Barack Obama's most immediate challenge is rebuilding confidence in America's ability to stabilize the financial markets and prevent the economic crisis from worsening, but he faces daunting foreign-policy challenges as well. The first is to start working with President Bush on the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and to ensure that progress under the "surge," which candidate Obama never endorsed, continues. Many analysts doubted whether most American combat forces could be withdrawn within 16 months, as Obama has pledged, without jeopardizing Iraqi stability. But Iraqi and American negotiators are now moving closer to signing a "status of forces agreement," or SOFA, prior to December 31, 2008, when United Nations authorization for the American troop presence in Iraq expires. A majority of Iraqi parliamentarians have openly opposed the current draft. But Obama's victory may help speed the talks, Iraqi officials say.
Another top priority, obviously, will be preventing Iran from acquiring an atomic bomb and North Korea from resuming its nuclear weapons program. To thwart Tehran, Obama will have to enlist Russian support for intensified diplomacy, though relations with Moscow are now badly strained. Similarly, he will need to work with China on Pyongyang.
A third pressing challenge is the widening conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which Obama has embraced as a war of necessity. In a rare consensus, America's 16 intelligence agencies recently warned that Afghanistan is on a perilous "downward spiral" and that the war could be lost unless the Afghan government reduces rampant corruption, the booming heroin trade, and the increasingly sophisticated cross-border attacks from Pakistan. General David Petraeus, the new head of Central Command, is conducting a military review of policy toward Afghanistan, and the president-elect must work with him to devise an effective strategy. Obama has already vowed to expand American forces in Afghanistan and to continue striking Islamic militants inside Pakistan if the weak but pro-American government in Islamabad cannot stop militants in northwestern Pakistan from crossing into Afghanistan.
In the longer term, the Obama administration must devise more effective strategies to counter the expansion of Islamic extremism and respond to the rise of China as an economic and military power. If it has any time or energy left over, it should devise more effective ways to contain Venezuela's Hugo Chávez.