Certain Uncertainties

Obama talked a lot about his foreign-policy plan during the campaign. Now that he’s president-elect, will he stick to it?

Given the breadth of president-elect Barack Obama's appeal and political talent, the Democrats may have just found their Ronald Reagan. Just like the Gipper, Democrats will surely invoke Obama's name for decades to come to promote an array of policies-and candidacies. Indeed, much of the nation's jubilation is well deserved. After eight years of the Bush administration's misrule, government function and oversight seem to have collapsed across a broad spectrum and the country is in an appalling state of disrepair-from soft power to hard power and from hardware to economic health. Another four to eight years of continued war and brinkmanship-which could have been an outcome of a McCain administration-would have caused long-term, perhaps permanent, damage to the country.

But while there are a number of impressive known knowns about Obama, there are also some known unknowns and perhaps even unknown unknowns. On top of that, there are some discouraging known knowns.

One of those prominent known knowns, for example, was Obama's proposal to meet with Iran's leaders without preconditions. Obama was the only major candidate to do so during the campaign, and given Iran's current nuclear program. This decision required political bravery and bold judgment.

But a known unknown is how Obama can make any such discussion with the Iranians successful, given his publicly stated position to Iranian uranium enrichment. At a speech at AIPAC in March 2007, Obama said, "The world must work to stop Iran's uranium enrichment program and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons." While it is true that Obama may have left himself some latitude on the question of Iranian uranium enrichment in this and other comments on the matter, Iran's nuclear program is a matter of national pride. Even those Iranians who do not want their country to develop nuclear weapons and do are not fond of the clerical regime or the "elected" president support the program. Demanding a halt to Iranian uranium enrichment could be a non-starter and might not be politically viable for Tehran.

Some observers-including Dennis Ross, now a key adviser to Obama-have argued that even Iran's uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes would be unacceptable due to the ambiguity it presents. But given Iran's resurgent power in the region-due in very large part to the Iraq War-the global community should consider itself quite fortunate if it has only this ambiguity to reckon with. An Iranian nuclear program for the purpose of generating energy is admissible under the Nonproliferation Treaty and, if coupled with credible inspections, would probably not destabilize the region.

By proposing to meet with Iran's leaders without preconditions, Obama has implicitly recognized Tehran's strengthened hand. But in other comments, he appears to overestimate the sway that the United States and its allies have over the country. As he told AIPAC,

The United States' leverage is strengthened when we have many nations with us. It puts us in a place where sanctions could actually have a profound impact on Iran's economy. Iran is highly dependent on imports and foreign investment, credit and technology. And an environment where our allies see that these types of investments in Iran are not in the world's best interests, could help bring Iran to the table.

Certainly, sufficiently broad sanctions would have a profound impact on Iran. But given the cooperation that the United States needs from Iran with regard to Iraq under all circumstances-whether U.S. troops remain or are largely drawn down-Iran holds considerable leverage over the United States. And the United States and its allies are in almost dire need of the energy resources Iran provides to the global market, both in a recession-to keep oil prices down to facilitate a recovery-and during an uptick, when the energy supplies are in greater demand.

Another circumstantial problem with Obama's proposal is who he is to meet with. President Ahmadinejad has suffered serial political defeats and will more than likely lose the presidency in the country's next elections. If Obama were to meet with Ahmadinejad before then, he could unduly strengthen the Iranian president's standing. And at any rate, any Iranian president holds limited authority.

Further, the Bush administration could, in its waning days, still decide to take military action against Iran. This scenario may not seem likely, but it cannot be discounted. Such an occurrence would surely neutralize any reasonable Iran strategy.

With Iraq, there are too many unknown unknowns to contemplate. The pivotal element of Obama's Iraq plan is his stated intention to withdraw troops over an estimated sixteen-month timeframe. That proposal, along with his early public opposition to the Iraq War, was instrumental in Obama's primary victory. But he has imbued the plan with a number of known unknowns, such as the stipulation that a redeployment depends upon conditions on the ground and a pledge to keep a residual force (of unspecified size) in Iraq to counter al-Qaeda.

The known knowns of an Obama-facilitated Israeli-Palestinian peace accord do not augur well. An American president is not expected to be an alchemist, and if the political determination is not strong enough to create an accord, an Obama administration could not will it into existence. But most experienced observers concur that the international community would have to pressure both sides to accept the parameters of a deal.

Obama has already said, in the AIPAC speech, that he will not be assuming such a role. "But in the end, we also know that we should never seek to dictate what is best for the Israelis and their security interests. No Israeli prime minister should ever feel dragged to or blocked from the negotiating table by the United States."