Image: Montgomery Meigs
By Military analyst
msnbc.com
updated 12/10/2008 11:48:00 AM ET 2008-12-10T16:48:00
COMMENTARY

Facing a strategic environment more complex and threatening than the one encountered by a newly inaugurated Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Obama administration's ability to handle simultaneous crises, in the first months of its tenure, could frame U.S. strategic options for at least a decade. 

The ominous specter of a world-wide depression presents a threat to which the President-elect has already been forced to react, however deferentially. Jobs lost, a banking sector at risk, record breaking rates of foreclosures, tightening of international flows of credit will continue to demand remedies. But while Mr. Market convalesces, the remedies can at best only work slowly to solutions.  Economic matters frame the entire strategic picture.

We've seen a good deal of debate about timetables for withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.  The economy and events in Pakistan drive that process. One can bet on a shrinking of the large supplemental appropriations that have to date funded the so-called “War on Terror.” Plus, we will see pressure for diversion of investment in the upcoming Defense Budget from the current pace of operations to investment in recapitalizing a force with very worn equipment.  To rebalance the force and employ in Afghanistan the level of forces to preempt the current Taliban offensive from Pakistan and to help create the national institutions needed for governance, we must draw down in Iraq. 

Expect in this fiscal year to see some reduction in the force, while we support the Iraqi factions in their effort to cobble together a sustainable government. This effort requires our support through the elections at provincial and national level this year.  After next Fall, look for significant change in the US presence. But this next year will have difficult moments as Sunnis and Shia attempt to build the consensus that underlies a government that can last, and as they bring the Kurds on board.  This process alone will take a good deal of time and energy of our national leaders. But Iraq's strategic importance fades in the face of events in India. 

The attacks in Mumbai complicate an already unstable situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  The fledgling Pakistani government must now gain control of insurgent elements in the Tribal Areas that seek to undermine the Karzai government in Afghanistan and in Kashmir that regularly attack into India. We tend to forget the bloody “Partition” of India after WWII, and that in the 20th Century India and Pakistan fought several wars.

We lose sight of the reality that the warning time between India and Pakistan of a nuclear strike is very short, making that balance far more precarious that what existed between the U.S .and Soviet Union in the Cold War. If the Islamist elements in Pakistan can overthrow the current government, we face an extremely difficult problem. What to do with a nuclear armed country in which many in the military and intelligence services are sympathetic to the insurgents and which cannot or will not stop insurgent attacks into its nuclear-armed and distrusting neighbor? The world cannot afford to let Afghanistan and Pakistan slide into control of the Islamists.

Nor can we allow Islamist activity on the West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip to undermine the ability of Israel and the Palestinians to come to an agreement on a two state solution. As time passes without an agreement, a sense in the Islamic world of injustice done to Palestinians creates an inexorable polarization that makes Osama bin Laden's appeals for jihad against Israel and the U.S. more palpable to Muslims. That polarization makes it increasingly difficult to bring the parties to an agreement that moderate Muslims can herald as a success.

A Middle East Peace would undermine one of the essential justifications Islamists use for their violence. To have any hope of a solution in reasonable time, the new administration must from day one work invest the energy needed to foster a final two state solution. 

The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran poses another very difficult problem in this region.  The timetable for the likely availability from Iran's centrifuges of enough weapons grade material to support a military capability constrains U.S. and allied actions. It may take a number of years for Iran to develop capable long-range ballistic missiles. No matter, their al Quds force and its surrogate, Hezbollah, already have an asymmetric capability that can deliver an attack far more stealthily that any missile. Dealing with this threat will demand focused attention now, on January 20, and beyond.

Add to these pressing strategic threats the normal problems policy makers must face. China is a partner and a rival.  How do we improve the partnership and lesson the rivalry? How do we and our partners contain the aggressive impulses of China's client, North Korea? A resurgent Russia revisits on its neighbors its historical pattern of imperialistic mischief. 

It intentionally thumbs its nose at us in Latin America and in Europe. But long term, its demographic crisis and the inevitable exhaustion of its oil reserves, will throw it into new difficulties. How do we work with Russia despite her imperial inclinations and at the same time renew cohesion in NATO? In addition we face serious and daunting uncertainty in the vulnerabilities to cyber attacks on our national information and control architecture. These kinds of attacks could severely harm our economy in unprecedented ways.  Add to these normal concerns the certainty that early on, some unanticipated and as yet undefined crisis will intrude into an already overcrowded field and demand attention, creativity, strategic acuity and wise decision.

From the outset, the new national security establishment must achieve an ability simultaneously to manage multiple strategic crises, an ability that has generally escaped past administrations. In today's environment we cannot sustain the target fixation of an Iran Hostage crisis or a catatonic original reaction like our initial response to the implosion of the Balkans, not to mention a folly of a Bay of Pigs. And these were serial not parallel crises. 

To their credit, the President-elect and his close advisors are selecting cabinet level teams of great competence. But the last eight years have seen the atrophy of the interagency structure and process that supports strategic decision and execution. In the past when the process ran well, administrations tended only to have the ability to handle one crisis at a time.  Are the members of the new team reengineering the mechanisms of the interagency process that in the worst situations are so necessary for well-founded strategy and competent operational execution? 

Only with a robust interagency structure, a set of smoothly working procedures, and team players able immediately to handle multiple, simultaneous strategic challenges, each more threatening than any we experienced in the last half of the 20th Century, will the Obama administration will be ready guide us through a very daunting strategic environment.

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