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Openings in an Altered World

By David S. Broder
Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The shape of the world has changed again, signaling the possibility of a new American foreign policy and national security strategy. The portents are hopeful if U.S. leaders have the imagination and courage to seize some of the opportunities.

Just consider the major international headlines of the past few weeks. A Middle East conference including almost all the major players in that troubled region produced an agreement by leaders of Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate toward a peace agreement within the next year.

In Iraq, the level of violence has subsided and the first troop withdrawals are planned, while tribal leaders -- without waiting for the central government -- are negotiating among themselves and forming anti-al-Qaeda militias.

In Iran, U.S. intelligence reported this week that work on a nuclear weapons program was suspended in 2003, apparently in response to U.S.-led and U.N.-sanctioned pressure. President Bush says this is no guarantee that the Iranian regime can be trusted to stay disarmed. But to others, at the very least, it opens a window for negotiations.

And in our hemisphere, Venezuela's Hugo Ch¿vez, the most anti-American of all the elected leaders in Latin America, was given his comeuppance this week by his own people. A referendum he sponsored for constitutional changes, which would have strengthened his control of the government and permitted him to serve indefinitely, was rejected. Ch¿vez said he took it as a signal of dissatisfaction.

Now, it was not all good news. In Russia, Vladimir Putin engineered parliamentary elections that solidified his control and moved that country, with its growing oil-fueled wealth, further away from genuine democracy.

In Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf shed his uniform but kept his hold on the presidency, and his emergency controls have made it questionable whether the opposition will have a real opportunity in the coming elections.

And in Afghanistan, the Taliban, exploiting the security it now enjoys in the border area with Pakistan, has become more aggressive against U.S. and NATO forces.

All of this suggests that this is a world full of challenges -- but fortunately one not facing a crisis or the likelihood of another major war.

Judging by his news conference remarks yesterday, Bush intends to keep marching straight ahead. His view is that the improvement in Iraq results from his decision to raise the level of troops committed to that battle, and that Iran's abandonment of nuclear ambitions would not have occurred without the pressure the United States and its allies applied.

He has shown more flexibility in his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but still keeps the negotiations at arm's length, rather than taking on a continuous personal role of mediator.

Bush's stance is likely to be copied by most of the major Republican presidential candidates. They can take heart from the successes the administration is beginning to score with its foreign policy. Surely, their position is stronger than the one they were defending early this year -- when Iraq looked to be lost, the Middle East was in turmoil and the threat of war with Iran loomed.

But it is equally the case that the changed shape of the world raises hopes among Democrats for bigger foreign policy changes than anything Bush or the Republicans have contemplated.

It also strengthens the case for a major diplomatic overture to Tehran -- a serious effort to test whether the elements in the Iranian government that were rational enough to abandon the nuclear weapons project are interested in other steps that would bring their nation into a working relationship with the West.

The testing ground would be Iran's willingness to stop supplying arms to the insurgents in Iraq and instead help stabilize that neighboring country.

And that, in turn, would make it possible -- and prudent -- to reduce the American military force in Iraq, a step the Democrats have long advocated.

The opportunities in Latin America are at least as great, beginning with a trade agreement with Colombia and then, very possibly, reaching out to the people of Venezuela and Cuba, who are plainly not all that enamored of their leftist rulers.

All this -- and more -- now becomes a matter for genuine discussion, because the shape of the world has changed.

davidbroder@washpost.com

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