Obama's National Security Challenges

The post 9/11 security climate won’t give president-elect Barack Obama a transition honeymoon which is why his national security team must be prepared to hit the ground running on inauguration day.

Beginning January 20, 2009 President Obama will have to simultaneously juggle a host of national security crises. Some security challenges are ongoing – Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia’s new militarism. Some will emerge as the Obama team transitions into power and yet others like the 9/11 attacks could happen during the administration’s first year.

The new president has President Bush’s full cooperation. Bush has promised to ensure “… this transition is as smooth as possible.” He has arranged security clearances for key Obama staffers, provided them work space and policy briefings. The White House has begun to connect world leaders with Obama and to provide the president-elect with highly classified briefings from top intelligence officials.

But nothing can really prepare the new administration for the challenges ahead. The best Obama’s team can do is to take advantage of the period between now and inauguration day to cram for the worst case scenario and hope for the best.

During the campaign, Senator Obama outlined his intentions regarding the most pressing security challenges but soon those promises will collide with cold reality.

Obama promised to withdraw US forces from Iraq within “16 months.” But the new administration will soon discover that a quick withdrawal from Iraq could create very serious consequences.

Iran would cheer a quick American withdrawal, but as soon as the US leaves Iran will use its Shia proxies in Baghdad to create an Iraqi government manipulated like a puppet by strings that stretch to Tehran’s mullahs.

Iraqi Sunni and Kurdish minorities will feel disenfranchised by a quick withdrawal because they expect the Shia majority will then manipulate Baghdad’s government to deny them opportunities and resources. That could ignite a real civil war.

Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, al Qaeda’s Iraq leader, offered President-elect Obama a truce in exchange for removal of all forces from the region. But American intelligence officials caution any step that could be perceived as a victory for al Qaeda, like pulling troops out of Iraq before the country stabilizes, would only strengthen the terror group’s ability to recruit.

A precipitous US withdrawal is opposed by important allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Saudis fear that Tehran might take advantage of an early withdrawal to seize oil fields in the Shia dominated eastern Arabian Peninsula. Israel, which says it faces an existential threat from a nuclear Iran, wants the US to remain in Iraq in order to keep Tehran in check and hopefully deal with the mullah’s atomic weapons program.

President-elect Obama promised to “win” the Afghanistan war which is certain to become central in his presidency.

Recently, Obama’s staff was briefed that the situation in Afghanistan is getting worse – American casualties are up and the Taliban militias are gaining strength and now control large swaths of that country. That’s why the Bush administration told Obama’s people that they must come to office with a battle plan that addresses troops, Pakistan’s safe havens area (where as many as one million Islamic radicals have refuge) and whether to negotiate with the enemy.

Sending more troops to Afghanistan must be part of a winning strategy. But US forces are overstretched globally and that’s why Obama must ask NATO allies to provide more forces. Even though Europeans overwhelmingly endorsed Obama’s presidential bid they have no desire to increase their Afghan role. In fact, the Taliban’s recent campaign of violence has shaken European will to contribute any troops much less more to NATO’s Afghan mission.

Obama’s Afghan war plan must also address the politically sensitive issue of aggressively pursuing Taliban militias and al Qaeda terrorists that are taking refuge in Pakistan’s tribal areas. In 2007, Obama promised that “…if we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets” in Pakistan and that government “won’t act, we will.”

Recently, the US increased cross-border raids and drone missile attacks against enemy forces inside Pakistan. Those assaults have angered Pakistani officials such as Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s military chief, who promised to defend his borders at “all costs.” Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said US attacks were “…counterproductive and difficult to explain by a democratically elected government.”

During the presidential campaign, Obama promised to negotiate with rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran. But does that include the Taliban enemy in Afghanistan, which is not a regime but a terrorist group seeking to regain power?

Obama should welcome news that Saudi Arabia has already hosted talks between the Taliban and Afghanistan officials. But he should be cautioned that any solution that returns control of Afghanistan to its pre-9/11 Taliban regime and its al Qaeda partners would be a dangerous, pro-terrorism outcome.

Obama promised to check the “resurgent and very aggressive Russia.”

In August, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev declared a new world order, rejecting the primacy of America in the international system and the re-emergence of Russia. He continued with this theme last week in a speech that justified Moscow’s aggressive behavior and outlined concrete actions to reorder East-West relations.

In a state of the nation speech, Medvedev justified Moscow’s aggressive foreign policy because the West was “testing our strength” by stationing a missile defense system in Europe, encircling “Russia with military bases,” and relentlessly expanding NATO into Russia’s sphere of influence.

Medvedev announced concrete actions to counter this “Western aggression.” He announced his intention to deploy Iskander missiles and electronic jamming equipment to the Russian Baltic Sea territory Kaliningrad as a military response to US plans to deploy missile defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic.

President Medvedev blamed America for Russia’s war with Georgia – an alleged American military outpost. He explained that Tbilisi sparked the war by “barbaric aggression” against Russia-backed South Ossetia. This was a consequence of “aggressive, selfish US policies,” Medvedev said.

The most foreboding aspect of the Russian’s speech was the possibility of extending the presidential term from four years to six. That announcement fueled speculation that Medvedev was paving the way for Vladimir Putin, the two-term former president who is now prime minister, to return to power. Putin is the author of Russia’s new militarism.

Medvedev said he holds no animus for Americans and hopes “…the US administration, will make a choice in favor of full-fledged relations with Russia.” But he didn’t backdown on any front to include expanding Moscow’s military activities in the Middle East, Northern Africa and the Caribbean where Russian bombers and warships recently visited Cuba and Venezuela.

President-elect Obama will need all the political savvy he can muster and allies to deal with a belligerent Kremlin. But he shouldn’t expect help from Europe because Russian energy markets tend to be European-based and Moscow will leverage them to make the European Union squirm.

Finally, Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is realistic about the security challenges that could emerge during the presidential transition. “It’s pretty staggering the number of major incidents which have occurred in this time frame,” Mullen said. He cautioned, “I consider this a time of vulnerability.”

The post 9/11 security climate makes the president-elect’s transition a vulnerable time for America. It is complicated by ongoing wars and could become further problematic by emergent crises such as catastrophic terror attacks, a rekindled Middle East war and flare-ups by old nemeses like North Korea. That’s why Obama’s administration must be prepared to hit the ground running on inauguration day.