July 15, 2009

Back from "resetting" relations with Russia and then conferring with the G8-plus before stopping over in Ghana, U.S. President Barack Obama continues a full court press on resolving concurrently the myriad of crises, dangers and issues facing the nation.

If the veritable fairy godmother could grant Obama three wishes to help him, choosing them could prove to be the most daunting of the president's problems. But here are three wishes that at least are theoretically obtainable.

If relations with Russia are to be truly reset, revoking the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, contained in Title IV of the 1974 Trade Act signed into law in early 1975 by President Gerald Ford, would be the single most symbolic act the president could take. That law, drafted in the midst of the Cold War, denied unconditional normal trade relations to countries with non-market economies and restricted emigration rights. Even though the Soviet Union imploded 20 years ago, the legislation still stands. And, since 1994, Russia has been found in compliance with the amendment's freedom of emigration requirements.

President George W. Bush promised President Vladimir Putin he would end Jackson-Vanik. Congress refused. Now if the current president could use one of his three wishes and rescind the amendment, there could be no better signal sent presaging a new and better era in U.S.-Russian relations. Given congressional opposition, it would probably take a miracle. Nonetheless, it is about time that this relic of times past left the scene.

At the top of the list of the administration's greatest potential threats and dangers are Iran and its regional ambitions, not the least of which includes a nuclear component. The recent, disputed elections accompanied by large public protests and strong government repression generated the hope in Washington for political change in Iran. As an Iranian-American friend of mine observes, such views are naive. The protesters and their supporters were largely driven not so much by expectations of overthrowing the government as by aspirations for greater personal freedoms. And the criticism of the government over the elections by a substantial number of clerics suggested a political struggle for control of power rather than a real revolution a la 1979 and the fall of the shah.

The issue is not whether the president should have taken a stronger rhetorical stand while also imposing stricter sanctions on Iran. The issue is whether encouraging this political battle is in not only America's interest but also in the region's as whoever emerges in power will still continue many of Iran's policies. However, a different leadership might prove to be less hostile to the United States.

The key to the debate in Iran resides not in Qom or Tehran but in Iraq. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has extraordinary influence and far greater theological authority than Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. By voicing even muted criticism of the election and hence support of the opposition clerics from Qom, the legitimacy of the Iranian leadership would be weakened. Sistani has proven fiercely non-sectarian and apolitical, so it would take a magical wish to change his mind. Still, Sistani could have a powerful and probably very positive influence on enhancing regional stability through a regime in Tehran more open to dialogue.

The third and final wish is the most important. Obama has elected to take on nearly simultaneously the toughest foreign and domestic issues facing the nation, from nuclear disarmament to healthcare reform, the environment, energy and the economy. Supporters, including Colin Powell, have cautioned Obama not to overload an already broken process of government with such a massive number of undertakings. But Obama has a broader challenge.

When asked why he disliked puddings, Winston Churchill retorted "because they lack a theme." While the Obama White House has a number of individual strategies for each issue, it does not have yet an overarching theme that links and integrates the many parts. Interestingly, the last president who did have an overarching strategy was Richard Nixon and the doctrine that bore his name.

The Nixon Doctrine rested on using China as a counterweight to the Soviet Union and assigning security responsibilities on the United States for overall deterrence while relying more heavily on regional allies to assume greater roles in their neighborhoods. Nixon tried but was less successful in marrying economic and security policies into a coherent strategic approach. A new and updated Nixon Doctrine is sorely needed.

Such a strategy should be based on using bilateral and multilateral partnerships to build peace and prosperity. The Obama administration has begun to do that. But, less than six months in office, it has not had the time to produce such a theme to make a pudding acceptable to Churchill. That must be its next priority no matter how crowded the agenda may be.

Harlan Ullman is a member of the Atlantic Council's Strategic Advisors Group and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the National Defense University.  This essay was originally published as "Three Very Big Wishes" in the Outside View column, part of UPI's Emerging Threats analysis section.

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