Obama's First International Crisis


Nov 16, 2008

This commentary originally appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune on November 16, 2008.

When Sen. Joe Biden observed during the presidential campaign that a new President Barack Obama "will be tested by an international crisis within his first six months in power," he was on solid historical ground.

Biden was not implying that there is a band of bad guys hiding in some cellar conjuring up a crisis specifically to take on Obama. It is simply that many new presidents have confronted major foreign policy crises within their first year in office.

Over the 48 years since President John Kennedy took office, there have been more than 50 foreign policy crises, from the Berlin Wall to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It's a safe bet, then, that Obama will face a major foreign policy crisis during his first year in office, if not the first few months.

Six of the nine last presidents confronted foreign policy crises during their first year in the White House – eight counting inherited on-going wars. Only President Jimmy Carter escaped a major foreign policy or military decision during his first months in office (although his decision to withdraw American troops from South Korea provoked congressional anger and public criticism by an American general who Carter then fired).

Not all new-president crises involve direct attacks on the United States or on U.S. citizens abroad. But they have tended to create dangerous international situations that the United States, given its prominent role in the world, has to address. In eight crises the new presidents have had to exercise their responsibilities as commander in chief, making decisions about the use of military force. Five times, they ordered American troops into action.

Broadening our historical horizon underscores the drama of presidents' first years. Atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. World War II ended. Cuba, Panama and Afghanistan were invaded. American combat forces were sent into Vietnam, an island off Cambodia and Somalia. Baghdad was bombed during a new president's first year in office. And of course Sept. 11.

At the same time, first-year presidents ended the war in Korea, resisted sending American combat forces into Cuba, began the withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam, decided against re-engaging militarily when Vietnam fell, and got the troops out of a bad situation in Somalia.

In most of these cases, the new president was dealing with the aftermath of decisions made or situations left behind by his predecessor. This was certainly the case with Presidents Harry Truman (World War II), Dwight Eisenhower (the Korean War), John Kennedy (the Bay of Pigs invasion), Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford (the war in Vietnam), and Bill Clinton (the commitment of American forces to Somalia).

President Kennedy was in office only two months when the Bay of Pigs debacle occurred. Planning for the ill-fated invasion of Cuba by American-trained exiles had begun under Eisenhower, but Kennedy went along with it and took responsibility for its failure. His administration was less than seven months old when Communist East Germany closed the Berlin border and began building the infamous Berlin Wall. American forces worldwide went on alert.

President Johnson had been in office less than nine months when the Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred. What exactly happened off the coast of Vietnam in August 1964 remains mired in controversy, but the confrontation led to the escalation of American involvement in Vietnam.

President Nixon inherited the Vietnam War in 1969 but soon found himself also dealing with the growing phenomenon of international terrorism, as urban guerrillas in Latin America began kidnapping American diplomats.

President Ford, who took over the presidency in 1975 during the nation's worst political crisis, had been in office less than eight months when North Vietnam launched the military offensive that would lead to the fall of South Vietnam. Ford decided against U.S. military intervention then, but when the merchant ship Mayaguez was seized by Cambodian Khmer Rouge rebels he sent in the Marines – all in his first nine months as president.

President Ronald Reagan's first months were rocked by murderous madmen and terrorists. Reagan himself was shot two months after taking office. Then in short succession the pope was the target of a failed assassination attempt, the Red Brigades kidnapped an American general in Italy, and Islamic extremists assassinated Egyptian President Sadat.

President George H.W. Bush also faced a tumultuous first year. A month before he took office, a terrorist bomb brought down Pan Am flight 103, killing 270 people. It was the second worst terrorist attack in modern history. President Bush decided against military retaliation. It was not clearly established who was responsible, but in December 1989, amidst mounting violence, he ordered the invasion of Panama to remove its president.

Of potentially greater consequence were the dramatic events in Europe. In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, Communist governments fell in Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union crumbled. The end of the Cold War was good news, but the process was perilous. Empires rarely collapse peacefully. A new U.S. president had to consider: What of the former Soviet Union's powerful armed forces and vast arsenal of nuclear weapons? What if there were a civil war? What if rogue generals decided to start World War III?

After five months in office, President Clinton ordered a missile attack on Iraq's intelligence headquarters in retaliation for Iraq's alleged involvement in an attempted assassination of his predecessor.

Clinton, who inherited an American military intervention in Somalia, increased U.S. forces there only two months into office. But by that fall, he faced a deteriorating military situation, underscored by the deaths of 22 American soldiers in the battle of Mogadishu. He decided in December to remove all American forces.

Few of these actions were the result of presidential inclinations. For the most part, presidents were reacting to unavoidable events. Whatever his political ideology, policy preferences or plans for the future, what a president learns fast is crisis management.

When asked what posed the greatest challenge for a statesman, former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan once responded, "Events, my dear boy, events." This continues to be the case.

President Franklin Roosevelt took office during the Great Depression. President Truman took over during World War II. President-elect Obama gets both. He faces the nation's worst financial crisis since 1929, and he will inherit the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the on-going war on terrorism.

History can't predict what crisis may befall his new administration – only that one will indeed likely strike.

Jenkins, author of the just-released book, "Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?" (Prometheus, 2008), is senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that supports policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

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