Obama stretched between domestic and international challenges

With the challenges posed by Iran's nuclear programme, a stalled Middle East peace process, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US president-elect Barack Obama will face from overseas a multitude of demands for his attention. Even so, Mr Obama has made it clear his first priority will be an economic recovery programme to revive America's business system and create new jobs. Meanwhile, Georgia's claims on war with Russia are called into question.

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"President-elect Barack Obama stepped carefully yesterday when he was asked about the unusual letter of congratulations that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent him - the first time an Iranian leader has congratulated the victor of a US presidential election since the 1979 Islamic revolution," The Washington Post reported. "'I will be reviewing the letter from President Ahmadinejad, and we will respond appropriately,' he said, leaving open the question about whether he will reply. President Bush chose not to respond to a rambling 18-page letter he received from Ahmadinejad in 2006, but during the campaign Obama indicated he would be willing to meet with Iranian leaders. "'Iran's development of a nuclear weapon, I believe, is unacceptable,' Obama said yesterday. 'And we have to mount an international effort to prevent that from happening.' " AFP reported: "Iran's parliament speaker Ali Larijani slammed ... Obama on Saturday for saying Tehran's pursuit of nuclear weapons was 'unacceptable,' the official IRNA news agency reported. "'This signifies a pursuit of the same erroneous policy as in the past,' Larijani said when asked about Obama's comment on Friday. "'If the United States wants to change its standing in the region it should send good signals,' he said. "'Obama understands that change does not only mean a change of colour and superficial differences, change must also have a strategic basis,' the agency quoted Larijani as saying." Meanwhile, Reuters reported: "Hamas is ready to talk to ... Obama but he must respect the Palestinian group's 'rights and options', its leader Khaled Meshaal said in an interview on Saturday. "In a visit to Israel in July, Obama played down the chances of negotiating with Hamas unless the group renounced violence and recognised Israel's right to exist. "Under the outgoing US President George Bush, the United States refused to talk to Hamas. "'It's a big change - political and psychological - and it is noteworthy and I congratulate President Obama,' Meshaal said in the interview with Sky News website from the Syrian capital Damascus." The New York Times said: "The leader of a jihadi group in Iraq argued Friday that the election of Barack Obama as president represented a victory for radical Islamic groups that had battled American forces since the invasion of Iraq. "The statement, which experts said was part of the psychological duel with the United States, was included in a 25-minute audiotaped speech by Abu Omar al Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organisation that claims ties to al Qa'eda. Mr Baghdadi's statement was posted on a password-protected Web site called Al Hesbah, used to disseminate information to Islamic radicals. "In his address, Mr Baghdadi also said that the election of Mr Obama - and the rejection of the Republican candidate, Senator John McCain - was a victory for his movement, a claim that has already begun to resonate among the radical faithful. In so doing Mr Baghdadi highlighted the challenge the new president would face as he weighed how to remove troops from Iraq without also giving movements like al Qa'eda a powerful propaganda tool to use for recruiting. "'And the other truth that politicians are embarrassed to admit,' Mr Baghdadi said, 'is that their unjust war on the houses of Islam, with its heavy and successive losses and the continuous operations of exhaustion of your power and your economy, were the principal cause of the collapse of the economic giant'. "The audio statement came amid a very public discussion in the Middle East over what Mr Obama's election meant for the future - and what it said about the past. Most of the public reaction, in newspapers and on television and radio stations, was euphoric, with many commentators marvelling at the election of a black man whose father was from a Muslim family. There was a general assessment that Mr Obama's election was a repudiation of the course taken by President Bush and his inner circle over the past eight years." Newsweek said: "For the past few months, not a day went by without the words 'Muslim' and 'Obama' being mentioned in the same sentence. From the divisive shouts and jeers at McCain rallies to the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times to an interview with Colin Powell on NBC's Meet the Press, Muslims - or at least the mention of them - have been more prevalent this campaign year than 'Joe the Plumber'. "But beyond the use of the term Muslim as a pejorative, and accusations by the far right that Obama was himself a secret follower of the Quran, what did real Muslim-Americans think of the Chicago senator? And how did they vote? The American Muslim Task Force on Civil Rights and Elections released a poll [on Friday] of over 600 Muslims from more than 10 states, including Florida and Pennsylvania, and it revealed that 89 per cent of respondents voted for Obama, while only two per cent voted for McCain. It also indicated that 95 per cent of Muslims polled cast a ballot in this year's presidential election - the highest turnout in a US election ever - and 14 per cent of those were first-time voters. The Gallup Center for Muslim studies estimates that US Muslims favoured Obama in greater numbers than did Hispanics (67 per cent of whom voted for Obama) and nearly matched that of African-Americans, 93 per cent of whom voted for Obama. More than two thirds who were polled said the economy was the most important issue affecting their decision on Nov 4, while 16 per cent said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan informed their vote - numbers that put Muslims roughly on a par with the general population." The New York Times reported: "This was supposed to be the election when hidden racism would rear its head. There was much talk of a 'Bradley effect,' in which white voters would say one thing to pollsters and do another in the privacy of the booth; of a backlash in which the working-class whites whom Senator Barack Obama had labelled 'bitter' would take their bitterness out on him. "But lost in all that anguished commentary, experts say, was an important recent finding from the study of prejudice: that mutual trust between members of different races can catch on just as quickly, and spread just as fast, as suspicion. "In some new studies, psychologists have been able to establish a close relationship between diverse pairs - black and white, Latino and Asian, black and Latino - in a matter of hours. That relationship immediately reduces conscious and unconscious bias in both people, and also significantly reduces prejudice toward the other group in each individual's close friends. "This extended-contact effect, as it is called, travels like a benign virus through an entire peer group, counteracting subtle or not so subtle mistrust. "'It's important to remember that implicit biases are out there, absolutely; but I think that that's only half the story,' said Linda R Tropp, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts. 'With broader changes in the society at large, people can also become more willing to reach across racial boundaries, and that goes for both minorities and whites.' " In The Washington Post, Desmond Tutu wrote: "Today Africans walk taller than they did a week ago - just as they did when Nelson Mandela became South Africa's first black president in 1994. Not only Africans, but people everywhere who have been the victims of discrimination at the hands of white Westerners, have a new pride in who they are. If a dark-skinned person can become the leader of the world's most powerful nation, what is to stop children everywhere from aiming for the stars? The fact that Obama's Kenyan grandfather was a convert to Islam may - shamefully - have been controversial in parts of the United States, but elsewhere in the world, Obama's multi-faith heritage is an inspiration. "And the president-elect has one additional key quality: He is not George W Bush. "Because the Bush years have been disastrous for other parts of the world in many ways, Obama's victory dramatises the self-correcting mechanism that epitomises American democracy. Elsewhere, oppressors, tyrants and their lapdogs can say what they like, and they stay put, for the most part. Ordinary citizens living in undemocratic societies are not fools; they may not always agree with US foreign policy, but they can see and register the difference between the United States, where people can kick an unpopular political party out, and their own countries. "In the midst of this celebration, however, a word of caution is appropriate. In the first days after 9/11, the United States had the world's sympathy, an unprecedented wave of it. President Bush squandered it. Obama could squander the goodwill that his election has generated if he does not move quickly and decisively on the international front." Meanwhile, The New York Times reported: "Mr Obama has acknowledged that the economy will force him to recalibrate his programme but insists that he has not backed off his commitments. 'We can't afford to wait on moving forward on the key priorities that I identified during the campaign, including clean energy, health care, education and tax relief for middle class families,' he said Saturday. "During the campaign, Mr Obama identified many other priorities - withdrawing from Iraq and talks with Iran, tackling immigration and the issue of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and trade negotiations with the country's North American neighbours. "At the same time, his team is tamping down expectations of instant action by discouraging talk of a 100-day programme."

"Newly available accounts by independent military observers of the beginning of the war between Georgia and Russia this summer call into question the long-standing Georgian assertion that it was acting defensively against separatist and Russian aggression," The New York Times reported. "Instead, the accounts suggest that Georgia's inexperienced military attacked the isolated separatist capital of Tskhinvali on Aug 7 with indiscriminate artillery and rocket fire, exposing civilians, Russian peacekeepers and unarmed monitors to harm. "The accounts are neither fully conclusive nor broad enough to settle the many lingering disputes over blame in a war that hardened relations between the Kremlin and the West. But they raise questions about the accuracy and honesty of Georgia's insistence that its shelling of Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway region of South Ossetia, was a precise operation. Georgia has variously defended the shelling as necessary to stop heavy Ossetian shelling of Georgian villages, bring order to the region or counter a Russian invasion. "President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia has characterised the attack as a precise and defensive act. But according to observations of the monitors, documented Aug 7 and Aug 8, Georgian artillery rounds and rockets were falling throughout the city at intervals of 15 to 20 seconds between explosions, and within the first hour of the bombardment at least 48 rounds landed in a civilian area. The monitors have also said they were unable to verify that ethnic Georgian villages were under heavy bombardment that evening, calling to question one of Mr Saakashvili's main justifications for the attack." The Voice of America said: "In its most specific comments on the subject to date, the State Department says Georgian leaders made a mistake when they attacked the capital of breakaway South Ossetia, Tskhinvali, in August. "But officials here say overall culpability for the war may never be known, and the focus now should be on getting Georgia, and especially Russia, to heed ceasefire obligations, and help return the region to stability." The New York Times said: "Thousands of antigovernment demonstrators poured into the streets of Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, on Friday, hoping to weaken the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili as it strives to maintain power despite a catastrophic war with Russia and a growing economic malaise at home. "The large, though generally subdued, demonstration occurred one year after black-helmeted riot police officers violently quashed opposition protests in Tbilisi, pelting unarmed civilians with clubs and rubber bullets, and using tear gas and water cannons to chase the protesters from the streets. "That event roused accusations domestically and internationally that the president's promises of democracy and reform, which he made upon taking power in a bloodless coup in 2003, had fallen short, leaving Georgia only slightly more democratic than the country's post-Soviet neighbours, including Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia." pwoodward@thenational.ae