January 1, 2009
By Peter Brookes
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.
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, theyll 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Middle East Migraines
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
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
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
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 an
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
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
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
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
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
Brookes is senior fellow for National Security Affairs
in the Davis Institute at The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in the Armed Forces Journal
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
Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Read More >>
Request an interview >>
Please complete the following form to request an interview with a Heritage expert.
Please note that all fields must be completed.
Heritage's daily Morning Bell e-mail keeps you updated on the ongoing policy battles in Washington and around the country.
The subscription is free and delivers you the latest conservative policy perspectives on the news each weekday--straight from Heritage experts.
The Morning Bell is your daily wake-up call offering a fresh, conservative analysis of the news.
More than 450,000 Americans rely on Heritage's Morning Bell to stay up to date on the policy battles that affect them.
Rush Limbaugh says "The Heritage Foundation's Morning Bell is just terrific!"
Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) says it's "a great way to start the day for any conservative who wants to get America back on track."
Sign up to start your free subscription today!
The Heritage Foundation is the nation’s most broadly supported public policy research institute, with hundreds of thousands of individual, foundation and corporate donors. Heritage, founded in February 1973, has a staff of 275 and an annual expense budget of $82.4 million.
Our mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense. Read More
© 2015, The Heritage Foundation Conservative policy research since 1973