MADELEINE BRAND, host:

When he takes office, President-elect Obama will have a lot of foreign policy decisions to make, when to withdraw forces from Iraq, what to do about Iran and nuclear weapons, how to handle Russia. Slate's Fred Kaplan says, despite the magnitude of these issues, there are some paths to success already staked out, and Fred's here now to explain.

And, Fred, let's start with Iraq. Senator Obama says he wants to begin withdrawing forces in about a year and a half, and meanwhile, this U.N. agreement that allows troops in Iraq expires at the end of next month. That's the status of forces agreement. And so that agreement has not been extended. How big a problem is that for Senator Obama?

Mr. FRED KAPLAN (Columnist, Slate.com): Well, actually, I think it's less of a problem for him than it would have been for Senator John McCain. There are some indications now that Obama has been elected that the Iraqi government and various factions are ready to move much - on a much more accelerated pace with the SOFA agreement, knowing that there's now an American president who really does want to withdraw.

BRAND: Well, how close are Iraqi leaders and Senator Obama in their goals for withdrawing combat troops?

Mr. KAPLAN: If the SOFA agreement cannot be worked out by the end of the year, which means that we have no legal basis to be there, well, so it goes. We're out of there. I don't think the Iraqis want us to leave right now. They want us to leave, but not right now. So I'm pretty convinced that now that they see that there's a president who really is committed to an early withdrawal, they will do what it takes to allow that.

BRAND: OK. Let's talk about Iran. It's gaining influence in Iraq. It may be trying to build nuclear weapons. What can Senator Obama do to contain Iranian power?

Mr. KAPLAN: It's pretty clear that Obama wants to at least try to set up comprehensive talks with Iran dealing with a whole gamut of issues. For too long, the Bush administration has gone on this notion that we don't negotiate with evil; we defeat it. Well, you know, it's a little difficult to defeat Iran.

And if we're not going to be at war with Iran, then we have to deal with it, then we have to offer what's been called a grand bargain to get them to do what we want them to do, namely stop supporting terrorism, stop building toward nuclear weapons. We have to give them something to do that.

BRAND: Well, how has President Bush helped Senator Obama?

Mr. KAPLAN: Well, on Iran, there's been reports in the past week that he is moving to set up a U.S. interests office in Iran, which is not quite an embassy, but it's sort of a transition to an embassy. He has - the Treasury Department for the past couple of years has begun a very fine-tuned sanctions program focusing on getting international banks to stop doing business with Iran. So, a little bit of sticks and carrots is happening already, and that may create the basis for a more comprehensive approach.

BRAND: And finally, let's talk about Russia. Relations were frayed between the United States and Russia over the summer during the Georgia contretemps. And I'm wondering, is there anything there that Senator Obama can do, anything happening now to ease his path to restoring diplomatic relations?

Mr. KAPLAN: Well, you know, much of this seems to be resting on this plan to put missile defenses in the Czech Republic and Poland. President Medvedev of Russia has said, if you do that, we're going to put short-range missiles in Kaliningrad.

It seems to me that Obama is not so enthusiastic about missile defense as Bush was. He has said, yeah, I'm in favor of the program if it can be proved to work. Well, it hasn't been proved to work, so I think he can work out a deal with Russia where we gently back off of missile defense; they back off everything else. I think there are some diplomatic possibilities here that have not been explored by the Bush administration because of their doctrinaire advocacy for missile defense.

BRAND: Fred Kaplan is a writer at slate.com, also the author of the book "Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power." Fred, thanks.

Mr. KAPLAN: Thank you.

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