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Published: Wednesday, 12/10/2008

Obama has chance to make sharp turns in foreign policy

WITH respect to foreign policy, President-elect Barack Obama is in the ideal situation of having a relatively clean slate to write on. He can make some sharp turns at this point and probably resolve some long-standing problems for the United States and the world.

The amount of time that he has to do this will shrink rapidly as the usual collection of interest-driven "experts" begin to circle around the new administration and try to shut off his options.

There are at least five policy areas where he needs to set clear guidelines quickly, before the concrete starts to harden around old positions based on advice from "veteran" advisers.

Cuba: American policy for decades has been to stiff the regime in Havana, waiting for the death of Fidel Castro. It didn't change much when Fidel began to fade from the scene and his brother Raul took over, even though this presented a basis upon which to update 1959-vintage U.S. policy.

If the goal is change in Cuba, it is clear that the United States would have had much more positive impact in Cuba over the past half century by engagement with it, as opposed to constantly taking negative steps based on the delusion that the Havana regime would somehow, one day, fail.

Mr. Obama could make an unequivocal, sharp change in the direction of U.S. policy toward Cuba and make matters better for Cubans, for Cuban-Americans, and for America. It is crazy for the United States to have bad relations with a tiny, weak country 90 miles offshore.

Syria: The United States could substantially improve the climate in a sensitive foreign policy region by repairing its relationship with this major player in the Middle East.

In 2000, long-time Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad was succeeded by his much more modern son, Bashar al-Assad, now 43. Rather than taking that as an opportunity to mend U.S. relations with Syria, the Clinton and Bush administrations concluded that the son was as bad as the father and that Bashar would have to take some action to deserve our talking to him. It never happened.

Everyone agrees that the problem of the Golan Heights, taken from Syria by Israel in the 1967 war, is the main bone of contention between Syria and Israel and actually is not that hard to resolve.

Mr. Obama could make its resolution the first item on his Middle East peace agenda, scoring some quick points and signing Syria on to finding a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Hamas: Anyone with any understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian problem knows it cannot be resolved until some measure of unity, or at least cooperation, is reached between the rival Fatah and Hamas organizations on the Palestinian side of the table. The Bush Administration has tried to get rid of Hamas, even though it won Palestine's free, democratic elections and then defeated Fatah on the battlefield in the Gaza Strip. It is an utterly unrealistic position for the United States to take.

Mr. Obama could cut through the nonsense by announcing that his administration wishes to establish a dialogue with Hamas and that he would send to Gaza his new secretary of state, Sen. Hillary Clinton, to talk with Hamas leaders at their earliest convenience.

A top item on her agenda should be encouraging talks between Hamas and Fatah. With the Palestinians speaking as much as one as possible and the Israeli elections out of the way in the spring, a much more fruitful approach to finding an Israeli-Palestinian settlement should become possible.

Somalia: Who will govern this African nation is an issue made even more complicated now by pirates preying on international shipping off its shores and the need for a flotilla of warships to try to keep them in check. The country was under control until the Bush Administration supported the Ethiopian invasion in 2006 that overthrew the Islamic Courts government that had been governing Somalia with some success, in relative peace and tranquility.

The Islamic Courts forces are now almost at the point of taking control of Somalia again and the Ethiopians are pulling out at year's end, so it wouldn't be much of a flip-flop for the new Obama administration to tell the Islamic Courts' leaders that the United States acknowledges their rule, won't bother them militarily, will expect them promptly to rein in the pirates and will continue humanitarian aid.

Rwanda: It is generally agreed that the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a humanitarian, economic, and political disaster with literally millions of Congolese dead or displaced in recent years. One serious contributor to the mayhem is neighboring Rwanda, which provides unhelpful military support to the rebel Tutsi forces of Gen. Laurent Nkunda in the eastern Congo.

Rwandan support for the rebels could be shut down by telling the Rwandans that their substantial aid from the United States will be cut sharply if they don't stop helping General Nkunda.

In this way, President Obama quickly could resolve five serious problems and fix some obsolete, badly flawed U.S. foreign policies with a few sharp moves. Can we imagine what it would mean for the United States for us to begin to get a new reputation for effective problem-solving in the world? He can do this.

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.



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