Sunday, November 7, 2004

The next surprise

U.S. policy should look ahead to challenges from Iran, North Korea

By Lee Hamilton
Guest Columnist

The presidential debates provided a clearer look at where the candidates stood on several foreign policy issues, but in a world teetering on the brink of chaos, a major challenge was not debated: the next foreign policy surprise.

On the 9/11 commission, we became interested in how often terrorism was brought up in the 2000 election. A careful review determined that terrorism came up once in the entire campaign, and was not mentioned in the debates - despite the USS Cole bombing on Oct. 12, 2000, and the east African embassy bombings in 1998.

Yet after 9/11, terrorism vaulted to the top of President Bush's agenda, and foreign policy issues debated in 2000 - Slobodan Milosevic, missile defense, humanitarian intervention - shifted to the background.

Unforeseen crises often consume a president's foreign policy. Upon taking office, the former President George H.W. Bush did not expect an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait; former President Clinton did not anticipate the amount of time he would spend on the Balkans.

This does not mean that candidates, and voters, could not have seen trouble on the horizon. Like terrorism in 2000, the 1988 situation in the Persian Gulf and the 1992 situation in the Balkans pointed to gathering peril.

In 1988, the Iran-Iraq war was drawing to a close and the region was unstable; in 1992, Yugoslavia had begun its disintegration. But in each case, key decisions lay far in the future, and candidates focused on more pressing concerns.

It seems necessary, then, to step back and consider what issues, floating under the radar screen, might pose problems for President Bush after his inauguration for a second term in January.

At the top of the list are North Korea and Iran. These hostile countries were addressed in the first debate, but the severity of the threat has not been fully acknowledged. North Korea likely has nuclear weapons; Iran is making progress with its nuclear program. We must decide soon what to do about this.

In the next four years, the president will face one of these situations: a military confrontation with one or both countries, the acceptance of one or two new nuclear-armed nations, or a peaceful resolution of differences with one or both nations that leads to their nuclear disarmament.

It may be difficult to conceive, but an armed confrontation with North Korea or Iran could push terrorism off the front burner of American foreign policy. Averting the possibility of such confrontations and halting nuclear proliferation will not be easy.

Pakistan also could pose enormous problems. Right now, we maintain a firm alliance with Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf. But there have been many attempts to assassinate Musharraf, and Pakistan is home to several strong radical Islamist movements.

It is not inconceivable that Pakistan - and its nuclear arsenal - could fall into the hands of an Islamic fundamentalist government harboring Osama bin Laden. This would immediately raise dire concerns - about nuclear proliferation, terrorism and the possibility of a war between Pakistan and India.

A crisis could also develop over Taiwan. China has stated its concern that the island is moving toward independence. If the Taiwanese do declare independence, or the Chinese act to pre-empt such a move, the United States might have to make a choice: defend Taiwan militarily, or see the island fall to Chinese invasion. Given our current deployment in Iraq, and China's role in the global economy, a confrontation with the Chinese would be immensely challenging.

The American people are right to demand a focus on Iraq and terrorism. But even these issues are laced with unpredictability. Consider a few scenarios:

• What if Iraq becomes a full-blown civil war?

• What if Israel strikes Iran's nuclear facilities or goes to war with Syria?

• What if a terrorist detonates a nuclear device in Moscow?

There is, of course, no end to these "what ifs." That is why, when we ask politicians for plans, we should recognize that the best-laid plans must adjust to circumstances. In a world of swelling turmoil, a jolt on any number of issues could cause the global scene to explode.

President Bush will not get through the next four years without huge and unforeseen choices - on war and peace, or terrorism, genocides, spiking energy costs, epidemics, financial crises or environmental catastrophes. Americans always must keep a difficult truth in mind: A president must prepare for the challenges clearly ahead, but also for those that lie around the corner.

Other challenges

Nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea are just two of the thorny problems, foreign and domestic, sure to confront President Bush during his second term. Among the others:

• Working toward peace and stability in the Middle East, particularly urgent after the death of Yasser Arafat.

• Winding down America's military involvement in Iraq.

• Reforms to ensure the viability - and credibility - of Social Security and Medicare.

• Simplifying the federal tax system.

• Making health insurance available to Americans who do not have it, and keeping costs under better control for those who do.

• Reducing the massive federal budget deficit so Washington can afford whatever initiatives are needed on health care, Social Security and more.

• Crafting a national energy policy to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, develop alternatives and keep the costs of energy from soaring.


Lee Hamilton, who served Southeast Indiana in the U.S. House for many years, is the vice chairman of the 9/11 commission, director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Readers may write him at WWIC, Ronald Reagan Building, One Woodrow Wilson Plaza, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20004.

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