Thursday, December 04, 2008

Rough days ahead

I almost feel bad for Obama, actually. Well, about as much as I feel bad for Bush. Contrary to what most presidential candidates (and most people) think the president has very say in what will define his term. The only recent president without significant surprises was Clinton, who instead manufactured his own. Carter was defined by OPEC and Iran; Reagan by the USSR and a recession (and subsequent recovery); Bush by the Gulf War; Clinton by... a Republican congress, sex scandals, and a non-war in Bosnia which is directly related to NATO / Russian tensions today; and GWB by 9/11. What will define Obama's presidency? He ran on getting out of Iraq. By the time he takes office, his position on that will be largely irrelevant.

Things Obama will have to deal with:

The possible demise of NATO. NATO represents an era of foreign policy in the world defined by long term alliances between many nations against a mutual threat. That era may well be over. Germany's chancellor essentially told NATO to shove it during the Russo-Georgian incident a few months ago. NATO is struggling to maintain a coherent face to the rest of the world, largely due to stresses induced on it by the global financial crises, a resurgent Russia and the ongoing fight in Afghanistan. It's being pulled apart. Without NATO we are back to an environment of short, shifting alliances similar to the 19th and early 20th century.

A Resurgent Russia. Russia was largely a non-factor on the world stage for the past decade. Other than a few fits of pique involving Ukranian natural gas contracts, threats of energy supply cutoffs to Europe and an internal rebellion in Chechnya which was ignored by the rest of the world, Russia has been relegated to obscurity. That all changed when Russian troops invaded South Ossetia and nearly toppled a US-backed state in the process of applying for NATO membership. It was a direct statement to the rest of the world. Russia is reasserting itself in its sphere of influence lost in the breakup of the Soviet Union. The opportunity exists because the United States is stretched thin due to deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and because NATO is no longer coherent enough to object. The world is discovering that the EU has no real power, and the UN has been a joke for decades. Russia was seemingly deliberately baited by NATO membership hints to Georgia, the Western-inspired Orange revolution in Ukraine (a nation which was direct geopolitical consequences to Russia, including Mediterranean port access, pipeline control to Europe, and geographic defense value), and western involvement in the Balkans during Clintons term. Now they have the opportunity to object to these perceived threats, and they are taking full advantage of it while it lasts.

A deteriorating state of affairs in the Indian subcontinent. One of Obama's first, and possibly most important, challenges will be to pick up where the Bush administration leaves off in India and Pakistan. Condoleeza Rice is heading to Islamabad after she finishes in New Dehli to try to prevent a crisis between the two nations. However, there are fewer and fewer options available to all players. India, driven by public opinion within, must react to these attacks. They must assure their populace that a similar attack will not occur again, much as the United States was forced to react to 9/11. The only way they can accomplish this is to address the growing factions of militant Islam functioning with increasing boldness in Pakistan. So far this has been limited to a demand for Pakistan to control these elements of their populace and military. If this does not happen, they may follow the US model in Afghanistan: namely, that a nation providing asylum or aid to terrorist interests is acting in a state of war and react accordingly. This will result in a crisis of some sort, anywhere from a buildup of troops on the border to artillery or airstrikes into Pakistan's interior.

Pakistan is in a state of near-crisis. The civilian government is almost insolvent and seems to be at direct odds with the military government, which is a separate entity. The civilian government is writing checks it cannot cash in an attempt to prevent crisis with India. They are caught between a rock and a hard place with the US and India. The United States is demanding (via Obama's incoming administration's statements) that they increase their participation and cooperation on Taliban and al Qaeda factions in Waziristan along the Afghan border. They currently have 100,000+ troops stationed along that border. However, action against the militant Islamic factions is not very popular with the Pakistani population, and even less so among factions of the military and intelligence services. How mainstream those factions are will be seen in the coming days. Any threatening action by India will result in a movement or reaction by Pakistan away from Afghanistan and toward India, which will upset the US. Any significant action against the Taliban or other militant Islamic factions may result in a failed state or elimination of the civilian government. A failure to act in any meaningful way will result in increased US cross-border attacks, which will also stir public opinion against the civilian government.

Afghanistan / Iraq. Directly related to the former, Obama will have to deal with realities in Afghanistan -- namely, that without a significant increase in troop levels or a drastic change in policy, the US will not win in Afghanistan. The Taliban is too entrenched in "off limits" areas to directly engage. Without NATO involvement (see above) or Pakistani compliance, the US will have to go it alone -- a proposition most of the population is not ready to face. If the Indo-Pakistani crisis develops into a real mess, the options for the US in Afghanistan will rapidly decrease. The Bush administration is preparing for this already. Gen. Petraeus has already began to float indications of negotiations of some sort to reconcile Taliban factions into the existing government. This is very similar to the recent about-face the Bush administration did on their stance with Iran in the face of the Russian crisis. As Russia asserts itself, other geopolitical issues must be reprioritized. US "agreements" with Iran and Iranian factions in Iraq led to a not-good-but-OK solution in Iraq. If not a US-friendly government, Iraq will at least be, for now, a US-neutral state. Obama will be left with this tenuous arrangement and will be the deciding factor in the future of Iraq. Again, this future is largely out of his control, as most of his options will be reactionary.

And that doesn't even begin to factor in all of the mess on the economic front -- all the better, too, because he seems hell-bent on following the path of FDR and the New Deal. It wouldn't make his future look any brighter.

The biggest problem for Obama is going to be that the decisions he must make have no happy answers, particularly for his base. He will be, as all successful politicians, a pragmatist. This is why his cabinet has been largely Clinton retreads and middle-ground people. This will make a lot of people happy, but it will (and has) infuriate large portions of his base. He will have to consolidate his base of power while navigating through decisions that have no win-win solutions. We'll see how he does -- and how long it is before people evaluate Bush fairly.

Read the rest.