Thanks to the global financial crisis, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has enjoyed something of a grace period over these first 100 days of the Obama administration. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has garnered most of the attention—and nearly all the criticism. That's about to end. Now that the fog of economic catastrophe seems to be lifting—if barely—the outlines of a fairly grim foreign-policy landscape are becoming visible. And it is very likely that Clinton and her boss will be more occupied with the challenges abroad in the next 100 days than with the recession and crisis at home.
Clinton is expected to deliver a major speech, possibly next month, to outline the administration's broader foreign-policy goals, according to administration officials. The aim is to build on dramatic new efforts at engagement with Iran, Cuba and the G20 nations, to move past crisis management and set out a positive agenda. With the State Department at the forefront, the United States will seek to reclaim leadership on everything from energy to global health to nuclear non-proliferation.
Despite these big plans, it's all but certain that in the coming months several flashpoints on the map will dominate the headlines.
The most urgent of all these problems, by far, is Pakistan. Dubbed "the world's most dangerous country" by NEWSWEEK in an October 2007 cover story, it is looking more perilous than ever. Relations between the United States and Pakistan are badly frayed—despite the frenzied efforts of Clinton's "special representative," Richard Holbrooke—and the Pakistani Taliban have gained dramatically in strength, coming within 60 miles of the capital of Islamabad before the Army launched a counteroffensive this week.
Holbrooke has been working almost nonstop on the problem, but he must deal with a weakness at the center of this nuclear-armed nation. The government of Ali Asif Zardari is very unpopular, and the Army chief of staff, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is increasingly seen as indecisive. Since the failure of the peace deal with the Taliban in Swat, the Pakistani government has been embroiled in a debate over the best approach to dealing with the jihadists. Many on the civilian side in Zardari's government now realize that the "counterinsurgency" approach, whereby they try to isolate "irreconcilables" and win over "reconcilables," is not working. That's one reason why, unnoticed by the news media, the head of Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, Ahmad Shuja Pasha, flew to Washington last week to meet with CIA Director Leon Panetta. Some in the Zardari government are pushing the Army and ISI to take a more aggressive "counterterrorism" approach and to move in and clean out the more hard-core areas of jihadi activity. But they lament that the Army under Kayani is still mostly focused on India as the main strategic threat.
Holbrooke may be planning to use the $5 billion pledged at the recent Tokyo Donors Conference as leverage to pressure the Pakistanis to take a harder line against the insurgents. He is also constantly on the phone with Zardari and his chief political rival, Nawaz Sharif, to push for a reconciliation.
Next up, Iran. As Tehran continues to build up its uranium-enrichment program—it is now believed to have enough low-enriched uranium for a bomb—Israeli patience is growing short while the Obama administration attempts to launch a dramatic strategic shift. While the administration is not talking in specifics right now, the new approach to Iran appears to have at least two new elements: one, American negotiators will take the lead from the Europeans, if Tehran agrees; and two, everything will be put on the table at once, from the nuclear program to Iran's support for Hezbollah and Shiite factions in neighboring Iraq. The Bush administration, by contrast, refused for most of its eight years to engage Tehran directly, except in a piecemeal fashion on individual issues such as Afghanistan and Iraq. U.S. officials have also begun to use different language related to what is acceptable: while the Bush administration talked about shutting down Tehran's uranium enrichment entirely, the Obama team talks simply about preventing a bomb. That suggests Washington may be willing, for the first time, to condone some Iranian enrichment under tight safeguards and monitoring. Tehran is still temporizing on whether to talk, but Obama's biggest problem in the months to come may be selling the new approach to Israel.
The Jewish state's new hard-line prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, is scheduled to meet with President Obama in mid-May, and it appears the two already disagree on "sequencing." Netanyahu wants to address Iran before he takes up the peace process with the Palestinians, while the Obama team wants to push ahead on all fronts together.
And then, of course, there is that old stalwart of the Axis of Evil, North Korea, which provocatively launched another test of its intercontinental Taepodong II missile in early April. The test was not a total success, but neither have been U.S. efforts to dismantle Pyongyang's nuclear program. With leader Kim Jong Il still apparently suffering from the effects of a stroke, the Obama administration may have to start from scratch here. During her trip to Asia in February, Clinton bluntly said that U.S. officials need to prepare for Kim's possible departure from power.
Beyond that, Obama and Clinton are trying to strike a new tone with China—Hillary astonished many with her frank acknowledgement that America is literally in China's debt, appealing for continued purchases of U.S. Treasuries—as well as with Russia. Obama has floated the idea of using missile defense as a bargaining chip, in return for Moscow's help in containing Iran, and he wants a new round of nuclear-arms-reduction talks.
It's going to be a busy hundred days.