Geopolitical Diary: Obama’s Visit to the White House
November 10, 2008
U.S. President George W. Bush has invited President-elect Barack Obama to the White House. Such visits are normal protocol, and wives are part of the visit. Many times such visits come later in the transition, provide for a photo opportunity that assures the country that the transition is amicable and leave policy issues out of it. It will be interesting to see if this meeting has more substance, because there are certain issues that are not only pressing, but on which Obama and Bush might need to coordinate — even if they have different policies.
The first is obviously the G-20 meeting to be held in Washington on Nov. 15. Labeled as Bretton Woods II by some European leaders, the meeting is intended to discuss the future of the international financial system. Some Europeans want to create a robust international regulatory regime — or as might be put by cynics, a means whereby the Europeans have increased control over the American financial system. The first meeting will not be the last. A process is going to be put in place at this meeting. Bush’s inclination is to resist the more extreme European demands. It is not clear what Obama’s policy is. Obama will not be at the meeting, under the principle that the U.S. has only one president at a time — and to hold open his options. But his presence will be felt. These talks will set up the process under which Obama will negotiate. Bush and Obama might want to discuss this.
Second, there is Iran. Prior to the election, the administration was leaking the idea that Bush would establish low-level diplomatic relations with Iran after the election and before the winner — now known to be Obama — takes office. The theory was that such relations were essential and that Bush wanted to take the onus of establishing relations away from his successor, freeing him to deal directly with the Iranians. The Iranians formally congratulated Obama on his victory — the first such congratulations since the Iranian revolution. Obama, at his press conference, reacted coolly to the congratulations, reiterating demands that Iran stop nuclear development and not support terrorist groups. Obama is again keeping his options open. However, if the leaks from the administration genuinely signaled a desire by Bush to open diplomatic relations to free Obama to negotiate while Bush takes the heat, then Obama will have to let Bush know that he wants this — or at least go on record with Bush that he doesn’t.
Finally, there is the question of a coordinated stance on Russia. The Russians have just announced that they intend to deploy Iskander short-range ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad as a counter to a U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) installation slated for Polish soil. Obama’s advisers have also insisted that their camp has made no firm commitments on this installation either way, repudiating claims by Polish President Lech Kaczynski that the new American president-elect had assured him of firm support during a phone conversation on Nov. 8. On Nov. 7, news leaked that investigators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have discovered the obvious, which is that Georgian troops started the war with Russia by attacking South Ossetia first. The deployment of missiles, the caution on BMD deployment in Poland and support for the Russian version of what happened in Georgia all combine to create new issues and opportunities in U.S.-Russian relations. It remains Bush’s responsibility to deal with this, but clearly, knowing where Obama wants to go on this would be useful to the transition.
The Russia question can hold, but the other two issues are pressing. It would be extremely useful to the international markets to know what the American position at the G-20 is going to be and whether it will remain the same after Jan. 20, 2009. The markets have all the uncertainty they need and could use a joint position. The Iranian recognition issue is critical. We suspect that Bush is prepared to move on this but needs an indication that this is the direction Obama wants to go. It is pointless and possibly harmful to open diplomatic relations if Obama is heading in a different direction.
All transition periods have important questions, but normally there is little need for coordination. Things will wait and if policies change, they change. In the case of the G-20 and Iran, that is not quite the way it is. True, the world will not end if Bush zigs and Obama zags, but in these two matters it would be enormously helpful if a seamless position could be devised. Russia is somewhat less pressing, but Obama already seems to have taken a position, and therefore the issue is in play.
The question is whether Obama is ready to define even preliminary positions on either the G-20 or Iran. Election rhetoric is very different from policy formation, and no president-elect, a week after his election, is quite ready to implement policy. But the G-20 is days away, and the situation in Iran is fluid. It will be interesting to see if the Nov. 10 meeting between Bush and Obama is tea and a tour, or a serious working session. Obviously, aides can work out a detailed coordination, but the principals have to seal the deal. We will find out on Monday what kind of transition we have, and what might happen in the interim.