Politics & Government

Obama faces an unsettled world on taking office

WASHINGTON — In 74 days, President Barack Obama will assume responsibility for guiding the nation out of two wars and through a daunting array of real and potential global crises, even as a pressing domestic agenda and a depleted federal treasury hamper his flexibility abroad.

Obama is likely to benefit from initial goodwill across much of the planet, where there's profound relief that the Bush years are ending. President Bush himself has taken steps, such as outreach to Iran and Syria, in his waning months that could provide Obama with diplomatic opportunities.

Still, the new president — untested in foreign affairs — faces what may be the most unsettled global scene since the 1930s and '40s.

Iraq, where Obama has promised to withdraw U.S. troops by summer 2010, is less violent, but far from stable or self-reliant. Al Qaida and the Taliban have grown stronger and now control parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal areas. Neither sanctions nor sweeteners have halted Iran's nuclear development. North Korea's leader is ailing, raising questions about the stability of the nuclear-armed dictatorship.

The United States is still the world's dominant power, but it's less dominant than it was and increasingly is challenged by China, Russia and others.

"President Obama will be a wartime president from day one, and he will have to make immediate decisions and come to grips with immediate national security priorities," Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy institute, wrote in an analysis Wednesday.

In a speech last week, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell predicted that the election victor's euphoria "is going to be dampened somewhat when he begins to focus on the realities of the myriad of changes and challenges we are going to face in the future."

Obama's first test may already have come Wednesday, his first full day as president-elect.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev announced in his first state of the nation speech that Russia will station short-range missiles near its border with Poland if Obama proceeds with Bush's plan to station missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic.

It was reminder that Russia, which seemed cooperative during most of the tenure of Obama's two predecessors, has turned sharply anti-Western.

Obama on Thursday will get his first full look at the challenges facing the nation when McConnell gives him his first President's Daily Brief, the mostly highly classified briefing produced by the U.S. intelligence community, according to a senior U.S. official who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Thereafter, Obama's daily briefing will be overseen by Michael J. Morell, the head of the CIA's analytical branch, the official said.

The global economic crisis, more than any other factor, could limit Obama's flexibility in defense and foreign affairs, whether it's increasing the size of the U.S. military, as he's promised to do, or ramping up foreign aid in an attempt to expand American influence, former U.S. officials said.

"I do think it will soak up a good deal of the president's time and attention until it is resolved," said James Dobbins of the RAND Corp., a defense and international relations research company.

"The administration is not going to come out of the box" immediately with large new foreign policy initiatives, said Dobbins, a former assistant secretary of state. "Frankly, that's not necessarily a bad thing."

Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said that what makes the current situation unique isn't the multiplicity of challenges facing the United States, but the fact that the U.S. military is stretched in Iraq and Afghanistan and the economic crisis demands attention.

"It's going to be the president's first priority. It will probably limit the availability of resources. It could lead to increased instability in certain countries around the world," Haass said.

Bush is hosting 20 leaders of the world's largest economies for a summit here in 10 days. While Obama seems unlikely to attend, he could meet the leaders while they're in Washington.

Obama has pledged to remove U.S. troops from Iraq in 16 months after taking office and to increase U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Whether he can meet that deadline remains to be seen, and the future of the U.S. troop presence is caught up in an agreement Bush is negotiating with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki that's been delayed repeatedly.

Obama has also promised to open diplomatic talks with U.S. adversaries such as Iran. Both Dobbins and Haass said that by reversing course in his final months and sending out feelers to Syria and allowing a senior U.S. diplomat to attend talks with Iran, Bush has helped Obama. Bush is expected to announce his intent to establish a U.S. diplomatic post in Tehran in coming weeks.

If history is a guide, Obama will face early tests from abroad as president, either from leaders seeking to gauge his mettle, or from surprise events.

Bush was challenged early in his presidency when a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese military jet and crash-landed on Chinese territory. President Bill Clinton's first year saw the 1993 bombing of New York's World Trade Center and the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Obama seems unlikely to escape a similar welcome.

While foreign leaders may or may not choose to test Obama, "the one thing I'm sure of is, events will test him," Haass said. "There will be coups. . . . There will be genocide. . . . There will be terrorism."

(Jonathan S. Landay contributed)


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(e-mail: wstrobel(at)mcclatchydc.com)



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