During the 2008 presidential campaign, vice presidential candidate Joe Biden said that if elected, Barack Obama would be “tested” by an international crisis within his first six months. Biden’s assertion was taken by many to mean that we were in line for another terrorist attack and that the Democratic running mate had seen some intelligence that triggered the warning.
“Mark my words,” he said. “We’re gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy.”
Nearly four months into the new administration, we have not had another terrorist attack. However, Obama has already been tested on several international fronts, the results of which are not in yet and might take months or years to play out. But there have been tests, and they continue.
North Korea, in defiance of U.S. warnings against it, launched a ballistic missile test, suspended six-party talks aimed at ending its nuclear program and spoke harshly against the U.S. and the United Nations after a resolution condemned the launch. North Korea is expected to test a nuclear weapon soon.
Iran, in a test of Obama’s will, has said it will not suspend its disputed nuclear program, even if the U.S. imposes more economic sanctions. Obama has offered to open a dialogue with the Islamic nation, but so far the gesture has triggered harsh anti-U.S. words from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In Afghanistan, Obama has made a major commitment to add 21,000 U.S. troops to fight the resurging Taliban and restore stability to a shaky government. He is being tested on just how well his new charm offensive with Europe is working as he tries to get recalcitrant NATO countries to increase their military commitments to the fight. So far, he’s had little luck.
Taliban insurgents in Pakistan have stepped up and widened attacks against the shaky Pakistan government, threatening to open a new front in the war on terror and putting nuclear arsenals in danger of falling into terrorist hands. The New York Times reports that Pakistani officials have repeatedly deflected Obama administration requests for more details about the location and security of the country’s nuclear sites.
Over the past month, stepped-up bomb attacks on Iraqi citizens, police and American troops are seen as a test of Obama’s willingness to stick to his timetable for full U.S. withdrawal by the end of 2011 and his ability to get Iraq’s Shiite-led government to make political changes needed to stabilize the country.
New Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is testing the strength of U.S. commitments to the Jewish state by saying he views Iran’s nuclear capability as a bigger threat than the Palestinian situation, a top priority of the Obama administration. Netanyahu also has expressed concern about Obama’s willingness to negotiate with Iran. And he has rejected suggestions from the U.S. to create an independent Palestinian state.
Obama came into office vowing to push the “restart” button in U.S.-Russia relations, which have soured in recent years, particularly over Bush administration plans to create a missile shield over Europe, Russia’s military invasion of Georgia last August and support for Ukraine and Georgia to enter NATO. Obama imposed a big test on himself by telling Russia that he would be willing to rethink the missile shield if Russia would cooperate in getting Iran to halt its nuclear program. So far, Russia’s response to the overture has been decidedly cool.
Chinese and U.S. officials have called for strengthening trade ties between the two economic giants, but China is testing Obama to determine how much pressure he plans to exert with regard to human rights and religious freedom there. Some human rights advocacy groups have expressed worry that Obama is soft-pedaling human rights concerns to win economic favor.
Other tests of the “mettle” of the new president are under way by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Mexico’s Felipe Calderon and several hot spots in Africa, including Darfur and off the Somali coast, where pirates are operating.
All are important tests. But let’s hope Obama never has to face the big test Biden seemed to be warning about. How he does on tests now could determine whether that ultimate test ever comes.
Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches journalism and politics at American and Georgetown universities.