January 1, 2009  

Flashpoint: A plethora of problems

The new president’s global security challenges

With at least two ongoing wars, President-elect Barack Obama may well be entering the Oval Office facing the toughest national security landscape for any American president in some time.

A tour of the foreign policy horizon shows that America’s 44th president will have his hands full with a panoply of problems that would vex any head of state, much less one who is expected to be the leader of the Western world.

He and his national security team can expect no honeymoon that would allow them to ease into their new jobs. They’ll have to hit the ground running to protect and advance U.S. interests at home and across the globe.

Resurgent Russia

While Moscow and Washington both insist one Cold War was enough, the next American president likely will face increasingly chilly ties with an increasingly mighty Russia.

Today’s Russia is authoritarian and nationalistic at home, confident and assertive abroad, awash in oil and gas wealth, and bent on reinventing itself — once again — as a great power.

Soviet? No. Proto-imperialist? Maybe.

Even though Washington and Moscow aren’t necessarily destined to become archenemies again, they’ll continue to be competitors, clashing on a host of international issues. The Kremlin will continue to push back on perceptions of encroachment on Russia’s traditional sphere of influence — what Moscow calls its “near abroad.”

The Russian invasion of Georgia last year, threats over further NATO expansion and opposition to missile defense in Eastern Europe are good examples of the new Russia asserting itself in its old stomping grounds.

After years of neglect, Russia is modernizing its military, especially its power projection forces, to support a more muscular foreign policy, including an expected 30 percent increase in defense spending in 2009.

Russian arms sales also will frustrate the next U.S. chief executive. It’s the world’s largest arms supplier to the developing world, with customers that include China, Venezuela, Iran and Syria.

There’s also Russia’s willingness to build and fuel nuclear reactors for the likes of Iran, raising proliferation concerns. Russia also has offered to build a reactor for Venezuela.

Unbeknownst to many, Russia is the world’s largest producer of natural gas and second-largest producer of oil. Indeed, Russia may have the world’s largest energy reserves. Energy today is what the Red Army was during the Cold War: the main source of Russia’s influence and strength. With energy demand anything but softening, oil and gas will allow Moscow to throw its weight around — and it has.

While Moscow may not be revanchist in terms of territory, it is revanchist in terms of regaining Russia’s clout. The Kremlin sees America in decline and Russia’s star on the rise — again.

Asian anxiety

In the 19th century, Napoleon warned that when China wakes, it will shake the world. Even if it took nearly 200 years, the French general was clearly onto something. Indeed, no region or issue, including Islamic terrorism, will likely shape the course of the 21st century for good — or bad — more than Asia. And no Asian conundrum will be greater for the next White House occupant than the rise of China as a great power on the world stage.

Beijing has the world’s third-largest defense budget, growing annually at 10 percent or more for at least the last decade. China is professionalizing its army, modernizing its tactical and strategic power projection forces, developing anti-satellite weapons and crafting cyberwarfare skills.

On the Korean peninsula, the fragile peace between the North and South could change in a New York minute, leading to a conflict rivaling the devastation of the 1950-53 Korean War.

The U.S. has made some progress in rolling back North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, but getting Pyongyang to come clean on all aspects of the program won’t be easy. The more dangerous problem is, arguably, preventing nuclear proliferation off the Korean peninsula to places such as Syria, where collaboration led to an Israeli strike on a suspected Syrian nuclear facility in 2007.

North Korea also is tight with Iran. Pyongyang enables Tehran’s growing ballistic missile program, including the medium-range Shahab missile, which can range the entire Middle East and parts of southeastern Europe.

And what happens when North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il dies? He’s already had at least one stroke. A clear-cut succession plan isn’t evident, leading to concerns of chaos when he passes.

Southeast Asia can’t be ignored, either. The Philippines and Indonesia have terrorist threats in the Abu Sayyaf Group and Jemaah Islamiya, both with al-Qaida connections. They have Westerns targets in their sights, too.

Bright spots in the region include our strong ties with Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Australia. Tokyo is making growing contributions to international security, including a cooperative missile-defense program with Washington.

In South Asia, the challenges surrounding just Pakistan, Afghanistan and India are likely to consume more than a few entries on the next president’s daily calendar, starting on Day 1. The region is replete with Islamist terrorist and insurgent groups, weak and fragile governments, two of the world’s nine nuclear arsenals, simmering international political tensions and a bustling narcotics trade.

The region’s biggest challenge is Pakistan. From its nuclear stockpile security to the political turmoil, from a resurgent Taliban and al-Qaida to its testy ties with India, Pakistan will cause insomnia in the White House.

The most dangerous regional threat to U.S. national security emanates from the al-Qaida in Pakistan, including Osama bin Laden, holed up in the country’s tribal areas along the Afghanistan border.

The Taliban also has found the welcome mat out in Pakistan’s tribal areas, providing a haven for planning, training and launching operations into neighboring Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, it’s now more than seven years since U.S. forces entered to battle the Taliban and al-Qaida. It’s been tough sledding; attacks are up, and Kabul is struggling to control the countryside.

Narcotics production is also at or near record highs. According to the United Nations, Afghanistan grows about 90 percent of the world’s opium poppy. The narco-trade, worth about $4 billion annually, is subsidizing the Taliban, which may receive as much as $500 million a year from drug profits.

Beyond tackling the Taliban, Kabul and Washington also are struggling to extend governance and basic services into the far reaches of the impoverished country, wracked by nearly three decades of conflict and chaos.

The bright spot for the U.S. in South Asia is India. Relations between New Delhi and Washington have improved significantly during the Bush administration. The rise of India, an economic dynamo and major military power, is important to U.S. regional interests, considering its proximity to Pakistan and Afghanistan — and the ascendance of China.

But New Delhi’s relations with Islamabad can be prickly, especially over the disputed Kashmir territory. Terrorist attacks in India by Pakistani-based militants happen — and tensions can flare quickly.

Middle East

The Middle East also will offer the new administration its own set of predicaments. Not surprisingly, topping the list is Iran, arguably the biggest regional problem for the U.S.

Although things have improved markedly in Iraq, Iran is still active there, supporting militants and politicians to advance its interests. Iran may be largest threat to Iraqi stability. Tehran has promised to fill any vacuum in Iraq, bringing Baghdad into its sphere of influence as it seeks to spread its dominion from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea.

Iran also is still active in Afghanistan. Tehran is keen on having influence in Kabul, where, as in Baghdad, it isn’t comfortable seeing a Western ally develop or democracy take hold.

Iran is still the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism, providing support to a number of groups. Terrorism remains central to Iran’s national security concept.

It’s certainly possible Iran may join the once-exclusive nuclear weapons club early in the new president’s term. Few believe Tehran’s atomic aspirations are for purely peaceful purposes. In fact, the international community has been negotiating with Iran since 2003 on this issue without success. More diplomatic pas de deux by the European Union or others with Iran is unlikely to succeed.

Iran’s also working on a long-range ballistic missile under the cover of a space program that might one day be able to reach the U.S. with a weapon of mass destruction.

The American surge in Iraq has made great gains, leaving the insurgents and al-Qaida in disarray and retreat. Despite this, they’re still very dangerous and progress is susceptible to reversals, commanders say.

Syria will continue to be a problem as well, as it tries to get its mitts on Lebanon (again) in concert with ally Hezbollah. Concerns remain about the extent of a Syrian nuclear program and its ongoing weapons purchases from Russia.


Europe isn’t going to be a big problem for the next president, especially compared with the hot spots, flashpoints and troublemakers that splash across the daily headlines. But below the surface lies a plentitude of potential problems that, regrettably, could affect American national interests in a big way.

Terrorism is a huge concern. European capitals regularly report that they’re finding new extremist networks, including some of the “homegrown” variety.

Unfortunately, al-Qaida and its acolytes continue to see Europe as both a target and a gateway to attacking the U.S. (The foiled 2006 al-Qaida plot to bring down 10 or so U.S.- and Canada-bound airliners from the United Kingdom with liquid explosives is anexample.)

The chance of a major war in Europe is thankfully about zero, but if there were to be any conflict in Europe, it likely would flare up in the Balkans — as it has so many times in the past.

Recently independent Kosovo or Bosnia, a fragile confederation of Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), could fly apart as well, leading to ethnic violence.

Another challenge will be to keep the ball moving on the U.S. missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, where public opinion is mixed, despite Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile advances.

NATO is another key matter for the next commander in chief. The 26-nation military alliance must maintain the will to fight — and win — in Afghanistan, which includes providing more forces and resources.

Latin America

The biggest challenge in Latin America is Venezuela, whose caudillo president Hugo Chavez has made a sport of taunting the U.S. with his virulent anti-Americanism. But Chavez is blessed with some of the world’s largest reserves of oil and natural gas, the profits of which he’s using to buy more than $4 billion in Russian weaponry, which could become destabilizing.

Chavez also is chummy with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, causing concern about possible Iranian missile or nuclear proliferation to Venezuela. Hezbollah is also resident there.

Mexico is an important trading partner, but U.S.-Mexico ties are filled with thorny security issues such as illegal immigration and narcotics trafficking, where drug lords are fighting each other — and the government —in a low-grade civil war.

On the positive side of the tote board, democratic Colombia, one of America’s closest regional allies, has acted aggressively against insurgency of the narco-terrorist group FARC, but drug-trafficking remains a problem.


Africa has a range of challenges as diverse as the peoples, languages and cultures that populate the massive continent. No issue will be as worrying for the new American president as preventing the rise of Islamist terrorism in Africa. Indeed, the weak and failing states and ungoverned areas that dot the African continent are ideal places for terrorist groups to set up, plan, recruit, train and operate against targets near and far.

Libya, Morocco and Algeria face terrorist groups with ties to al-Qaida. While in most cases the terrorist groups’ aims are local, their acts of terrorism can have transnational consequences.

Finding peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo will be tough — a place where as many as 3 million have died from violence, starvation and disease in the last decade, making it one of the deadliest conflicts in recent history.

Piracy in the waters off Somalia disrupts maritime traffic through the busy Gulf of Aden and costs the shipping industry billions every year; the hijackers have shown no direct ties to terrorism — yet.

President Harry Truman’s secretary of state, Dean Acheson, once quipped that foreign policy was just one darned thing after another. It’s hard to dispute that contention, especially these days.

International affairs will continue to be a tough business, pocked with strife, conflict and war. As such, President-elect Obama had better have a clear idea of how to address these problems before taking the oath of office.

The world isn’t going to stop spinning just because he’s new to the job.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who also served in the Navy, with the CIA and on Capitol Hill.