Dispatch May 2009

Obama the Untested

A look ahead to the crises—from Russian power plays to Israeli military strikes—that could really show us what the president is made of.
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The American media has just released an avalanche of reports assessing President Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office. Ignore it all. It doesn’t matter. The revealing part of his presidency hasn’t begun yet. At about this point in his presidency, George W. Bush had, with the help of his secretary of state, Colin Powell, just won the release of the crew of a U.S. spy plane from China, leading the world media elite to declare Bush a pragmatic president in foreign affairs, and Powell his most important advisor. As for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, it was said that he would be gone by summer—a short-serving and utterly forgettable secretary of defense. 9/11, of course, still lay in the future.

Also see:



The First 100 Days

An Atlantic special report, with essays by Andrew Sullivan, James Fallows, Ross Douthat, and others; insights from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Alan Brinkley, and others; and roundtable conversations with Robert D. Kaplan, Jeffrey Goldberg, Ta-Nehesi Coates, and more.

President Obama may not face a single cataclysmic event like 9/11. But he will certainly face an array of unforeseen crises that will test him and reveal his inner self the way that 9/11 revealed Bush’s inner self, and will take his presidency in ironic directions. American presidencies in these tumultuous times, with their rapid-fire sequences of events, are like wars. And wars—even successful ones—never go according to plan. If presidential terms were like visits to the dentist, Obama is still in the waiting room listening to the elevator music, with the drill yet to be turned on.

Yes, Obama has faced great crises and choices already: the meltdown of the economy, the bailout of the Detroit automobile companies, the release of the Bush-era memorandums on torture. But all of these crisis were entirely predictable. They are leftovers from the last administration. And the decisions Obama has made on them are the product of staff meetings going back to the days before he was even elected. In all of them he has had the advantage of advance planning. The piracy incident off the coast of Somalia and the swine flu epidemic (provided it doesn’t get worse) do not qualify as crises that define a presidency.

What are the kind of crises that will make the media instantly forget their musings on Obama’s first 100 days?

Getting bogged-down in Afghanistan. Obama has just committed 17,000 more American troops to the effort, and will likely commit more. The war in Afghanistan is about to be Americanized to a greater degree than it ever has. A summer of higher casualties is upon us, as U.S. marines and soldiers advance down Taliban ratlines in southern Afghanistan. That is predictable. But what if the August elections in Afghanistan go badly—or they go well and, nevertheless, there is no political progress in Kabul? What if the war continues in a bloody manner the following summer? Obama in 2010 could find himself in a similar situation as Bush in Iraq in 2006.

Pakistan slowly, chillingly unravels. Obama is now knee-deep in Pakistan’s murky and intractable politics. He is dealing with its greatly unpopular president, Asif Ali Zardari, even as he reaches out to its very popular opposition leader, Nawas Sharif. The Administration is selling arms to the Pakistan military as a bribe to get it to take action against the Taliban. This all makes good policy sense, but Pakistan as a piece of political geography makes no sense. What if Zardari is reduced to a figurehead and the Pakistan military stages a quiet, soft coup: taking power in all but name, even as it becomes further comprised of pro-Taliban officers? Such a scenario will reveal who Obama really is.

Russia officially becomes a dictatorship. As the economy falters and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin looks vulnerable, he could force President Dimitri Medvedev to resign, change the constitution, and get himself reelected as president. In other words, Russia could become a dictatorship in all but name. And by the way, because of an understanding between Russia and Iran that they will respect the status quo in Central Asia and the Caucasus, Putin will likely reject Obama’s offer of scrapping missile sites in Poland in return for Moscow’s help in taming Iran’s nuclear ambitions. What is Obama’s next move, then? Obama has spent 100 days being nice to the outside world, but what happens when the outside world – Europe, Russia, Iran – does not return the favor?

And I haven’t even mentioned the possibility of an unraveling in Iraq, an Israeli military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, or another stock market collapse as the economy refuses to recover quickly. Indeed, there are a slew of nasty probabilities lying in wait to define Obama. There could be more incidents between the U.S. and Chinese navies in the Western Pacific; a country in Africa could implode, requiring a massive relief effort, fraught with the specter of nation-building; the collapse of the North Korean regime could precipitate the mother of all humanitarian interventions, as well as the need for cooperation between the American and Chinese armies.

At present, Obama’s foreign policy team is talented but unwieldy. The National Security apparatus under former Marine General James Jones appears to be handling Israeli-Palestinian matters with the help of special envoy George Mitchell. The State Department, with the help of special envoy Richard Holbrooke, has apparently taken control of Afghanistan-Pakistan matters. This is a very unstable arrangement: Holbrooke is building his own mini-empire in the shadow of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Someone will be forced to resign, and that will affect foreign policy dramatically. This Administration is still just settling in.

Keep in mind that Obama has never really been tested. Life has been easy to him. He has achieved so much at such a tender age. He commands the American Congress and the global media. But such situations are ephemeral. The crises ahead will test him to a degree that perhaps even he himself, so thoughtful and deliberative, cannot yet imagine. And in the process we will all come to know him better.

Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
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Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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