Old U.S. allies in doubt about friend status


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May 6, 2009
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September 22, 2009

A hallmark of President Obama's foreign policy has been to project a kinder and gentler United States to the world. That is, unless you happen to be Poland, the Czech Republic or Israel. Those nations have seen a little distance open between them and Washington in contrast to the George W. Bush years.

The latest development was Obama's decision to abandon plans to build an anti-missile complex based in Poland and the Czech Republic to counter any nuclear threat from Iran. One explanation was that Iran hasn't progressed as much as once thought in work on a long-range ballistic missile despite last winter's launch of a satellite. The better approach, the White House argued, is to develop sea- and land-based missile systems closer to Iran to counter medium- and short-range missiles.Even if that premise is true, and not everyone agrees with it, there's no arguing that Eastern Europeans feel they have been dumped to appease Russia. Moscow made no secret of its displeasure with the anti-missile complex even though it posed no threat to Russian military might. And it was long suspected Obama would sacrifice the anti-missile facilities in hopes of winning Moscow's cooperation in the effort to impede Iran's nuclear weapons program. Negotiations with Iran are set for Oct. 1, and Obama wants to hold the prospect of tough sanctions over Tehran's head.

Yet the Russians have never warmed to sanctions and often make nice talk about Iran. Just recently Russia's foreign minister expressed the view Tehran is developing domestic nuclear power generation, not a bomb. Moscow quickly offered international recognition of the stolen election results giving President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad another term. Finally, Russia, rich in oil and natural gas, might be comfortable with Middle East tensions that keep energy prices high.

The chill between the administration and Israel comes over the issue of settlements in the disputed territories. Halting the expansion of these communities has been a part of past peace plans. But Obama elevated the issue to such a crucial status that Palestinians who once talked with Israelis while construction continued now demand a total freeze on settlement building before agreeing to renewed negotiations.

Obama is set to meet today at the United Nations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Once hopes reigned of a breakthrough restart for negotiations. Now all sides play down that possibility.

The logic of putting daylight between America and Israel was to portray Obama as an honest peace broker in the Islamic world and convince the Palestinians that he constitutes their best hope for realizing a state. But the settlement focus has positioned Obama, who famously talked of diplomacy without preconditions with Iran, as contributing to establishing a Palestinian pre-condition for negotiations. The Israelis are said to be ready to declare a building moratorium of nine months. Yet that might not be enough for the new hard-line Palestinian position.

Indeed, Arab intransigence, not settlements, remains the major obstacle to peace. Ten days ago the former Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal, reiterated the Arab demand for not just a settlement freeze but for an Israeli abandonment of all the communities and a return to the so-called 1967 borders. Realistic peace proposals envision a land swap with Israel keeping the close-in communities where most of the settlers live. This land deal once seemed the easiest avenue for measurable progress. Maybe not anymore.

Should Obama's strategies bring Russia aboard to restrain Iran and prod the Palestinians toward a resolution of their long conflict with Israel, the president will have scored history-making success. But if not, other nations will look to his treatment of Poland, the Czech Republic and Israel and wonder: How reliable an ally is the United States?

Old U.S. allies in doubt about friend status :: CHICAGO SUN-TIMES :: Steve Huntley

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