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Obama's Foreign Policy Chess Games Begin

February 9, 2009

Before all his pawns are in place, President Obama has begun multiple foreign policy chess games with the Réti Opening. Named after chess Grandmaster Richard Réti, who used it to defeat World Chess Champion José Raúl Capablanca in 1924, the opening is best described as a series of moves "rife with transpositional possibilities." If you're not sure what that means, that's the effect Réti and Obama likely intended.

Obama’s queen in the global game, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, moves multiple squares next week in Asia. Knight Richard Holbrooke, in South Asia, moves to Kabul, Islamabad, and Delhi after attending the Wehrkunde Conference this past weekend on security policy in Munich, Germany, with rooks Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Advisor James Jones. It's Israel's move in the Middle East. Who makes it depends on the outcome of Israel’s election. Meanwhile, Obama reportedly is laying the groundwork for a match with Iran's president while he considers how to react to Russia's opening moves.

In her first foreign trip as secretary, February 15-22, Clinton will visit Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China “to discuss issues including the global financial crisis and climate change.” Japan remains the US most important ally in Asia, but China's leaders, grandmasters in international gamesmanship, will be the most important and challenging officials she meets with.

China’s currency manipulation, a major factor in the global financial crisis, will be a major topic of discussion behind closed doors. Rapidly dwindling consumer demand in the US and around the world threatens the booming Chinese economy. The exploding US national debt makes the Chinese nervous about lending the US more money. Don’t expect China to give anything more than lip service to climate change.

Chinese leaders will lodge the obligatory complaints about US arms sales to Taiwan as they carefully consider their opening moves. China’s objectives remain: use good US-China relations to benefit its economic growth, build military capabilities to counter US forces in Asia, and limit US arms sales to Taiwan as it woos the island back into the fold. The big question is, will US financial dependence on China and the need for its help with North Korea give China the upper hand in the competition as it did with President Bush?

In India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, Holbrook will encounter a broad range of players. Indian leaders play at multiple levels. Afghanis remain novices at the game. Pakistanis are intermediate players. Holbrooke, like fellow knight and special envoy George Mitchell the week before last in the Middle East, will be on a 'listening tour" and will report back to Obama and Clinton. India, however, already has warned Obama not to try a Kashmir gambit.

In Afghanistan, Clinton’s stated intention is to expand State Department involvement, something welcomed by Secretary of Defense (bishop) Robert Gates. The likely nomination of retiring Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, a previous commander of US forces in Afghanistan, as the US Ambassador in Kabul, supports that aim. Nevertheless, Afghanistan remains a war zone and principally the Pentagon’s problem until it stems the Taliban’s resurgence with an additional 30,000 US troops. Clinton’s task is to figure out how to reduce the drug trade and plan for the longer term.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan presents an equally difficult challenge. President Asif Ali Zardari, wants and needs US assistance. He and the Pakistani military work with the US to fight al-Qaeda, hiding out in Pakistan’s cities and in the tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. But domestic politics limit what he can do, and he's been unsuccessful at controlling Kashmir independence groups that launch terrorist attacks in India like they did recently in Mumbai. The US can’t push Pakistan too hard and risk the government and it's nuclear weapons falling into unfriendly hands.

Israelis, advanced players known for their direct and aggressive moves, will choose a new leader in their February 10 election. Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and the right-wing Likud Party likely will return to power, although it will be a close election and whoever wins must form a coalition with other parties. Netanyahu has vowed to remove Hamas from power in the Gaza Strip if elected, which will further complicate Obama's Middle East strategy and won’t make it any easier for him to launch an effective peace initiative.

Obama will be the sixth US president since Jimmy Carter to take on the Israelis and the Palestinians across the checkered squares of Middle East politics. Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, both backed by Iran, have made playing the game extremely difficult. You can’t make peace with people who don’t want peace; and forcing agreements on Israel that can’t last will only lead to even bigger problems down the road.

Iranians, like the Chinese, have played international chess for thousands of years. Their team leader, however, keeps pursuing the same stale strategy. If, or when, Obama meets with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Obama must exercise extreme caution that he doesn’t make Ahmadinejad look like a better player than he really is, thus assuring his continuation in the tournament. Obama's goal should be to encourage moderate Iranian leaders, if there are any, to replace Ahmadinejad. At the same time, Obama must decide if he’s serious enough about stopping Iran’s nuclear program to use military force should that become necessary.

In Russia, a country famous for its many chess grandmasters, you'd think some of that skill would have rubbed off on its leaders. Unfortunately, Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev play amateur thug-chess. You never know when they're going to throw a temper tantrum or jump up and and walk away from the game to intimidate their opponent..

At the moment, Putin and Medvedev are making calculated moves to trap the new US president, but they're not well disguised. They've softened their harsh rhetoric directed at the Bush administration following the Russian incursion into Georgia and over the missile defense agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic. They hope to lure Obama into stopping the program. At the same time they've pressed Kyrgyzstan to close a US base there needed for supplying US forces in Afghanistan.

Obama's grand strategy for winning these multiple chess games remains unclear. He's facing opponents with diverse objectives, different skill levels, and a variety of playing styles. Whether his opening moves were intended to seize and hold the initiative or he's just playing for time, in either case, the games have begun. As in any high-stakes chess tournament, you can't make mistakes and still expect to come out on top.




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