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As Inauguration Day Draws Near, Obama’s Foreign Policy Challenges Grow

December 29, 2008 at 6:30 PM EST
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The Mumbai terror attacks and this month's Gaza conflict have highlighted the many foreign policy issues President-elect Barack Obama will face as soon as he takes office. Columnists discuss how the president-elect and his team may prioritize the problems.
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RAY SUAREZ: Middle East troubles will be only one item of the international agenda confronting President-elect Obama when he takes office next month.

We get the perspectives of foreign affairs columnists on the Obama administration’s international inbox: Trudy Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer; Arnaud de Borchgrave of the Washington Times and United Press International; and David Corn, Washington bureau chief of Mother Jones magazine.

Trudy, is President-elect Obama implicated in the international conversation on this crisis even though his swearing-in is weeks away and he’s insisted there’s only one president at a time, and it’s George Bush?

TRUDY RUBIN, The Philadelphia Inquirer: I think there’s no way that he isn’t implicated. He has said that he would like to focus on the Israel-Palestinian issue from day one. I don’t think it was the number-one priority, but I think that he would have had and probably still will have his team looking at it from the beginning.

And this will make it harder for him to move on any peace process restarting, perhaps expanding a peace process. There already was a sort of peace process going on between Israel and Syria that was being mediated by Turkey. That has now been frozen, even though Israeli Prime Minister Olmert was there last week.

And I think he will find it harder to get started with a broader peace process and may find himself in the middle of a continuing crisis on this issue from the day he takes office.

RAY SUAREZ: Arnaud de Borchgrave, does a president-elect have to be particularly careful at a moment like this, where he’s got no legal power, but still the eyes of the world are on him?

ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, The Washington Times: The eyes of the world are on him, and we have not only the Gaza crisis right now, but we have one in Afghanistan. We have one in Pakistan and India. I mean, there are many things coming down the hill very, very quickly.

And it’s clear that he has to remain on top of these right up until he takes over and be ready to take immediate action.

It seems to me that what’s happening now, which is not being mentioned at all, is that we have two client movements of Iran — namely Hezbollah and Hamas — that Israel is very anxious to attack them and, at the same time, send a message to Tehran.

You remember two years ago the image of “Israel the invincible” took a very bad blow, and it became “Israel the vincible.” And now they’ve restored that image of invincibility, but at the same time these are messages it seems to me to Iran and a warning that they may very well be next because of the bomb that they’re working on, the nuclear weapons that they’re working on.

Many urgent foreign issues

David Corn
Mother Jones Magazine
I was talking to one Obama person today, and we quickly put together a list. It's Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, the wider Middle East, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, India, maybe Zimbabwe, maybe the Congo, even Somalia.

RAY SUAREZ: So, David Corn, what's President Obama's role beyond simply waiting until January 20th?

DAVID CORN, Mother Jones Magazine: You know, there are some times when political rhetoric is useful because it's true and convenient. His camp keeps saying over and over again, "We have one president at a time." And they are not saying anything at all about this foreign policy matter or basically any other.

It's true that President Obama has, you know, received calls from leaders from around the world, but he insists -- or his people insist -- they've talked about nothing substantive in these calls. It's all just been congratulatory.

And so right now I think he's kind of just waiting. And I assume that he's hoping that whatever is going on now, whatever Israel is intending to do, that they have a two-, three-week timeline on it so, when he comes into office three weeks from tomorrow, that maybe the shooting end of this aspect of the crisis will have passed and, you know, we'll be back to having the Middle East as a problem, but at least not with this type of imagery that you have now, because it's, indeed, true that I think the rest of the world will be turning to him rather soon, if not even before January 20th, to do something about this, whether he's in power to do so or not.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you just heard Trudy Rubin suggest that this inevitably pushes up Israel and the Palestinians on the lists of Obama administration priorities. Do you agree?

DAVID CORN: To a degree. I was talking to one Obama person today, and we quickly put together a list. It's Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, the wider Middle East, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, India, maybe Zimbabwe, maybe the Congo, even Somalia. They have a to-do list that's not vertical, but horizontal, and that's the issue.

And I think -- I don't think any president in recent memory has come to office with that type of agenda facing them, and there may be other items that pop up. You know, who knows what might happen with Russia, Mexico, China, at any given point in time?

So I think he has to put together a great cabinet-style government with lots of envoys, Middle East envoys, African envoys, who can go out there and at the same time start working on a lot of these different flashpoints.

'Multitasking' is essential

Trudy Rubin
The Philadelphia Inquirer
There's no question that the number-one item on his plate is the economic situation, but I don't think he will have the luxury of just focusing on that. Inevitably, foreign policy will come to him.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Trudy, given that daunting list that David just read off, does the Obama administration come to Washington with its hands somewhat tied by the current economic situation in the United States and over the world?

TRUDY RUBIN: There's no question that the number-one item on his plate is the economic situation, but I don't think he will have the luxury of just focusing on that. Inevitably, foreign policy will come to him. After all, the United States is enmeshed in two wars.

I just got back yesterday from two weeks in Iraq. And even though Iraq is much quieter now -- that is the truth -- but it is, indeed, fragile. There is a very complex political situation there. And violence, although at a lesser rate, could return if the withdrawal is not handled carefully, and he will have to make decisions almost immediately on at what pace to withdraw.

And then he has to deal with Pakistan. The Afghanistan story is a subset of Pakistan. He has to determine how many troops to send there.

But the real issue is whether the Pakistan government is strong enough and able to get its military to fight against militants there, who threaten not only us, because al-Qaida is based there, but their own government, which has nuclear weapons and could provoke military action with India, another nuclear power.

So there is no way he can turn away from foreign policy issues. And although he can appoint emissaries, in the end, it will take political clout on issues, presidential clout on issues like Pakistan and presidential decisions on Iraq.

And on this Gaza business, if it still continues, it could turn into another Lebanon, which would be dangerous for Israel and for the region. And so he will have to be focused on that. It's going to be multitasking from day one.

Financial crisis limits options

Arnaud de Borchgrave
The Washington Times
It seems to me that this huge paradigm shift is coming. Nobody quite knows what to do about it...we as a nation have been living or borrowing, rather, $3 billion a day from the rest of the world to maintain the world's highest standard of living.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Arnaud, you just heard Trudy suggest that none of these problems are going away, but how does the current economic situation affect America's ability to respond?

ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE: Well, if you see what's happening economically and financially, no less an authority than Paul Volcker believes that we're in for two very rough years ahead of us. That means that President Obama has very few cards to play with, very little flexibility in that international, financial, and economic environment, and that may very well push itself to the top of the agenda with a run on the dollar, which many people have been speculating about.

It seems to me that this huge paradigm shift is coming. Nobody quite knows what to do about it, namely the fact that we as a nation have been living or borrowing, rather, $3 billion a day from the rest of the world to maintain the world's highest standard of living, based on conspicuous consumption at a time of growing world shortages. That doesn't work anymore.

A Bretton Woods II is in the works. It's going to be enormous with the U.S. having very few cards to play with.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you may remember when the elder George Bush came to office, he talked about the United States having more will than wallet. And all these years later, are we in that fix again, David?

DAVID CORN: I think we have less wallet and we need more will than even back then in 1988. And Barack Obama is going to have to be a juggler. He's going to have to deal with these economic issues, which are international issues, as well.

And I agree with everything that Arnaud just said, but it's possible that perhaps there is a little bit of a bright side to all of this in that, because of the United States' standing economically, we're going to have to cooperate a lot more with other nations to try to get out of this economic hole that we're all in together.

That may force the U.S., after eight years of the George Bush foreign policy, to be even more multilateral and actually have to listen to other countries. And maybe that will lead to a prospect -- I think it's very small -- of maybe some advances in terms of dealing with particularly the Middle East.

But one thing, you know, we haven't mentioned is also China. You know, a lot of those billions that we're borrowing each day we're borrowing from China. And, you know, China is an emerging world power. It's going to be important to bring into a lot of these regional conflicts.

And the other issue we haven't mentioned, too, which has an economic side is global warming. So, I mean, it's not just Barack Obama has a full plate. He has a buffet that's been dumped onto his desk, and he's going to have to start clearing it all at once.

Obama mulls 'rebalancing' policy

Trudy Rubin
The Philidelphia Inquirer
Even if there is a more intense diplomatic effort, it will take U.S. leadership. We're now in a non-polar world. The U.S. power may be diminished, but there is no other leader to take our place.

RAY SUAREZ: Arnaud, when the Bush 43 administration came to town, it was widely discussed in Washington that they were the anti-Clintons. Whatever Clinton was trying to do, they were going to do something different and try to do it in a different way and had a different approach to governance.

Do you expect the same thing from the Obama administration? Will they be the anti-Bushes?

ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE: Well, events, it seems to me, will be dictating the pace of what happens. Who expected the Gaza disaster in the past few days a week ago? We didn't expect it. Others may occur.

Right now, Taliban in Afghanistan is moving guerrillas closer and closer to Kabul. Rumor has it that they're preparing a Tet Offensive-type operation, in other words, invading the capital for a few hours and then withdrawing.

All of these things will be on the president's desk, in my judgment, as soon as he takes over, if not before.

RAY SUAREZ: Just in the past few days, Trudy, it emerged in one national paper that Obama administration was considering a rebalancing of America's approach to the rest of the world: less military, more diplomats, more aid workers. Are you hearing that from this new team?

TRUDY RUBIN: I think that's been clear from the beginning, even during his campaign, there will be a shift in emphasis to more multilateralism, more diplomacy, and possibly more aid.

But I don't think it's enough to stop there with that formulation, because, even if there is a more intense diplomatic effort, it will take U.S. leadership. We're now in a non-polar world. The U.S. power may be diminished, but there is no other leader to take our place, certainly not China, not the E.U. And so it will take very strong U.S. leadership.

And in places like Afghanistan, there will have to be some military activity, but the diplomatic front will have to be more intense and more visible. It doesn't mean that the military will go away.

However, I think there's no question that he will be looking at more regional approaches. For example, when you talk about Afghanistan now, it's not just Afghanistan. It's Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. It involves an intense effort to behind the scenes encourage some talks over Kashmir.

I would believe it also involves looking at the neighbors of Afghanistan, which includes Iran, it includes getting Russia and China into the mix, and I think that's the kind of approach that he will take.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, we will be revisiting this topic in the weeks and months to come. Thank you all, guests.