Alliances Yet to Come
Should Obama Swallow a Dose of Cynicism?

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, October 4, 2009

PARIS -- Three American presidents have set the stage for a grand diplomatic bargain that could align the interests of the world's leading powers in Europe and the Middle East. It is now up to Barack Obama to play out that opportunity by keeping his eye on the forest as well as the trees.

The main obstructions in President Obama's line of sight are Afghanistan and Iran. He has allowed or encouraged aides to stage a debilitating semi-public debate over whether Afghanistan needs a troop surge or a drawdown. They have confused manpower with strategy. On Iran, No-Drama Obama has abruptly switched to confrontational threats that will be difficult to enact. He has rattled allies while not landing a blow on adversaries.

But Obama has also shown diplomatic skill and global vision by abandoning an ineffective, politically problematic missile defense deployment in Central Europe, as NATO's able new secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, affirmed in Washington last week. Coupling that move with private but serious understandings between Russian and Israeli leaders on Iran could provide a foundation stone for a new global security architecture.

"Practical cooperation" with Russia on Afghanistan, Iran and the broader Middle East is both necessary and possible, Rasmussen suggested -- a conclusion that I share following a recent visit to Russia. That view is not rooted in any belief in the angelic intentions of Vladimir Putin, which certainly do not exist, but in Russia's unavoidable self-interest in working its way out of economic peril and political irrelevance.

Echoing Margaret Thatcher's assessment of Mikhail Gorbachev, Rasmussen, the former Danish prime minister, predicts that "the outside world can influence the Russian leadership." He promised to pursue "a dual track" of firmness on NATO core missions and openness to cooperation on "new threats we all face," especially transnational terrorism.

Russia is providing NATO with free transit for supplies to Afghanistan and "can add value" to the international counterinsurgency effort there, Rasmussen continued. Indeed, in a Moscow conversation with foreign journalists and academics recently, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described Russia's interest in helping arm the Afghan National Police and said Russia "does not want to see NATO defeated in Afghanistan." Russia would like to strike "a balance of interests" with the United States, he added.

Bill Clinton and the two Bush presidents contributed to the arrival of this moment by extending NATO eastward and helping stabilize the emerging free-market democracies of former Warsaw Pact states and the Baltic region after the bloodless revolutions of 1989-90. None has slipped backward.

Team Obama appears to believe that these nations are successful enough not to need the extra dimension of allied protection against Russia that was implicit in the previous U.S. missile defense plan. This is a sound judgment. Obama's missile defense scheme opens the door to greater U.S. cooperation not only with Moscow but also with Western Europe and Israel by providing a more flexible and timely shield against Iranian short-range missiles. There is a balance of interests to be struck: Russia does more than it has on sanctions and counterinsurgency in these trouble zones, while NATO builds a gradual, careful path to membership for Ukraine and Georgia that does not give Russia veto rights or indigestion.

On separate visits to Moscow recently, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reportedly received assurances from Russia that it would delay or avoid deliveries of S-300 air defense missiles to the Iranians as long as they threaten to destabilize the region. In his Moscow news conference, Peres seemed to tie U.S. missile defense, Russian cooperation on Iran and Israeli restraint into the elements of a big package. Iran's reported interest in having Russia and France reprocess its enriched uranium underscores Moscow's potential role.

The bones of proposed grand bargains that never happened litter the metaphorical deserts of diplomacy. Only an inveterate optimist -- I confess to being one -- would even raise the prospect, especially when dealing with Putin's Russia smacks of ultimate cynicism. I understand all these caveats.

But history does not march in a straight line. At times it lunges ahead, as in 1989, with explosions of freedom and human rights progress that demand urgent support. And there are times when history crawls sideways, when good people have to deal with despicable people, usually by accommodation (Roosevelt-Stalin in World War II) or armed confrontation (George H.W. Bush-Saddam Hussein in 1991).

Our muddled times, and the complementary temperaments of strategic-minded Obama and transaction-oriented Putin, suggest that a joint NATO-Russia effort on the world's hottest spots should be pursued now without sacrificing future options about Ukraine and Georgia. Only by trying in earnest can we know whether this idea may be too cynical, or in fact too romantic.

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