Tomorrow will be given over to the Inauguration of the 44th President of the United States. It will be a day of ceremony and pageantry and celebration. It will mark another in an unbroken series of successful, peaceful transitions of power in the longest running constitutional republic in the history of humankind. At noon with a few solemn words, George W. Bush will be a former president and fly home to Crawford Texas to a rest he most certainly deserves. On taking the Oath of Office, Barack Hussein Obama will take on the most difficult of duties.
On Wednesday morning, the suspense that has awaited these events will dissipate and reality will filter in with Washington's early morning light. While eyes have focused on Washington, events elsewhere will soon take center stage. Here below the fold are some of the key foreign challenges which will be waiting not so patiently on that oval office desk Wednesday.
We learn from Ukraine's Kyiv Post some of the details of a natural gas deal struck this weekend between Russia, German and Ukraine. Russia has been holding out much needed natural gas from Ukraine and all of Europe waiting for the expected surrender of Germany and Ukraine which it obtained. What Russia has obtained is the return of Ukraine to Kremlin domination with the acquiescence of Germany. This follows on the heals of a Russian military invasion of Georgia, and precedes probable Russian efforts to bring Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia back within the Russian fold, and efforts to dismantle the NATO advances along Russia's western near abroad. As the Ukraine newspaper reports, not all of Europe is entirely happy with this turn of events. Polish President Lech Kacynski was quoted:
"Once against it turned out here that a country that gets into a discussion with Russia cannot hope for any effective assistance. Regardless or whether this is treated with enthusiasm or not, I'd like to very strongly say - this is a downward spiral," he said. "To whom do I direct those words? To the authorities and most importantly to politicians who lead the biggest countries of this very strong alliance of countries that the European Union is. [...] This very strong and close union of countries, in which, however, two or three countries play the important role, once again allowed for solutions that cannot be considered satisfactory,"
If Mr. Obama does not want to see the U.S. and Western position in Europe and Afghanistan dangerously degraded, he will need to seriously consider the course the United States and Western Europe will take with Russia. Mr. Putin will not take long in challenging him and indeed cannot wait long. With oil prices below $40 per barrel and falling political and military gains must be had now before financial ruin overtakes Russia, Iran, and Venezuela.
While Russian is attempting
to cut off Western influence in Afghanistan through efforts to remove air transit and air base rights in Kyrgystan, unrest along the Pakistan border with Afghanistan is threatening overland resupply routes. The effect of these two trends could be to place NATO efforts in Afghanistan in serious difficulty and ultimately lead to a forced withdrawal from there and a return of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The next immediate consequence of this tread would be that the weak government in Pakistan might also fall to Islamist ideologues. Mr. Obama will need to consider not only how to strengthen U.S. forces on the ground, and gain effective support from Nato allies, but also how to confront Russian influence on the north and Islamist power in the south and east. Mr. Putin and Mr. Bin Ladin will not take long in raising existing challenges and stakes here as well.
Unsure of Mr. Bush, Iran was extremely cautious during the Israeli-Gaza conflict which has come to a ceasefire just hours before Mr. Bush leaves office. While ever bellicose, Iran took no overt action which would provide an excuse for Israel to attack and kept its proxies in Lebanon and Iraq on the leash. Iran may believe that Mr. Obama intends to give Iran a victory that it was unable to achieve under Mr. Bush, dominance over Iraq and the straits of Hormuz and a free hand to seize the oil fields of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia while establishing Shia Islam and Persia as the dominant power in the middle east. The reported
release Osama Bin Ladin's son Saad, freeing him to cause trouble for the U.S.in Pakistan, is one indication of the pressure Iran hopes to apply to Mr. Obama. Iran will expect Mr. Obama to quickly acquiesce to its demands as the price of safely removing U.S. combat forces from Iraq. Mr. Obama will need to tread cautiously here as Iran attempts to raise the price for Mr. Obama. Iran, like Russia must act quickly before the falling price of oil limits its power and domestic unrest threatens Mr. Achmadinejad and the mullahs.