Obama's Middle East Chess Game

What are we to make of the flurry of Middle East diplomacy that has accompanied the first 50 days of Barack Obama's presidency? The critics will naturally argue it is more of the same or too much too fast. But what the president's team appears to be doing is playing a careful game of diplomatic chess. And as any chess player knows, the opening is about properly positioning your pieces to generate as many opportunities as possible as you head into the middle and end game.

Rather than maximize flexibility, President George W. Bush's Middle East policies boxed in the United States. The invasion of Iraq undermined U.S. credibility in the region, causing some of our closest allies to question both our intentions and competence. The reckless saber rattling toward Iran and Syria closed the door on cooperation on issues of common interest. Bush's "war on terror" and his references to a "crusade" against terrorism convinced much of the world's Muslim population that the United States was at war with Islam.

Inheriting this situation, the Obama team has taken the imperative first step of creating options. This process began with the Inaugural Address in which the president called for a new relationship with the Muslim World based on "mutual interest and mutual respect." It continued with Obama's first interview as president, which was given to the Arab television station Al Arabiya and received overwhelmingly positive responses.

Perhaps the most critical step was the emphatic signal Obama sent when he stated that U.S. forces would be out of Iraq by the end of 2011 and reassured Iraqis and the region of the U.S.'s intentions: "The United States pursues no claim on your territory or your resources. We respect your sovereignty and the tremendous sacrifices you have made for your country. We seek a full transition to Iraqi responsibility for the security of your country."

The administration has pursued multiple avenues with Iran -- sending positive signals and harsh warnings as it keeps its options open. The president's statement that "it is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress" sent an early signal that overheated rhetoric toward Tehran would no longer substitute for American diplomacy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's invitation to include Iran in an upcoming conference on Afghanistan presents an opportunity on an issue where the two countries have cooperated before. But Clinton has also used powerful language to describe the threat posed by Iran, reassuring America's wary Arab allies as well as the Israelis. While in an attempt to obtain greater Russian support for stopping Iran's uranium-enrichment program, Obama has tied Iran's program to the deployment of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe -- a system Moscow views as a threat.

The decision to send two senior diplomats to meet with the Syrian government this past weekend represents another promising avenue. Since the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri of Lebanon in 2005, the Bush administration has refused to engage in any meaningful dialogue with Syria. When the Syrians began signaling interest in discussions with the United States and entered into Turkish-mediated talks with Israel in 2007, Bush's team objected. Greater dialogue with the Syrians could cause them to: limit their tilt toward Tehran, reduce their support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and potentially pave the way for progress on Arab-Israeli peace.

The appointment of Sen. George Mitchell as Middle East envoy only two days into Obama's presidency, Mitchell's subsequent two trips to the region, and Clinton's trip to the Gaza donor conference in Egypt, have all sent the message that Middle East peace will be a top priority for the Obama administration. Forging an Arab-Israeli peace will not magically solve all of America's problems in the region, but it will dramatically and positively reshape America's position. The need to engage is essential if the U.S. is to be seen as a credible actor in the Middle East.

Taken together, these initiatives maximize flexibility and set the table for what is to come. But as in chess, the middle and end game will be much more complex than the opening. What matters is how your opponent -- in this case, the various actors -- responds and how you adjust. The Obama team's longer-term strategy will be influenced by factors such as the Syrian, Iranian, and Russian reactions to early overtures; the type of governing coalition that forms in Israel; how the Palestinian split between Gaza and the West Bank is resolved; and whether things hold together in Iraq.

Still, it has been a strong opening. America's choices today are far greater than they were only 50 days ago.