When Barack Obama raises his hand and takes the oath of office next Jan. 20, he will inherit arguably the worst international mess ever passed on to an incoming president.
The United States is fighting two wars half a world away in the midst of a global economic meltdown. Efforts to contain the nuclear programs of two long-time enemies, Iran and North Korea, are faltering. Relations with a belligerent and resurgent Russia are terrible and getting worse. Afghanistan is an emerging narco-state. And seven years after the Sept. 11 attacks, Osama bin Laden—a motivated enemy with a proven track record—continues to elude capture.
"It is a nightmare," said Jessica T. Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The inbox is bigger than it's ever been, and no president can succeed who doesn't establish some priorities, and some pretty stringent ones."
Setting aside the individual brush fires, Obama faces two overarching and interrelated challenges: restoring America's reputation abroad and repairing frayed relations with allies.
Bush got into trouble for both style and substance. US allies—not just the leaders, but their citizens—were turned off by his administration's willingness to go-it-alone, disdain for multi-national organizations, ideological rigidity and refusal to tolerate dissent. The criticisms became more pointed when no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, and the Justice Department reinterpreted the Geneva Convention to let the administration off the hook for torturing prisoners. The sense grew abroad that the Unites States had lost its bearings.
Other members of the coalition of the willing felt betrayed.
For Obama, the question is how much of this baggage he gets stuck with, and how much he can leave in the station.
"It's likely that he inherits very little of it," said Lawrence J. Korb, a defense and foreign policy expert at the Center for American Progress. "The fact that the United States would elect an African American with roots in Africa, whose middle name is Hussein, will go a long way toward restoring the U.S.'s reputation, because people will say, 'All those horrible things we said about you are not true.'"
Still, in the Middle East particularly, "we have a lot to do to repair the U.S.'s reputation, credibility and effectiveness," said Dennis Ross, who was the top Middle East peace negotiator under President Clinton and is sometimes mentioned as a possible Obama cabinet member.
"The fact is, being someone not named Bush will help," Ross said, "but the next president has to realize what he's going to face, and fashion a policy that focuses on things that can be done," such as "being a leader on climate change. Being on the right side of issues with a broader imperative will affect American's image."
Although much goodwill has evaporated, these analysts said, Obama will find that when he goes to the well, there's still some left. That's particularly true in Europe, where there is a strong sense of shared interests and many people pine for U.S. leadership. But they could part ways if Obama pushes for tough measures to contain energy-rich Russia, or seeks new European commitments to expand NATO.
Some key proposals Obama highlighted in his campaign—an expedited timeline for withdrawing from Iraq, opening a dialogue with Iran, crossing from Afghanistan into Pakistan to pursue Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters—are easier said than done. They require deft strategic planning, preparation of public opinion at home, marshalling of allied support, and probably a healthy dose of luck.
"Look at the Middle East as an example," said Ross. For the in-coming administration, "The very best story they have is Iraq. You know you're in trouble when Iraq is your best case."
For Obama, the pledge to quickly get American troops out of Iraq is particularly problematic. Despite recent security improvements tied to the troop surge, no one knows what will happen when our forces draw down. An imminent withdrawal was supposed to produce political reconciliation in Iraq, but it's not happening. Suppose a drawdown of troops sparks renewed Sunni-Shia violence, a resurgence of Al Qaeda in Iraq, or intensified attacks on troops?
Recall that when Israel withdrew its forces from the Gaza Strip, Hamas redoubled its attacks to change the narrative. Israel's much ballyhooed "unilateral withdrawal" quickly was re-branded as a retreat under fire.
What will the Obama Administration do if the story line in Iraq becomes cut-and-run? What if Iraq disintegrates and splits into several countries, with an independent Kurdish state in the north, a Shia ally of Iran in the south, and a dysfunctional and impoverished Sunni state in the west? Suppose the worst fears of Israeli, the United States and Sunni allies such as Saudi Arabia come true, and a "Shia crescent" forms from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon?
"At the end of the day, the U.S. military is not going to sort this out unilaterally—the whole point of the surge was that Iraqis would have to do it on their own," Ross said. When Obama says Iraqis have to accept security responsibility, "he's talking about the need of a diplomatic surge—something has to be done with the neighbors" to help restore internal peace and stability, Ross said, citing in particular the key role Iran plays in Iraqi affairs.
But Iran—which Bush included in his "axis of evil"—is a vexing relationship that many analysts say could be the new administration's most important and complex foreign policy puzzle.
The United States and many of its allies accuse Iran of pursuing a clandestine program to build nuclear weapons, but the evidence is not conclusive; the U.N. Security Council has been unable to compel Iran to reveal all the details of its nuclear programs or stop its uranium enrichment. U.S. officials also accuse Iran of training, funding and supplying weapons to insurgent groups fighting U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they have offered little concrete proof. The administration's just-trust-us attitude on both issues does not wash with allies who believed U.S. assertions that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Iran also supports Hezbollah and Hamas in their campaigns against Lebanon and Israel, a U.S. ally that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said "must be wiped from the map."
Complicating this thicket is the Bush administration's refusal to hold direct talks with Iran.
Obama's willingness to "engage without illusion, with the purpose of preventing Iran from going nuclear, will help a lot" in fashioning a new U.S. strategy that can win allied support, Ross said. With an engagement strategy, "It becomes easier for allies to rationalize increasing economic pressure on Iran," whereas during the Bush administration, allies often saw escalating confrontation as the only U.S. tactic, and they were reluctant to sign on.
Still, finding a senior official inside Iran's convoluted power structure to play ball with the United States will be no easy trick. Iranian citizens may long for better relations with the U.S., but the country's stock has risen among people in the region who admire Iran's willingness to poke the United States in the eye. Encircled by 152,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and 31,000 in Afghanistan, Iran also has a vested interest in fomenting U.S. quagmires in both countries to strengthen its hand in any talks with the United States.
As for its presumed nuclear weapons program, the lesson from North Korea is clear: the United States will bargain with you—if you already have nukes.
The picture in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the ungoverned tribal belt between the two is no better. In Afghanistan, corruption is endemic, the government has no reach outside the capital, suicide bombings are on the rise, the Taliban has staged a comeback, drug trafficking and poppy cultivation are rampant, and NATO allies are getting itchy to leave. Next door, Pakistan is a fragile, corrupt and broken nuclear weapons state with a strong cadre of Islamic extremists that has infiltrated the country's intelligence and security agencies – not a very promising combination. Osama bin Laden makes his home somewhere along the rugged 1,510-mile Pakistan-Afghan border.
"There are two or three problems in the Middle East that cannot be ignored no matter what, and I think that we should attempt for the first time perhaps to look at the region as a whole and craft a policy that pulls together Iraq and Iran and Israel and Syria and Lebanon," said Mathews. "I think it's almost a necessity to look at them together, not least because Iran affects so many of them because of its direct involvement in Iraq, its nuclear program, the weapons and bombs and money it exports to Hezbollah and Hamas—it's looming shadow."
"It's an unbelievable legacy, and that's true even before the financial meltdown, which complicates things because it shows how interconnected the world is," Ross said. For Obama, he said, "everywhere you look, he faces a set of daunting challenges."