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Iran, N. Korea, U.S. image next president's challenges

| Friday, Sept. 26, 2008

Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain are scheduled to square off tonight at the University of Mississippi on foreign policy in the first of three televised presidential debates. The Tribune-Review spoke with foreign policy experts about what they believe are the most significant issues facing the next president and what they hope to hear tonight.

Anthony H. Cordesman, former U.S. intelligence analyst and military and security expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic International Studies:

"Presidents don't have the luxury of prioritizing," Cordesman said. "You will still have a serious conflict in Iraq, you will still have Iranian nuclear weapons, ... North Korea, and you will still have Afghanistan."

On top of global financial and energy crises, the conflict on terrorism will be raging and "you will be confronting Pakistan, not simply Afghanistan."

"You have the Arab-Israeli conflict, which you cannot turn away from without being perceived by much of the Islamic and Arab world as being hypocritical while talking about Western values."

The next president will have to move quickly to restore America's reputation globally, he said.

He expressed resignation about recent political discourse and tonight's debate.

"Basically you have two very good men ... being thrown into a very negative political process where the whole issue is 'gotcha' soundbites."

-- Betsy Hiel


Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu:

"Very generally, the most significant issue is persuading the world that once again there is harmony among American interests and world interests," Roy said. "In other words, creating a sense in other countries that what the United States prefers and pushes for is generally in the interests of other countries, so it's in their interests to work with us."

Roy said he wants the candidates to lay out strategies based on available resources.

"What are their basic goals and basic preferences, and, very generally, how they plan to achieve them. With more specificity, I want to hear where would we prefer to see certain things happen, where they will insist to see things happen, where we would intervene."

-- Andrew Conte


Roger Robinson, president of Conflict Securities Advisory Group, Washington, D.C., which assesses businesses operating in terrorist-sponsoring states:

A nuclear Iran and a nuclear North Korea pose the greatest foreign policy challenge to the next president, Robinson said.

North Korea just tested engines for a missile "capable of striking the continental United States," he said, and "Iran already has ballistic-missile capability that has a range covering all of Israel."

The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction remains a risk.

"Clearly neither of these state sponsors of terror can be permitted to acquire, and maintain, in the case of North Korea, a nuclear arsenal that can be directed at U.S. interests or those of our allies."

Robinson said he hopes both candidates "draw a bright line in the sand with respect to the willingness of this country to live with a nuclear Iran or the continuation of a nuclear North Korea" and to see them clearly express "resolve, that even if it means cascading into conflict for regional war, that these risks to the vital security interests of our country are unacceptable."

-- Thomas Olson


Glen Howard, president of the Jamestown Foundation, a policy group focusing on Russia, China and terrorism:

With troops still in Georgian territory, Russia jeopardizes a critical energy supply route for Europe, Howard said.

McCain and Obama must explain a strategy for a "more robust presence" in the region. That might include putting troops in Georgia as a "tripwire for the Russians," he said, or establishing military bases in Romania or Bulgaria, which are NATO members, or Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic and Georgia's neighbor.

"If Georgia falls, as in a domino, then all of Central Asia, Azerbaijan -- these countries are bottled up, in terms of access and transportation. If Georgia falls, these countries will be forced to go through Russia or Iran for their transport," Howard said.

To face down Russia, the next president might have to withdraw from Afghanistan.

"The term is imperial overstretch," Howard said. "We can't meet all these commitments around the world concurrently. One comes at the cost of the other."

-- Mark Houser


Dr. Robert L. Pfaltzgraff Jr., professor of international security studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University:

"Over the next few years Iran will be moving rapidly into nuclear development, and unfortunately the U.S. missile defense systems are not going to be adequate," Pfaltzgraff said. "I also see Russia as becoming much more assertive in Ukraine and possibly the Baltic states such as Estonia and Lithuania. We are in a very weak position with regard to Georgia because of existing deployments. There is also a possibility of Russia meddling in this hemisphere, particularly in Venezuela.

"A third area is North Korea. The North Koreans have established a pattern of backsliding, of reaching an agreement and then backing off. The recent illness of (President Kim Jong-Il) could lead to even further instability. I see North Korea as reneging on its commitments."

Pfaltzgraff said he wants to see McCain come out strongly for a missile defense system.

"We are woefully unprotected against an electromagnetic pulse threat which could disable and cripple our financial and communications infrastructure," he said. "I would hope that the candidates would point that out. The attack would be launched with a nuclear warhead exploded in the atmosphere. I look at Iran as a potential source for such an attack."

-- Walter F. Roche Jr.


James Jay Carafano, assistant director of The Heritage Foundation's Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies:

It's time for foreign policy to overshadow national security, Carafano said. The next president must remake the way this country responds to events around the globe. Increasingly, problems ranging from economic concerns to flu viruses are cast as security issues, he said.

"I think this is a very, very dangerous trend," he said. "National security should be about states and non-state groups trying to kill us. ... Everything else is a problem to be solved."

Carafano doesn't expect the candidates to do more than pander tonight. Rather than talking about wholesale reformation of America's approach to the world, he thinks they're likely to single out countries and speak in broad platitudes about things such as restoring the country's image.

"I don't expect to hear anything useful out of either candidate. As soon as an answer starts coming out of your mouth like 'China,' 'Iran,' it means you are reactionary, not visionary."

-- Mike Wereschagin

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