No crisis yet, but Obama finding world won't wait for him

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 6, 2009 

WASHINGTON — In the midst of the presidential campaign last October, Barack Obama's running mate, Joe Biden, warned that within six months of Obama's election, "We're gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy."

The prediction hasn't come true yet, but unfriendly nations and international competitors already are stepping up their efforts to challenge the young new president or at the very least get his attention.

During the last week, North Korea threatened South Korea and prepared a long-range missile launch. Iran rocketed its first satellite into orbit without outside help. As Taliban militants attacked U.S. supply routes through Pakistan into Afghanistan, tiny Kyrgyzstan, with support from Russia, threatened to eject U.S. troops from an air base that's crucial to the war effort in Afghanistan. Russian and Chinese leaders mocked U.S. economic policies at an economic forum in Switzerland.

White House officials said the challenges — particularly North Korea's bid for attention — weren't surprising.

However, they illustrate that world events may not wait for the administration to complete its foreign-policy reviews. President Obama, whose initial public focus has been on the economy, Arab-Israeli peace and Afghanistan, may not always be able to set his own agenda.

Obama "keeps focusing on the domestic economy, almost as if he wishes the rest of the world would go away. But life is not that orderly," said John Bolton, a hawk who served as former President George W. Bush's U.N. ambassador.

These issues "are coming to a boil," Bolton said.

None may be more vital to U.S. interests than the Manas base in the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan, a crucial hub for transporting U.S. troops and supplies in and out of Afghanistan.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, on a trip to Moscow to collect more than $2 billion in aid and credits, announced that the U.S. presence would have to end. That at first looked like a bargaining position, but a senior Kyrgyz official said Friday that the decision was final.

Speculation abounds that the real force behind the move was Russia, which has chafed at U.S. military operations on territory of the former Soviet Union, and wants to force Washington to depend on it for support in Afghanistan.

Russia also may be trying to pressure Obama into abandoning plans that former President George W. Bush developed to install U.S. missile-defense facilities in Eastern Europe.

"They're trying to assert control over the U.S.-Russian relationship," said Martha Brill Olcott, a Central Asia scholar at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Olcott said there were numerous signals from Kyrgyzstan that its leaders would shutter the base, signals that Washington apparently misread. Now the Obama administration is "totally behind the eight ball," she said.

North Korea poses a different sort of problem for Obama. Pyongyang frequently has used bellicose rhetoric and actions — for example, its October 2006 underground nuclear test — to demand the world's attention.

A White House official recalled that there were crises with North Korea early in President Bill Clinton's and Bush's administrations. The official requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.

This time, Pyongyang has scrapped a nonaggression pact with South Korea and declared void a sea border between the nations, raising fears of a maritime clash.

A senior U.S. counter-proliferation official confirmed reports from South Korea that North Korea apparently is preparing for a long-range missile launch. The missile in question is thought to be a Taepodong-2, which has a theoretical range of nearly 3,000 miles.

A missile launch over Japan could heighten tensions in Northeast Asia significantly.

The senior official said it could be "some time" before the missile was ready to launch. He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence information.

While it's early, Iran so far has deflected Obama's offer of engaging with the United States, indicating at a minimum that any negotiations will be difficult and drawn out.

Tehran refused visas for the U.S. women's badminton team to play in Iran, in what would have been the first cultural exchange between the adversaries during Obama's tenure.

On Tuesday, Iran announced that it had launched its own satellite. The senior official said the satellite was unsophisticated. "It does have the flavor of Sputnik, 1957," he said. Nonetheless, it was a reminder of Iran's pursuit of missile and, most analysts think, nuclear-weapons technology.

Early foreign challenges and crises should come as no surprise to Obama and his team.

"There may be a so-called honeymoon period on the domestic front . . . but there is rarely time for a honeymoon or learning curve in the international security realm," Kurt Campbell and James Steinberg wrote in their 2008 book, "Difficult Transitions."

Steinberg is now the deputy secretary of state, and Campbell is rumored to be in the running for a senior job as well.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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