Adrian Hamilton: If only it was as easy as the Obama supporters thought

He may be open but the policies are still cast in the Clinton-Bush mould
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The Independent Online

For all the initial doubts, President Obama has hit the ground running in foreign as in domestic affairs. Barely was his hand lifted from the Bible oath than he was announcing the closure of Guantanamo Bay, the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and a new openness to the US's former enemies. Since then he has gone even further, sending envoys to Syria, suggesting a willingness to talk to the Taliban and a readiness to cut a new deal with Russia.

This is a different President, far more of a listener on world affairs than any of his predecessors, and a man clearly determined to make a clean break with the policies of Bush. And yet, as he is discovering, to wish a clean slate is not the same as effecting a complete change. There has been in his group of advisers as well as US commentators a temptation to feel that the mere sight of a new face around the world would bring on a different, more conducive reception.

That may be true of Washington's allies. But it has not proved true so far of America's more fractious relationships. Obama appoints a special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan and the first thing that happens when Richard Holbrooke goes there is that the Pakistan government gives up civil control of the Swat Valley to the rigours of sharia.

The new Secretary of State, Mrs Clinton, goes to East Asia, to be met by a North Korea planning new rocket firings and threatening war with anyone who interrupts them. She then visits the Middle East to face an Israeli government determined to proceed with the demolitions in East Jerusalem and a potential new Prime Minister clearly uninterested in encouraging a separate Palestinian state.

You can dismiss these rebuffs as teething problems of a new administration, setbacks that should temper but not change its policies. Give it time and Washington's more constructive policies of alliance with Russia and engagement with Iran, Syria and the Taliban will work. Unfortunately it isn't going to be that easy.

President Obama may remain open-minded but the actual policies being mapped out by his foreign policy establishment are still cast in the Clinton-Bush mould of enforcing US solutions on regional problems. Read Richard Holbrooke's remarks in Asia and you hear an old Clinton hand still intent on pressuring Pakistan into a policy of confrontation with its internal Taliban and tribal forces which Islamabad is clearly in no position to carry out. Indeed US pressure is only making its problems worse by demanding it.

Listen to Mrs Clinton's speeches in the Middle East and we are back to the Bush policy of building up the Fatah forces in Palestine and deliberately excluding Hamas even in disbursing aid within Gaza. The aim no doubt is again to pressure Hamas into co-operation rather than destroying them. But it simply doesn't fit with the realities on the ground post the Gaza invasion.

But it is when it comes to Iran that one's doubts become most insistent. The leaked secret letter of President Obama to the Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, offering to stand down the plans for a missile defence system in Europe in return for Russia's co-operation in forcing Iran to give up its nuclear plans has an obvious logic to it. If the need for a missile defence shield arises from the threat of Iran developing nuclear weapons, then clearly it is no longer needed if Iran is stopped in its tracks.

Put that letter together with Mrs Clinton's remarks in the Middle East, however, and the appointment of the highly contentious Clintonian figure of Dennis Ross as "special adviser" (rather than "envoy") for Iran, and you have more than a sniff of the previous Bush policy of trying to isolate Iran and squeeze it into submission .

It's the wrong way to manage Iran. Prickly, suspicious, changeable and often ambiguous, Iran wishes its rights as a regional power to be recognised, not a hegemony. Attempting to confine and bear down on it with demands simply induces the opposite reaction.

I think at bottom Obama understands this. What was so striking about his recent comments on Afghanistan was not just his blunt "no" when asked whether America was winning the war there but his consequent acceptance that Afghanistan presented a quite different proposition than Iraq because of its more complex tribal structures and porous borders. A "surge" may not work as well.

For all his election promises of a fight to the finish in Afghanistan, it does look as if the President will genuinely review his options before he commits himself. He needs to do the same with Iran and with Palestine.