Now that the inaugural celebrations are over, we’ve moved into that difficult phase of the presidency called governing. To say that President Barack Obama faces unprecedented challenges is practically an understatement. At the very least, he faces greater challenges than any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. On the international front alone, he must grapple with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a global financial meltdown, a sullied American reputation, an explosive situation in the Middle East, an aggressive Russia and a defiant Iran. And those are only a few of the more urgent items.
The good news is that President Obama has put together a tremendously experienced and pragmatic group of national security and foreign policy professionals to help navigate these treacherous times. The more sobering news is that the United States can’t do it alone. In particular, we’ll need help from our European allies to effectively manage these world crises.
While our friends across the Atlantic have been hesitant in recent years to commit resources to some of the situations with which we need the most help, the president’s tremendous popularity in Europe and the renewed American commitment to Europe leave open the possibility for a new era in trans-Atlantic security cooperation.
Of the many foreign policy challenges, the troubled border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan is perhaps the most difficult. But it’s also the problem on which Europe should be most motivated to work with the United States. It’s in everyone’s interest that Afghanistan and Pakistan not turn into safe havens for global terrorist networks.
Numerous terrorist plots uncovered in Europe have been traced back to the region. Just last month, a Saudi national linked to the 2005 London bombings was arrested in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently noted that three-quarters of the terrorist investigations in Great Britain are in some way linked to that region.
As President Obama switches focus from Iraq to Afghanistan over the coming year, the debate over troop commitments in Afghanistan will become more intense. The situation there has deteriorated significantly in the past several years, as the Taliban has incorporated suicide and roadside bombing tactics and launched a concerted insurgency that threatens both the southern provinces and the heart of Kabul.
The shift of U.S. resources and attention to Iraq in 2003 gave al Qaeda and the Taliban the respite they needed to reconstitute safe havens in the ungoverned border areas of neighboring Pakistan, a fact testified to by several Bush administration intelligence officials in late 2007 and throughout 2008.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Jan. 27, 2009, described Afghanistan as “the greatest military challenge right now.” But he emphasized that there was “no purely military solution in Afghanistan” and that NATO allies could do more to support the effort through increased development assistance, aid for the training of the Afghan National Army and reduced operational restrictions on the forces they’ve committed to the conflict thus far.
It won’t be easy to get the necessary commitments from Europe. There’s almost no popular support among European publics for sending troops to Afghanistan, and key European powers—France and Germany—have not shown a willingness to commit more troops. This has the potential for a fissure at the upcoming NATO summit, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the alliance.
The Obama administration has already made policy decisions demonstrating a break from the unpopular Bush doctrine and an eagerness to address issues of concern to Europe. In particular, the president has set in motion the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention center and has begun to reverse the Bush administration’s policies on carbon emissions and fuel efficiency. Following through on these and similar measures (which are, of course, beneficial to U.S. interests as well) could go a long way in regaining European trust.
Europe, however, will need to do its part. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer warned recently, “If the Europeans expect that the United States will close Guantanamo, sign up to climate change treaties, accept EU leadership on key issues, but [that the Europeans will] provide nothing more in return, for example in Afghanistan, than encouragement, they should think again. It simply won’t work like that.”
He’s right. It’s essential that European capitals meet Washington halfway.
As Vice President Biden said this past weekend at a security conference in Munich, “America will do more, but America will ask for more from our partners.”
Spencer P. Boyer is the director of international law and diplomacy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank. James Lamond is a policy researcher at the National Security Network.