Clinton’s trip to Moscow proves unsuccessful; Obama risks U.S. security via soft power tactic

Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Moscow to win Russian support for robust sanctions against Iran. Although Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hinted that Russia could agree with stronger sanctions, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin claimed that sanctions are “premature.” Despite their apparent lack of agreement, one message is clear: The Medvedev-Putin tandem is not willing to concede anything to Obama.

This would not be problematic if President Obama had established a strong bargaining position. In trying to extract concessions or reach an agreement, you must leverage your cards in a strategic fashion. Diplomacy almost always requires a tit-for-tat exchange. In America’s relations with Russia, Obama has overplayed his hand and expected Moscow to respond in the same fashion. Now, with the stakes rising, the United States may be left standing when the music stops. How did this happen?

This reality began to take shape a year ago when Russia invaded Georgia. In response, presidential candidate Obama called for reason and restraint on both sides; a much softer approach than presidential candidate John McCain. Obama’s unwillingness to condemn Russia indicated to Moscow that it could extract unreciprocal concessions from the U.S.

Upon taking the oath of office, President Obama sought to placate Russia by withdrawing the missile shield from Eastern Europe. Although in reality the shield would have proved largely ineffective, it symbolized the U.S.’s attempt to re-establish its influence over a resurgent Russia. Medvedev and Putin were able to maneuver Obama into scrapping the plan. How? By threatening to place Russian missiles on the Polish border. For this concession, Obama received nothing in return. This should have come as no surprise when, after the Georgia crisis, Medvedev called for a new world order with multiple poles of power. Coupled with Obama’s lack of support for Georgia, Moscow began to view the Obama administration as unwilling to exercise stern policy decisions in Russia’s backyard.

The primary security issue now concerns Iran’s nuclear program. Obama has chosen to deter Iran through negotiations and threatened sanctions. However, Russian and Chinese support are necessary to strengthen and legitimize action. Instead of trying to secure Russian support for sanctions in exchange for ending the missile shield, Obama played his hand, hoping that Moscow would reciprocate.

Currently, the Russian leadership is apparently not prepared to agree to more sanctions. Obama needs to effectively bargain with Medvedev and Putin if he is to achieve foreign policy success. To date, Obama’s relationship with Russia threatens to forsake our strategic interests in the hopes of achieving an idealized world where nuclear weapons are dismantled and negotiations resolve all disputes.

Where to proceed on Iran from the U.S.’s new bargaining position? Clearly, Obama has elected for soft power tactics — negotiations and possible sanctions. As Clinton’s trip demonstrated, it does not appear likely that such a course of action will succeed. Bush’s approach to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions provides an ideal example of the failure of negotiations. Kim Jong Il used negotiations to extract concessions, while in the process detonating a nuclear bomb. Now Obama has elected a similar approach and needs Russian support. But Russia’s response was not unexpected: It has strong economic interests in Iran and, as Medvedev hinted a year ago, is beginning to stand up to the United States.

Obama has stated his intention to start a new era of world relations that break from Bush’s perceived unilateralist actions. Yet, he may ultimately compromise U.S. interests and security. Western consensus fears a nuclear-armed Iran. If, and when, negotiations and sanctions fail to deter Iran from becoming a nuclear power, the time to act with force may be too late or too costly.

I do not contend that a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities (many of which are believed to be securely underground) is the proper course of action right now. Sanctions without concessions may have proven successful, however, this option ended prematurely because Obama did not effectively bargain with Russia. Moscow is prepared to pursue its own security interests, independent of the U.S. Furthermore, Obama’s calls for a nuclear-free world contrasts starkly with previous administrations’ use of America’s nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip.

Obama needs to re-examine our strategic position vis-Ã -vis Russia. Medvedev and Putin are upholding their country’s interests by not unconditionally appeasing the U.S. In pursuit of this nation’s best interests, Obama would do well to obtain agreements before making concessions. If this fails, he must be prepared to take a strong stance even if it means standing alone. As the leader of the world’s strongest nation, Obama should not be afraid to act unilaterally. Security needs to be ensured for 300 million Americans. If any lesson is to be learned from the Bush administration, it is that the security of this nation is a president’s top priority.

Daniel A. Flesch

senior in LAS