The Next Crisis

Cliff May
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Posted: Oct 23, 2008 10:51 AM
The Next Crisis

Joe Biden is taking a lot of heat for saying that, should his running mate become president, "it will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy ...we're gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy."

Politically, it probably wasn't advisable for Biden to call attention to Obama's youth and inexperience, and how those attributes may tempt America's enemies to probe his responses to the kind of pressure no American political campaign provides. Practically, what Biden said does have the ring of truth.

And, to be fair, should John McCain become president, he too may be jabbed by dictators and demagogues eager to know if the United States remains a force to be reckoned with -- or whether it's become yesterday's superpower.

Who is most likely to generate the kind of crisis Biden envisions? The mullahs who rule Iran have to be near the top of the list. "They hate us," noted Reuel Gerecht, a former CIA operative, now a Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank that this week held a bipartisan forum titled "Beyond November: Terrorists, Rogue States, and Democracy."

An old Iran hand, Gerecht noted that when Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, refers to the U.S. as "Satan incarnate" and "the Enemy of Islam and all Islamic peoples," he isn't just tossing red meat to the anti-Americans in the crowd. He is stating a deeply held conviction based on the teachings of the religious revolutionary, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Gerecht, a McCain supporter, doesn't see a new round of negotiations leading to any serious compromises by Iran. Jon Alterman, an Obama supporter who directs the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Middle East Program, doesn't really disagree. "Iranians are not going to be ready to make a deal with the U.S.," he said, "until they have a nuclear weapon in their pocket."

But should that happen, Alterman does not rule out the possibility of striking a "grand bargain" with Iran's rulers, especially if the country's precarious economic situation worsens. Gerecht, by contrast, is convinced that any deal offered by nuclear-armed, oil-rich, Iranian theocrats will be no bargain for the U.S.

Al-Qaeda also will be keen to see how a new president reacts under stress, but its ability to maneuver has been limited in Iraq which it has long viewed as the most important front in its global war against the West. Al-Qaeda in Iraq has been badly battered by American troops carrying out Gen. David Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy.

Gerecht said that Iraq is, objectively, central to American interests, and if Iraq continues to strengthen, "there will be a tendency for an Obama administration to support it." He can imagine the day, he said, when a President Obama claims credit for helping transform Iraq into a key Middle Eastern ally, as well as the first functioning democracy in the Arab world.

Israel will not generate a crisis but no one would be surprised if it again becomes the epicenter of one. Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said he is optimistic that an Obama administration would reinvigorate negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. "If Obama is our next president," he said, "the reaction in the Arab and Muslim world will be overwhelmingly enthusiastic."

Gerecht disputed the theory that enthusiasm produces progress. Negotiations, he argued, can go nowhere so long as Hamas - an Islamist terrorist group committed to Israel's extinction - controls Gaza and is gaining power in the West Bank. He noted that Clinton was well-liked in the Middle East but that his years in office coincided with Islamic radicalism going into "overdrive."

Vance Serchuck, foreign policy adviser to Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-D-Conn), pointed out that foreign policy tea leaves are not easy to read. George H.W. Bush didn't enter the White House expecting to fight a war to save Kuwait, Bill Clinton didn't anticipate intervening in the Balkans, and George W. Bush had no notion he'd become a wartime president. By the same token, Serchuk said, it's likely that the next president, whoever he is, "can expect to be surprised by events - and possibly by his responses to them."