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Obama and the "reset" button

Fifty days into his presidency, Obama's foreign policy begins to take shape.

Though he endorsed Obama’s initiative, former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft warned the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that negotiations with Iran “will not be easy to organize." He added, “It is difficult to know who to talk to (in the Iranian leadership) … I don’t know if it can work at all.”

“If you could really get Syria to reorient itself away from Iran and Hezbollah, it you could really get Syria to … flip — that would be an enormous change in the region,” said Elliott Abrams, a foreign policy adviser to three Republican presidents, in a briefing for the Council on Foreign Relations. “So the prize is worth getting … (but) nobody believes that this is very likely.”

And another conservative foreign policy analyst, the American Enterprise Institute’s Leon Aron, wrote of the proposed missile deal with Russia: “Pretty neat. Worth a try. And bound to fail.”

Then there are questions about all those famous envoys — Richard Holbrooke, George Mitchell, Dennis Ross — dealing with overlapping issues in the Middle East. There are questions about Vice President Joe Biden’s prominent role in foreign policy, and about how all these officials will work with Clinton and Gates, National Security Adviser James Jones and Central Command’s Gen. David Petraeus.

“The turf fighting will continue for a while as people try to stake out their territory,” Abrams predicted.

The global economic crash may prove to be the biggest challenge of all. Some of Obama’s leading priorities — global warming, nuclear proliferation, Middle East peace — will bear heavy price tags, and require international unity. The worldwide recession will exacerbate differences and, at the very least, be a mighty distraction. Some suggest that, at least until the good times return, Obama should curb his audacious agenda in 2009.

“We can’t make the perfect the enemy of the good,” said former national security adviser Sandy Berger, ticking off a long and formidable series of treaty negotiations and international summits scheduled for this year on arms control, the economy, trade and the environment. Berger suggested that Obama prioritize.

To ask Congress to deal with all these issues — including health care reform and global warming — while grappling with the economic calamity may be too much, said Berger.

On climate change, for example, he suggested that the administration may want to use the international conference at Copenhagen in December as a way station, rather than a finish line, for global action on reducing warming gasses.

Strobe Talbott, the president of the Brookings Institution, agreed. “Defining what delivery on leadership means requires some realism about American politics,” he said. “I do not think it is realistic to expect that Congress, no matter what kind of push it gets from the executive branch, can do everything that ideally should happen on proliferation and climate change, or for that matter on the international financial crisis, because of the risk of blowing all the circuit boards.”

There is “the sense in Washington and around the world that Obama is president, everything is going to be fine,” Talbott said. “Well, no. This may be the most passionate marriage in history, but it’s going to be the shortest damn honeymoon that we’ve ever seen.”

Read more about Obama's foreign policy:

Inside the Hillary bubble

Why Obama needs to learn the rules of cricket

Hillary Clinton confronts reality in the Middle East