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Published: Wednesday, 12/3/2008

Obama's mature, experienced security team has full plate

AS THE rest of the world watches the United States go through the process of changing governments, there might be some reason to expect that other nations, if they were acting responsibly, would not pose particular problems for America at this moment.

First, there is a danger of erratic, even extreme behavior on the part of the outgoing government. In a sense, it has nothing to lose. It already has been rejected by the electorate. If what it does turns out badly, it will be up to the new, incoming government to clean it up. There might even be a temptation on the part of the outgoing government to deliberately leave land mines lying around or secret poison pills in the issues it will leave unresolved for the new administration.

In 1992 as he was leaving office, President George H. W. Bush made the decision to place American troops in Somalia. It may well have been the right decision at the time, but the matter ended badly for the United States under the leadership of President Bill Clinton. American troops were killed in Mogadishu in October, 1993 in the famous Black Hawk Down incident and U.S. forces in Somalia were withdrawn in some haste. Somalia to this day does not have a government and now hosts very troublesome pirates.

Responsible foreign governments that wish future good relations with America would do well not to push us now, and, most of all, not to try any fast, difficult moves on the foreign affairs/national security front.

But there are three big "ifs" in that hopeful formulation. One is that they are interested in good relations with us. The second is that they comprehend that poking us while we are changing our skin is a bad idea. The third is that they can look beyond their own issues to think about what the impact of certain actions on the United States or the rest of the world might be.

This third problem is most likely the case with whatever group planned and carried out the mayhem in Mumbai, India last week.

Dangerous crises are not taking a vacation as President George W. Bush gives his final interviews and President-elect Barack H. Obama tries to fill out his team to put it and his programs on field in seven weeks.

It is hard to say which situation is more dangerous: India-Pakistan, Iraq, or Afghanistan. Lesser but still potentially lethal ones include North Korea, again, and the Russia/Ukraine/ Georgia/NATO snakepit.

The India-Pakistan problem may be immediately the most serious. Recall for a moment the state of fear, fury, and desire for retribution that gripped the United States in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. That is how the Indians feel at this moment, having seen their financial capital laid low with hundreds of dead and wounded by a so-far-unidentified enemy.

Place that against a background of on-again, off-again war with neighboring Pakistan for 60 years, a fundamental religious divide, and the raw issue of disputed Kashmir, then add the fact that both countries have huge standing armies and nuclear weapons and one has a very unstable, dangerous internal political concoction in an always explosive part of the world, South Asia.

The Indian population is currently between a rock and a hard place. It can either blame its own security services for not keeping it safe. (Remember Americans' fury as we discovered that people in our government knew about the perpetrators and preparations for the 9/11 attacks?) Or India could decide Pakistan is responsible and strike out against it, with very unfortunate consequences for world peace.

That's for Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama to think about and to try to forestall through close attention and serious hand-holding.

The not-unrelated problem of what to do about Afghanistan is equally grisly and pressing.

Long-suffering Afghan president Hamid Karzai - accepting the usefulness of and need for U.S. and NATO troops in his country but very tired after nearly seven years of taking it on the nose from the Afghan people for the "collateral damage" caused by his foreign allies - has now told NATO that it is time to set an end-date to what he sees as its war in Afghanistan. He wants the United States and NATO either to win the war - whatever that means - or to get out of the way so he can cut a nation-saving deal with the Taliban before they wipe out his government. He faces re-election in 2009.

It's too late for Mr. Bush to do much about Afghanistan. It is also clear that this problem is well past bromides from Mr. Obama about how Iraq was the wrong war, Afghanistan was the right war, and now he is going to fix it. Mr. Karzai is at the point of asking for a timetable to complete the war.

A timetable has always been a contentious subject with respect to the United States and Iraq. Clearly the leaders of neither Afghanistan nor Iraq see their countries as cast for a permanent post-war U.S. military presence such as America has retained in Germany, Japan, and Korea.

Then there's the question of how to keep the lid on in Iraq while the switch in Washington takes place. There are many armed and dangerous elements in Iraq.

There is some reason for hope that 140,000 American troops can keep the herd circled and away from the cliffs at least until Jan. 20, but don't count on it.

The good part is that the people Mr. Obama is putting in charge of national security are experienced and mature.

The bad part is that they will be thrust into the fray long before they have had time to catch their breath.



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