How Will Obama First Be Tested?


Dec 8, 2008

This commentary originally appeared on on December 8, 2008.

Actually Vice President-elect Biden was on solid historical ground. He 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 American presidents have confronted major foreign policy crises within their first year in office. Six of the nine most recent American presidents confronted foreign policy crises during their first year in the White House—actually eight, if we take into account that Presidents Johnson, Nixon, and Ford inherited on-going wars, as will President Obama. 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 September 11.

Any worthwhile pundit can catalogue the perils that President Obama will face: a still determined and dangerous Al Qaeda, the fragility of the security gains in Iraq, escalating violence in Afghanistan, potential chaos in Pakistan, the continuing vortex of Palestine, North Korea's nuclear arsenal, Iran's nuclear ambitions, the spectre of nuclear terrorism, biological or radiological attacks, a resurgent Russia.

The catalogue of flash points, worrisome scenarios and potential crises facing new presidents has grown increasingly complex over the past twenty years. The array can be paralyzing. Uncertainty is the only certainty.

Surprises are likely. New presidents often have been ambushed by foreign policy "meteor strikes"—dangerous events probably not currently in the presidential briefings.

The Iranian revolution was not anticipated when Jimmy Carter took office in 1977. President Reagan was prepared to do battle with the Evil Soviet Empire, not navigate a series of terrorist crises. No briefing in January 1989 warned President George H.W. Bush to expect the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union or of the need to invade Panama--both occurred during his first year in office. President Clinton entered office looking for a peace dividend from the end of the Cold War, not military intervention in the Balkans. Al Qaeda was a recognized threat on January 20, 2001, but not as the likely author of a domestic attack on the scale of 9/11--an event which defined George W. Bush's presidency.

It would be a depressing exercise for any new president to review the transition briefings of his predecessors, to realize how many subsequent events had not been included, how much the leader of the most powerful nation on earth remains a hostage to fate.

Brian Michael Jenkins is a Senior Advisor to the President of the RAND Corporation.

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