First 100 Days: Obama’s foreign policy challenges
Few things in life amused my dad more than a good karate movie. I once asked what he found so funny about Bruce Lee’s jaw-dropping display of poise and power. “Nice of the bad guys to attack him one at a time,” he said. In the real world, threats don’t arrive single-file, like jets lining up for takeoff.
President Barack Obama’s toughest foreign-policy challenge will be in managing the sheer number of complex problems he’s inherited and their refusal to arrive in orderly fashion. In addition, the still-metastasizing global financial crisis will exacerbate several of these problems, by depriving a number of governments of the funding they need to maintain social stability and to meet internal and external threats to their security.
AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN
There is clearly a risk of collision at the intersection of Afghanistan and Pakistan, both of them plagued with floundering elected governments and deteriorating security environments. In Afghanistan, once Obama keeps his promise to provide thousands more U.S. troops, he must decide whether his team can afford to work around President Hamid Karzai (who may win reelection in August) and more directly engage tribal leaders and willing members of the Taliban to restore stability.
But Afghanistan’s security continues to depend on the ability of U.S. forces to stem the flow of militants and supplies into the country from tribal areas in Pakistan. Aware that Pakistan’s armed forces are neither reliably willing nor able to help, the Obama team must find a way to neutralize Pakistani militants without arousing broad public anger across the country and destabilizing its cash-strapped government.
The new president also inherits a central role in the international conflict over Iran’s nuclear program. Publicly committed to warnings that a nuclear Iran is “unacceptable,” some within the Obama team say the steep recent drop in oil prices fueled by the financial crisis will further hobble Iran’s already unsteady economy, adding bite to U.S. sanctions and raising hopes that direct engagement might bear fruit.
But however sharp the sticks or sweet the carrots, a broad consensus has developed within Iran in favor of the nuclear program, one that has so far proven immune to external pressure. Obama will eventually face a tough choice: He can accept the need for military action against Iranian nuclear sites or tacitly accept that no one can prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
Across the border in Iraq, recent local election results generally bolstered moderates at the expense of radicals. But the inability of Iraqi lawmakers to forge durable compromises on the equitable distribution of political power and oil revenue, on the disputed status of energy-rich Kirkuk, and on the balance of power between federal and provincial governments leave Obama in a tough spot. He can hold to campaign promises of a near-term withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops or accept the political fallout that comes with approving Pentagon requests for a go-slow approach meant to protect recent security gains.
There are plenty more potential flashpoints, but the most important international relationships Obama must cultivate are those with newly insecure Russia and increasingly self-confident China. Some within the Kremlin fear that U.S. influence in Russia’s neighborhood threatens the country’s long-term security, even as the global recession thins its (still considerable) financial reserves. A series of recent confrontations—over Kosovo, U.S. missile defense systems in Central Europe, Russia’s war with Georgia—have allowed Russian officials to capitalize on domestic anti-American sentiment and have pushed U.S. policymakers in search of a new approach.
But willingness to “press the reset button,” as Vice President Biden recently suggested, might breed misunderstanding. If Russians believe this signals that Obama will turn a blind eye toward Kremlin bullying at home or abroad, a luxury the new U.S. president cannot afford, his administration may have to reboot again—and sooner rather than later.
The Bush administration’s first international test came in April 2001, when a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet, killing the Chinese pilot and provoking a diplomatic standoff over detention of the U.S. flight crew. But China has become a status-quo power in recent years, as the leadership’s reliance on strong growth to bolster its domestic political capital has given Beijing a growing stake in global stability. Over time, the Bush team helped cultivate steady and predictable bilateral ties with China by focusing negotiations on subjects its leaders are willing to talk about—currency conflicts rather than human rights.
Obama says he means to broaden the conversation—a shift that will require plenty of patience on both sides. The stakes are high, particularly as the global financial crisis provokes anxiety in both capitals. This is the world’s most important bilateral relationship. Investing it with predictability and mutual trust will take considerable time and care.
So far, the new president has been lucky. He’s been able to devote time and energy to the stimulus package and financial rescue plan that he hopes will help refloat the U.S. economy. But the administration should recognize that this same financial crisis will add to the complexity of the foreign-policy challenges it faces—challenges that won’t come one at a time.