Obama’s World

By: Greg C. Reeson

President-elect Barack Obama has been receiving classified, presidential-level intelligence briefings for more than a week now. These briefings, which involve highly detailed, sensitive information not shared with Senators or presidential candidates, are no doubt giving the incoming president a new appreciation for the complexities of the world into which he is about to step as leader of the most powerful nation on earth. In short, the rhetoric of a fairy tale campaign is about to meet the reality of global geopolitics.

President-elect Obama will very quickly be forced to deal with several major foreign policy challenges, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, and the broader concept of a global war on terrorism.

In Iraq, Obama will be faced with a situation that is much different from the one that existed just eighteen months ago. Progress has been slow, to be sure, but there are signs that indicate Iraq is on its way to becoming a stable and secure state. Virtually every security metric used by coalition forces in Iraq has improved dramatically since mid-2007, and political accommodation, while still struggling at the national level, is taking root at the local and regional levels. U.S. combat forces have been reduced from a surge-high of 20 brigade combat teams to just 14 today.

Will President-elect Obama fulfill his campaign pledge to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraq in sixteen months, risking a return to 2006 levels of violence, the possibility of a wider regional war, a potential humanitarian crisis, and Iranian domination of Iraq? Or will he opt for a more cautious approach that heeds the advice of military commanders and eases the concerns of regional allies like Jordan, Egypt, and Kuwait?

Afghanistan will present Obama with what will perhaps be the defining event of his presidency. For years the situation in the former-Taliban and al Qaeda stronghold has been deteriorating, along with the political will of our NATO allies. Calls for more international assistance, a hallmark of the Obama campaign, will likely yield some token show of support from a few European nations eager to offer a gesture of goodwill. But in the long run it is doubtful that anything of substance will be offered by NATO countries lacking both the will and the capacity to do more to support the Karzai government.

Germany and France have both offered small increases in troop levels to President Bush, and will likely refrain from offering additional forces to President-elect Obama. Canada has already stated its intention to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2011, and the British have said only that they would consider small increases in troop levels. With Obama promising to send more American military forces to Afghanistan, the re-Americanization of the Afghan war is nearly complete. How long will it be before President-elect Obama’s supporters demand a U.S. withdrawal or the negotiation of a deal with the very people Obama promised to fight?

Iran will pose another problem for Obama, although probably not one that will involve the use of U.S. military force. Tehran continues to defy UN demands that Iran cease its enrichment of uranium, and further economic sanctions, favored by the President-elect, lack support from permanent UN Security Council members China and Russia. Obama’s offer of dialogue with Iran, warmly accepted by the Islamic Republic during the campaign season, has suddenly been rebuffed.

The Washington Post reported November 13 that Iranian officials are now sounding uneasy about negotiating with President-elect Obama, quoting deputy commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Hossein Taeb as saying, “People who put on a mask of friendship, but with the objective of betrayal, and who enter from the angle of negotiations without preconditions, are more dangerous.”

The Post also quoted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as saying, “It doesn’t make any difference for us who comes and who goes. It’s their actions which are studied by the Iranian and world nations.” In other words, the Iranians are waiting to see what Obama will do. Will he abandon the United States’ European allies and their preconditions for negotiation with Iran? Or will he stand firm with the United Nations and the European Union and back off from his campaign pledge to engage in direct talks with Tehran?

Russia was the first country to put the President-elect to the test with Moscow’s announcement that it would deploy short-range ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad in retaliation for the emplacement of U.S. ballistic missile defense systems in Poland. Russia is taking advantage of U.S. commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq to reassert itself in the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. Obama’s relationship with U.S. allies like Georgia and Ukraine will be critical in dealing with Moscow, and it is unlikely that Washington will get much help from Europe. NATO has no stomach for a row with Russia and Europe’s dependence on energy from Moscow lends itself more to concession than confrontation.

Finally, President-elect Obama will have to decide how his administration will prosecute the global war on terrorism launched by his predecessor, President George W. Bush. Will Obama continue military cooperation with Georgian forces concerned about Islamic radicalism spilling over from Chechnya? Will he continue to assist the Philippine government in its fight against Muslim radicals seeking to carve out an independent enclave on Mindanao? What about the resurgence of Islamist fighters in Somalia and ongoing African counter-terror operations in Djibouti? Is he prepared to expand the war on terror to new locations where U.S. efforts might be needed?

The global war on terrorism is just what its name says it is: a worldwide effort to combat terrorism and those who practice it. Afghanistan and Iraq may be the two most prominent battlefields in the war, but they are far from the only ones.

Vice-President-elect Joe Biden was correct when he said Barack Obama would be tested early in his administration. But that test is unlikely to be a singular event. President-elect Obama can expect to be challenged on multiple fronts simultaneously and soon after taking office. Whatever actions he takes in response to those challenges will set the tone for America’s relations with the rest of the world for the remainder of his term

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