Since the triumph of Barack Obama, nearly every medium of news and political comment in the United States and abroad has carried a compendium of “challenges” and dangers facing the next president. Yet when these challenges are examined, they nearly all turn out to be potential opportunities.

So far as they are obstacles, they usually involve efforts by other governments to block the United States from continuing policies of the Bush government meant to manipulate or intimidate them.

The basic Bush policies — defense spending at levels higher than all the rest of the world combined, unilateralism, hostility to the United Nations and international law, advocacy of “preventive” wars, efforts to dominate the Middle East, constant pressure on Russia and what might be called contingent hostility toward China, opposition to European Union efforts at military cooperation — all have been promoted since the 1990s by nationalist and neoconservative Republicans acting through the conservative Washington think tanks.

These reflect the long-term ambitions for economic and military hegemony that animated Bush administration foreign policy. Many of the same people and their followers will try to introduce the same ideas into the foreign policy of the new Obama government. The president-elect is a foreign policy novice and will find himself under great pressure to follow Middle Eastern and China and Russia policies inherited from George Bush, even though these are what Barack Obama was elected to change or terminate.

Take the supposed threat to an Obama government from a “resurgent Russia,” trying to change the frontiers of post-Cold War Europe by intimidating its near neighbors.

This is a challenge to the United States only as a reaction to neoconservative efforts to reshape the geopolitical configuration of the new Europe in a way that expands American power.

Under Bush, the United States renounced the ABM treaty and declared its intention to install new missile systems close to Russia. It has already recruited all of Russia’s close neighbors into an expanded NATO, and wants to bring in Georgia and Ukraine, and possibly some of the ex-Soviet Central Asian countries. It promotes the installation of pro-American governments in those countries. Who can be surprised that Russia reacts? It would be like Russia building a new missile system in Mexico, and recruiting allies in Central America. It also weakens NATO to link Poland’s legitimate and enforceable demand for security to irresponsible guarantees given to countries NATO cannot defend (as in the Georgia case).

There is a simple first step in dealing with Russian “challenges” to the West. It is to stop provoking Russia and treating it as an enemy. One may not like the new authoritarianism of the Putin-Medvedev government in Moscow, or Russia’s political manipulation of its oil exports, but the former is a Russian affair, and the latter goes on everywhere else.

Obama promised to withdraw most U.S. forces from Iraq by mid-2010. The present situation in Iraq is written about as a “threat” in that Washington has been unable to reach an agreement with the Iraq government on terms to allow American military forces to remain in Iraq after their U.N. mandate to be there expires at the end of this year.

Most Americans, by their votes in this week’s election, as in the 2006 congressional election, demonstrated that they want American forces to leave Iraq. They want those forces to leave “honorably,” and not leave chaos behind, but if the Iraq government, parliament and a large part of the Iraqi public want the American occupation to end, what is the problem in Washington’s doing as asked?

Even if Iraq should prove incapable of settling its internal problems on its own, where is the threat or challenge to the U.S.? The actual danger would be to remain against Iraq’s will, and risk being swept again into Iraq’s internal conflicts.

The Bush administration and its backers wanted to keep a privileged position in Iraq’s economy and oil industry. The Pentagon has from the start of the Iraq war wanted permanent bases there. But if Iraqi authorities and the public refuse, the only intelligent response is to agree to leave. To refuse or delay would implicitly acknowledge that the new administration wants to go on controlling Iraq as a means to controlling, or trying to control, the Middle East and to exploit its resources — which is just what America’s enemies say.

Possibly this is the course that Barack Obama will decide upon. Here and elsewhere in policy choices for the region, he will be under heavy pressure from his campaign promises to Israel to, in effect, continue Bush administration policy for the Middle East. But that is not what the people who voted for him expect.

A big struggle over control of Obama’s foreign policy has already begun with his first White House staff nominees. Many of the people currently advising him, and all of those behind past Bush policies, are going to tell him his administration must choose between “weakness,” on the one hand, and “strength” plus “global leadership,” on the other hand. The latter means a quest for American hegemony that wouldn’t be any more successful under Obama than it was under Bush, and along the way would destroy his presidency just as it destroyed George Bush’s.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2008 Tribune Media Services Inc.

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