The world took less than six hours to prove Joe Biden right. Even before the customary telegram congratulating the president-elect arrived from Moscow on Wednesday morning, Russia's president, Dmitri Medvedev, posed the "test" of President-elect Barack Obama's resolve that his running mate had warned about in the final weeks of the campaign.
Republican critics had made much of Biden's remarks, but those of us who analyze foreign policy for a living knew it was a truism. All presidents are tested by America's rivals, and Obama would be no exception.
Still, the disregard for America inherent in this particular challenge provides a sobering illustration of the dangers ahead. Medvedev, delivering the first "state of the nation" speech of his stage-managed presidency, lashed out against American plans to build a missile defense shield in Central Europe. Medvedev told the world that Russia would deploy short-range missiles in its westernmost region, Kaliningrad, "to neutralize, if necessary, a missile defense system."
The transition from the ethereal rhetoric of campaigning to hard reality took less than 24 hours. No one expected a protracted honeymoon-what with capitalism on its knees and two difficult wars consuming American blood and treasure. But the extent to which respect for America among our friends and foes has fallen during the Bush administration should not be underestimated. Here's a thumbnail sketch of the foreign policy agenda Obama's National Security Council will face when it first convenes next January.
The Middle East: Presidents in recent decades are warned that one wrong move could set the Middle East ablaze. Obama will find the "greater" Middle East, including the Arabs, Israelis, plus Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, fully involved, as firefighters say.
Obama's public statements suggest he plans to move resources from Iraq to Afghanistan and, more important, that he would be willing to see significant deterioration of the situation in Iraq if it meant American forces could focus on "the main front in the war on terrorism."
In Afghanistan, Obama has advocated possible negotiations with the Taliban, a position being explored by the Bush administration already, with Saudi assistance. Most important, he publicly declared his intention to cross sovereign borders in pursuit of al Qaeda, even if it means defying Pakistan's wishes. Balancing the risks of undermining the remaining stability of nuclear-armed Pakistan with the possible trophy of Osama bin Laden's scalp will consume many hours at the Obama White House.
In both places, Iran's influence will be watched carefully. Obama has provided what neither President Bush nor John McCain would: a pledge that, under certain circumstances, talks between the U.S. and Iran on its nuclear program and other issues of concern are not only possible but desirable. The fact that Iran is reeling from the drop in oil prices should encourage a more productive conversation.
Elsewhere, Obama may want to name a personal envoy to try to rebuild the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, but neither the Palestinians (split between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank), nor the Israelis, mired in their own political morass, have the ability to move forward.
East Asia: North Korea has successfully played the United States over the last eight years, happily acceding to the early Bush administration decision to cut off all talks on its then-unrealized nuclear program, exploding said weapon and joining the nuclear club and then returning to talks on its own terms. The regime cares little about the well-being of its citizens, and so the best hope for real progress remains with China, the one nation with any discernible leverage on the North.
China, of course, is the black hat of so many right-wing scripts, yet has played a stabilizing role during the financial crisis. (Imagine the chaos if it had decided to turn its dollar assets into, say, euros.) But China in the past two years also has used its veto in the U.N. Security Council to protect its interests in Myanmar and Zimbabwe. It's here that the germ of true problems between Washington and Beijing may develop. A Democratic Congress may finally drive a stake through the heart of free trade talks and demand punitive tariffs. War with China is unlikely. Trade war is another matter.
Latin America and Africa: Obama, at 47, is only slightly older than the U.S. embargo against Cuba. It's not just the Castro regime that regards that as absurd. Fidel Castro's resignation and his brother's accession into a caretaker role suggest change is coming, and Obama has said a fresh start is needed toward Cuba. In the wider region, the world financial collapse, along with the fall in energy prices, has left Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his allies-Nicaragua, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba-in a fix. Obama may choose to work most closely with Brazil, which played its cards cleverly with both Chávez and the Bush administration, embracing neither and exerting its own case for regional leadership.
It would be highly ironic if Africa were an afterthought for the first African-American president. So much good could come of real American engagement there. Expectations are high for real pressure on Sudan over Darfur, real support for U.N. missions there and in war-ravaged Congo, a policy that goes beyond pinprick missile strikes in Somalia. Obama may find it difficult to get Africa very high on the national agenda.
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