President Obama is making good on his campaign pledge to reach out to countries with whom relations were strained during the Bush years. The administration has made a significant overtures to Syria and Turkey today, following yesterday’s outreach to Russia and Iran.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Saturday that talks were underway between two U.S. representatives and Syrian officials in Damascus.
The Obama administration’s decision to send Jeffrey Feltman, the top State Department envoy on the Mideast, and Daniel Shapiro from the White House to Syria was the most significant sign yet that it is ready to improve relations with the Syrian government after years of tension. The two American officials held talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem shortly after arriving in the Syrian capital Saturday. But it was not clear whether they would meet with President Bashar Assad during the visit, which was ignored by state-run newspapers in an indication of Damascus’ cautious approach.
Clinton also said President Barack Obama will visit Turkey in the “next month or so.” At a news conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, she said Obama had asked her to deliver the message that he would visit soon and said the two allies will consult on the safest, most effective way to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq.
In all cases, the countries in question have “welcomed” the outreach but it remains to be seen whether the real policy differences behind the strain can be dealt with.
There is some minor encouragement on the Iran front, according to AP‘s Dusan Stojanovic.
Iran is weighing a U.S. invitation to a high-level conference on Afghanistan, its foreign minister said Friday. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told Serbian state TV that, “I’m not saying that we will attend, but that we are considering whether to attend.”
Mottaki said during a visit to Belgrade that Iran would announce its decision during a visit by Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini to Tehran this month. “Our strategy is the return of peace and stability in Afghanistan,” Mottaki said, adding that Washington is to blame for the region’s deteriorating security.
International efforts in Afghanistan have had limited contributions from Iran in recent years. President Barack Obama has expressed interest in a broad warming of bilateral relations. The Obama administration is reformulating its strategy in Afghanistan, where Taliban violence is dramatically rising. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton proposed the session, which could be held at the end of the month.
The U.S. “has to accept that for the past seven years it has led wrong policies in Afghanistan,” Mottaki said. “If now, in 2009, you would ask any Afghan if the security situation is better now, he would say no,” Mottaki said. “If you would ask him if there is less extremism, he would say there is more. He would also say that there are more drugs in Afghanistan than before.”
“Who has led the military operations in Afghanistan? That one has to take the consequences,” he said, referring to the U.S.-led coalition.
This is not the language of a long lost friend eager to mend fences. That’s not surprising, considering how radically different the political cultures and interests of the two countries are.
It is, however, dialog. To the extent that there’s room for cooperation at all, it won’t come without that. So, while not much, it’s at least something.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.