Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Art Of Listening

Much of the world has a lot of advice for President Elect Obama when it comes to foreign policy issues, as this week's foray to Watching America will attest. One of the pieces I most appreciated came from Rami Khouri in Lebanon's Daily Star, which should come as no surprise.

Mr. Khouri is clearly optimistic that President Obama will be able to turn around American foreign policy to the point that the US will once again be a welcome partner in world affairs. He bases that optimism on two recently published studies on how the US should deal with Iran and its nuclear ambitions. The fact the studies were published, Mr. Khouri makes clear, is itself the sign that better days are ahead:

Here enters the best of American political culture - the free flow of ideas based on quality scholarship, and a willingness to assess in public every aspect of a national or foreign policy issue. In recent weeks the US has witnessed a veritable gusher of studies and recommendations on Iran that mostly echo what many in the Middle East have been saying for years: Engage the Iranians through normal diplomatic channels, treat them with basic respect, abide by the same rules of law and international conventions that you want them to comply with, and negotiate mutually beneficial relationships based on equal rights for all, rather than the primacy of American or Israeli interests in the Middle East.

The first study comes from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The helpful synopsis which precedes the terse report by Karim Sadjadpour sets forth his recommendations:

The next U.S. president should:

Focus initially on areas where the United States and Iran share common interests, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than issues with little or no common interest, like the nuclear issue or the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

Refrain from any grand overtures to Tehran which risk redeeming Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s policies and enhancing his bid for reelection in June of 2009.

Deal with those who hold power in Iran, namely Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Avoid rhetoric that threatens violence. This only empowers Tehran’s hard-liners and paints the United States as the aggressor.

Maintain a multilateral approach. Tehran is highly adept at exploiting rifts in the international community.

Resist attempts by spoilers within Iran to torpedo a diplomatic breakthrough.

Pursue “secret” or “private” discussions—proven to have a greater success rate.

Support policies that facilitate, rather than impede, Iran’s modernization and reintegration in the global economy.

The second study is a product of the Iran Study Group led by Thomas Pickering and James F. Dobbins, both former US ambassadors with plenty of experience in this part of the world. Their report is published here (in Google's html replacement for the pdf file). The report contains "Five Key Steps the United States Should Take to Implement an Effective Diplomatic Strategy with Iran":

1.Replace calls for regime change with a long-term strategy.

2.Support human rights through effective, international means.

3.Allow Iran a place at the table – alongside other key states – in shaping the future of Iraq, Afghanistan and the region.

4.Address the nuclear issue within the context of a broader U.S. - Iran opening.

5.Re-energize the Arab-Israeli peace process and act as an honest broker in that process.

The important part of both studies is that they are documents about the real-world situation in Iran and the Middle East based on facts as they are by people who have studied the area and actually know things about it, not "cooked" intelligence reports that are being disseminated by neocons interested in inventing a new reality, one which bears little if any resemblance to the old, for purposes of American aggrandizement and imperialism. Both studies also make clear that any real progress for peace and stability in the Middle East will depend not on any American threat of military intervention but rather on sincere American diplomatic efforts.

Dealing with Iran in a forthright and honest manner is important for reasons beyond the Middle East, however. Our relationship with Russia has deteriorated over the past several years to the point that is more than a little reminiscent of the Cold War era, and, let's face it, neither country can afford another arms race. Yet that scenario is unfolding because of the Bush administration's insistence on a "missile defense system" placed on Russia's borders to protect our NATO allies from attacks from (yes, you guessed it) Iran. Remove Iran from the Axis Of Evil, and the excuse for the unnecessary expense of that inane defense system and the unnecessary agida from another Cold War are removed.

The trick, as Rami Khouri reminds us, is that President Obama will have to be willing to listen to the experts, all of them, and to hear what they have to say. Hopefully Mr. Obama has developed that talent to go along with his many others.

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