A new direction on the world map

A measured approach is expected in Obama's foreign policy shifts.

November 06, 2008|Paul Richter | Richter is a Times staff writer.

WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama is expected to quickly distance himself from the unpopular foreign policy of President Bush, seeking to mend relations with foreign leaders and considering advice to swiftly shutter the controversial Guantanamo Bay prison and inaugurate a new climate change effort.

However, the economic crisis that helped him at the polls also reshuffled his priorities, some advisors acknowledged. The crisis will siphon away his attention and may slow some foreign policy efforts, they said.

On more intractable problems, such as Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, Obama is expected to move gingerly as he reshapes the U.S. approach while preserving his options and accounting for the concerns of allies in the Middle East, advisors said.

"He needs to say, 'I'm listening to our allies, and to our military leaders, and we're developing a plan,' " said an advisor, who discussed deliberations on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly. "He doesn't need to lock himself into a rigid schedule that would allow the enemy to game this out in advance, and would make it harder for us to withdraw."

Obama placed heavy emphasis on foreign policy issues during his campaign, and the president-elect's team expects his early moves to be "appreciated overseas, and create a more favorable environment for the new administration right at the start," another advisor said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

Such steps would provide a needed break from the past, the second advisor said. The world has so soured on the Bush administration that foreign leaders have become suspicious of American proposals, "even when they're good ones," the advisor added.

The enthusiastic reaction to Obama's election could help him in early initiatives to strengthen international ties, a frequent campaign theme, and to change U.S. policies that have been condemned abroad, such as Guantanamo and policies on interrogating detainees.

Obama has declared that the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba should be closed and that detainees should be handled through the U.S. military justice system. He also has pledged to organize an international coalition to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

These issues have been a source of friction between the Bush administration and many allies, but are under the control of White House decision-making more than are certain entrenched problems in countries where the American military is involved.

Obama has declared that a withdrawal from Iraq would be the "first priority" of his administration and has called for combat troops to be out within 16 months. But he has also reserved some flexibility in his position.

Obama and his aides have been talking to Iraqis and other Middle Eastern officials. Several foreign diplomats believe that the new administration intends to leave some flexibility in its withdrawal timetable.

Samir Shakir Mahmoud Sumaidy, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States, said after recent talks with Obama and his aides that he believes the new administration will bring "some change, but I don't think a fundamental change" in the U.S. approach.

Officials of several Arab countries, though ambivalent about the U.S. presence, said they have been urging the Obama team not to scale back the Iraq troop presence in a way that risks an upheaval that could spill across the region.

Obama's advisors are split on the timetable issue, with some saying he remains committed to completing a combat troop withdrawal within 16 months of his inauguration.

Some of the advisors have suggested that Obama send top officials of his administration, perhaps including the secretaries of State and Defense, to begin consultations in the Middle East early next year. A campaign official said there were no plans yet to do so.

Obama also said during the campaign that he intended to conduct high-level talks with officials of the Iranian government. Now, however, some advisors are emphasizing the careful preparations needed before any such meeting.

"I don't think he needs to rush to that," said a third advisor. "He's made it clear that engagement will be a hallmark of this administration, but he never said that there wouldn't be the proper groundwork for engagement."

U.S. officials may want at least to postpone any high-level talks until after June, when Iran holds elections that will determine whether hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remains in office. Direct talks before then potentially could strengthen Ahmadinejad, who is under fire for Iran's steep economic downturn.

Obama is likely to move more quickly to publicly reaffirm the American commitment to the international effort to pressure Tehran to give up its nuclear ambitions. Persian Gulf countries and Israel, as well as others, want Obama to make it clear that he does not intend to ease off the economic and diplomatic pressure.

On Afghanistan, Obama has argued that the United States must give greater emphasis to combating extremism, by boosting troop levels, among other measures.

But he is coming to office at a time when U.S. and other Western officials are debating how to reshape strategy amid setbacks in the fight against Islamic militants. Developing a new approach is likely to take some time, advisors say.

Some aides expect Obama to name key Cabinet officials this month. But he could follow tradition and opt to withhold most foreign policy announcements until after his inauguration.

Darryl West, a political scientist at Brookings Institution, said presidents-elect generally avoid specifics about their policies until they are sworn in. Obama, he noted, has avoided particulars in comments on the economy.

"He sees a virtue in ambiguity," West said.


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