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The Perils of Testing Obama | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Much of the political talk in Washington these days is centered on one question: when will Barack Obama be tested as the new President of the United States?

The idea that Obama will be tested early in his presidency was first launched by his Vice-Presidential running mate Joseph Biden, before polling day. Since then, the political microcosm has been abuzz with theories regarding when, where, how and on what issue the expected testing might materialize.

In a sense, the testing started 48 hours after Obama’s victory when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced the installation of a new missile system in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania.

Medvedev’s move was presented as a response to American plans for a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. The move showed that the Russians think that Obama would be easier to bully than Bush.

Some testing of Obama has also started in Iraq with a resurgence of suicide attacks. Whoever is behind this new upsurge of terror is clearly trying to push Obama to speed up his promised withdrawal.

Testing Obama has not been limited to America’s Russian rivals or Islamist enemies. Some of the United States allies have also tried to probe some of Obama’s policy puddles.

In a speech at the annual meeting of the City of London this week, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a warning to Obama not to pursue the protectionist slogans he had used during the election campaign.

For his part, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy has focused on what he regards as Obama’s illusions about making a deal with the Khomeinists in Tehran. In comments published last week, Sarkozy warned Obama not to take the danger of a Khomeinist nuclear bomb lightly.

In a different context, Canada has sent a message that far from welcoming Obama’s invitation to send more troops to Afghanistan, Ottawa plans to withdraw its contingence by the end of next year.

On the subject of more troops for Afghanistan, Germany has sent its own message: the federal republic is not prepared to increase the size of its contingent and has no inclination to amend its constitution to let German soldiers fight in a foreign war, as Obama has demanded.

As for America’s enemies, their testing of Obama has come as a mixture of threats and promises. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of the Islamic Republic in Tehran has sent an unprecedented congratulatory cable to Obama, waving an olive branch. At the same time, however, he has demanded a 180-degree change in American foreign policy.

Khalid Mishal, the Hamas “Supreme Leader” has made a similar move by indicating his “readiness” to meet Obama.

The buzz from the Islamist terror blogosphere is equally ambiguous. A cautious welcome for Obama is coupled with threats of attacking the US on a scale deadlier than 9/11.

Testing relatively young and inexperienced American presidents is nothing new. In some cases, the testers have managed to win some tactical advantage. Overall, however, the tests have always produced a crushing response from the US, inflicting strategic defeat on the initiators.

In John Kennedy’s presidency, the Soviets tested him by installing nuclear missiles on Cuba. The Russians won that round by forcing Kennedy to guarantee the safety of the Castro regime, remove US-NATO missiles from Turkey, and acknowledge the USSR as an equal partner with implications of moral equivalence.

Nevertheless, the American tactical setback helped create a national consensus for a massive scientific and technological rearmament program symbolized by the sending of the first man to moon. After that, the USSR had no hope of achieving the military parity it needed to bury the capitalist system as Khrushchev had promised. Far from forcing the Americans to cocoon themselves in their hemisphere, the Cuban crisis revived talk of the “red threat”, allowing Kennedy to lead the US into the Vietnam War.

The US won the military aspect of the war in Vietnam but lost it politically because a majority of Americans thought this was not their war. Nevertheless, Vietnam enabled the US to create the most powerful and experienced military apparatus in history and using it to emerge as the sole global superpower a generation later.

The next young and inexperienced president to be tested was Jimmy Carter. The victory of the Khomeinist revolution in Iran with the help of Soviet-backed Arab and Iranian terrorist organizations was a serious blow. A few months later, came another blow with the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran and the 444 days hostage crisis. In Khomeini’s words, “Carter acted as a headless chicken”. The message that “American cannot do a damn thing” was hammered in with the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.

Under Carter, the US also suffered humiliating tactical defeats in Africa and Latin America. However, these opened the way for Ronald Reagan and his strategy of “rolling back the Evil Empire”.

Reagan made sure that the Soviets, having won several battles, ended up losing the Cold War. Had Carter not been tested, the US might never have elected someone like Reagan, a radical offering a revolutionary agenda to a moderate electorate.

In the 1990s, the Islamist terror movement tested Bill Clinton, another young and inexperienced American president. The massacre of Marines in Mogadishu, the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, the attack on US embassies in East Africa and the suicide operation against USS Cole, revealed Clinton as someone unwilling to fight back. That, in turn, helped ensure the victory of George W Bush, as someone who would not show the other cheek. Bush was tested on 9/11 on a scale that no American president would have been able to dodge. Al Qaeda won a tactical victory but ensured its own strategic defeat.

The Machiavellian advice to America’s enemies would be not to test Obama but rather encourage his illusions that he can transform foes into friends simply by talking to them.

If Obama is tested in a way that could not be fudged, he would either be forced to react, or would be kicked out like Carter or would lose control of the Congress and the senate as Clinton did.

America’s enemies should think twice before trying to test Obama.