- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2008


There have been many “character tests” of national security leadership for newly elected presidents. In fact, the patterns are well enough developed to allow for some “predictive analysis” - accordingly, I’ll go out on a limb and suggest the likely tests for our next president.

Some history: We probably should have been able to predict that a young, idealistic and liberal President Kennedy, elected during the height of the Cold War - and when the Soviet Union was led by one of its most stereotypical apparatchik thugs - would be put to the test quickly. And he was. Event? The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and Soviet expectations about our reactions were 100 percent wrong. In fact, we came very close to going to war - a surprise for the Soviets.

Before Cuba, the Korean War was likely intended to test Harry S. Truman and break the back of the newly formed United Nations, it being regarded as a tool of the United States and Western Europe to impose its will in the post-World War II world.

The Soviet Union wrongly predicted our reaction - and it never again walked out of a discussion in the U.N. Security Council. This because the Korean War was an actual military response by the United Nations to North Korean “aggression” against South Korea. As such, it was a massive international political failure for the Soviets. Nevertheless, the Korean War marked the political end of the road for Harry Truman.

The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident was Lyndon Johnson’s test and is also regarded as the proximate cause of our entry into a new Indo-Chinese war, the original of which was abandoned by the French in 1954. The incident began a long and costly involvement in Southeast Asia, with more than half a million U.S. military there at its height.

But perhaps the Tonkin incident was only designed to test Johnson and to challenge SEATO, a fledgling NATO-like organization in Southeast Asia; if it was, the nature and extent of our reaction could not have been anticipated. As in the case of Truman, however, the war in Vietnam ended Johnson’s political career.

The sacking of the U.S. Embassy in Teheran in 1978 and imprisonment of the staff were designed to challenge a weak appearing Jimmy Carter and the traditional Democratic “internationalist” approach to foreign relations. Instead, it virtually guaranteed the election of Ronald Reagan, something far beyond the sophistication of the Iranian Islamic extremists to comprehend at the time. It did, however, set them at work on a plan of sustained asymmetric warfare against the Western world, sparing the United States from initial targeting because of our assistance then to the Mujahideen in its resistance to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan - another “testing” event that contributed to Reagan’s defeat of Jimmy Carter.

Ronald Reagan was not “tested” as such, because he was generally regarded as someone not to fool with. In fact, a number of Soviet general officers and very senior diplomats told me this during the ‘80s, albeit usually after a water glass full of State Department scotch. In a word, they were unsure, hence afraid, of what Reagan might do if they moved against us. And Mikhail Gorbachev was clearly in awe of Reagan, wanting to emulate rather than compete with him.

The elder George H.W. Bush’s “test” was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait - Saddam, of course, didn’t think he would be attacked for it. Making this same mistake again, Saddam also didn’t think George W. Bush the younger would invade Iraq, especially because Saddam didn’t really “do anything” like he had done before - nothing, that is, except simulate persuasively the production of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

However, this wasn’t Mr. Bush’s “test”, as much as was China’s force-down of a Navy EP-3 over international waters, or - most certainly - the Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on the United States.

Certainly, those behind the Sept. 11 attacks had no reason to think Mr. Bush would invade Iraq in partial response to that attack. They were probably far more interested in testing whether the U.S. would invade Afghanistan to engage the then victorious Taliban and/or the al Qaeda terrorist sanctuaries in the Northern Pakistan border regions.

Whatever they expected, they were wrong: We invaded Iraq, and established a huge U.S. military presence in the Middle East, something that cannot make any potential enemy there at all happy.

What kind of “test” is coming for the next president of the United States? Not surprisingly, it may well depend on who it is, but we can be assured there will be a test.

For Mr. Obama, the test will happen quickly and likely involve another attack on the United States, whether we are actively disengaging from the war in Iraq or not. Why? As he suggested early in his campaign, Mr. Obama believes - and correctly - that the real threat to the U.S. comes from the Taliban and al Qaeda sanctuaries in Afghanistan and the tribal areas in Pakistan. In other words, the next attack on us will be for much the same reasons as the first, but even more necessary in the minds of the attackers because Mr. Obama has identified them as the primary threat. What will Mr. Obama do in response? Look for a strategic reaction. The model? The Cuban missile crisis.

For John McCain - who will likely continue the large U.S. military presence in Iraq - the test will likely be an event that will challenge the logistical ability of our military to respond.

There are several such situations and scenarios that would cause a severe stretch of our military capability - but again, look for a strategic response from a fledgling McCain administration.

Daniel Gallington is a senior fellow at the Potomac institute for policy studies in Arlington, Va.



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