- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency has freed the Bush administration to advance reconciliatory policies toward hostile foreign regimes in ways that would have been more difficult had Sen. John McCain won, diplomats and analysts said Wednesday.

Some of those policies, such as negotiating with North Korea and making overtures to Iran, represent a dramatic shift for President Bush and have been criticized repeatedly by many Republicans, including former administration officials.

Mr. Obama, however, praised those changes during the campaign, saying that the administration finally had gotten it right.

“We want to build on areas where there is some prospect of progress,” said a senior administration official involved in the transition, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak for Mr. Obama’s team.

“My sense is that you are probably going to see a fair amount of continuity in a number of those areas in terms of the substance of the approaches,” he said.

The official said the “hardest thing” during such a period is “to anticipate challenges and crises” — such as Russia’s threat Wednesday to deploy missiles near its border with NATO member Poland — but that the team is preparing for “decision points during the first six months of 2009.”

During briefings on controversial issues, “you put as dispassionately as you can where we are, how we got there and what are the options before you,” he said.

Diplomats said that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her team have prepared the ground for direct talks with Iran and progress on a nuclear deal with North Korea.

“The Department of State will do everything that we can, and I personally will do everything that I can, to make sure that this is a smooth transition,” Miss Rice told reporters, adding, “as an African American, I’m especially proud” of Mr. Obama’s election.

Although the administration opposes Mr. Obama’s call for unconditional talks with Iran, it has sent representatives to multilateral meetings with Iranian officials and is expected to announce its desire to send U.S. diplomats to staff a U.S. interest section in Tehran as early as this month.

“More than taking bolder steps, we are putting in place some processes,” a State Department official said. “If a decision to go ahead with an interest section is made, we’ll have a mechanism for dealing with the Iranian government.”

William J. Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, who took part in a multilateral meeting in July with Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, heads the State Department transition team, along with Patrick F. Kennedy, the undersecretary for management.

The department has set up “one-stop shopping” for the transition team on the first floor, where Mr. Obama’s nominees for secretary of state and other senior posts will be briefed by both career diplomats and political appointees.

“We are trying to move issues as far down a constructive path as we can and make as much progress as we can,” Mr. Burns said. “We’ll move quickly and do everything we can to accelerate the confirmation process, which will be very important given the pace lots of issues are moving.”

Officials predicted “continuity” on two of the five most urgent challenges — North Korea and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the other three — Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan — they said the new administration is likely to “build on” the Bush team’s recent policies and take them much further.

“There aren’t great alternatives on those issues,” the State Department official said. It is clear, he added, that more troops are needed in Afghanistan, Iran should not have a nuclear weapon, North Korea’s nuclear programs must be dismantled, troops in Iraq have to start pulling out, and an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal must be reached.

In the Middle East, where Miss Rice headed Wednesday night, “the next administration may well find itself in the midst of a Palestinian political crisis,” said Michael Eisenstadt, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas’ term expires in January, but he maintains that the law allows him to stay for another year so that presidential and parliamentary elections can be held at the same time.

“Although Hamas and the PA may find a way to resolve this matter peacefully by January 9, it also is possible that if Abbas does not step down, Hamas might engage in assassinations, kidnappings or violent demonstrations to loosen the PA’s grip in the West Bank,” Mr. Eisenstadt said.

On North Korea, if the Bush administration fails to secure approval in six-nation talks of a plan to verify a nuclear declaration submitted by Pyongyang in June, that should be Mr. Obama’s first priority, said Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, said the biggest challenge might come in Pakistan or Afghanistan.

“I would guess that al Qaeda is going to do everything possible to put [Mr. Obama] in a position where he has to kill Muslims as soon as possible, likely through civilian casualties in a Pakistani air raid,” she said. “That is the best way to counter his name and Muslim father and the overall good will that his election has generated even in the Muslim world.”

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