As President Barack Obama relentlessly speechifies his way toward the close of his first year in office, world trouble spots are poised to give him more trouble. If the past eight months were full of international thrills, the next ones are more likely to teem with spills. It should be said that the blame for almost all of these foreign crises-to-be will rest not with him. Rather, the fault will reside mainly with the foreign perpetrators themselves and also with the Bush administration’s poor policies. But when you’re in the White House and you’re the president, it’s always your fault. That said, better to be president of the United States than top dog in China, India, France or wherever. Washington still matters most of all major powers by far, and the world still will be looking to President Obama to tame the whirlwinds ahead.
1. The book-end nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran come first to mind. North Korea made nice for a few weeks after President Clinton’s visit to Pyongyang. In more recent days, however, its government has proclaimed that it is now weaponizing plutonium from its reprocessing plant and is in the final stages of enriching uranium. And they have already recently detonated nuclear devices. The United States has no real answer to this besides more economic sanctions, which haven’t worked to date and are unlikely to work in the future without the active support of China. Leaders in Beijing see very little for themselves in getting tough with Pyongyang and thus the expectation is for rising tensions and more stalemate. Curiously, the Obama team never threatens the North Koreans with military action, but conspicuously leaves that particular door open regarding Iran.
2. New American intelligence reports that Iran is now moving swiftly ahead toward nuclear weapons. And the U.N. group charged with inspecting Iranian nuclear facilities continues to charge Tehran with failure to answer questions about its nuclear program. All these quarrels are a backdrop to a deadline proclaimed by Obama and America’s major allies—Iran, they say, must offer serious negotiations on nukes before the end of September, or else. The “or else” means more economic sanctions, but again, it’s hard to see these sanctions having any additional bite without the help of very reluctant Russians and Chinese. As with North Korea, tensions with Iran are bound to ratchet up without anyone having a clear sense of how to put relations on a more promising path.
3. Then comes the ever-present non-crisis crisis, Israeli-Palestinian relations. U.S. negotiator George Mitchell has cooked up a deal: Israel agrees to suspend new settlements for six to nine months on the West Bank and Arab states agree to open up low-level trade and diplomatic contacts with Israel. Few expect this arrangement to produce any real movement in the Israeli-Palestinian talks. Little has been done to lay the political predicates in either community for serious compromises. But in the Holy Land, the next crisis is always only a terrorist attack away.
4. Don’t forget Iraq. U.S. troops are now steadily departing from that star-crossed country. They’re leaving even more rapidly than expected because of the insistence of the Iraqi government, with a good amount of support from the Iraqi people. As the troops leave, religious and tribal violence is expanding. Unless the Obama team can use these remaining months to bring about political reconciliation among the majority Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, there is a high risk of civil war. The U.S. military surge succeeded in quieting violence, but not in making a stable peace. The surges work only as long as the Americans are surging, and there is a lesson here for Afghanistan.
5. President Obama will likely make a decision in the next weeks to increase the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. White House officials have been speaking often about “fully resourcing” the war effort. So far, however, it’s unclear just how far the president is really prepared to go with big troop increases and with virtually Americanizing the war. He’s likely to balance a U.S. troop buildup with an accelerated plan to strengthen Afghan security forces. But one outcome is certain—there will be more casualties in this war, and more American casualties in particular. As U.S. congressional elections approach next year, Obama's war in Afghanistan will become a major issue at home.
6. It’s always possible a crisis in Pakistan would dwarf any of these other nightmares. This is a country with over 100 nuclear weapons, which is building even more weapons at a very rapid rate, and which is becoming increasingly destabilized by the growing power of the Taliban and by the incompetence and corruption of the Pakistani government itself. In Pakistan are all the ingredients for the most serious world crisis of all.
Pakistan is such an odd country. It is still deeply divided along tribal lines such as the Pashtuns and the Punjabis. It is filled with millions of dedicated and educated Pakistanis who really know how to run a country and run a democracy. And yet it is run by corrupt politicians, world-class kleptomaniacs, whose greed is matched only by their incompetence to govern. To make matters worse, the so-called stabilizing force in the country is an army with a military leadership that can only be described as duplicitous. Those military leaders beg for American help supposedly to fight the Taliban as Washington wishes, but really to prepare for war against India, which is the last thing Washington wants. And this military and related intelligence units have to have been behind the incredibly damaging actions of former Pakistani nuclear chief A.Q. Khan. By giving and selling nuclear secrets, technology, and perhaps materiel to rogue states and possible terrorist groups directly, this man has done more damage to American interests than Osama bin Laden. For all the American help from Pakistan, the Pakistani military and political leadership refuses to let Americans question Dr. Khan about his past doings. This is the kind of ally that the United States has no choice but to prop up. It’s probably hysterical to predict a collapse of the Pakistani state, and yet, that country possesses all the elements of spontaneous disaster. The Obama team knows all these problems and really doesn’t know what to do about them save to hold on.
Of course, President Obama’s main priority must be to strengthen the American economy. In the latest analysis, America’s diplomatic, economic and military power all turn on America’s economic strength. Now, the president has given himself the additional terrible burden of having to fix the health-care system at the same time. These issues should be consuming almost all of the president’s energies and power. Nonetheless, he must hold meetings virtually daily on one or more of these potential crises. International explosions, once they do explode, have a way of chewing up presidential resources and diverting the president from essential tasks at home.
Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.
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