Washington Matters


A New Spring for U.S. Diplomacy?



Diplomacy is busting out everywhere -- and not just the firm handshake and stiff smile for the cameras type of diplomacy, either. We're talking to China about more than the economy. We actually invited Iran to a meeting over Afghanistan. We're pushing Israel and Syria together for serious talks. And how's this for a golden oldie -- we and Russia are working to cut a deal before the end of the year that would reduce their nuclear weapons stashes.

In other words, President Obama is trying to deliver on a campaign promise to be more directly engaged with allies and antagonists alike and search for common ground. The burst of activity is encouraging.

The most dramatic advance was with Russia, of course. The announcement that a new arms reduction treaty was within sight signals that both countries are serious about improving ties that grew sour during the Bush administration. It seems likely that Obama will eventually try to keep things moving -- maybe even by scrapping planned anti-missile systems in eastern Europe that infuriated the Kremlin if Moscow is willing to work hard on Iran.

There was not as much concrete progress with China, but serious groundwork is being laid. Talks on economic issues that began under Bush are continuing, led on the U.S. side by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. But Clinton will be in charge of new strategic talks that will cover a host of sensitive issues, including the Sudan, Iran's and North Korea's nuclear ambitions and human rights.

Much further below the radar, the administration is trying to restart Middle East peace efforts, including encouraging talks between Syria and Israel. National security reporter Seymour Hersh describes the effort in the New Yorker this week and says, "A major change in American policy toward Syria is clearly under way."

The immediate goal of Syrian-Israeli talks is to reach a "land for peace" deal on the Golan Heights, which Israel seized in the 1967 Six Day War. But warming relations with Syria and eventually securing a Syrian-Israeli peace pact would also serve a broader strategic purpose: Isolating Iran. Syria has alarmed the United States and major Arab powers by cozying up to Iran despite Syrian fears that Iran has its eyes on neighboring Iraq. Pulling Syria back into the Arab camp and closer to Israel could diminish Iran's growing influence in the region. And Obama is slowly trying to increase pressure on Iran -- to drop any nuclear weapons programs and to be less disruptive in the region by supporting Palestinian and Lebanese extremist groups -- by enlisting the aid of two of its strongest sponsors, Russia and China.

All these moves indicate that Obama and his foreign policy team are not diplomatic naifs. It is certainly possible that any or all of these initiatives will stall out. But the simple idea that progress could be made on some of the most dangerous and thorniest issues facing the United States and the rest of the world is progress in and of itself.




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