By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 8, 2008; A04
President-elect Barack Obama stepped carefully yesterday when he was asked about the unusual letter of congratulations that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent him -- the first time an Iranian leader has congratulated the victor of a U.S. presidential election since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
"I will be reviewing the letter from President Ahmadinejad, and we will respond appropriately," he said, leaving open the question about whether he will reply. President Bush chose not to respond to a rambling 18-page letter he received from Ahmadinejad in 2006, but during the campaign Obama indicated he would be willing to meet with Iranian leaders.
"Iran's development of a nuclear weapon, I believe, is unacceptable," Obama said yesterday. "And we have to mount an international effort to prevent that from happening."
Diplomatic issues rarely begin or end cleanly with a change of administrations, but Bush will be leaving his successor an extensive list of foreign policy processes. The new administration will have to quickly evaluate them and decide whether to continue along Bush's path, make minor modifications or forge ahead in a different direction. Obama will inherit at least three foreign policy structures, built largely by Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, aimed at thwarting Iran's development of a nuclear weapon, eliminating North Korea's nuclear arsenal and promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
During the campaign, Obama issued a series of foreign policy pronouncements that often appeared designed not to box himself in. One prominent exception was a pledge to remove most U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of his inauguration. But in many cases, Obama appears to have left himself wiggle room on many issues that will confront him. During the campaign, in fact, internal briefing materials purposely focused on defining the challenges facing the next president, but did not detail possible policy options, advisers said.
Eight years ago, when Bush took office, he famously pursued a policy dubbed "ABC" -- anything but Clinton. President Bill Clinton believed he was so close to a missile deal with North Korea that he nearly traveled to Pyongyang in his final weeks in office. But when Bush arrived in the White House, he quickly rejected following in Clinton's footsteps and opted for a confrontational approach.
Clinton passed up the North Korea trip to make an unsuccessful attempt at a Middle East peace agreement. The effort collapsed amid a wave of Palestinian attacks known as the second intifada, and Bush opted not to make a serious effort at a peace agreement until much later in his second term.
Obama campaign officials and advisers declined to discuss how they will handle the diplomatic initiatives Bush will leave behind, but Obama's leanings can be gleaned from his campaign statements.
In the Middle East last year, Bush began what is known as the Annapolis process, which seeks to encourage Israeli and Palestinian leaders to agree on the parameters of a peace accord. Rice has taken on the task of shepherding the effort, making almost monthly trips to the region to try to persuade the two sides to reach an agreement. Any progress that has been made has remained secret; both sides say the talks have been productive and far-reaching.
But the White House this week formally gave up any hope of achieving a peace accord between the Israelis and Palestinians before Bush leaves office. Analysts have criticized the Annapolis process for not finding a way to accommodate the interests of Hamas, which has been labeled a terrorist group by the State Department but which controls the Gaza Strip with nearly half of the Palestinian population. Rice has also been faulted for investing so much in the effort, to the detriment of other issues, that her clout has been diminished.
Obama has not indicated that he will offer any fresh thinking on how to deal with Hamas; at one point during the campaign, he accepted the resignation of an outside adviser who met with Hamas officials as part of his job for an international mediation group. But, during a visit to Israel in July, Obama said he would not wait "until a few years into my term or my second term" to seek a peace deal. This suggests that he may appoint a high-level Middle East peace envoy, freeing his secretary of state to concentrate on other issues.
On North Korea, Obama will inherit a process that is probably in worse shape than what Clinton left for Bush. In a dramatic change in approach during his second term, Bush avidly pursued a deal to end North Korea's nuclear weapons programs. But the effort nearly collapsed this fall before Bush agreed to remove North Korea from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Obama supported the decision to delist North Korea. During the campaign, he criticized Bush for taking so long to engage with North Korea, suggesting he would be eager to find ways to keep the disarmament process alive. Li Gun, a senior North Korean official, told reporters in New York on Thursday that "we are ready to deal" with the incoming Obama administration.
Obama may face some of his toughest choices on the diplomatic process concerning Iran. Rice has painstakingly assembled a coalition of six nations -- Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the United States -- to confront Iran, offering incentives if it will suspend its enrichment of uranium. The group has won approval for three U.N. Security Council resolutions sanctioning Iran, but Iran has shrugged off the pressure.
During the campaign, Obama offered to conduct direct talks with Iran, a statement that unnerved European allies invested in the diplomatic approach. Obama's comment yesterday that "an international effort" is required indicated that he would seek to build on the structure Rice assembled.