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Obama Takes Foreign Policy Risk        12/20 12:39

   President Barack Obama has been criticized as cautious on foreign policy, 
but the secret negotiations on Cuba suggest a willingness for bold and risky 
action, if he can keep tight control and rely on a few close aides.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama has been criticized as cautious on 
foreign policy, but the secret negotiations on Cuba suggest a willingness for 
bold and risky action, if he can keep tight control and rely on a few close 

   It's a pattern Obama followed during clandestine talks with Iran that led to 
an interim nuclear deal and in under-the-radar discussions with China on a 
climate change agreement announced last month.

   Such diplomatic breakthroughs have buoyed Obama and may help counter charges 
that his responses to other international matters, including the rise of 
Islamic State militants and Russia's aggression in Ukraine, are weak and 

   "Around the world, America is leading," Obama said Friday in a year-end news 
conference. The president cited the announcement that he was normalizing 
diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than five decades of Cold War 
acrimony with the communist island nation and "turning a new page in our 
relationship with the Cuban people."

   The secret talks with Cuba, like the negotiations with Iran and China, were 
carried out by a small number of officials who slipped in and out of Washington.

   The Iran talks were handled by State Department officials William Burns and 
Jake Sullivan, who have since left the administration. The point person on 
China was White House counselor John Podesta. Leading the Cuba mission from the 
White House were deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and senior Latin 
America adviser Ricardo Zuniga, who met with Cuban officials nine times in 
Canada and at the Vatican.

   In each instance, the advisers' close proximity to the president was 
intended to send a message to their counterparts that they were negotiating 
with Obama's full authority.

   The overtures to Iran and Cuba were gambles for Obama. The U.S. was 
negotiating with two countries with whom it had not had diplomatic relations in 
decades. Leaks about the talks could have undermined what little trust there 
was on either side.

   In opening a direct channel with Iran, Obama also risked angering Israel, 
which sees the Islamic Republic and its pursuit of a nuclear weapon as an 
existential threat. In shifting course on Cuba, the president risked 
antagonizing congressional Republicans and a few Democrats, though his new 
position largely puts the U.S. in line with how the rest of the world deals 
with the small island just 90 miles off U.S. shores.

   There are few guarantees that Obama will achieve his goals. The president 
has given the negotiations over a final nuclear deal with Iran a 50 percent 
chance of succeeding, and he acknowledged on Friday that substantial political 
and social change may be slow to come to Cuba.

   On other foreign matters, Obama has proved less willing to gamble, 
especially when potential military options are up for discussion. For example, 
his policy on Syria's civil war has been seen by critics and allies as slow and 

   The president has faced questions, too, about whether he has acted 
aggressively enough in helping Ukraine counter Russia; his response so far has 
relied chiefly on economic penalties. They have contributed to a precipitous 
fall in Russia's currency, but there is little indication that economic pain is 
causing Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull back from Ukraine.

   "It's great when you can do something with two guys in the White House," 
said Jon Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and 
International Studies. "When you get a higher level of complexity, people are 
baffled at what the administration is trying to do."

   Beyond diplomacy, Obama also has taken risks by approving rescue attempts of 
hostages in Syria and Yemen, and aggressively used drones and special 
operations forces against terrorists, including the 2011 raid in Pakistan that 
led to the death of Osama bin Laden.

   Yet Obama sometimes has helped perpetuate the image of a president paralyzed 
at the prospect of risk. When Obama was asked this year to outline his foreign 
policy doctrine, he described it a strategy that "avoids errors."

   "You hit singles, you hit doubles," Obama said, turning to a baseball 
analogy. "Every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run."

   Some supporters cringed, believing that description misconstrued an 
appropriately cautious approach in a complicated world.


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