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Washington’s World: December 22nd – December 28th, 2014

In his striking and surprise decision to start the process of normalizing relations with Cuba, thereby reversing more than 50 years of US foreign policy, President Obama has challenged the conventional wisdom on which we reported last week that his agenda in his final two years in office would be a modest one. Obama’s move is already facing fierce opposition, including from senior and powwrful Democrats. These opponents will be able to obstruct the policy’s practical implementation, but they will be unable to overturn it. Although the trade embargo now in place against Cuba will require Congressional cooperation to lift, many of the necessary measures lie within presidential prerogatives. At the same time Obama signed into law a bill allowing for more far-reaching sanctions against Russia and the supply of military equipment to Ukraine. Obama does not intend to enforce these powers for the time being – partly out of concern about opening a gap with the EU – but the move has added to his leverage against Russia. Administration officials tell us that they are hopeful that the collapse in the oil price will make Russia amenable to a settlement. Discreet exchanges continue between senior US and Russian officials, including both Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov. The unexpectedly bold stroke over Cuba has also fuelled hopes that Obama may contemplate a similarly ambitious move over Iran. Here too the falling oil price is thought by US officials as increasing Iran’s incentives – even among the hardliners – to reach an agreement. With the continued flow of optimistic military briefings about progress in Iraq against ISIL whose logistical overreach is becoming increasingly evident, morale in the Administration’s foreign policy team is picking up. They will need all their skills for the totally novel challenge of the North Korean cyber attack on Sony – now confirmed by the FBI. While Obama has promised some form of “proportional” retaliation, officials are at this stage uncertain as to the form this should take. Among the open questions are whether completely new rules of retaliation have to be devised and what this means in terms of weak adversaries to wage asymmetrical warfare. One constraint on the Administration’s options is concern over possible complications to Japan’s relations with North Korea.

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