Vice-president-elect Joe Biden issued a prescient warning in the last days of the presidential campaign: If Barack Obama were elected president, he would be tested by a major international crisis soon after taking office. Biden was wrong about one thing: The test has come even before President-elect Obama is sworn in.
Within hours of Obama's impressive victory, another new leader, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, warned that Russia would deploy short-range missiles capable of hitting NATO territory if the new American president goes ahead to build a missile defense system to protect Europe. It's unclear where a President Obama will come down on this issue. He's been on both sides during the campaign.
The idea of an anti-missile defense system, of course, is not new. The United States has been working on an anti-missile system to protect our territory since the Reagan administration. The Strategic Defense Initiative -- often derisively dismissed as "Star Wars" by its critics -- fundamentally changed the way the U.S. approached the idea of nuclear war.
Through much of the Cold War, the United States based its defense almost entirely on a good offense: mutually assured destruction (MAD). We would have so many weapons that the Soviets would realize that an attack on us would be suicidal. If they launched a surprise nuclear attack on us, enough of our missiles would survive to retaliate against them, and annihilation would be the fate of both sides.
But Reagan changed the equation. Essentially abandoning the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which allowed the Soviets and the U.S. to set up anti-missile systems to protect only their two capitals, Reagan announced he would explore building a defense shield to protect the entire country.
Russia has now made it clear to the incoming president: Move ahead with deploying 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic and we will deploy short-ranged missiles near Poland. So what will our new president do? The last time Russia flexed its considerable muscle by invading Georgia, candidate Obama at first acted as if both sides were equally to blame. He later righted himself, condemning Russia as the aggressor.
President-elect Obama is busy with preparations for the transition to his new office. But the Russians won't wait -- and neither will our enemies. Obama must signal that there will be no major shifts in American foreign or defense policy, irrespective of all the campaign rhetoric about change. He could do so by quickly announcing his picks for secretaries of state and defense. I doubt Colin Powell wants another term at state, but perhaps he would view defense as a new challenge. At the very least, such a choice would inform Russia that despite partisan wrangling in election years, the United States remains committed to protecting our allies and ourselves, and a President Obama has no plans to change that.