THE SECOND TERM: WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR THE CAUCASUS?

Today's Zaman
Nov 13 2012
Turkey

Now that the presidential election is over, the Obama administration
faces challenges in the form of its foreign policy. During the
campaign period, public debate focused primarily on domestic and
economic issues, but now attention seems to be returning to foreign
policy. The expert community agrees that an effective and muscular
foreign policy requires a healthy economy, in addition to a clearly
defined long-term strategy, particularly in relation to withdrawal
from Afghanistan and the Middle East.

It's worth remembering that Obama began his first term with a fresh,
new approach towards the Middle East, where the aim was to repair US
prestige in the region; the "Green Revolution" attempt in Iran and the
Arab Spring with their commitments to "Western" values were seen as
indicators of success. But the current situation in the Middle East,
particularly Syria, shows that the US's primary aim is to maintain
political influence while also disengaging from the region: an exit
strategy.

In the case of Afghanistan, the US on the one hand is trying to
implement a well-planned military exit strategy, successfully passing
management of security issues to the Afghan government, while in the
near neighborhood, also pushing for the economic containment of Iran.

The main question is how the US can balance continued political
influence with diminished physical presence, and avoid creating a
power vacuum that other regional powers will be eager to fill. In the
Caucasus, there are increasing concerns that the US withdrawal from
Afghanistan will mean a reduced focus on the Caucasus, as far as US
foreign policy is concerned.

In this context, there are some important misunderstandings about
the US's possible withdrawal from Afghanistan in Caucasus.

The first misunderstanding is over the meaning of the "exit strategy";
people tend to interpret this as a wholesale exodus, while in reality
there is a political strategy that is committed to the future stability
of Afghanistan. Its success and the manner of "exit" depends on the
Afghan government -- the current Afghan government including Afghan
President Hamid Karzai wants to prolong the presence of foreign troops
as a guarantee for their own safety and security. In May of 2012 the US
and Afghanistan signed the "Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement,"
which sets out the broad terms for a US presence up to 2024.

The second confusion relates to the reset policy between Russia and
the US. When the reset policy was launched in Obama's first term,
the aim of the US was to bring Russia in as a partner of the United
States on a range of international issues. There is a tendency in
the Caucasus to see this as Washington "giving" the Caucasus over
to Russia. The public was right to have concerns over the reset
policy, but the mistake was to read this as an exit strategy. In
fact, Washington was keen to retain a healthy level of geopolitical
competition, just in a more cooperative political environment.

The third issue stems from the worry that the possible withdrawal
from Afghanistan will reduce NATO's cooperation with the South
Caucasus countries, which have invested politically and militarily
very significantly in cooperation with the alliance, especially in
Afghanistan. This concern does seem partially true, especially, in
the case of Georgia, which sent more than just troops to Afghanistan,
and used this as an opportunity to modernize the Georgian army and
to pursue its NATO membership aspiration. For Armenia, due to its
economic and military dependence on Moscow, Afghanistan was the only
means of maintaining good relations with NATO. All in all, NATO/US
withdrawal probably will affect the alliance's cooperation with South
Caucasus countries, but it will not be as damaging as the region fears.

Among these various misunderstandings, there are also causes for
real concern.

First and foremost is the question of how the US will manage future
engagement with the South Caucasus countries. There are still no
signs of increased political engagement in the Caucasus, despite the
security threats (terrorism, drug trafficking, interstate conflicts),
along with potential risks such as Iran's desire for increased for
political presence in the region, and separatist terrorist movements
in the North Caucasus.

To meet the minimum expectations of the South Caucasus countries,
the US needs to set a minimum baseline for the region; for instance,
Washington should put in force an expanded political dialogue, the
aim of which should be a Strategic Partnership Agreement with all
three region states.

Clearly, this seems a long way off, but in light of the Iran threat,
Washington should be thinking about its strengthening relations policy
with Tehran's neighbors.

In this sense, the question is how can the US stage its "comeback" in
the Caucasus? During the 1990s, energy interest lay at the heart of
US support for the independence of regional countries. In the 2000s
it was Afghanistan, when Washington needed assistance from regional
governments (notably in regard to transit routes for troops and
airspace). Looking to the next decade, perhaps the Iran crisis will
provide the necessary platform for this hoped-for comeback. On the
other hand, there are clear risks entailed: Any short-term political
interests are significantly outweighed by the larger threats of
military intervention. We must remember that geographically Iran is
much closer than Afghanistan, and the region would surely experience
some significant degree of collateral damage if any kind of military
action is deemed necessary.

Given the reasons behind the US presence in South Caucasus, and in
light of the brief cost-benefit analysis above, it seems that the
only way to meet the expectations of the three regional countries and
to assist them is by thinking carefully about strategic partnership
agreements, in addition to reviewing the "reset" policy with Moscow.

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