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Overseas tests cascade on Obama
As President Obama begins his fourth week in the White House, foreign rivals and erstwhile allies already have begun to challenge U.S. interests abroad.
On Friday, Pakistan - the recipient of billions of dollars in U.S. aid - released from house arrest Abdul Qadeer Khan, the nuclear scientist who for two decades ran a black market that sold nuclear-weapons technology to U.S. adversaries including Iran and Libya.
Two days earlier, Kyrgyzstan announced that it would not renew a U.S. lease at the Manas air base, a critical transshipment point in the Afghanistan war. Meanwhile, the Russians - who offered Kyrgyzstan $2 billion in cash and loans to oust the Americans - said that they intend to establish a new base in a breakaway enclave of Georgia, the country Moscow invaded over the summer in response to a Georgian assault on another enclave.
If this were not enough, Iran last week launched a crude satellite into space, suggesting that the Islamic regime has mastered at least some of the technology for multistage, long-range missiles.
Finally, Yemen on Sunday announced that it had released 170 men arrested on suspicion of having ties to al Qaeda. Just two weeks earlier, the terrorist group called Yemen its base for the entire Arabian Peninsula.
While none of these events amounts to the foreign policy crisis that Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said during the campaign would test the new president in his opening months, Mr. Obama’s reaction will shape foreign perceptions of the new U.S. leader’s mettle.
“Definitely everyone wants to test a new president,” said Walter Russell Mead, the Henry A. Kissinger fellow for foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s like when the substitute teacher walks into the classroom. Everybody is seeing how the administration will respond.”
Michael Ledeen, a conservative foreign policy specialist at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, agreed that foreign leaders are watching Mr. Obama, on domestic as well as foreign issues.
“Everybody wants to figure him out. What is he? Who is he? It’s obviously very important,” Mr. Ledeen said.
A White House spokesman, Tommy Vietor, said the new White House expected to be tested.
“The president understands we have 200,000 troops in the field every day who are being tested - and who are meeting those tests,” he said. “From Day One, he recognized he and his team needed to hit the ground running, because we owe it to those troops and their families and because keeping America safe is job one. That’s why he put together a strong national security team and has engaged these issues aggressively.”
The administration faces a number of serious challenges abroad, from drawing down troops in Iraq, stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan, and dealing with Iran’s advancing nuclear program.
A new national security team is in the process of major policy reviews for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iran and the war in Iraq, and is looking at how to proceed in the wider confrontation with al Qaeda.
Thus far, responses to foreign provocations have come largely from the podium.
The State Department, for example, chastised Russia for announcing its intention to build a navy base and two army bases in Abkhazia - a breakaway republic that Moscow has recognized as independent.
The U.S., which does not recognize Abkhazia’s independence, said the commitment undermined prior pledges from Moscow to remove its troops from the territory of the former Soviet republic.
Speaking at a security conference in Europe on Saturday, Mr. Biden emphasized a change in tone sought by the Obama foreign policy team.
“I come to Europe on behalf of a new administration determined to set a new tone not only in Washington, but in America’s relations around the world,” he told the conference in Munich.
Mr. Biden did not answer directly when asked whether the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, would support Georgia’s bid to join NATO.
Mr. Biden said in his speech that the administration was looking to “press the reset button” and cooperate with Russia where possible.
In contrast, the announcement last week that Kyrgyzstan was ejecting U.S. forces has, according to Pentagon and State Department officials, sparked a frenzied bidding war in an effort to buy back the leasing rights to Manas.
Any substantive policy changes toward Pakistan are awaiting the outcome of a trip to the region this week by Mr. Obama’s representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, as well as a strategic review by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. Central Command.
Beyond testing a new U.S. administration, there are ample domestic reasons for the recent actions. Mr. Khan, for example, is regarded as a hero in Pakistan, and restrictions on his movement have long been unpopular.
However, Mr. Mead said the Pakistanis may have freed Mr. Khan in part to show displeasure about the Obama administration’s decision to remove the Kashmir dispute from Mr. Holbrooke’s portfolio. Pakistan claims the Muslim-majority region, which India has largely controlled for 60 years.
“It would not be a surprise if this was a response to the attempt of the new administration to put Kashmir on a different track of U.S.-Pakistan relations,” Mr. Mead said.
In some ways, the Iranian satellite launch was the biggest rebuke for Mr. Obama, who on the campaign trail promised to begin constructive engagement with Iran in an effort to get the Islamic republic to suspend its uranium enrichment program.
At the same time, the launch had a domestic motivation.This month marks the 30th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution, and the Iranian regime would like to divert attention from domestic problems, especially a poor economy.
Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said the Obama administration needs to address “a perception of American weakness.”
“What in Washington, Paris and London is seen as likability, in Tehran, Pyongyang and Islamabad is seen as fatal weakness,” she said, and U.S. adversaries “have been quick, quicker than many imagined to take advantage.”
Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East peace negotiator, said that the recent pokes and prods reflect the decline in U.S. influence abroad more than a frontal challenge to U.S. power.
“None of these things represent the test Vice President Biden suggested,” said Mr. Miller, who is working on a book about presidential greatness as a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“None of them directly challenge American credibility or prestige in a way that requires an immediate response by the United States. It does reflect that we are being taken less seriously these days by our friends and our enemies.”
Mr. Miller said these challenges are likely to increase.
“You will see the limitations of American power demonstrated in the coming years in a way that is much less crisis-oriented,” he said. Referring to the Bush administration, he added, “For all of their toughness and vaunted capacity, there is a cost to failure.”
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