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Biden foreboding coming true
  Written By: Osama Al Sharif, Special to Gulf News*
  Article Date:
November 17
, 2008


When Senator Joe Biden, Barack Obama's vice-president, said a few weeks ago that the new president of the United States will be tested by an international crisis in the first six months of his term, he was dead serious.

The McCain side tried to twist Biden's words to prove that Obama's lack of foreign policy experience, especially when compared to his Republican rival, would work against him.

But that is history now. Obama won the election and the world, not to mention most Americans, are pinning high hopes on America's first black president.

The satirists had a field day with Obama's overwhelming victory. Some even asked Obama, few days before the elections, if he was still eager to take over the White House, considering the deep hole the US finds itself in today.

With an unprecedented, and unpredictable, economic crisis, uncertainty in Iraq, real prospect of losing Afghanistan, an unsettled face-off with Iran and a tenuous relationship with Russia, the new president will have to switch to emergency mode from day one.

To give the new president a six-month headstart may prove to be optimistic. President-elect Obama will have to take crucial, maybe unpopular, decisions from the moment he is sworn in on January 20. That is the reality of his presidency. There will be no time for a honeymoon, no hundred-day hiatus, no period of transition or even time to reflect on the real value of his inheritance.

Apart from the global economic crunch, which is not exhibiting any signs of relief, Obama will have to decide almost immediately which course to chart in Iraq and elsewhere.

When he was campaigning, he was savvy enough to point to Afghanistan as the most urgent foreign policy, and national security, challenge before the upcoming administration. And he is absolutely right.

In the past few months, the country, which the Bush White House singled out as the most dangerous place in the world in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the US, has been rapidly disintegrating.

The Taliban, removed from power in the wake of US occupation in 2001, has been gaining ground in the provinces, and recently, the Karzai government has been pushing the Saudi Arabians to mediate with the movement.

The security situation in Afghanistan has been getting worse for months now, as forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) continued to lose ground and alliance members have failed to send more soldiers. The US has moved troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, but good news from there is in short supply.

And as the president-elect had predicted, Pakistan is becoming ever more important as a vital link in the war against terror.

The democratic government is under pressure, both from militant groups and as a result of the world economic crisis. It has recently asked for emergency loans from the IMF worth $9 billion. By the time Obama takes over, the situation in Pakistan could get worse.

In Iraq, the picture is not much better. The Iraqi government and the US are still haggling over a strategic security pact that would extend America's military presence in that country for at least three more years.

Meanwhile, the security situation in Iraq remains unstable, with the recent surge in terrorist attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere.

Even if the Bush administration, secures an agreement with the Baghdad government in the 11th hour, the political opposition to US military presence in Iraq is unlikely to subside.

The new president will have to decide on a new game plan, one that meets his promise of bringing the troops home while securing the stability of that country.

Iraq is also linked directly to the outcome of the US-Iranian showdown and Tehran's determination to continue with its nuclear programme in spite of America's objections. Obama has outlined his opposition to Tehran's intentions and the recent testing of long-range Iranian missiles adds to the delicacy of the situation.

Iran carries considerable weight in Iraq and Obama will be careful while making his next move, knowing fully well that his European allies favour a diplomatic solution to the crisis with Iran.

And then, there is of course the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which is getting more complicated as the days pass. Internal Palestinian infighting has weakened the position of America's ally, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, while Israel is on hold pending elections, which at this stage favour a right winger, Benyamin Netanyahu.

Beyond reach

The Bush promise of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict before the end of the year is now beyond reach. As things stand, the new US president will have to decide on a new approach.

He will have to wait until Israel chooses a new prime minister in February, but until then he will have to assure America's Arab allies that his path will meet their expectations; a negotiated settlement between Arabs and Israelis based on the Road Map, the Oslo Accords and UN resolutions.

The Middle East will prove to be Obama's most important foreign policy test in the few months following his inauguration. In fact, the region's multifaceted challenges will make or break the new president's foreign policy approach.

He will be tested from day one and he will have to prove that he has the vision, as well as the stamina, to work with local partners to achieve what is best for America and for its regional allies.

It all looks too ambitious for one man to confront. The economy will press Obama from his first day in office, but he can't pour all his resources on the economy while geopolitical challenges in the Middle East and elsewhere continue to erode America's position.

Whether it is Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan or the Caucasus, the new president will soon find himself facing a developing crisis. He will have to prove that he is different from his predecessor in so many ways. Biden's ominous prediction is truer than anyone would have imagined.

Osama Al Sharif is a veteran journalist and commentator based In Jordan.