President Obama will no doubt face global crises
In 74 days, President-elect Barack Obama will assume responsibility for guiding the nation out of two wars and through a daunting array of real and potential global crises.
WASHINGTON — In 74 days, President-elect Barack Obama will assume responsibility for guiding the nation out of two wars and through a daunting array of real and potential global crises.
Obama is likely to benefit from initial goodwill across much of the planet, where there's profound relief that the Bush years are ending.
Still, the new president — untested in foreign affairs — faces what may be the most unsettled global scene since the 1930s and '40s.
• Iraq, where Obama has promised to withdraw U.S. troops by summer 2010, is less violent, but far from stable or self-reliant.
• Al-Qaida and the Taliban have grown stronger and now control parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal areas.
• Neither sanctions nor sweeteners have halted Iran's nuclear development.
• North Korea's leader is ailing, raising questions about the stability of the nuclear-armed dictatorship.
Just a day after the election, Iran's military officials Wednesday issued a notice warning U.S. forces that any violation of Iranian airspace will be met with force.
"It has been observed that helicopters of the U.S. Army were flying a short distance from the Iran-Iraq border," said a statement issued by officials at Iran's military headquarters. "Iran's armed forces will forcefully respond to any attempts to violate the Islamic Republic of Iran's airspace."
The notice likely stemmed from fears that U.S. commandos might stage an operation inside Iran like the recent American incursion from Iraq into Syria.
While Bush's polarizing persona alienated some countries who do business with Iran, a unifying figure like Obama may help convince fence-sitters such as India, China, Turkey, Malaysia and Russia to synchronize their Iranian policies with the U.S.
The United States is still the world's dominant power, but it's less dominant than it was and increasingly is challenged by China, Russia and others.
Another test may already have come Wednesday, his first day as president-elect.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced in his first state of the nation speech that Russia will station short-range missiles near its border with Poland if Obama proceeds with Bush's plan to station missile-defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic.
It was a reminder that Russia, which seemed cooperative during most of the tenure of Obama's two predecessors, has turned anti-Western.
The global economic crisis, more than any other factor, could limit Obama's flexibility in defense and foreign affairs, whether it's increasing the size of the U.S. military, as he's promised to do, or ramping up foreign aid in an attempt to expand American influence, former U.S. officials said.
"The administration is not going to come out of the box" immediately with large new foreign-policy initiatives, said James Dobbins a former assistant secretary of state now at the RAND Corp., a defense and international-relations research company."Frankly, that's not necessarily a bad thing."
Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said that what makes the current situation unique isn't the multiplicity of challenges facing the United States, but the fact that the U.S. military is stretched in Iraq and Afghanistan and the economic crisis demands attention.
"It's going to be the president's first priority. It will probably limit the availability of resources. It could lead to increased instability in certain countries around the world," Haass said.
Bush is hosting 20 leaders of the world's largest economies for a summit here in 10 days. While Obama seems unlikely to attend, he could meet the leaders while they're in Washington.
Obama has pledged to remove U.S. troops from Iraq in 16 months after taking office and to increase U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Whether he can meet that deadline remains to be seen, and the future of the U.S. troop presence is caught up in an agreement Bush is negotiating with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that's been delayed repeatedly.
Meanwhile, Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday called on Obama to end U.S. airstrikes that risk civilian casualties after coalition forces allegedly killed dozens of people at a wedding party in southern Afghanistan this week. Karzai said that about 40 civilians were killed and 28 wounded on Monday after coalition forces bombarded a village during a clash with Taliban fighters.
Obama has also promised to open diplomatic talks with U.S. adversaries such as Iran. Both Dobbins and Haass said that by reversing course in his final months and sending out feelers to Syria and allowing a senior U.S. diplomat to attend talks with Iran, Bush has helped Obama. Bush is expected to announce his intent to establish a U.S. diplomatic post in Tehran in coming weeks.
If history is a guide, Obama will face early tests from abroad as president, either from leaders seeking to gauge his mettle, or from surprise events.
Bush was challenged early in his presidency when a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese military jet and crash-landed on Chinese territory. President Clinton's first year saw the 1993 bombing of New York's World Trade Center and the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers in Mogadishu, Somalia.
While foreign leaders may or may not choose to test Obama, "the one thing I'm sure of is, events will test him," Haass said. "There will be coups. ... There will be genocide. ... There will be terrorism."
Additional information from The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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