BOSTON — America has "only one president at a time," Barack Obama used to say during the transition. Now he can duck but he can't hide. The world that George W. Bush bequeathed has now been dumped into the 44th president's lap.
Unquestionably, his most pressing foreign policy problem is Pakistan, to which Afghanistan is but a side bar. Al Qaeda is now well established in Pakistan, and really doesn't need Afghanistan any more. Pakistan, the world's second most-populous Muslim nation, has nuclear weapons that the West fears could fall into Islamist hands, a rising Islamic insurgency, and a fragile democracy often mired in corruption. The government is weak and the military strong, with a record of expelling leaders it doesn't care for. The intelligence services have at times shown sympathy for Islamic extremism and the Taliban.
It will take skill and patience to nudge Pakistan towards stability. One of the worst ideas Obama expressed during the campaign was that he would attack Al Qaeda inside Pakistan without Pakistan's permission. The last thing America needs is increased popular sympathy for Al Qaeda, putting Pakistan's cooperation with the U.S. in an tenuous position.
In the Middle East, Obama's predecessor has left him with an unparalleled mess. Richard Haass, of the Council of Foreign Relations, and Martin Indyk, of the Brookings Institution, write that "failure to achieve a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict at the end of the Clinton administration ... the Bush administration's costly war in Iraq, its unsuccessful attempt to impose democracy on Arab authoritarian regimes, and its willful disregard of the Palestinian issue for most of its two terms" has done much to diminish America's influence in the region.
Iraq may be a lesser problem. Both Washington and Baghdad agree on U.S. withdrawal timing. Iraq needs to be carefully managed, but not radically changed at this point.
What does need immediate attention is the Arab-Israeli issue, and Obama has made it clear that he wants to provide it early on. A majority of the Israeli people now favor a two-state settlement, if their security can be guaranteed. But the Palestinians are hopelessly divided, and that will take work. Dealing with Hamas, no matter how distasteful, is going to be necessary. Hamas is an important factor in the equation, more so since the Israeli invasion of Gaza. The outlines of a settlement are clear to everyone. What's needed is a jolt to political will.
More attention should be paid to Syria, helping promote a deal with Israel, rather than opposing it as Bush's team did.
Iranian power has been enormously enhanced by the Bush administration. Iran now wields great influence in the Shiite regions of Iraq, and the Sunni world is scared to death. The Bush administration tried "we don't talk to evil." Later, the line became: You do what we want first, and then we will think about talking to you.
In their joint study, "Restoring the Balance, a Middle East strategy for the next president," Haass and Indyk rightly say that "we should offer direct official engagement with the Iranian government, without preconditions. " Obama should repeal Bush's "axis of evil," the most damaging statement to American interests that George W. Bush ever made.
The Bush administration thought fear would coerce Iran. We need to lessen the fear factor to persuade Iran that it does not need nuclear weapons to defend itself, and that the U.S. respects Iran as a regional power. It won't be easy, but as an Iranian spokesman recently said, Iran is ready to respond in an "appropriate and timely" way to any changes in U.S. behavior to the country.
We can explore mutual interests. General David Petraeus recently pointed out that in Afghanistan, for example, the U.S. and Iran have a mutual interest in preventing the Taliban from re-capturing the country. In short, the kind of "grand bargain" that the Iranians once tentatively put forward, might be explored again.
The U.S. has some leverage. With armies on two borders Iran feels hemmed in by hostility. One of the good things Bush did was refusing to cooperate with Israel in bombing Iran. Obama can build on this. The Bush administration also began covert actions, which could be a bargaining chip. And then there are the sanctions, which won't work alone, but the lifting of which could provide carrots.
It may not be possible to completely defuse American-Iranian hostility, but it could be taken off the boil. I doubt it, but just maybe Iran could decide it doesn't need nuclear weapons if the political climate improves.
What's clear is that presidential engagement in the region is necessary. For, as Haass and Indyk say, what happens in the Middle East tends not to stay in the Middle East.