Archive for November, 2008

Good Luck, Mr. President-Elect

November 5, 2008

Yesterday, Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election.  I have good news and bad news for the victor.  The good news is you are going to be president.  The bad news is you are going to be president.  Obviously Obama wants the position or else he would not have sought it.  But he will face many daunting challenges.  Aside from the current economic crisis, which will likely be his top priority, he will have to tackle numerous foreign policy problems.  He will have to deal with the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, the relationship with Pakistan, the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a resurgent Russia among others. 


There are several issues involved in the pullout from Iraq.  One is how quickly it will happen.  Obama promised to withdraw all combat troops within 14 months after he takes office; whether he will stick to that timeline remains to be seen.  Another important question is how many “non-combat” troops will remain after the “combat” contingent (the distinction between the two is murky and leaves open the possibility that American soldiers will still be fighting after the main withdrawal) exits?  And will the US send more troops back to Iraq if the remaining force comes under attack or if a civil war breaks out?  These questions have yet to be answered.


With regard to Afghanistan, Obama intends to send additional units there to combat the intensified Taliban insurgency.  Some have suggested that the Americans should apply the same take, hold and build strategy that was used in Iraq after the surge.  If that plan is adopted the US will likely need much more troops than Obama has indicated he will deploy.  Thus far, coalition forces have been unsuccessful in protecting Afghan civilians from Taliban fighters, which many experts believe is critical to defeating the insurgency. 


The US relationship with Pakistan is complicated.  On the one hand, the US and Pakistan are officially allies and have been for years.  The Pakistani government has made efforts to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the tribal regions with its army.  However, elements within the Pakistani intelligence service are sympathetic to the Taliban and are assisting their insurgency in Afghanistan.  The government has also made peace agreements with the insurgents at various times, which brings into question how serious it is about taking on America’s enemies in the northwest provinces.  Military and civilian leaders in Pakistan have also said that they will not tolerate the presence of American troops in their country, a position which makes attacking Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives near the Afghan border more difficult for the US.  It is uncertain if the Obama administration will be able to get the cooperation needed to root out the terrorists.  If it fails in that regard the new president will have to decide if he is willing to order American ground forces into the tribal areas of Pakistan and accept the risks involved with such an action.


Persuading Iran and North Korea to abandon their nuclear weapons programs will be a difficult task (Iran claims that its nuclear program is designed for peaceful purposes only, a claim which American officials dispute).  The US can offer incentives such as normalized relations and financial incentives, but if either country is determined to acquire atomic bombs it will be hard to stop them given that a military solution appears impracticable.


Ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict will certainly be difficult.  It will depend on the nature of the leadership on both sides; a moderate Palestinian government and a dovish Israeli government will probably need to be in power if a deal is to be reached; Hamas, which has public committed itself to the destruction of Israel, may not be willing to make peace with the so-called “Zionist entity”, and a hard-line Likud administration may not be amenable to a peace agreement either.  Strong American pressure on Israel will likely be required to secure a settlement, and it is uncertain if the Obama administration will be willing to exert such pressure and risk alienating the pro-Israel lobby in the US. 


Lately Russia has been flexing its muscles; it recently invaded Georgia and cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine and Western Europe.  Republicans have suggested that Ukraine and Georgia should be invited to join NATO; such an event could spark a political or military confrontation between Russia and the US, and Obama must decide if the risks of doing so are worth it.  The Russian government is also opposed to the US plan to build anti-ballistic missile (ABM) sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, and announced that it will retaliate if the ABMs are deployed; the new American administration will have to decide if the deployment should proceed or if the missile defense system should be put on hold.  An agreement to shrink both countries nuclear arsenals is another initiative that America might pursue, especially if it going to try to convince states like Iran and North Korea to give up their atomic ambitions.


All I can say to the president-elect is “Good luck…”