Ever since Joe Biden suggested that the world would "test" Barack Obama if he becomes president, the McCain campaign has been hoping to make political hay out of the remark. "We don't want a president who invites testing from the world," John McCain warned voters.
But every new president is "tested" by national security crises, some predictable, some not. And I'm a lot less worried about the tests "the world" may offer Obama than about the national security booby traps the Bush administration is leaving behind for him.
Start with Iraq. The Dow's gyrations have pushed it off the front pages, but it's still there -- along with nearly 150,000 U.S. troops (compare this to "pre-surge" troop levels of 132,000 to 135,000). And the administration appears to be doing its best to make Obama's planned troop drawdown difficult.
We can't leave behind a stable Iraq without the cooperation of Iraq's neighbors, but this week's cross-border raid by Iraq-based U.S. troops into Syrian territory led Syria to break off high-level diplomatic contacts with U.S. officials -- contacts that had only recently been resumed. Heated negotiations over the future status of U.S. forces in Iraq have further increased tensions with Syria, Iran and the Iraqi government, which fear permanent U.S. military activities in the region. The current impasse in status-of-forces negotiations also threatens to leave U.S. troops in Iraq with no legal basis for their presence when their United Nations mandate expires Dec. 31. Happy New Year, Barack!
Then there's Afghanistan.
The Bush administration followed early military successes with grandiose promises of democracy and prosperity, then mostly ignored Afghanistan for the next six years. Meanwhile, the Taliban reconstituted itself, Al Qaeda leaders slipped away into Pakistan's ungoverned tribal regions, and U.S. troops found themselves playing an increasingly deadly game of Whac-a-Mole against an elusive and ill-defined enemy. According to the latest national intelligence estimate, Afghanistan is now in a possibly irreversible "downward spiral."
For years, Obama has criticized the administration for taking its eye off the ball in Afghanistan and has pledged more troops and resources to "finish the job." But it's no longer clear what the "job" is, and whether it's one our troops have a realistic chance of finishing.
We know from Iraq that countering insurgencies requires a long, hard slog -- success not guaranteed -- and that the presence of foreign troops can help fuel nationalist insurgencies. More troops in Afghanistan might have turned things around if those troops -- and a less stingy reconstruction package -- had arrived five years ago, when Afghan hopes were high. But after years of Bush administration malfeasance, increasing U.S. troop levels without an accompanying dramatic shift in regional strategy risks turning Afghanistan into another Iraq.
Or worse, because the Afghan booby trap is wired tightly to the Pakistan booby trap. Pakistan is the proud but horrifyingly unstable possessor of a nuclear arsenal. If the escalating conflicts in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions spin out of control, we could end up in another Iraq-like situation -- only with weapons of mass destruction in the mix for real this time.
Increasingly, U.S. forces have sought to reduce violence inside Afghanistan by staging cross-border counterattacks against suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda targets based inside Pakistan. Tactically, there's some logic to this. Strategically, not so much.
Pakistan has never been a paragon of stability, and years of unconditional Bush administration military aid for Pervez Musharraf's repressive government made things worse. Now, with the Bush administration increasingly violating Pakistani sovereignty with cross-border strikes, relations between the United States and the new government of Asif Ali Zardari are more tense than ever.
In principle, Obama agrees that strikes inside Pakistan may at times be justified -- but experts close to him suggest that many of the strikes authorized by the Bush White House probably wouldn't have passed muster for Obama. But that may not matter. Like it or not, Obama will inherit a situation in which U.S. credibility and popularity in Pakistan are close to zero and the Pakistani government is only barely in control.
It's a situation that's virtually designed to blow up in his face.
Some booby traps left by departing administrations are harmless. Clinton pranksters allegedly removed all the "W" keys from White House computer keyboards in January 2001, and outbound Bush 41 staffers reportedly left drawers full of pencils cut down to inch-long stubs. But no one got hurt.
If we can someday say the same about the booby traps this Bush administration is leaving behind, we'll be very lucky.