Obama team reaches out in first foreign trip

February 9, 2009 12:00 am

, MUNICH, Feb 9 – The US administration signalled a new spirit of international cooperation this weekend but called for its allies to do more and painted a bleak picture of the war in Afghanistan.

Vice President Joe Biden used the Munich Security Conference in the southern Germany city to say that Barack Obama’s White House sought a "new tone" in foreign relations, particularly with regard to Russia and even Iran.

"I come to Europe on behalf of a new administration determined to set a new tone not only in Washington, but in America’s relations around the world," he said on his first foreign trip since Obama took office on January 20.

"America will do more, but America will ask for more from our partners.

"As we seek a lasting framework for our common struggle against extremism, we will have to work cooperatively with nations around the world — and we will need your help," Biden said.

Obama sent other big guns to Munich too: national security advisor General James Jones, special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke and General David Petraeus, US commander over Afghanistan and Iraq.

All three painted a bleak picture of the prospects of beating the Taliban, with Holbrooke saying it would be even tougher than stabilising Iraq in the bloody years following the 2003 US-led toppling of Saddam Hussein.

"It is like no other problem we have confronted, and in my view it’s going to be much tougher than Iraq," Holbrooke said. "It is going to be a long, difficult struggle.

"I don’t think we can afford to get it wrong this time, because for the first time, the situation directly involves the homeland security of the nations involved," he said.

Holbrooke — due to head to Pakistan, Afghanistan and India from Munich — also railed against would-be donors failing to live up to their pledges and said the "mess" he had inherited was like nothing he had seen before.

Obama has identified Afghanistan as the main front in the "war on terror" and plans to send 30,000 more troops. There are now 70,000 there including 50,000 under the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Biden also said he wanted to "reset the button" in relations with Moscow, which under Bush hit lows not seen since the Cold War, an approach welcomed by Russian Deputy Sergei Ivanov after meeting Biden face-to-face in Munich.

"The new US administration is sending a very strong signal, and we are hearing it, for restoration of dialogue between the US and Russia," Ivanov said. "There is optimism, cautious optimism."

Biden also said that Washington would press ahead with its planned missile defence shield — which has alarmed Moscow — but only "provided the technology is proven to work and (is) cost effective."

He indicated too that the Obama team is ready to consider Russian demands in negotiations — stalled under Bush — to renew START, the Cold War-era nuclear disarmament treaty that expires in December.

On Iran, Biden repeated that the US was ready to talk to Tehran after three decades of frozen relations.

"We will be willing to talk to Iran, and to offer a very clear choice: continue down the current course and there will be continued pressure and isolation; abandon the illicit nuclear programme and your support for terrorism and there will be meaningful incentives."

Ari Larijani, Iran’s parliamentary speaker and former nuclear negotiator, was at the Munich conference but did not meet Biden.

In a German newspaper interview, Larijani said Iran was ready to talk with Washington "without pre-conditions" but was still waiting for a "concrete offer" from the new US administration.

"It the Americans are really willing to resolve the problems, then they must present their concept," he told the daily Suddeutsche Zeitung, adding that "declarations in interviews or in speeches" were not enough.

Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, was full of praise for the US delegation.

"The presentation of the new American administration was very constructive," Solana told AFP. "It is very important that we begin to talk with the same melody, with the same wavelength."


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