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reflections

Nov 5, 2008 | 05:09 GMT

4 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: President-Elect Barack Obama

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.
Barack Obama was elected president of the United States on Tuesday. The popular vote gave him a solid majority, but nowhere near a landslide. His electoral majority was decisive. Most significant of the night, the Democrats now control both houses of Congress and in the Senate are close to — but not quite at — a filibuster-proof majority. They decisively control two branches of government. Indeed, it is likely that they will be able to appoint one or even two justices to the Supreme Court in the next four years, controlling that as well. Obama will have more control of the federal government on his first day in office than most presidents ever achieve in their entire tenure. The crucial question will be whether it makes a difference. The shift from a Bush presidency to an Obama presidency will be a laboratory for testing one of STRATFOR's key contentions, which is that ideology and personalities are of secondary importance to the external forces that limit, shape and constrain a leader's options. The change between the government of the United States elected in 2004 and the government that will take power in January is as dramatic a shift in personalities and ideologies as is likely in the American system. The issue will be how much room for maneuver Obama will actually have, particularly in foreign policy. Consider: Obama has pledged to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, although his time frame is unclear. If he does withdraw them, he will have to deal with Iranians sooner rather than later, as they will want to move into any power vacuum left in Iraq. If the Iraqi government is unable to govern, or parts of it are under Iranian influence, obviously Iranian influence in Iraq will surge. This of course will deeply concern Saudi Arabia, which has been frightened of Iranian power since the Iranian revolution. Obama will face the choice of either leaving the Saudis to their own devices or containing the Iranians. The strategy he has said he would follow would be to negotiate with the Iranians. He would have to reach an understanding with them that would create a neutral Iraqi government and allow the United States to withdraw, yet have a credible guarantee from Iran to respect Iraqi neutrality and keep it as a buffer zone. What can the United States offer Iran that matches the importance of Iraq to them? That will be the point at which Obama will first show whether he can carve a new path or whether he will be trapped in the same reality the Bush administration faces. Unless he can reach an understanding with the Iranians, he cannot simply withdraw. We cannot imagine an offer to Iran that would cause Tehran to give up the goal of the domination of Iraq. But that is the laboratory experiment: Can Obama craft a solution that others can't see? If he can, then his withdrawal plan can be executed. If he can't, then it can only be executed at a huge potential cost prior to the next presidential election — and popularity among presidents is fleeting. Obama has won the presidency and therefore has shown himself to be a master politician. He does not want to create a disaster and lose the next election. Therefore, the question is: What will he do to fulfill the centerpiece pledge of his foreign policy? This is not a trick question, and the least important matter is whether STRATFOR's methodology is validated or not. What is important is that Obama, having won the election, will now have to face a range of foreign policy issues that will challenge his ideology and policies, and where his personality will matter little. He will be dealing with people like Vladimir Putin, Hu Jintao and Angela Merkel, none of whom are swayed by charisma and all of whom govern countries with interests very different than those of the United States. When policies encounter realities, harsh things happen to presidents. Most presidents are worn down by them. Some accommodate themselves. A few — a Lincoln or a Franklin Delano Roosevelt — find opportunities that no one else can quite see. The first test for Obama will be Iraq, to find an exit that isn't disastrous but fulfills his commitments. We don't see the path. It will be interesting to see if Obama can invent one — not only on Iraq but on a range of foreign policy issues that he's addressed.

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