A Test That's Sure to Come

Palestinian militants demonstrate in the Gaza Strip last month.
Palestinian militants demonstrate in the Gaza Strip last month. (By Abid Katib -- Getty Images)
By Jackson Diehl
Monday, November 3, 2008

Of course Joe Biden is right -- there will be an early international crisis to test the new president. There almost always is. In April 2001 -- long before Sept. 11 -- George W. Bush had to react when a U.S. military surveillance aircraft was forced down in China and its crew detained for 11 days. The episode started as an accident, but Beijing used it to measure a new executive with scant international experience. In 1993 Bill Clinton was blindsided by the "Blackhawk Down" firefight in Mogadishu. After 18 U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush, he abruptly withdrew U.S. forces from Somalia -- and taught Osama bin Laden not to fear American power.

Chances are the next administration's first test will be a surprise. Yet some probes are predictable. For the past few months several familiar U.S. adversaries have been waiting out the Bush administration while painstakingly setting up traps they can spring on the incoming president. A few other actors are thinking about the ways they can get their problems onto what will be, from inauguration day on, an impossibly busy White House agenda.

Take North Korea -- please, as Condoleezza Rice might want to say. The State Department's efforts over the past year to negotiate the nuclear disarmament of that charter "axis of evil" member has deteriorated into something very like the status quo the Bush administration repudiated when it first took office. In exchange for not restarting its bomb production line, the regime of Kim Jong Il extracts bribes, like its recent removal from State's list of terrorism sponsors.

It's not difficult to predict that sometime in 2009 the North will trigger another crisis when it refuses to honor its disarmament promises, threatens to fire up its plutonium reprocessing plant and demands new concessions from Washington. Would a fresh Obama (or McCain) team flinch? Not just in Pyongyang but in Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo, any such probe will be minutely observed.

Next is Iran, another stop on the axis that will remain roguish even after Bush's departure. In recent months, the military fronts controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard -- in Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and southern Iraq and on the Persian Gulf -- have been almost eerily quiet. But they've not been abandoned. On the contrary, Israeli sources say long- and short-range missiles are pouring into Lebanon, despite a U.N. ban on arms deliveries to Hezbollah. Since a cease-fire began in late June, Hamas has imported through tunnels from Egypt an estimated 20 tons of explosives; dozens of anti-tank missiles; and tons of metal, fertilizer and chemicals used to build the rockets aimed at Israeli cities. U.S. officials say the camps in Iran where the Guard trains "special groups" for attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq are still busy.

The question is when, not whether, this firepower will be put to use. By the spring Tehran will be seeking the measure of not only a new U.S. president but also a new Israeli prime minister -- who could be the hawk Binyamin Netanyahu. It will be preparing for its own presidential election, in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- health permitting -- will seek reelection. Will the Guard -- the most hard-line of Iran's competing factions -- judge that a flare-up in Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq or the Persian Gulf is the best way to intimidate the new U.S. and Israeli leaders, undermine any move toward negotiations with Washington by Iranian doves, and bolster the campaign of Guard patron Ahmadinejad? Though Iranian moves are always hard to predict, that one would not be a surprise.

Beyond the rogues are the regulars: the countries that depend on American attention, positive or negative, to fuel their own political cycles -- and are good at finding ways to grab it when they feel ignored. There are Latin American demagogues such as Hugo Chávez, who need a Yanqui enemy, and small Eurasian countries such as Georgia, which need a U.S. shield against Russia. There are the Russians themselves -- who measure their country's power by its ability to thwart American initiatives.

And then there are the Israelis and Palestinians. At the annual Weinberg conference of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in September, two senior surrogates for the McCain and Obama campaigns agreed on one large point: that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would rank far down the new president's list of priorities. Don't bet on it. "Both the Israelis and the Palestinians will want to elevate their issues on the agenda," says Shibley Telhami, a Middle East scholar at the University of Maryland. One way to do that is to create a crisis -- for example, a collapse of the Palestinian Authority or an Israeli strike on Gaza. Another is a positive surprise -- maybe, an agreement by Hamas to a referendum on whether to accept a two-state solution. Either way, if the next president does not soon call on the Middle East, it will find a way to call him.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company