WHILE BARACK OBAMA has clearly improved Washington’s image abroad during his first 100 days in office, the next 100 will almost certainly prove much more challenging for the new president’s foreign policy.
Putting aside the possibility that the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression could become much more severe than the White House currently anticipates, or that the swine flu currently spreading out of Mexico explodes into a modern-day version of the 1918 epidemic over the coming months, Obama will face a series of difficult decisions on how to deal with a plethora of actual and potential geo-strategic crises.
Most of those are centered in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, the region which the deadly dialectic between al Qaeda and the hawkish and hubristic policies of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, did so much to destabilize. But likely hotspots with potentially global ramifications will not necessarily be confined to the southern underbelly of Eurasia.
The test of a second nuclear device by North Korea following its expulsion of U.N. inspectors earlier this month, for example, could upset the board in Northeast Asia, put renewed strains on the U.S.-Japanese alliance, and strengthen right-wing voices in Washington. Perhaps most prominently articulated by former Vice President Dick Cheney, they have denounced Obama’s promotion of respectful dialogue with Washington’s adversaries as dangerously naïve.
The first 100 days have now passed without major incident, as most of the world greeted Obama’s promise of change and diplomatic engagement with a mixture of barely disguised relief and anticipation, as well as varying degrees of skepticism and hope.
The honeymoon was enhanced not only by Obama’s personal charm and rhetorical deftness in dealing with some of the most sensitive challenges, notably Iran, but also by his and top aides’ repeated assurances that they were in “listening” mode toward a world which had been too little listened to by the previous administration.
That Obama enters the second 100 days in a remarkably strong political position — unexpectedly bolstered this week by the defection of a key Republican senator, giving Democrats a potential filibuster-proof majority in the upper chamber — should make it easier for him to ignore voices like Cheney’s. Recent polls showing that the public gives its strongest approval ratings to his foreign policy performance also give him more running room.
But major tests loom, just as Vice President Joe Biden predicted during last fall’s presidential campaign. “Mark my words,” he said at the time. “It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama…”
Perhaps the most urgent crisis — something about which Obama declared himself “extremely concerned” Wednesday night — is the situation in Pakistan where al Qaeda-backed Taliban have recently extended their control over the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region into the North-West Frontier Province, including the Swat Valley and into the districts as close as 100 kms from Islamabad.
The weakness of the government of President Asif Ali Zardari and the reluctance — at least until Tuesday — of the Pakistani Army to challenge the rebel advance have spurred little less than panic among policy makers in the administration and the Pentagon for whom the nightmare scenario of a failed, nuclear-armed state has suddenly appeared much closer to reality than they had imagined on Jan. 20.
Now that the Army has counter-attacked under growing U.S. pressure, the administration, which has continued to carry out controversial Predator attacks against suspected al Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan, is pressing Congress to rush through nearly two billion dollars in military and economic aid for Islamabad.
It is also pressing Islamabad to accept a much bigger U.S. counter-insurgency training program, an investment that recalls to some here the gradual escalation of U.S. involvement in Indochina under former President John F. Kennedy.
Of course, the Vietnam analogy has been raised with increasing frequency next door in Afghanistan. There, Obama has already ordered the deployment of an additional 21,000 troops through the summer, as well as a “civilian surge” designed to strengthen the capabilities of a very weak central government as part of an ambitious new counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy designed to win “hearts and minds” of disaffected Pashtuns, who make up the Taliban’s base.
With the melting of the winter snows, that strategy, key elements of which remain to be clarified, will undoubtedly be tested by new Taliban offensives. If they continue on the bloody upward trajectory of the last two years, it could well force Obama to choose by mid or late summer between further escalation — the Pentagon has proposed sending another 9,000 troops by the end of the year — and a less ambitious strategy focused narrowly on what he has defined as his core goal: “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat” al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Iraq, from which Obama has promised to withdraw all U.S. combat forces by 2011, is once again moving back into the limelight as a series of bombings in Baghdad in recent weeks has made April the most violent month in the capital since March 2008 and resurrected the specter of sectarian warfare.
If the violence grows worse over the next months — and key political issues, including increasing tension over the fate of Kirkuk and its environs; and the central government’s failure or refusal to effectively incorporate the largely-Sunni Sons of Iraq militias or to implement reforms to the de-Baathification law, are not resolved — Obama may well find himself under pressure to revise or hedge on his withdrawal plan.
Any hint that he would yield to that pressure would likely create a political revolt from key Democrats, many of whom are already deeply — if so far, mainly privately — concerned about U.S. escalation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
More immediately, however, Obama will face some difficult decisions when Israel’s new right-wing prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, comes to town in mid-May. Netanyahu appears determined both to withstand U.S. pressure to abandon his longstanding opposition to the creation of a viable and territorially contiguous Palestinian state and to persuade Obama to give Iran only a few months — rather than a year or more, as Obama appears to prefer to reach an agreement to curb its nuclear program before imposing unprecedented sanctions or taking even stronger action against Tehran.
While both men would clearly like to avoid a public confrontation, indications suggest that it will be very difficult to paper over their deep differences. If a breach indeed materializes, Obama could find himself challenged not only by the Republican minority, but also by key Democratic lawmakers who are considered close to the right-wing leadership of the so-called “Israel Lobby.”
If, on the other hand, he is seen as deferring to Netanyahu, especially on the Palestinian issue, Obama could well lose much of the ground he has gained overseas, and particularly in Europe and the Islamic world, in the first 100 days of his presidency.
James R. Lobe is an American journalist and the Washington Bureau Chief of the international news agency, Inter Press Service. He writes for various periodicals and internet sites, including Alternet, Asia Times and Antiwar.com. Lobe is best known for his criticism of U.S. foreign policy and American militarism, with a particular focus on the neo-conservatives—their worldview and their relationship to other political tendencies.