Seven years after the invasion of Afghanistan toppled the Taliban and installed a democratic government that would give no shelter to al-Qa’ida, the military situation in that country has deteriorated sharply.
President Obama has already pledged additional US troops to help beat back a resurgent Taliban, but the question of how they will be deployed remains open, and we are far from having a definition of “victory” in Afghanistan. Increasingly, negotiation with less militant Taliban leaders is being mooted as a promising tactic – but there will be many tests, not least in neighbouring Pakistan, where al-Qa’ida has taken root in the lawless tribal areas, and there is growing militancy against the government because of its support for the US.
The reduction in violence in Iraq has created a consensus that seemed unlikely when Barack Obama sealed his party’s nomination earlier this year. There will be a timetable for withdrawal of the bulk of US forces from the country, though Mr Obama has retreated from his call for a rigid deadline of 16 months for all troops to leave, agreeing that it must be subject to circumstances. What is still to be considered is the size and the role of the US military presence that will necessarily remain in the country.
On the campaign trail, Joe Biden predicted the new president would be “tested” by an international crisis within months of taking office. Odds are that it will be Iran, which has persisted with its domestic nuclear programme despite sanctions and tough rhetoric from the Bush administration and much of the international community. With intelligence agencies unable to be certain how close Iran is to being able to make a nuclear bomb, or whether it intends to build one, there are no easy decisions for the new US. Mr Obama was attacked on the campaign trail for being willing to talk to “America’s enemies”, but hawks are unable to show that their solution – attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities – would work.
Middle East peace
The Bush administration has made a late, but ineffectual, push to secure a new peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, but political upheaval in Israel has meant this running sore will almost certainly still be open when the new president takes power on 20 January. The issue could be more prickly than ever before, given how hard Mr Obama – whose father was Muslim – had to work to overcome suspicion among US Jews.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia has asserted itself anew as an aggressive regional power, suppressing some internal dissent, using its importance as a major supplier of oil to pressure neighbours, and finally using military force to humble Georgia in a conflict that put territorial disputes in the Caucasus back on the international political agenda. John McCain had advocated throwing Russia out of the G8 economic grouping, but a new Democratic administration will be wary of turning Russia into a pariah nation when its co-operation is required on so many other international security issues. President Obama will no doubt hope that the falling oil price and the domestic effects of the global economic crisis will crimp Mr Putin’s room for manoeuvre – but it won’t necessarily make him more predictable.
While scientists continue to argue that climate change is the transcendent threat to civilisation, environmentalists fear that the issue could be pushed down the international agenda, due to an economic crisis that could make countries reluctant to do anything that might curb growth. Where the Bush administration usually stood aloof, Mr Obama has promised to kick-start international negotiations, which could include widening the nascent systems of carbon caps and trading schemes. The new president will also be pushing the US to do its part, under the promise of “energy independence” for the nation, with new money for alternative fuels. But he will also have to decide on whether to disappoint green campaigners by pushing for more coal power plants and using offshore drilling as a stop-gap measure to reduce reliance on foreign oil.
Some 46 million US citizens – out of just over 300 million – have no health insurance, and Mr Obama’s election promises a new push to offer coverage to everyone for the first time since Bill and Hillary Clinton’s failed attempt to get a deal in the early Nineties. Leave aside the political difficulties of herding together insurers, pharmaceuticals companies, doctors’ lobbies and achieving a political consensus. The first briefing paper on this issue in the presidential in-tray will be headlined: Can we afford it right now?
The baby-boomer generation is retiring, putting a strain on the federal government’s social security fund, which most economists predict will be insolvent before the middle of the century. That might sound like far enough away for the new president to tuck the issue at the bottom of the pile in his in-tray, but action will need to be taken soon to cut the future benefits of those currently in the workforce, to raise the retirement age, and to begin related reforms of Medicare, on which increasing numbers of senior citizens will rely for paying medical bills.