Saturday, July 26, 2008

MinnPost - After Obama's triumphant week abroad, voters get to assess trip's impact on candidate, foreign policy

MinnPost - After Obama's triumphant week abroad, voters get to assess trip's impact on candidate, foreign policy

Iran: Cryptic stands still unclarified
Looming over Obama's stops in Iraq and all of the Middle East are questions about he would handle tension with Iran.

In Israel, Obama told the Jerusalem Post that he would do "everything in my power" to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Obama has said he would engage in discussions with Iran; however, he also reminded the Post, "I would not take any options off the table, including military."

Professor William Beeman wishes he knew how Obama's tough campaign talk would translate into policy if the Democrat took office. Beeman chairs the Anthropology Department at the University of Minnesota. He has worked extensively in Iran. His latest book about the country is "The 'Great Satan' vs. the 'Mad Mullahs': How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other."

"The plain truth is that any politician in the United States, whether Democrat or Republican, who talks about trying to improve relations with Iran through some kind of relaxation of the really hard line that the United States has taken are setting themselves up as a target for their opponents," Beeman said. "No politician has ever lost a vote by attacking Iran."

So Beeman discounts some of Obama's tough talk.

Recent Bush administration moves to at least open the door to meeting with Iranian officials were hard fought, Beeman said, because they were opposed by hardliners inside and outside government offices.

"Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had to jawbone and fight and cajole over more than a period of a year," he said.

If Obama became president, though, he would be in position to take the talks much further, "because diplomacy is made in the White House," Beeman said.

While Obama has consistently advocated a more open dialog, he has been cryptic about how far he would go in any direction on the politically treacherous issue. And his trip didn't clarify his intentions.

Pakistan: Perhaps the most urgent issue
Also unclear, Beeman said, is how Obama would deal with Pakistan. Arguably, that is the most urgent issue facing the next administration because the Taliban and al-Qaida have moved to regroup in Pakistan's rugged mountain regions.

Everywhere he stopped on the trip, Obama called for stepping up military efforts in neighboring Afghanistan. And he leaned hard on Europe to do its part in that NATO-led effort.

But much of the problem is in Pakistan where the government has been in turmoil all year.

"It is very clear that the United States needs to have a complete re-evaluation of our relationships with the government of Pakistan," Beeman said. "Right now there is no incentive for the Pakistani government to aid the United States in trying to curtail the Taliban or al Qaida."

The havens for those groups are in Pakistan's remote and rugged regions, "where the urbanized and educated Pakistanis don't ever go and they don't care much about," Beeman said.

So there is little internal political pressure to confront the menacing groups. Meanwhile, as long as the groups remain a problem, the United States channels money to the Pakistani government. So there is no real economic incentive either.

Beeman worries that Obama "is very thin on the ground" in terms of foreign policy advisers regarding Pakistan as well as Iran. And he saw nothing in Obama's trip to reassure him on that count.

"I'm really quite worried about this, because I think he is not particularly well informed," Beeman said. "And this is potentially his biggest trouble in the long run."

Sharon Schmickle writes about foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.