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Hitting the 'reset' button

Opinion: Obama has taken on an extraordinary number of foreign policy challenges, but has he taken on too much, too soon?

Old hostilities die hard, however, 50 years in Cuba’s case, 30 in Iran’s. The inevitable two-steps-forward-one-back syndrome was made clear in Cuba’s case when Raul Castro said everything that divided us could be put on the table, and Fidel said no it could not.

From Iran, with its disparate centers of power, mixed signals are what you would expect. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says he is ready to put new proposals on the table to resolve differences with the west, and then goes back to blasting Israel. Then he turns around and demands a fair trial for Roxana Sabari, the imprisoned Iranian-American journalist who has been sentenced to eight years for espionage. Look for her to be released later this year as a humanitarian gesture.

The response from Iran’s speaker of the parliament, Ali Larijani, to Obama’s sunshine was revealing. He said: “Our problem with America is not an emotional problem,” but then went on to demonstrate that it was. “America must know that this is a complex problem that goes back 30 years,” he said. “The Americans stood against the Islamic State of Iran by supporting Saddam in his eight-year war against Iran.”

Other Iranians will go back half a century in the grievance game, to when the CIA engineered a coup against Mohammed Mossadegh to keep the Shah upon his throne.

Time and patience will be needed in trying to begin new relationships, and Obama knows that he has to make sure that old allies are not hurt and surprised by gestures towards old enemies. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Beirut was largely to reassure Lebanon that no deal would be made with Syria that hurts Lebanon.

The Israel-Palestine issue will be a tough nut to crack with a new right-wing government in Jerusalem. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a past master at foot-dragging when it comes to land for peace deals. But the administration has already hinted that Israel cannot expect the same old green light that the Bush administration bestowed for anything it wants to do to the Palestinians.

Optimists point out that big and unexpected breakthroughs can come from right-wing leaders. Did not Menachem Begin agree to give back the Sinai to Egypt? Didn’t Ariel Sharon get Israel out of Gaza? But don’t expect any Nixon to China mega-shifts from Netanyahu without a lot of push from Obama, and maybe not even then.

If Obama is serious about really trying for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine question he absolutely has to put unrelenting and unbearable pressure on Israel to stop settlement expansion in the West Bank — something that no American nor Israeli government has ever managed to do.  

For Which it Stands: 100 Days

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