Obama's international impact yet to be seen

Sunday, January 25, 2009 | 10:00 a.m. CST

Loory: We have a historic new president with a background unlike that of any we have ever had: a black Kenyan father, a white mother from Kansas, an Indonesian stepfather, half sisters who are Indonesian and Kenyan, a touch of Ireland and a bit of Cherokee in his blood. There are Muslim, Christian and Jewish religions in his heritage. He entered the Oval Office and immediately started governing, setting an example in an economy grown greedy by capping salaries for his staff and enforcing limits on how much business they can do with the government after they leave office. He called for a suspension of some prosecutions in Guantanamo, in preparation for closing that prison. He also placed telephone calls to the leaders in Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Egypt to show a new interest in the Middle East. Will that work to his advantage or will it put too much pressure on him? Obama is off to a really fast start. What more can we expect from him in the next few days?

Mark Silva, Washington correspondent, Chicago Tribune, Washington, D.C.: The president signed some executive orders his first day of office with an attempt to apply some ethical rules and openness to the federal government and appeared at the State Department with a message of diplomacy first. It is rumored he may sign another order that will eventually, not immediately, lead to closing Guantanamo. (Editor's note: After this program was recorded, he did sign such an order.) He is also pushing the economic stimulus package in Congress.

Loory:  If he is going to close down the detention camp at Guantanamo quickly, why did he take this intermediate step of suspending prosecutions?

Silva: It is complicated. There are about 250 people who have not even begun adjudication and a lot of them are flat-out dangerous. The Supreme Court has upheld the right of habeas corpus for the detainees and some will be moved into the federal courts. Other people will be transferred to detention in either their home countries or some middle ground. The prime minister of Egypt said they had fewer than 100 people under detention shared with the U.S. but said it’s the ones that we don’t have that you have to worry about. Some people would be subject to unthinkable torture if they were handed off to some sources. There has been talk of Switzerland taking some.

Loory: Obama made telephone calls on his first day to the Middle East. Is this going to have much impact on restarting the peace process there?

Borzou Daragahi, bureau chief, Los Angeles Times, Beirut, Lebanon: Obama hasn’t really broken any new ground, talking to our allies and clients. The resolution of this issue will come when the Obama administration breaches the taboo in reaching out to the so-called camp of resistance: Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Syria contingent.

Loory: Obama said he is willing to talk to Iranian officials without any preconditions. Will that be coming soon?

Silva:  There will no doubt be conditions, terms for who talks to whom and what level the discussion will take place. Obama will not be speaking to the president of Iran; it will be intermediaries. Watch for an elaborate process set up before anyone actually sits down at a table. If President Bush had his axis of evil, President Obama probably has his axis of adversaries.

Loory: (Libyan president) Moammar Gadhafi said in The New York Times that a one-state solution is needed with Palestinians and Israelis living in the same house, as he put it. Is that a possibility?

Daragahi: It is a remote possibility at this point. It would require a radical redefining of the initial charter of Israel to accommodate a definition beyond a Jewish state. Gadhafi called this Isratine – a combination of the words Israel and Palestine. At this point, the Palestinians wouldn’t go for it either because they are increasingly Islamisized and radicalized.

Loory: Obama has said that he will pull troops out of Iraq over the next 16 months but increase the presence in Afghanistan to defeat al-Qaida. Can he do anything that will be effective there?

Helena Malikyar, Afghanistan broadcaster, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Prague, Czech Republic: There has been talk about a new strategy that includes a surge of up to 30,000 additional troops. They are talking about a comprehensive approach, which would include Pakistan and encouragement of good governance and more economic development. Pakistan has resisted introducing U.S. forces inside its territory, but the U.S. troops based in Afghanistan have carried out almost regular incursions into Pakistani territory. I assume that will continue for a while.

Loory: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said that there was basically no difference between Obama and President Bush, that the U.S. is still an empire. Can Obama do anything to alleviate that circumstance?

Joachim Bamrud, editor-in-chief, Latin Business Chronicle, Miami: One must differentiate between what Chavez says and the sentiment throughout Latin America. Venezuela will be difficult. Chavez has shown a disdain for diplomacy and has had fallings-out with other leaders in Latin America in the past, not just Bush. However, the rest of Latin America will see a major improvement in relations.

Loory: Obama is going to a summit meeting in Trinidad and Tobago in April; what can he accomplish there?

Bamrud: So far, only the Mexican president met with Obama just before the inauguration. So, unlike previous summits of the Americas, this will be more than a typical photo-op.  It will be the first time that most leaders in Latin America will meet Obama. A negative of Obama is that he has not visited Latin America yet and has no known ties. The summit will go a long way to strengthen ties with the region.

Loory: What other international travels does Obama have planned already?

Silva:  He wants to travel to a Middle East country to make a statement about U.S. policy, maybe Cairo. He also has a regular slate of travels that include the G-8 and APEC and other international summits.

Loory: Has he given any indication that he is trying to improve relations with Russia?

Silva: There are tactical questions between them, such as the defensive missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, which the Russians are unhappy about. The first signal will revolve around whether Obama goes full speed ahead on this or signals a stand down. He has refrained from a lot of detail on a lot of fronts so it is not yet clear.

Loory: Have other countries that are under Hugo Chavez’s influence, like Evo Morales in Bolivia or the government in Ecuador, had any criticism of Obama?

Bamrud:  No, but Obama will be facing some difficulties in managing relations with those countries, not because of Obama but because of severe tensions with the U.S. government. In Bolivia, there is dispute over drug eradication issues. Ecuador had a falling-out with the whole U.S. investment community. But those countries are really the exception in Latin America. In Brazil, which is the largest country in population and economy, relations will no doubt improve. Brazil has been a strong advocate of easing U.S. relations with Cuba and thinks Obama will take action. In Mexico, there are mixed feelings because they hope the immigration issue will ease, but there is concern about whether he will renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. Colombia also has mixed emotions. The population is enthusiastic about the new president, but the business community is concerned about the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement, which hasn’t passed the Congress yet.

Loory: It is too early to make any judgments on how effective the new president will be internationally. We will just have to wait and see.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Brian Jarvis, Sananda Sahoo and Melissa Ulbricht. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

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