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reflections

Feb 6, 2009 | 03:00 GMT

4 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Hard Choices for the Obama Team

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
A global security conference opens in Munich on Friday. In attendance will be key military and diplomatic personnel from every country in the world that has significant geopolitical weight (and quite a few more that do not). In terms of opportunities for leaders to meet and speak candidly to one another, there are no serious venues that compare in size and scope to the Munich Conference. NATO summits, for instance, bring together the allies, but relegate would-be members and Russia to the back rows — and there is not an Asian in sight. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum tosses all of the Pacific Rim leaders into one room, but doesn't involve the Europeans. The Middle East really has only the Arab League, and often that doesn't even attract all the Arab leadership. For the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, the Munich Conference means one thing: crunch time. Since taking office on Jan. 20, the Obama team has conveyed the feeling that it is still in transition. This is not intended as a criticism, but simply a statement of fact: Thus far, the world really does not have a feel for what the administration's foreign policy will look like. At Munich, however, the administration will have no choice but to start making hard choices and taking stances. Effective Friday, the transition is over. Interestingly, the U.S. secretaries of defense and state will not be in attendance in Munich. Instead, Vice President Joseph Biden will represent the United States — raising the possibility that he might have the kind of influence in the Obama administration that his predecessor, Dick Cheney, had in the Bush administration. Biden will have a full plate. The French are planning to formally re-enter NATO, the Germans are looking for more responsibility for European security policy, the American effort in Afghanistan could use more international help, and there is always the chance of running into the Iranians and having an impromptu meeting about the future of Iraq. But the man that Biden will not be able to avoid will be Sergei Ivanov, the Russian deputy prime minister and one of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's most reliable allies. The Obama team has inherited from the Bush and Clinton administrations a policy of broad and deep confrontation with Russia. This began with the rapid expansion of NATO, followed by deep economic and military penetration into Central Asia, and most recently has involved plans for ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems in Central Europe. The new administration is about to enter this confrontation head-first. Obama has pledged to focus U.S. military power on the war in Afghanistan — but expanding that war without becoming completely captive to Pakistani interests means finding a way to supply Western forces in Afghanistan without transiting Pakistan's territory. A few supplies might get shipped through Iran, but the bulk will need to come in from the north. That means transiting Central Asia — and Russia is undoubtedly the premier power in that neighborhood. Simply put, Obama's Afghanistan policy cannot succeed unless the Russians agree to allow supplies through. And Moscow will have a price for that. Ivanov has spent much of the past few days outlining precisely what that price will entail: limitations on BMD, a halt to NATO expansion, reduced American influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and a broad renegotiation of the series of treaties that ended the Cold War — treaties that are terrible for the Russians in 2009. It is a lengthy list of non-trivial issues, and not one that any American representative would be happy to receive, negotiate on or agree to. But that is Biden's bind. At base, Ivanov will present Biden and Obama with a choice: appease Russia or lose in Afghanistan.

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