Obama's Global Challenge: A Crash Course for the New President

By Claus Christian Malzahn

Barack Obama had hardly been confirmed as the winner in the US presidential election before the first provocation arrived -- Russia's announcement of new missile deployment plans. It is clear that the new president will have little time to hone his skills as a global politician.

US President-elect Barack Obama does not appear to be headed for a peaceful term in office.
REUTERS

US President-elect Barack Obama does not appear to be headed for a peaceful term in office.

Two weeks before the election, Joe Biden, the man who would become the next American vice president, said something during a speech before Democratic campaign donors in Seattle that would unleash the condensed fury of Obama's campaign strategists. "Mark my words," Biden said, "it will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama the way they did John Kennedy."

Biden was alluding to the 1961 Bay of Pigs crisis. In making the remark, Obama's running mate had inadvertently turned the focus of media reporting to questions of security and conflicts abroad -- both issues on which rival John McCain was seen as more competent among voters.

The remark, as prophetic as it was unfortunate, didn't wind up damaging the Obama campaign -- partially because by then the US media had become obsessed with the near-comedic appearances of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

But Biden was right, except for the six-month time period he mentioned. In fact, it took only a few hours, not six months, for a series of tests aimed at Obama to begin.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev offered Obama the appropriate congratulatory wishes, while at the same time attacking Bush once again for the American plan to develop a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. Even the timing of Medvedev's speech, originally scheduled for Oct. 23, was a diplomatic slap in the face, while its contents were a provocation for the next president.

Obama's positions on the US missile defense shield, which the Americans insist is not directed against Moscow but Tehran, differ only in nuance from those of the current president. At any rate, Obama has never fundamentally distanced himself from Bush's missile defense shield plans, and during a meeting with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in August, he even promised to stand firm on this issue. Nevertheless, Obama apparently aims to take a more pragmatic approach to the controversial subject, attaching new significance to the issue. His remarks on the subject, at least, sounded as if he were seeking room to negotiate.

Whether Obama will still have any room to negotiate after Medvedev's poisoned congratulatory statements, especially if the Russians position jamming transmitters and missiles that can be directed at Poland, is questionable. Obama is vulnerable on security policy. McCain's few strong appearances in the campaign happened during the Georgia crisis, while Obama was caught off-guard by the Russian invasion.

For this reason, Obama cannot show his weaknesses if he hopes to be reelected to a second term. The Russians' aggressive advances are also unsettling to those politicians in Europe who have shown an understanding for Moscow's position in the past. Perhaps this will be sobering to the Gazprom wing of European foreign policy and foster more realism.

But Moscow's highly skillful efforts in recent years to use anti-American criticism to loosen the bonds of the trans-Atlantic alliance could end when Barack Obama moves into the White House. With a man as unpopular around the world as Bush is, Medvedev and Putin were able to foment fear and divert attention away from their own considerable deficits. But will they be able to do the same thing with a messiah from Washington?

Obama Cannot Expect a Peaceful Term in Office

The Russian incident shows that Obama will inherit many problems from the Bush era. Even if the issues do not appeal to him, he will have to address them. A short look at the current international conflicts could make for a dizzying introduction to the job for the new leader in the White House. Despite all the euphoric talk about change and Obama's "yes, we can" rhetoric, he does not seem to be headed for a peaceful term in office.

Obama wants to consider a troop withdrawal from Iraq. But he cannot bring the US military home until there is some hope for stability in the country, even without the presence of American soldiers. This means that al-Qaida and insurgency groups must be greatly weakened first. The increase in the number of US troops in Iraq as part of the so-called surge strategy, as well as cooperation with Sunni tribes, has already brought some progress in this direction. But Obama will also hardly be able to forbid military strikes against terrorist cells operating in Syria, unless Damascus immediately begins taking action against such groups and finally secures its border with Iraq.

Obama wants to negotiate with Iran, without preconditions, over termination of that country's nuclear program. He differs sharply from McCain and Bush in this respect. But it will be just as difficult for Obama as it is for a Republican president to accept a concrete threat to Israel by Iranian nuclear warheads in combination with an Iranian president who dreams of wiping out Israel. If Iran continues to insist on its nuclear program and the conflict cannot be resolved with diplomacy, a US attack on the country's nuclear facilities in the near future will be almost unavoidable. The commander-in-chief in that attack would be Barack Obama.

But the biggest problems seem to lie in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Obama already made it clear during his speech in front of Berlin's Victory Column that as president, he would be willing to dispense with Bush-style American unilateral action. In return, however, Obama expects more help from Europe -- and by help he means soldiers, not nurses. But Germany is not the only place where the willingness to continue spending on Afghanistan is waning. The widespread enthusiasm over Obama's election could decline rapidly when the new president sends his military wish list to Berlin.

In any event, neither Berlin nor other European capitals have provided original proposals on how to bring peace to Afghanistan in the near future. The initiative will remain in Washington's hands, and Washington will also retain the role of scapegoat. Are there any solutions? The Obama administration could pressure Kabul to offer the Taliban something on the order of regional autonomy in southern Afghanistan, provided it agrees to stop its terrorist attacks. As much as it sounds like a dirty realpolitik deal, it cannot work.

It seems highly unlikely that Mullah Omar and his comrades are even interested in peaceful coexistence with President Hamid Karzai and his administration, or that they would tolerate such Western aberrations as girls in schools, music in the streets and beardless men in teahouses. The Taliban want to control the entire country once again. If the group manages to recapture Kabul, Pakistan would be next. The fight has been underway there for some time.

Powderkeg Pakistan

Powderkeg Pakistan could in fact turn into the biggest trouble spot during Obama's presidency. The country is practically broke, the government is weak and the army is as omnipotent as it is inscrutable. The shortest path to nuclear weapons for political Islamism may lead through Islamabad, not Tehran. Pakistan already has nuclear weapons, which the new regime insists are in safe hands.

Whether or not one believes these assurances, Pakistan has been considered one of the most important US allies in the fight against terrorism. But this hasn't stopped the Pakistani army from shooting at their US ally's helicopters when they enter Pakistani air space to hunt down Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in the country's tribal areas. Obama's plans for Pakistan outshine McCain's plans militarily. He has long argued for an expansion of combat activities into Pakistani territory, where al-Qaida and the Taliban have safe havens.

If the attacks on Afghan targets from Pakistani territory do not stop, an Obama advisor recently predicted at an event in Berlin, "there will presumably be a major US military campaign on Pakistan soil that could last a few days." But limited strikes will not necessarily be the end of it. In October, the US magazine Newsweek speculated that "Obama's star will sink" if he becomes involved in an unpopular and almost unwinnable Pakistan war after winning the election.

Domestically, the United States has just reinvented itself with its vote for Obama. But on the foreign policy front there will be fewer changes than people believe. But if one thing is clear, it is that the age of the neocons in Washington is over. Launching poorly planned wars for a supposedly good cause, or bombing countries to shove democracy down their throats will not be part of the Obama administration. Instead, foreign policy, armed or not, will be decided once again in the political center -- and with considerably more expertise and willingness to cooperate than was the case under Bush.

But the questions of war and peace in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan will not be decided solely in the White House, but even more so in Moscow, Damascus, Tehran, Islamabad and the tribal areas of Pakistan. With Barack Obama as the elected president of the United States, the world feels much better than it did yesterday.

Let us enjoy the moment. Nothing has improved yet, but to ensure that things will improve, Obama will need more than his own good intentions. He will also need the good will of people who could not abide him until now.

Claus Christian Malzahn is SPIEGEL ONLINE's Berlin bureau chief.

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