- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Communist North Korea has ramped up its development and testing of medium-range missiles and nuclear weapons.

Taliban forces have become more powerful in Afghanistan and Pakistan, moving at one point to within 60 miles of Islamabad.

Iran, too, is pursuing its own nuclear programs in defiance of U.N. resolutions and economic sanctions.

National security analysts say the intensity percolating in the world’s trouble spots is partly due to President Obama’s policies and attempts by adversaries to test his leadership and resolve on the global stage.

“This has to do with testing him. But in a larger sense our adversaries and friends alike perceive a potential U.S. vacuum of leadership and international leadership abhors a vacuum and other people are going to do things to fill that vacuum,” said Kim R. Holmes, vice president of international studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“In the case of North Korea, we are clearly worse off than we were a few months ago. In Iran, what have we got by reaching out to the Iranians? Not much. They are working on their missiles, there’s not much change in their posture or the conviction and imprisonment of an American journalist. Pakistan is certainly more of a worry now, not just in the tribal areas but in Pakistan proper and the danger of getting control of nuclear weapons which would be a nightmare,” he said.

But even some of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy defenders agree that America’s national security challenges have intensified.

“There may be an interest in testing Obama,” said Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network, a liberal national security advocacy group that defends Mr. Obama’s policies.

Miss Hurlburt, however, said three months isn’t enough time to judge results.

“In some ways, I worry about Pakistan the most because it has nuclear weapons. That’s a long-term challenge. I like what the administration is doing, but it is starting from a deep hole there,” she said.

Perhaps no change in the nation’s foreign policy is more visible and more challenged than Mr. Obama’s approach to Iran. He ran into trouble during his campaign by saying he would sit down with leaders of rogue states like Iran to work out differences. But things thus far haven’t worked out as he may have hoped, says one foreign policy analyst.

“Recent events show that even as the Obama administration seeks to engage Tehran, the Islamic Republic has continued to work to undermine U.S. interests and to support anti-American elements around the world, as demonstrated by its ongoing efforts to resupply Hamas, support Hizballah’s efforts to destabilize Egypt, and assist Iraqi insurgents,” Matthew Levitt, director of the Washington Institute’s Stein Program on Counterterrism and Intelligence, writes in its latest PolicyWatch bulletin.

But Mr. Obama’s policy initiatives are stoutly defended, too, even by Democrats who were not among his strongest supporters last year.

“I wasn’t a big supporter of his in the campaign, but I think some of the recent criticisms of his foreign policy are unfair,” said defense analyst Michael O’Hanlon at the Brookings Institution.

“On Iraq and Afghanistan, he prudently considered options and then basically did what commanders asked. There are always ups and downs in war. His Pakistan policy as its emerging — stronger support for that country’s economy and its counterinsurgency capabilities — is the right idea but will take time to yield results,” Mr. O’Hanlon said.

“As for all the troubles [facing him], they are in most cases continuations of problems we saw before he was in office, so I don’t see them as tests of him per se, at least not deliberate tests,” he said.

Al Qaeda insurgents in Iraq have stepped up suicide bombings in Baghdad amid reports the U.S. may now slow down its troop withdrawal plans if conditions worsen.

“Iraq was calm but isn’t looking good right now. It could be a blip or a deterioration,” said Karin Von Hippel, a co-director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“You are always going to expect more conflict. So the question is how sustainable the violence, or how well we can control it. I don’t think you can make a judgement that Iraq is going down the drain,” she said.

As for the always provocative North Korea, analysts agreed its missile launch was a test for the Obama administration.

The communist state tested a Taepodong 2 missile over Japan’s airspace, thus joining “the ranks of countries that Vice President Joe Biden famously predicted would ‘test’ an inexperienced President Obama’s resolve,” Dan Blumenthal, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote last month.

“The real test for President Obama will be how he reassures America’s key Asian ally,” he said.

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