American elections are a powerful drug: they bring delusions of omnipotence. All that talk of "change" and "hope" brings demands for swift action: "Do it now," "first six months," "hundred days." The economic crisis may indeed demand speed, but in foreign policy the reality is that, on the afternoon of Jan. 20, President Obama will face the same challenges that President Bush did that morning. And none presents much opportunity for bold new initiatives.
That's fortunate. Incoming presidents making big decisions in a hurry is a surefire recipe for error. Think JFK and the Bay of Pigs. More recently, George W. Bush's reflexive ditching of the Clinton administration's strategy on North Korea was a misstep it has taken years to retrieve.
The foreign-policy and national-security inbox shows that, even on pressing issues, Obama has the luxury of time. A quick overview:
Iraq. Obama has pledged to withdraw U.S. troops. But that's already getting under way. At issue still: the pace of the drawdown, a date for final disengagement and the number of U.S. troops who should then remain as last-ditch guarantors of a democratic government in Baghdad. No Iraqi politician is going to be able to engage seriously on those topics until after their own elections next fall.
Afghanistan. Obama will have input from two policy reviews: one the White House is wrapping up now, and a wider-ranging one that the new boss of Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, aims to complete by February. Fresh troops will be flowing into Afghanistan by then. Until the Taliban surge has been beaten back—which will take at least a year, probably longer—any notion of negotiating with them, at anything except the micro-local level, is just happy talk.
Pakistan. Realistically, there is no option but to continue support for a fledgling civilian government, which is proving to be both more resolute and more competent than many had predicted. The U.S. military is already stepping up its efforts to discreetly train and equip Pakistan's military. The IMF, thankfully, has the politically unpopular task of pushing through much-needed economic reforms.
Iran. Obama has talked about talks. But a failed negotiation, early in his tenure, would squander his international standing and limit his options on Iran thereafter. Months of careful diplomacy--reinforced by the pressure of falling oil prices—will be required to see if the Iranian leadership is willing to make a deal on its nuclear program.
Korea. Heroic efforts by Condi Rice and negotiator Chris Hill have come tantalizingly close to a settlement on North Korea's nuclear program. What's needed now is not some U.S. "initiative" but rather patient work stitching together the last pieces of the deal.
Israel and the Palestinians. Every president is urged to commit time and clout to settling this long-running conflict. But Israel won't have a government able to commit to anything until well after next February's elections—and perhaps not even then. Nor do the Palestinians have a leadership that unites its warring factions. Obama is off the hook for months—time enough to decide if he really wants to embroil the U.S. in this quagmire yet again.
Russia. President Dmitry Medvedev, in brusquely threatening to deploy medium-range missiles in Kaliningrad unless the new administration abandons plans for missile defenses in central Europe, has just done Obama a huge favor. No American president could possibly back down in the face of so crude a threat, and no government in Europe would want him to. At the same time, the more Medvedev threatens, the more he undercuts Russia's efforts at rapprochement with its former satellites. Obama's response? If Medvedev doesn't want U.S. missile defenses in central Europe, he and Putin must help wring a deal from Iran.
Venezuela. President Chavez would bask in the status conferred by some "initiative" by the new administration. But the United States wants nothing from Chavez that he is remotely likely to deliver—political liberalization at home, for example. Absent that, Chavez remains a blusterer best left to the other governments of the region to contain.
Surely there must be some foreign or national-security matter on which an incoming Obama administration could make a big splash?
Guantánamo is the obvious choice. Obama has pledged to close the detention camp. Certainly that would be the single most potent symbol of a "fresh start" by a new administration. Yet even here Obama will face problems. The Bush administration has been quietly cutting the numbers at Gitmo for a couple of years. A sizeable fraction of those still held are, on the available evidence, seriously determined Al Qaeda members. If Gitmo closes, what should be done with them?