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An Obama impact on Bush's positions?

To an amazing extent, Bush foreign policy seems to be turning toward the positions of Barack Obama.

On Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and other issues, the administration was shifting gears just as the Illinois senator left on his overseas voyage. Some of these changes were forced on the White House by events. Some reflect late recognition that policies were not working.

These shifts may well boost Obama when he argues that his approach to foreign policy is best. Such arguments will only work, however, if he refrains from hubris. His foreign policy speeches reveal a man still on a learning curve.

Let's hope he listens and learns on his whirlwind trip.

Recent policy shifts at the White House have been quite stunning. On Friday, after talks between President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the White House announced that the United States and Iraq will seek a "general time horizon" for deeper troop reductions. This was a Maliki demand that the White House had not anticipated or sought.

Bush officials insisted this was not an "arbitrary date for withdrawal," like the 16-month deadline Obama has promised for a U.S. troop exit. Yet Maliki has changed the tone of the U.S. political debate during the campaign season. It is now harder for Bush or John McCain to denounce Obama for talking of timelines.

Moreover, just in time for Obama's arrival, Maliki dropped a bombshell. In an interview with Der Spiegel, he said a U.S. withdrawal should come "as soon as possible." He then said Obama's timeline of "about 16 months" would "be the right time frame for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes."

The Iraqi prime minister has an eye on coming Iraqi elections. His party is tiny, but his nationalist stance will resonate with many Iraqis who are fed up with occupation, even though they may fear their army cannot yet provide security without U.S. military aid. Kurds and Sunnis in particular are nervous. Two to three years would be a better target for U.S. troop withdrawal.

Obama's Iraq speech on Tuesday underestimated the slow, but real, progress toward new political parties and alliances. Any timeline should be gauged to solidify this progress.

And his big idea — to promote regional diplomacy that would help stabilize Iraq — would be undercut by rigid insistence on a withdrawal date. Here Iran is key. If the Americans were already on their way out, Tehran would have no incentive to agree on a regional pact; Iraqi leaders would feel more obliged to do Iran's bidding.

In Obama's favor, Iraqis seem set to help the next president achieve a dramatic pullout in his first term. If he seeks a stable end to the war, he should listen closely to Iraqi leaders (not just Maliki) and U.S. commanders. A rigid timeline could undercut his goals.

U.S. policy is also trending Obama's way on Afghanistan. He has called for a shift in focus and troops from Iraq to Afghanistan to fight against al-Qaida on the Afghan-Pakistani border. McCain has insisted that the central front in the antiterrorism fight is Iraq.

But al-Qaida and the Taliban have regrouped in Pakistan's tribal areas, from which jihadis are now attacking Afghanistan. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, has practically been begging for more U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Last week, McCain finally called for sending three more U.S. brigades to that country. This month, Bush also promised to send more troops by year's end.

Then there is Iran, where U.S. policy also took a sharp turn last week, again in Obama's direction. He has called for direct U.S.-Iranian talks without preconditions.

In a stunning about-face, the White House sent a top U.S. official, William Burns, to join this weekend's multilateral talks with Iran on its nuclear policy. This reverses years of refusal to meet face to face with Iran on nuclear talks before Tehran suspended its enrichment of uranium.

Condoleezza Rice has said Burns' appearance is a one-shot deal and does not signify a shift. European officials who are also taking part in the talks beg to differ. One told reporters it was a "major change."

No doubt the Europeans recalled the shift this year in U.S. policy toward North Korea. After years of refusing, the White House finally permitted a U.S. envoy to talk directly to North Korean officials on the sidelines of multilateral talks. An agreement was then reached.

Iran is a much harder nut to crack. But permitting Burns to attend talks is an apparent signal to Tehran that the United States prefers diplomacy to bombs at a time when rumors of possible U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities are rife. To her credit, Rice appears to recognize that diplomacy-cum-sanctions is the better option; unfortunately, Washington is getting serious much too late.

Foreign policy events are trending Obama's way if he is flexible enough to take full advantage. Beyond the crowds and the rallies abroad, let's hope Obama's voyage is a learning experience. And one carried out with an open mind.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

An Obama impact on Bush's positions? 07/22/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 23, 2008 3:20pm]
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