by Ed Ross

January 5, 2009

Barring some new national catastrophe during President-elect Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office, his top priority will be dealing with the global financial crisis and its impact on the US economy.

At the same time, several national security issues also require attention. How his administration approaches them during these early months will set the pattern for the next four years and either increase or decrease its prospects for success.

We still don't know who Obama will appoint to most of his administration's key national security positions beneath the secretaries of State and Defense and his national security advisor. Those top appointments and Obama’s statements during the campaign, however, provide important clues to how he likely will approach several important national security challenges.

Obama’s decision to retain Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Obama’s recent statements on Iraq indicate that he is not likely to call in Admiral Michael Mullen and General David Petraeus and give them new marching orders. There is no need to alter the timetable recently agreed to by Presidents George W. Bush and Nouri al-Maliki to withdraw all US Forces from Iraq by December 31, 2011. The war in Iraq has been won, and Obama should leave well enough alone. He should resist pressure from within his own party to do otherwise. Major factors affecting the pace of withdrawal of US forces from Iraq should be which units will go to Afghanistan and other pressing military requirements. Gates, Mullen, and Petraeus will figure that out.

Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Gates need to worry more about Pakistan, a major breeding ground for terrorists and the potential source of conflict between Pakistan and India. Getting off on the right foot with the Pakistan government during the first 100 days is critical. They must work with President Asif Ali Zardari to make the US-Pakistan relationship less transactional, more focused on domestic political and economic stability, and to make Pakistan more effective against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups

Resolving the continuing Middle East conflict should be a top priority, but the new administration must act deliberately, not reactively. By the time he is sworn in on January 20, 2009, or soon thereafter, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Israeli armed forces likely will have agreed on another ceasefire. The Kadima Party, if it wishes to retain control of government in the February election, must go to the Israeli people with evidence that they’ve stopped Hamas’ rocket attacks and their killing of Israeli civilians. A ceasefire is the best way to do that in the near term, but only if it stops the rocket attacks. Allowing Hamas to claim it successfully stood up to Israel as Hezbollah did after Israel’s 2006 incursion into Lebanon isn’t conducive to that or a long-term settlement.

After the Israeli election, Obama can send his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to the region to meet with the leaders of Israel, the Palestinian Fatah Party, Egypt, and Jordan. With Dennis Ross as the new Middle East envoy, she can establish relationships with the key players and develop a long-term strategy. Various people, including Richard Holbrooke, are under consideration for the Middle East envoy job, but Ross has the experience, knows the players and issues well, and understands what’s necessary.

On Iran, Obama has called for a change of strategy. He's proposed meeting with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As Iran draws ever closer to developing and producing nuclear weapons, however, it has given the United States and its European partners no reason to believe presidential-level talks would serve any purpose other than to buy time for a fait accompli.

Obama has repeatedly indicated that he would not take the military option off the table. Nevertheless, there is no reason to believe that he is prepared to act unilaterally or support Israeli military action to thwart Iran’s nuclear program. Doing so runs counter to Obama’s criticism of his predecessor and to his preference for negotiations. And he knows that Iran would react with military action of its own by attempting to close the Strait of Hormuz, attacking US forces in the region, or launching missiles at Israel.

As former UN Ambassador John Bolton has succinctly stated, “Military action against Iran is an extremely unattractive option, but Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons is even more unattractive.” Before Obama’s first 100 days are up, he must either convince the American people that he has an effective strategy for dealing with a nuclear armed Iran or he must begin to garner their support for US military action.

Then there’s Russia. Vladimir Putin and his cohort Dmitri Medvedev have decided to respond aggressively to NATO expansion in Central and Eastern Europe and to challenge the United States for access and influence. As they did in Georgia, before long they'll cross the line again. Obama must decide early on how he will deal with Russia’s increasingly authoritative and belligerent dynamic duo. Like China, the US needs Russian cooperation on a wide spectrum of issues in the United Nations and elsewhere to have a successful global national security strategy. But we can't allow Russia or China to roll back the gains freedom and democracy have made.

President Obama’s personal diplomacy with our adversaries should begin with Putin and Medvedev. As with John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev there are risks here for the new president, but unlike Iran the chances for some success make the risk worthwhile. Unlike Khrushchev, Putin and Medvedev understand and respect the clout a new American president with broad international appeal brings to the table. They will certainly test him, but Obama needs to pass that test sooner rather than later.

There are many other pending national security issues the new administration must deal with. North Korea remains a problem. Hugo Chávez is a persistent irritant. Gates must begin preparing the first Obama defense budget and a new weapons acquisition strategy that takes into account the current economic situation. State and the National Security Council must step up to the plate on US arms sales to Taiwan. Like every new presidential administration, opportunities for progress are great when the new president's popularity, both domestically and internationally, is high. Financial and economic problems facing the US are huge and require the new president's personal attention. His national security team also has their work cut out for them.

COPYRIGHT © Edward W. Ross 2009, All Rights Reserved