Thursday, January 22, 2009

Mr Obama's international overtures deserve a response

In his first act as President, Barack Obama asked for the military tribunals at Guantanamo to be suspended. His request was interpreted, essentially, as a holding operation, preparing the way for the prison camp to be closed down. Above all, though, it was a signal, to America and the world, of how he intends his presidency to be different from his predecessor's.

It may be unfair to contrast the George Bush who emerged after 9/11 with the as yet internationally untested Barack Obama. But the new President was wise to start here. If there is one image that damned Mr Bush, and alienated Muslims around the world, it was the barbed wire and orange jumpsuits of Guantanamo. The legal limbo in which the camp existed – and was designed to exist – was ruled, even by a Supreme Court sympathetic to the Republicans, to violate the US Constitution.

The final closing of Guantanamo could, regrettably, take many months, some say years; the dilemma is what to do with the remaining prisoners. But unlike many foreign policy issues with which Mr Obama will have to grapple, the principle here is simple; it is also something that is entirely within the President's power to do. Almost everything else will be more complicated. But tone counts for a great deal in diplomacy, and the new President has introduced himself as someone who sees the world as peopled by potential friends, rather than potential enemies. When he said: "We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist", he was inviting former adversaries to countenance a new beginning: a more benign sort of security built on mutual self-interest.

It is important not to be starry-eyed about how much such a fresh approach might achieve, and how quickly. But the significance of a change in the atmosphere emanating from Washington should not be under-estimated either. Mr Obama has already indicated that many curbs on relations with Cuba could be lifted. One of the last vestiges of the cold war could thus be eradicated – and the lives of millions of Cubans eased.

An early visit to a Muslim country – an unofficial visit, perhaps, as informal as a presidential trip can be – could do an enormous amount to demonstrate goodwill. It has been speculated that Mr Obama might travel to Indonesia, where he spent some of his childhood years. More risky, but more geopolitically advantageous, might be a stopover in Pakistan. Mr Bush recruited the former Pakistan President, Pervez Musharraf as an ally in his "war on terror" – at great political expense to Mr Musharraf. New leaders in both countries could forge a more productive and understanding relationship.

Mr Obama has already set a provisional timetable for handing Iraq back to the Iraqis, as he put it, and made Afghanistan a priority – although many European countries, including Britain, will take some persuading before contributing more troops. But his most urgent challenge is the Middle East in the aftermath of Israel's attack on Hamas in Gaza. With his own openness to new ideas, and a team comprising Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell, Mr Obama has a chance here that he must not let slip.

We should not be disappointed in Europe to find ourselves further down Mr Obama's list. We should rather seek to assist the new President address conundrums, such as the Middle East, where only the US can take a lead. Mr Obama, for his part, must savour the few days or weeks he has to set his own agenda. It will be overtaken all too soon by the inevitable unforeseen events

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