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TONY COX, host:

Hot on the campaign trail, then-candidate Barack Obama routinely made promises that he would quote, "restore our moral standing in the world," end quote. So, what are the early signs that this administration is unveiling a new era in diplomacy? Are we likely to see a foreign policy overhaul and will dire economic concerns edge out progressive international relations? Joining us to answer some of these questions are Laurie Brand, professor of international relations and director of the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California, and Sandy Tolan, associate professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication. Both of you, welcome to News & Notes.

Professor LAURIE BRAND (International Relations and Director, School of International Relations, University of Southern California): Good to be with you.

Professor SANDY TOLAN (Annenberg School for Communications, University of Southern California): Thank you.

COX: Vice President Joe Biden ticked off a laundry list of foreign policy initiatives in an address at the Munich conference on security policy last weekend. Russia, Iran, NATO, Gaza, the vice president took a sweeping view of foreign policy, promising a new era. So, let's take a closer look. First, take the conflict in Gaza, Sandy, do you think this was a squandered opportunity because the president has been - some have been critical of him for not weighing in on that conflict more firmly and more immediately?

Prof. TOLAN: Well, you know, the president - he chose his first - one of his first interviews with Al-Arabiya, the Arab language television station and clearly, he said some things that he felt would indicate a change in tone and clearly it does. He talked about offering a hand of friendship, the language we use matters, let's listen, we have to use the language of respect, these are all powerful messages in terms of shifting the tone. But what many people across the Arab world are waiting for is a sense that there will be a more evenhanded policy. The arrival of George Mitchell is widely regarded in the Arab world as a positive thing because he's considered far more evenhanded. But it's notable that there's still quite a bit of disappointment that President-elect Obama did not say anything really critical of Israel during the siege in Gaza, the war in Gaza. It was 1300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed and in addition to that, there's a sense that even though George Mitchell is considered someone who's going to be more evenhanded, he didn't say much of anything in his recent trip to the region about the expanding settlement. So...

COX: Well, let me bring Laurie into the conversation because I was going to ask you about George Mitchell's presence there, and further, I was going to ask you how the outcome in your opinion of the Israeli elections are going to perhaps reshape the administration's Middle East strategy particularly with the - with it not being determined yet whether Netanyahu is going to be able to build the coalition party or where Livni is going to be able to do so.

Prof. BRAND: Well, I just - I agree with a lot of what Sandy had to say. I think it's important that George Mitchell was appointed to this post as opposed to some of the other names that were circulating that were clearly much less, I'd say, evenhanded and in fact, the administration has received some criticism within United States for the evenhandedness that George Mitchell represents. You know, this last trip of his was supposed to be a listening tour - so I don't think there was any hope that he was going to come back with a lot of, you know, great plans. I think it was a chance more to touch base with people. He did say that he is interested in opening an office in Jerusalem to deal with this issue on a day to day basis. And I think if that does take place, that's important because I think it really does require a high-level presence, a high-level commitment and a continued commitment in manifestation of that if we're going to have any progress.

But your question about the Israeli elections is a very important one because in fact, of course, we don't know exactly what the outcome is going to be. It looks likely, even though Kadima won the largest number of seats, that in fact, it will be Netanyahu who will end up being able to put a coalition together. The news this morning suggests that Livni hasn't had any luck in getting other coalition partners. So, that raises a number of important questions, because when Netanyahu was the last prime minister, we didn't have movement forward. In fact, we had spaces, in fact, or back regression when it came to the peace process, and Netanyahu was famous for the line, you know, peace in exchange for peace as opposed to land for peace, meaning basically no territorial concessions and if there isn't going to be - there won't be territorial concessions, there really isn't a basis for a two-state settlement which is what the United States - which is what U.S. policy is and which Joe Biden reaffirmed in his statement in Munich.

COX: Let's...

Mr. YEARWOOD: If I could just - and just add to that real quickly. I think one of the things, the results of this and I agree with what Laurie was saying, I think we're going to see a sharp turn to the right in Israel, and I think this will essentially be unfortunately the death nail of the two-state solution. There has been so much physical change to the landscape in the West Bank, almost three times as many settlers as at the beginning of the Oslo process; 625 checkpoints in the West Bank, a land the size of Delaware, it's becoming increasingly hard to see how there could even be a two-state solution. And now with what Laurie's side says that, you know, the reluctance to exchange land for peace, I don't see how there could be a two-state solution. I think eventually people are going to start looking at other options.

COX: Let's move into another area. I want to ask both of you to respond to this. When you look at the mix of personalities representing the U.S. foreign policy team - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Richard Holbrooke, Mitchell, who we've mentioned, Defense Secretary Gates, and now, Leon Panetta at CIA - making up this team, what sort of internal dynamics could be in play here and what impact are they likely to have on the president's foreign-policy agenda, Laurie?

Prof. BRAND: Well, I think it still remains to be seen. It's not - I don't think we have a good sense yet of what the dynamics are. A number of these people are former, you know, they are Clintonites and so one would assume that the relationship with the secretary of state would be good, although we know that Richard Holbrooke was angling himself for that appointment. So, it's not clear exactly what that's going to mean. He does have a big portfolio, and a crucial portfolio. So, perhaps that in and of itself will be enough to, you know, sort of satisfy his desire for influence. George Mitchell, you know, that older senior statesman type and there's going to be plenty to keep him busy on the Arab - the Palestinian-Israeli front.

What I'm interested to see is who's going to be appointed as the special envoy to Iran because the administration has been making noises about having a special envoy there as well. And the name that has surfaced is that of Dennis Ross. I think that would be a terrible mistake for a number of reasons. He has no experience with Iran. His experience in dealing with Israeli-Palestinian affairs was one of not success, and I don't why people could talk to me about how experienced he is, but the experience is all one of failure. I'm not sure that that bodes very well. And then also, just his very strong pro-Israel orientation in the work, I don't think really sets him up as an ideal person for that thought. So that, you know, Iran is a critical portfolio as we go forward and I hope that someone else will be chosen for that.

COX: Let me put a different question to you actually, Sandy, and it's this, because we just talked about Iran, and only a year ago, U.S. intelligence concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear work. There's still some question about whether or not that's not true. We've also seen some early indications of opening overtures in terms of diplomatic negotiations with Iran over this. What is your perspective on how likely that is to happen?

Prof. TOLAN: Well, it's - I think again it's a bit early to say, but the initial indications are certainly more positive in terms of a potential dialogue being opened up. President Ahmadinejad sent a letter of - a pretty conciliatory letter of congratulations to Barack Obama when he was elected and there's been a draft of - I don't know at what stage it's at, but some of the language in the draft was also of the response from the Obama team. And Secretary Clinton was also somewhat conciliatory, but there was also language about you have to stop being a pariah state. In turn, the Iranians might still - Ahmadinejad himself has asked for an apology for the U.S. covert operation in 1953 which toppled a democratically elected government and installed the Shah. So, I think there's a lot of sort of - among many Iranians, not just Ahmadinejad, a lot of sore feelings that there will be a really two - a genuine two-way dialogue. Whether or not this would end up being something that would have the Iranians truly stop their policy of moving towards nuclear weapons is something that remains to be seen.

COX: Laurie, let's bring the conversation to a close with this. Certainly, the Middle East will occupy the administration's attention right off the bat as it has done. But how do you think other regions of the world will get prioritized in the foreign policy of the new administration? I'm thinking now about Russia, Venezuela, North Korea, Sudan, Somalia, for example?

Prof. BRAND: Well, it certainly looks from initial indications that the Middle East is going to be the primary focus although Russia I think as well. It's clearly an area that the administration realize that there is important bridge building or rebuilding to be undertaken with and - but in large part, because of sort of, you know, the geostrategic nature of all this, the Russians can be important partners in trying to deal with some of these issues which are really regional ones in kind of the Middle East to Central Asia. The Russians can be an important partner in dealing with Iran. They can be an important partner in trying to deal with Afghanistan. And I think that one good thing about this administration is they stay - appear to understand one, that they need to do policy reviews and secondly, that we need to work on a multilateral way if some of these - some questions are going to be solved. I mean, we've moved away thankfully from the rhetoric of the war on terror to proclamations, I think, very clearly stated by Joe Biden and his statement that we're needing partnerships to meet common challenges. This is not a luxury, this is a necessity, he said. And certainly, this is the case when it comes to dealing with continuing in Iraq and then the very large challenges looming in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

COX: I would think - and we've got really less than 30 seconds for this, Sandy - that getting the economic problem solved first will be a big help to the president before he has to tackle anything on a major foreign policy scale.

Prof. TOLAN: Well, it's interesting to know that Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, is in the New York Times today in Washington. Yes, he's talking about the number one - in his threat assessment; the number-one threat to the United States is the economy above everything else. And I think we may be looking at the possibility of a kind of a decline in what the writer Chalmers Johnson talks about, the decline in the American empire. This continues...

COX: I'll have to stop you there only because our time ran out. I appreciate your coming on. Thank you very much, Laurie Brand, professor of international relations and director of the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California, and Sandy Tolan, associate professor at USC's Annenberg School.

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COX: You're listening to News & Notes from NPR News.

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