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Obama's Challenge

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By George Friedman

Barack Obama has been elected president of the United States by a large majority in the Electoral College. The Democrats have dramatically increased their control of Congress, increasing the number of seats they hold in the House of Representatives and moving close to the point where — with a few Republican defections — they can have filibuster-proof control of the Senate. Given the age of some Supreme Court justices, Obama might well have the opportunity to appoint at least one and possibly two new justices. He will begin as one of the most powerful presidents in a long while.

Truly extraordinary were the celebrations held around the world upon Obama's victory. They affirm the global expectations Obama has raised — and reveal that the United States must be more important to Europeans than the latter like to admit. (We can't imagine late-night vigils in the United States over a French election.)

Obama is an extraordinary rhetorician, and as Aristotle pointed out, rhetoric is one of the foundations of political power. Rhetoric has raised him to the presidency, along with the tremendous unpopularity of his predecessor and a financial crisis that took a tied campaign and gave Obama a lead he carefully nurtured to victory. So, as with all politicians, his victory was a matter of rhetoric and, according to Machiavelli, luck. Obama had both, but now the question is whether he has Machiavelli's virtue in full by possessing the ability to exercise power. This last element is what governing is about, and it is what will determine if his presidency succeeds.

Embedded in his tremendous victory is a single weakness: Obama won the popular vote by a fairly narrow margin, about 52 percent of the vote. That means that almost as many people voted against him as voted for him.

Obama's Agenda vs. Expanding His Base

U.S. President George W. Bush demonstrated that the inability to understand the uses and limits of power can crush a presidency very quickly. The enormous enthusiasm of Obama's followers could conceal how he — like Bush — is governing a deeply, and nearly evenly, divided country. Obama's first test will be simple: Can he maintain the devotion of his followers while increasing his political base? Or will he believe, as Bush and Cheney did, that he can govern without concern for the other half of the country because he controls the presidency and Congress, as Bush and Cheney did in 2001? Presidents are elected by electoral votes, but they govern through public support.

Obama and his supporters will say there is no danger of a repeat of Bush — who believed he could carry out his agenda and build his political base at the same time, but couldn't. Building a political base requires modifying one's agenda. But when you start modifying your agenda, when you become pragmatic, you start to lose your supporters. If Obama had won with 60 percent of the popular vote, this would not be as pressing a question. But he barely won by more than Bush in 2004. Now, we will find out if Obama is as skillful a president as he was a candidate.

Obama will soon face the problem of beginning to disappoint people all over the world, a problem built into his job. The first disappointments will be minor. There are thousands of people hoping for appointments, some to Cabinet positions, others to the White House, others to federal agencies. Many will get something, but few will get as much as they hoped for. Some will feel betrayed and become bitter. During the transition process, the disappointed office seeker — an institution in American politics — will start leaking on background to whatever reporters are available. This will strike a small, discordant note; creating no serious problems, but serving as a harbinger of things to come.

Later, Obama will be sworn in. He will give a memorable, perhaps historic speech at his inauguration. There will be great expectations about him in the country and around the world. He will enjoy the traditional presidential honeymoon, during which all but his bitterest enemies will give him the benefit of the doubt. The press initially will adore him, but will begin writing stories about all the positions he hasn't filled, the mistakes he made in the vetting process and so on. And then, sometime in March or April, things will get interesting.

Iran and a U.S. Withdrawal From Iraq

Obama has promised to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, where he does not intend to leave any residual force. If he follows that course, he will open the door for the Iranians. Iran's primary national security interest is containing or dominating Iraq, with which Iran fought a long war. If the United States remains in Iraq, the Iranians will be forced to accept a neutral government in Iraq. A U.S. withdrawal will pave the way for the Iranians to use Iraqi proxies to create, at a minimum, an Iraqi government more heavily influenced by Iran.

Apart from upsetting Sunni and Kurdish allies of the United States in Iraq, the Iranian ascendancy in Iraq will disturb some major American allies — particularly the Saudis, who fear Iranian power. The United States can't afford a scenario under which Iranian power is projected into the Saudi oil fields. While that might be an unlikely scenario, it carries catastrophic consequences. The Jordanians and possibly the Turks, also American allies, will pressure Obama not simply to withdraw. And, of course, the Israelis will want the United States to remain in place to block Iranian expansion. Resisting a coalition of Saudis and Israelis will not be easy.

This will be the point where Obama's pledge to talk to the Iranians will become crucial. If he simply withdraws from Iraq without a solid understanding with Iran, the entire American coalition in the region will come apart. Obama has pledged to build coalitions, something that will be difficult in the Middle East if he withdraws from Iraq without ironclad Iranian guarantees. He therefore will talk to the Iranians. But what can Obama offer the Iranians that would induce them to forego their primary national security interest? It is difficult to imagine a U.S.-Iranian deal that is both mutually beneficial and enforceable.

Obama will then be forced to make a decision. He can withdraw from Iraq and suffer the geopolitical consequences while coming under fire from the substantial political right in the United States that he needs at least in part to bring into his coalition. Or, he can retain some force in Iraq, thereby disappointing his supporters. If he is clumsy, he could wind up under attack from the right for negotiating with the Iranians and from his own supporters for not withdrawing all U.S. forces from Iraq. His skills in foreign policy and domestic politics will be tested on this core question, and he undoubtedly will disappoint many.

The Afghan Dilemma

Obama will need to address Afghanistan next. He has said that this is the real war, and that he will ask U.S. allies to join him in the effort. This means he will go to the Europeans and NATO, as he has said he will do. The Europeans are delighted with Obama's victory because they feel Obama will consult them and stop making demands of them. But demands are precisely what he will bring the Europeans. In particular, he will want the Europeans to provide more forces for Afghanistan.

Many European countries will be inclined to provide some support, if for no other reason than to show that they are prepared to work with Obama. But European public opinion is not about to support a major deployment in Afghanistan, and the Europeans don't have the force to deploy there anyway. In fact, as the global financial crisis begins to have a more dire impact in Europe than in the United States, many European countries are actively reducing their deployments in Afghanistan to save money. Expanding operations is the last thing on European minds.

Obama's Afghan solution of building a coalition centered on the Europeans will thus meet a divided Europe with little inclination to send troops and with few troops to send in any event. That will force him into a confrontation with the Europeans in spring 2009, and then into a decision. The United States and its allies collectively lack the force to stabilize Afghanistan and defeat the Taliban. They certainly lack the force to make a significant move into Pakistan — something Obama has floated on several occasions that might be a good idea if force were in fact available.

He will have to make a hard decision on Afghanistan. Obama can continue the war as it is currently being fought, without hope of anything but a long holding action, but this risks defining his presidency around a hopeless war. He can choose to withdraw, in effect reinstating the Taliban, going back on his commitment and drawing heavy fire from the right. Or he can do what we have suggested is the inevitable outcome, namely, negotiate — and reach a political accord — with the Taliban. Unlike Bush, however, withdrawal or negotiation with the Taliban will increase the pressure on Obama from the right. And if this is coupled with a decision to delay withdrawal from Iraq, Obama's own supporters will become restive. His 52 percent Election Day support could deteriorate with remarkable speed.

The Russian Question

At the same time, Obama will face the Russian question. The morning after Obama's election, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev announced that Russia was deploying missiles in its European exclave of Kaliningrad in response to the U.S. deployment of ballistic missile defense systems in Poland. Obama opposed the Russians on their August intervention in Georgia, but he has never enunciated a clear Russia policy. We expect Ukraine will have shifted its political alignment toward Russia, and Moscow will be rapidly moving to create a sphere of influence before Obama can bring his attention — and U.S. power — to bear.

Obama will again turn to the Europeans to create a coalition to resist the Russians. But the Europeans will again be divided. The Germans can't afford to alienate the Russians because of German energy dependence on Russia and because Germany does not want to fight another Cold War. The British and French may be more inclined to address the question, but certainly not to the point of resurrecting NATO as a major military force. The Russians will be prepared to talk, and will want to talk a great deal, all the while pursuing their own national interest of increasing their power in what they call their "near abroad."

Obama will have many options on domestic policy given his majorities in Congress. But his Achilles' heel, as it was for Bush and for many presidents, will be foreign policy. He has made what appear to be three guarantees. First, he will withdraw from Iraq. Second, he will focus on Afghanistan. Third, he will oppose Russian expansionism. To deliver on the first promise, he must deal with the Iranians. To deliver on the second, he must deal with the Taliban. To deliver on the third, he must deal with the Europeans.

Global Finance and the European Problem

The Europeans will pose another critical problem, as they want a second Bretton Woods agreement. Some European states appear to desire a set of international regulations for the financial system. There are three problems with this.

First, unless Obama wants to change course dramatically, the U.S. and European positions differ over the degree to which governments will regulate interbank transactions. The Europeans want much more intrusion than the Americans. They are far less averse to direct government controls than the Americans have been. Obama has the power to shift American policy, but doing that will make it harder to expand his base.

Second, the creation of an international regulatory body that has authority over American banks would create a system where U.S. financial management was subordinated to European financial management.

And third, the Europeans themselves have no common understanding of things. Obama could thus quickly be drawn into complex EU policy issues that could tie his hands in the United States. These could quickly turn into painful negotiations, in which Obama's allure to the Europeans will evaporate.

One of the foundations of Obama's foreign policy — and one of the reasons the Europeans have celebrated his election — was the perception that Obama is prepared to work closely with the Europeans. He is in fact prepared to do so, but his problem will be the same one Bush had: The Europeans are in no position to give the things that Obama will need from them — namely, troops, a revived NATO to confront the Russians and a global financial system that doesn't subordinate American financial authority to an international bureaucracy.

The Hard Road Ahead

Like any politician, Obama will face the challenge of having made a set of promises that are not mutually supportive. Much of his challenge boils down to problems that he needs to solve and that he wants European help on, but the Europeans are not prepared to provide the type and amount of help he needs. This, plus the fact that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq requires an agreement with Iran — something hard to imagine without a continued U.S. presence in Iraq — gives Obama a difficult road to move on.

As with all American presidents (who face midterm elections with astonishing speed), Obama's foreign policy moves will be framed by his political support. Institutionally, he will be powerful. In terms of popular support, he begins knowing that almost half the country voted against him, and that he must increase his base. He must exploit the honeymoon period, when his support will expand, to bring another 5 percent or 10 percent of the public into his coalition. These people voted against him; now he needs to convince them to support him. But these are precisely the people who would regard talks with the Taliban or Iran with deep distrust. And if negotiations with the Iranians cause him to keep forces in Iraq, he will alienate his base without necessarily winning over his opponents.

And there is always the unknown. There could be a terrorist attack, the Russians could start pressuring the Baltic states, the Mexican situation could deteriorate. The unknown by definition cannot be anticipated. And many foreign leaders know it takes an administration months to settle in, something some will try to take advantage of. On top of that, there is now nearly a three-month window in which the old president is not yet out and the new president not yet in.

Obama must deal with extraordinarily difficult foreign policy issues in the context of an alliance failing not because of rough behavior among friends but because the allies' interests have diverged. He must deal with this in the context of foreign policy positions difficult to sustain and reconcile, all against the backdrop of almost half an electorate that voted against him versus supporters who have enormous hopes vested in him. Obama knows all of this, of course, as he indicated in his victory speech.

We will now find out if Obama understands the exercise of political power as well as he understands the pursuit of that power. You really can't know that until after the fact. There is no reason to think he can't finesse these problems. Doing so will take cunning, trickery and the ability to make his supporters forget the promises he made while keeping their support. It will also require the ability to make some of his opponents embrace him despite the path he will have to take. In other words, he will have to be cunning and ruthless without appearing to be cunning and ruthless. That's what successful presidents do.

In the meantime, he should enjoy the transition. It's frequently the best part of a presidency.

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