It's a truism that Barack Obama faces the most intractable set of challenges that any president has faced in at least 50 years. But on a few issues in foreign and military policy, he's caught a break. Whether by luck, the effect of his election, or President George W. Bush's stepped-up drive to win last-minute kudos, Obama will enter the White House with some paths to success already marked, if not quite paved.
Iraq. Just a few days after Obama's victory, the Iraqi political factions seemed much more disposed to sign a new Status of Forces Agreement with the United States. The SOFA, which is set to expire at the end of the year, outlines the conditions under which U.S. troops are permitted to remain in the country. One condition that Iraq has been demanding is the complete withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by 2011. Several Iraqi parties have been reluctant to ratify the accord even then, doubting that George W. Bush—or, had he won, John McCain—would really withdraw. But they believe that Obama will. So they're suddenly more eager to finalize an accord. Some factions are also more keen to settle their internal differences to avoid a political collapse or a renewed civil war once the Americans leave. Obama knows that early in his presidency he'll have to figure out a way to mount a major withdrawal from Iraq while minimizing the chance that the Baghdad government falls apart. This new tenor in Iraqi politics somewhat eases the task.
Iran. After refusing to talk with Iran for seven years, on the grounds that "we don't negotiate with evil, we defeat it" (as Vice President Dick Cheney once put it), the Bush administration is preparing to set up a U.S. interests office—not quite an embassy but the beginning of renewed diplomatic relations, a forum for communiqués, anyway—in Tehran. If Obama is prepared to offer more elaborate negotiations, as he should be, a forum will exist for doing so. At the same time, a smart-sanctions campaign run out of the U.S. Treasury Department for the last two years—in which international banks have been persuaded to stop doing business with Iran—seems to be having some effect. Meanwhile, plunging oil prices have slashed Tehran's cash flow. And President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has been riding high on this flow, is losing popularity at home. In short, the time may be ripe for a game of carrot-and-stick diplomacy with Iran, in which the carrot may be welcome and the stick might really hurt.
Russia. President Dmitry Medvedev's recent rumblings—his threat to place short-range missiles in Kaliningrad if the United States proceeds with its plan to install missile-defense batteries in the Czech Republic and Poland—may, if played right, redound to Obama's benefit. Obama clearly doesn't share Bush's misplaced enthusiasm for the missile-defense program; he has said several times that he would deploy a system if it were proved workable—a condition that's not likely to pan out. So Obama now has a good reason to drop the deployment plan—but with a caveat. He should reiterate Bush's point (whether or not it's entirely true) that the batteries in Eastern Europe were designed to shoot down Iran's missiles, not Russia's, and if he's going to let down our guard on that front, Russia has to help him keep Iran from building nuclear weapons in the first place—in other words, Russia has to stop assisting the Iranian nuclear program and join the sanctions initiated by the United States, the European Union, and the U.N. Security Council. If this trade can be made, other avenues of cooperation can also be reopened.
Efforts to revive relations with Russia—crucial for dealing with such vital issues as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and stability in the Middle East—might also be boosted by the latest news from Georgia. Independent military groups monitoring Russia's withdrawal are reporting that Georgia might not have been the purely innocent victim of Russian aggression, after all. The evidence, though still tentative, seems to suggest that Moscow was responding to the Georgian military's indiscriminate rocket and artillery barrage against the semi-autonomous enclave of South Ossetia. This finding doesn't exonerate Medvedev or Putin from the brutality of their counterinvasion, nor should it prompt an abandonment of concern for Georgian independence. But it does create an opening for rapprochement with Moscow—for hardheaded national-security reasons—without seeming craven.
North Korea. After six years of refusing to talk seriously with the North Koreans
about their nuclear program—for the same reason that he refused to talk
with the Iranians about anything—Bush finally signed an accord that at
least stopped North Korea's plutonium project. However, this was one case in which their obstinacy was justified. The deal signed last year was a multiphase arrangement. As part of the second phase, the North Koreans were to present data on their nuclear program—at which point the United States was to take North Korea off the list of nations supporting terrorism. The North Koreans submitted the data; Bush officials then demanded that the United States be allowed to verify the information on the list through on-site inspections. The North Koreans protested—correctly—that verification is a matter to be taken up in the third phase. When Washington kept refusing to take them off the list—largely at the instigation of officials in Cheney's office—the North Koreans threatened to cancel the whole agreement. Finally, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent Assistant Secretary Christopher Hill to Pyongyang, and the deal was straightened out. The point is this: In 2000, Bill Clinton left George W. Bush on the verge of signing a far-reaching agreement with North Korea on nuclear weapons and missiles—and Bush tore it up and threw it away. Now Bush is leaving Obama with a much less-satisfying deal—during Bush's no-talking period, Pyongyang built and tested an atomic bomb and thus gained considerably greater leverage—but Bush is leaving Obama something to take to the next level without sparking (too much) partisan rancor.
Military spending.According to a story by Bryan Bender in the Boston Globe, the Defense Business Board, a senior advisory group appointed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, recommended huge cuts in the military budget, noting that the current level of spending on weapons is "unsustainable." Several private and congressional defense analysts have been making this point for a few years now; the U.S. Government Accountability Office recently calculated that the Pentagon's 95 largest weapons systems have accumulated cost overruns amounting to $300 billion (that's just the overruns, not the total cost, which amounts to many hundreds of billions more). It's also clear, from the Pentagon's own budget analyses, that well over half of the $700 billion-plus budget has little if anything to do with the threats the United States faces now or in the foreseeable future. The past seven years have been a free-for-all for the nation's military contractors and service chiefs; the number of canceled weapons projects can be counted on one hand; they've otherwise received nearly all the money for everything they've asked for. Even many of the beneficiaries realize that the binge is coming to an end; the nation simply can't afford it. Obama's fortune is that he can order the cuts, invoking not his own preferences but the sober-minded urgings of a business advisory group in the Bush administration.