posed were pretty impressive.
After the ritual denunciations of Iran’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah, “bellicose language …towards Israel,” and alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons, it seemed that Obama struck a much more positive note than Biden’s Munich speech by stating that his policy team “is looking at areas where we can have constructive dialogue, where we can directly engage with them” and “…looking for openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table, face to face, diplomatic overtures that will allow us to move our policy in a new direction.” Similarly, his simple assertion that “…I think that there’s the possibility at least of a relationship of mutual respect and progress” were largely the words that should have been included in Biden’s speech. Same with “we want to do things differently in the region [emphasis added],” a phrase that goes far beyond what Biden had said about setting a new “tone” in U.S. foreignpolicy. None of this, of course, translates into policy, but the lack of any implied ultimatum or condescension is likely to be relatively well received in Tehran.
Also interesting was calling for Iran to “send some signals that it wants to act differently as well…” The use of the word “signals” was very intriguing in light of the Treasury Department’s announcement last week that PJAK will be considered a terrorist organisation and today’s report in the Wall Street Journal that Washington (via at least Richard Holbrooke) will seek to engage Iran on a range of issues regarding Afghanistan, including drug trafficking. It seems signaling may already be underway, despite the fact that the policy review that Obama referred to has only just begun. I have included his complete answer to the question about Iran below.
His remarks about Afghanistan (particularly a remarkably blunt appraisal of the Karzai government’s “detachment” from the general population) and Pakistan suggested that he is very focused on the degree to which the Pakistani army will cooperate with U.S. aims in the FATA and quite determined to redeem his campaign pledge to strike al Qaeda targets when possible. This no doubt is one of the messages that Holbrooke is conveying, probably even more bluntly, to his hosts in Islamabad this week.
But I was particularly impressed by the way he dodged Helen Thomas’ question about who possesses nuclear weapons in the Middle East by citing the dangers of nuclear proliferation and putting it in the context of reducing nuclear arsenals in the U.S. and Russia “so that we then have the standing to go to other countries and start stitching back together the non-proliferation treaties that, frankly have been weakened over the last several years.” By bringing the issue back to Washington’s own responsibilities to comply with and strengthen the non-proliferation regime, Obama is “disarming” — at least rhetorically — those overseas who are rightfully fed up with U.S. exceptionalism and double standards.
Again, if these were a prepared speech, it would have been much less impressive, even disappointing. But these were extemporaneous remarks at his very first White House press conference that was otherwise almost entirely devoted to the ongoing economic crisis.
This is the Q&A for the Iran question:
Q Thank you, Mr. President. I’d like to shift gears to foreign policy. What is your strategy for engaging Iran, and when will you start to implement it? Will your timetable be affected at all by the Iranian elections? And are you getting any indications that Iran is interested in a dialogue with the United States?
THE PRESIDENT: I said during the campaign that Iran is a country that has extraordinary people, extraordinary history and traditions, but that its actions over many years now have been unhelpful when it comes to promoting peace and prosperity both in the region and around the world; that their attacks or their financing of terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, the bellicose language that they’ve used towards Israel, their development of a nuclear weapon, or their pursuit of a nuclear weapon — that all those things create the possibility of destabilizing the region and are not only contrary to our interests, but I think are contrary to the interests of international peace. What I’ve also said is that we should take an approach with Iran that employs all of the resources at the United States’ disposal, and that includes diplomacy.
And so my national security team is currently reviewing our existing Iran policy, looking at areas where we can have constructive dialogue, where we can directly engage with them. And my expectation is in the coming months we will be looking for openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table, face to face, diplomatic overtures that will allow us to move our policy in a new direction.
There’s been a lot of mistrust built up over the years, so it’s not going to happen overnight. And it’s important that even as we engage in this direct diplomacy, we are very clear about certain deep concerns that we have as a country — that Iran understands that we find the funding of terrorist organizations unacceptable; that we’re clear about the fact that a nuclear Iran could set off a nuclear arms race in the region that would be profoundly destabilizing.
So there are going to be a set of objectives that we have in these conversations, but I think that there’s the possibility at least of a relationship of mutual respect and progress. And I think that if you look at how we’ve approached the Middle East, my designation of George Mitchell as a special envoy to help deal with the Arab-Israeli situation, some of the interviews that I’ve given, it indicates the degree to which we want to do things differently in the region. Now it’s time for Iran to send some signals that it wants to act differently as well, and recognize that even as it has some rights as a member of the international community, with those rights come responsibilities.