Triple threat: Three security trends that will test Obama’s leadership in 2010

Patrick Cronin Contributor
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President Barack Obama spent most of 2009 trying to restore American legitimacy, and his efforts were met with some success, especially among our European allies.  However, it will take more than a good reputation to tackle the problems of 2010.  In the coming year, President Obama will have to deal with a flagging economy, two major wars and myriad other smaller military engagements, and the ever-present global problems of nuclear proliferation and climate change.

Having entered office with a hefty foreign affairs inheritance–one that included global recession, a deteriorating insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan, burgeoning nuclear ambitions within Iran and North Korea, and heightened fears over both energy and environmental security—our pragmatic commander in chief set out to craft a new narrative, mobilize friends, de-mobilize opponents, redefine problems, get our house in order, and rely on “smart” power and “whole-of-government” solutions.

President Obama has performed these honeymoon-year maneuvers well.  But his actions were always meant to be more soothing than healing.  His generally cautious use of power abroad has bought the United States some breathing space to reassess strategies, rebuild coalitions, and re-launch policies.  Yet he will need good fortune indeed to convert initial international investments into money in the bank.  The economy, war, and nuclear issues all threaten to spoil Obama’s second year.

To address the tenuous state of the world economy, President Obama aligned with the Chinese and others to create vast economic stimuli.  Forestalling a sequel to the Great Depression was no mean feat.  Looking ahead, however, the vital question remains the future disposition of the U.S. economy relative to the economic strength of other developed and emerging nations.  At best, the outlook is uncertain.

The stimulus did little to slow a long-term trend in America’s eroding economic position vis-à-vis Asia in general and China in particular.  The United States faces titanic trade and budget deficits, while Asian economies have been quick to rebound.  China remains set to triple its GDP and double the size of its middle class from 300 to some 600 million people before 2025.  President Obama has relied on spending borrowed money to stabilize an economy with 10 percent unemployment; but such pump-priming contradicts the need for history’s largest debtor nation to rein in its spending.  How will President Obama hold down our $12 trillion national debt?

Clearly the current wars won’t help our economic outlook.  Indeed, cost was one factor in the President’s decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan (rather than the 40,000 or more that General Stanley McChrystal thought necessary to wage an effective counterinsurgency).  The President also wanted to avoid an open-ended commitment to a potential quagmire.  His deliberate strategy was unveiled simultaneously with a mid-2011 conditional deadline for beginning a drawdown.  In addition, the operation was given an improbably short deadline (late-2010) by which time momentum was to tip away from the Taliban, the Haqqani network, and al-Qaida.

Impediments to success loom large.  A fundamental problem is our fragile partners in Afghanistan and Pakistan, each of whom has a different agenda from the United States.  A second problem is our lack of unity of effort, whether one looks at our sluggish civilian capacity or our multiple and crisscrossing channels into Kabul, Istanbul and the region.  A third problem is that we may unintentionally widen the war, whether to Baluchistan and North Waziristan (because of Pakistan’s unwillingness to address those areas); to Yemen (another al-Qaida safe haven, but one mixed with large indigenous movements and a corrupt partner in Sana’a); or to the American homeland (because of anxiety about new terrorist attacks).

In the side-view mirror, the Administration will have to worry about slowly resurgent ethnic and sectarian fighting in Iraq as more U.S. troops redeploy.  In the face of all this, and in the midst of a mid-term November election, the President will have to stand steadfast.  Will our Nobel Prize-winning President have the resolve to do what is necessary on these complex battlefields?

If this were not enough, the President will also have a difficult year trying to contain nuclear proliferation.  The worst-case fear of nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists prompted Obama to seek to devalue nuclear weapons by articulating a vision of a world without nuclear weapons.  He also put aside domestic public opinion to engage proliferating regimes in Tehran (by supporting European-led international diplomacy) and Pyongyang (by agreeing to bilateral diplomacy within the context of Six Party Talks).

Even in the face of growing domestic opposition, Iran’s hardline leaders are clinging to their nuclear dreams—dreams that threaten to become regional nightmares.  Iran’s previously undisclosed facility near Qom suggests that engagement is failing to protect Iran’s neighbors, both in the Gulf and in the Levant.  Moreover, Kim Jong-il, he of questionable longevity and equally questionable succession, appears to be exploiting bilateral talks to delay taking any disarmament.

Visions of ‘global zero’ and binding climate change treaties should not impede sober action that halts or mitigates dangerous nuclear proliferation.   What will President Obama do if he realizes that even racheted-up sanctions will not compel Iran or North Korea to cough up their nuclear programs?

Nuclear proliferation also encompasses civil nuclear power and attempts to transition to a post-carbon economy.  In Copenhagen last month, the President called for cutting U.S. emissions and was partly able to recast the perception of the United States from that of an environmental laggard back to a potential leader; but he has taken few serious steps at home to invest in alternative sources of clean energy.  Is President Obama willing to start serious investment in safe, civil nuclear power?

The economy; the current wars; and nuclear power and climate change—each and all of these are likely to test the mettle and not merely the oratory of President Obama in the year ahead.  Let’s hope that he retains not only the idealism to inspire others but also the realism to deal effectively with these critical challenges.

Patrick Cronin is a Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).  Previously, he was the Director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) at National Defense University and has had a 25-year career inside government and academic research centers, spanning defense affairs, foreign policy, and development assistance.