For Urgent Attention: President Bush

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LM OTERO/AP

Into the foreign policy briar patch: Powell and Bush

Osama Bin Laden and the U.S.S. Cole

Situation Report:
Investigators are as near as they're ever going to get to proving a Bin Laden connection in the attack that killed 17 sailors aboard the U.S.S. Cole. They've named the mastermind as a Bin Laden lieutenant who escaped Yemen for Afghanistan before the blast. And Osama, by most accounts, is no micromanager — he provides the money, maintains the networks, issues the fatwas (pseudo-religious decrees to attack Americans all over the world, for example) and then lets his military planners and allies take care of the details. Bin Laden is currently hiding out in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, and that country's ruling Taliban militia has no intention of handing him over despite new U.N. sanctions. A finding tying Bin Laden to the Cole attack will, of course, beg the question of U.S. retaliation. But there's no easy way of striking back at an adversary with few fixed assets. President Clinton's 1998 cruise missile strikes on Afghanistan and the Sudan were, at best, a singularly ineffective response and at worst played right into Bin Laden's hands by anointing him the most feared enemy of the U.S. in an Arab world whose hostility to Washington is growing.

On the Horizon:
This is jihad being waged by Afghan war vets against their erstwhile sponsors (the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Egypt), and Bin Laden's in it to win. Even if he is killed or captured, it's highly likely that the deadly campaign he initiated would continue.

The Clinton Legacy:
The Clinton administration's high profile responses to Bin Laden have been disastrous; their low-key responses have been a lot more effective. Cruise missiles are not a particularly useful weapon against terrorists who need no bases. But patient cooperation with allied intelligence services and good police work has paid dividends in thwarting a number of attacks and breaking up a number of Bin Laden networks. Still, the problem of terrorism is more political than military, and Bin Laden is certainly a prime beneficiary from the fact that U.S. standing in the Arab world has diminished considerably on President Clinton's watch.

The Bush Challenge:
To come up with ways of combating the Bin Laden threat that project toughness without succumbing to the temptation to grandstand. More important, to recognize that Bin Laden's influence is growing in an Arab political context where hostility to the U.S. is widespread, and to begin to address that political problem. The way to beat Bin Laden is to isolate him, which requires active support in the Arab world.

Iraq

Situation Report:

Eight years later, Saddam Hussein is exactly where Messrs. Cheney and Powell left him — although it's generally agreed that his grip on power is probably a lot stronger now. Despite U.S. funding of Iraqi opposition activity, it's generally agreed that the best hope for ousting Saddam remains his health. International sanctions against Iraq are collapsing because European and moderate Arab governments don't believe they're having any positive effect. At the same time, the U.N. arms inspection team is no longer on the ground, which means that nobody quite knows what Saddam’s scientists may be cooking up. The Iraqi dictator seems increasingly cocky. In December he tried his luck at cranking up the oil price, and although that failed, he clearly feels he’s going to break out of the sanctions grip on his own terms.

On the Horizon:

The U.N. is due to begin talks with Baghdad in January. It will offer an agreement on terms for easing sanctions in return for a renewed arms inspection team. But Baghdad clearly believes it’s in a position to drive a hard bargain, since ending sanctions is the overriding concern of most of Washington's Gulf War allies. The Europeans aren't likely to let him off the hook, but the U.S. is finding its more hard-line position on sanctions a rather lonely one — and the worst-case scenario for Washington is that the sanctions regime simply collapses in the absence of agreement, which means Saddam wins.

The Clinton Legacy:

The Clinton Administration inherited President Bush’s policy of containing Saddam, and did nothing to substantially alter it despite ample evidence that it wasn’t working. Worse still, the administration also engaged in a pointless bombing campaign two years ago when Baghdad refused to comply with the arms inspection regime, and then simply stopped its attacks after four days. By clinging to a collapsing sanctions regime, the Clinton administration has failed to maintain the strategic initiative on Iraq, leaving Washington in a position of having to respond to others' initiatives.

The Bush Challenge:

A father's legacy and the record of some of his most senior lieutenants aside, Iraq policy is a difficult one for President-elect Bush. Tough talk on the campaign trail about tightening sanctions and punishing Saddam doesn't translate into a workable policy. And the strategic reasoning that stopped the last Bush administration from destroying the regime in Baghdad — that it would break apart the Iraqi state, dramatically destabilizing the region that supplies 40 percent of the world's oil — hasn't changed. The challenge for a Bush Administration will be to restore U.S. leadership of the international community on the question of Iraq, to be able to set the terms on which sanctions are ended and to limit Iraq's ability to menace the region militarily. That's going to require policy shifts rather than crowd-pleasing tough talk.

Russia and Missile Defense

Situation Report:
Having presided over Russia's catastrophic economic and social decline, Boris Yeltsin has now been replaced by a president with ambitions to restore Moscow’s big-power status. And President Vladimir Putin is quite happy to step on Washington's toes to do that, increasingly staking out positions that run counter to U.S. interests on the world stage — rebuilding Soviet-era relationships from Baghdad to Havana, openly discussing a strategic alliance with China and India to curb U.S. power on the global stage and, perhaps most important to Washington, looking to secure new orders for his country’s arms industry. Only days before the U.S. presidential election, Russia withdrew from an agreement with Washington to refrain from selling weapons to Iran. The U.S. has yet to react. And the Bush administration's vow to press ahead with National Missile Defense puts the U.S. and Russia on a collision course over strategic arms issues.

On the Horizon:
Plenty of challenges to U.S. interests on the global stage, particularly over missile defense. Putin currently has most of the European NATO members in his camp on this one right now, and turning them around will take some skillful diplomacy. Moscow and Beijing recently vowed to expand their own missile capabilities if Washington proceeds with the missile shield plan, which may make most U.S. allies dig their heels in for fear of reviving the arms race. There are also looming crises for Western interests along Russia’s borders, with Moscow likely to turn up the economic and political heat on their pro-NATO neighbors in Georgia and Ukraine.

The Clinton Legacy:
Plenty of wishful thinking. The Clinton Administration pushed Yeltsin to rush through a series of market reforms whose effect has been the impoverishment of millions of ordinary Russians and the empowerment of a tiny oligarchy whose roots in many cases were in the underworld. Yeltsin generally raised no objections to Washington's foreign policy initiatives as long as Russia remained the recipient of billions of dollars of Western aid. But once corruption made aid impossible, Russia was essentially cut loose.

The Bush Challenge:

Putin has thrown down the gauntlet, but the Bush Administration is full of old Cold Warriors. The challenge will be to develop a foreign policy that makes good on treating Russia as a competitor rather than an ally, but avoid alienating Washington's European allies who're already nervous about Bush's missile defense plans.

The Mideast Peace Process

Situation Report:
The Oslo Peace process has essentially collapsed, and Israel and the Palestinians now coexist in a state of low-intensity warfare, even if their leaders continue to discuss the hypotheticals of peace. The breakdown that began with Camp David may have set the peace process back years, and Israel appears poised to elect another right-wing government committed to hitting the rewind button while Palestinian public opinion hardens against compromises with Israel. Moreover, the moderate Arab regimes on which Washington has traditionally relied to provide political cover for Arafat are themselves under increasing domestic pressure to distance themselves from Israel and the U.S. While a comprehensive peace appears beyond reach in the near term, the U.S. shares an interest with both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships in containing the escalation of conflict.

On the Horizon:
A change of Israeli leadership when the country votes on February 6, mounting challenges to Arafat's leadership should he accept any new compromises — and the beginnings of a struggle to succeed the ailing Palestinian leader who has named no heir. There will almost certainly be more bloodshed.

The Clinton Legacy:
Micromanaging attempts to bring peace to an intractable conflict has proved at best deeply frustrating, and at worst may have exacerbated the conflict. Dick Cheney is on solid ground when he suggests President Clinton may have been pushing too hard at last August's Camp David talks, the failure of which set the fire of the current intifada.

The Bush Challenge:
While maintaining the U.S. commitment to help the parties find ways of coexisting, the Bush administration may be inclined to be a more distant participant in the peace process, emphasizing the need to maintain stability. The new administration may remember that the Oslo Accord took shape during the last Bush administration, with very little direct involvement by the U.S. And, of course, wider U.S. interests in the region from oil prices to Iraq policy require that Washington do some work in rebuilding relations with moderate Arab regimes. Which may mean the Bush campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem may be destined for the backburner.

The Balkans

Situation Report:
Slobodan Milosevic may be nothing more than an irrelevant opposition leader now, but the Balkans' woes are from over. Kosovo's Albanians still want independence, but most of NATO is inclined to keep the territory nominally under Serb sovereignty although autonomous for all practical purposes. European NATO powers fear full-blown independence will link Kosovo with Albania, and prompt new conflicts throughout the region. But recent attacks on NATO forces by Albanian nationalists seeking to colonize a tiny strip of ethnic-Albanian inhabited Serb territory just across the border from Kosovo are a sign that some Albanians won't be taking no for an answer, and may be hoping to provoke a showdown with Belgrade before the Bush Administration carries out its threat to withdraw U.S. forces from the region. The new government of President Vojislav Kostunica is prepared to restrain the Yugoslav army as long as NATO remains prepared to do curb the guerrillas, but that may put Western troops on a collision course with the Albanian nationalists. There's plenty of room for more fighting inside Kosovo and elsewhere in the region, and the furor in NATO over the use of depleted-uranium weapons in the Balkans may signal growing discord in the alliance.

On the Horizon:
Increased tension over Kosovo’s future, and a major showdown between Washington and its European allies over proposals to withdraw U.S. forces from Balkans peacekeeping. The Europeans have warned that the U.S. will cede its right to command NATO forces in Europe if it refuses to have its troops on the frontline.

The Clinton Legacy:
Clinton eventually managed to cajole European NATO allies to act decisively to stop the bloodletting in Bosnia and to drive Yugoslavian troops out of Kosovo. He also funneled support to the Serbian opposition parties that helped bring Milosevic down. But the equilibrium he’s leaving behind is unstable — five years after the Dayton Accord and 18 months after the Kosovo cease-fire, the region's old enemies show no greater inclination to just get along.

The Bush Challenge:
Make good on its promises to reverse the humanitarian interventionism of the Clinton years without jeopardizing alliances or being seen as the catalyst that plunges the region back into war.

Colombia

Situation Report:
The U.S. has committed $1.3 billion to equip and train the Colombian military for a counterinsurgency campaign against leftist guerrillas who control more than one third of that country. Because the guerrillas allow massive drug cultivation in their territory, the U.S. justifies the money as part of its war on drugs, and the Colombian government is only to happy to accept since the rebels earn hundreds of millions every year taxing the narco-traffickers. But critics warn the expanded military commitment is simply drawing the U.S. into a quagmire, and point out the poor human rights record of the Colombian military and the fact that many of its senior officers have colluded with right-wing paramilitaries who have been responsible for a number of massacres. Moreover, it is widely agreed that no side of the long-running civil war is free of associations with the drug lords. Peace talks between the government and the rebels appear to have broken down, and the largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), has vowed to retaliate against the U.S. for its expanded involvement.

On the Horizon:
Two U.S.-trained Colombian battalions are scheduled to launch a major offensive into guerrilla-held territory in January. The U.S. is due to release further installments of its aid package shortly before Clinton leaves office, for which the President will probably once again waive the usual requirement that Colombia show progress on human rights issues. Negotiations between the government and the rebels are going nowhere, and there's a growing sentiment in Colombian politics to stop negotiations and seek a return of the one-third of the country they've handed over to the guerillas in earlier deals. That would probably mean a bloody fight to the finish. Demands for aid to Colombia (and even its neighbors) are only likely to increase.

The Clinton Legacy:
Clinton has fought hard to back the embattled government, and won bipartisan support for his plan. But a growing number of skeptics in his own party, and in the U.S. armed forces, believe the policy is unlikely to end either Colombia's civil war or narcotics traffic from the region.

The Bush Challenge:
During the campaign President-elect Bush spoke in favor of Clinton's policy, and one of his key advisers gave notice that a Bush administration would be happy to escalate U.S. support for a military effort to end guerrilla control over those territories ceded by Andres Pastrana's government. But expanding U.S. involvement there may run counter to the stay-at-home instincts of the Pentagon. Expect an increasing number of articles containing the words Colombia and Vietnam.

North Korea

Situation Report:
Once the most dangerous among the "rogue" nations in Washington’s gallery, the archaic Stalinist state is desperate to come in from the cold — if only to stave off mass starvation and economic collapse. And in its efforts to rejoin the real world, the North Koreans have the all-important support of South Korea, which is, after all, the state that those 40,000 U.S. troops are on the Korean peninsula to protect. But then there's the little matter of Pyongyang's missile program, which has long been the centerpiece of arguments for the National Missile Defense program so strongly favored by the Bush administration. Although intelligence experts disagree on whether and when North Korea would have the capacity or intent to threaten U.S. shores with missiles, North Korea has offered to stop its missile development program if the U.S. will agree to launch North Korean satellites.

On the Horizon:
The new administration will have to decide on whether to make a deal offering satellite launches in exchange for North Korea shutting down its missile program, as well as whether to continue the Clinton administration program to provide extensive energy and food assistance to the North Koreans in exchange for them shutting down their weapons-grade ore nuclear power plants — and if so, to sell a skeptical Congress on the idea.

The Clinton Legacy:
Managing the North Korea relationship has been one of the Clinton administration's success stories, as unglamorous and even unseemly as the technique may have seemed. The North Koreans have hit desperate times since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and their weapons programs have been widely viewed as a means of extorting aid from the West. But providing food relief may have helped walk Pyongyang away from doing something really stupid, and this has been generally applauded by U.S. allies on North Korea's doorstep. But Congress isn't particularly comfortable about the idea of bailing out a Stalinist basket-case simply because it threatens to go ballistic.

The Bush Challenge:
The Bush administration is unlikely to rush into accepting the new satellite-missile deal, and may take a more skeptical look at Pyongyang’s intentions — at least while it's fighting for funds for its missile defense plans. But the moves towards rapprochement with North Korea are strongly backed by South Korea and Japan, the two most important U.S. allies in the region, as well as by China, and while the Bush White House may be tempted to slow down, it's unlikely to try and reverse the course.