Obama's Change Must Start With His Advisers

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Twelve days before the U.S. presidential election, all indicators are pointing to a victory by Senator Barack Obama. There is always a chance for last-minute surprises, but miracles are rare things. I think the main reason for Senator John McCain's likely defeat is that too many influential groups within his own Republican Party never regarded him as the best choice available.

I am not talking only about neocons. Even moderates, such as the widely admired former Secretary of State Colin Powell, have turned away from McCain. Powell said he was dismayed by the tenor of McCain's campaign and not thrilled by his choice of Governor Sarah Palin, and it is easy to understand him on these points.

If Obama wins the election, his presidency will be most welcome in Europe and the rest of the world and will definitely help improve relations with U.S. allies and Washington's image in general. But when it comes to U.S.–Russian relations, one should not expect any drastic changes for the better unless Obama overhauls his foreign policy team. The current lineup comprising official and self-proclaimed advisers on Russia is as bad as McCain's and in some cases even worse, starting with former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke.

Obama's running mate, Senator Joseph Biden, is not much better on Russia than Palin. Besides lobbying in the middle of a huge financial crisis for $1 billion for his good friend President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, Biden is known for blocking the lifting of the Jackson-Vanik amendment unless Moscow guarantees large purchases of U.S. chicken. This outdated obstacle to trade engenders resentment in Russia, blocks its admission to the World Trade Organization, and harms U.S.-Russian economic and diplomatic ties.

Before making any long-term projections, we will have to see who Obama's choices will be for secretary of state and national security adviser. There is a long list of knowledgeable and respected professionals who can do an excellent job. That list would include Powell, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and current Undersecretary of State William Burns.

Making up such lists is quite an enjoyable occupation, but somehow I am not too sanguine about Obama's future selections. As for the present, he is clearly surrounded by people who may yet make the Kremlin feel nostalgic for the good old days of the Bush administration.

Edward Lozansky is president of the American University in Moscow.