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Our Views: A world of uncertainty

To face varied challenges, new president needs right blend of diplomacy and might

POSTED: November 23, 2008 5:00 a.m.

It wasn't along ago that the world was a dangerous place, but predictably so.

On one side of the Iron Curtain was the United States and its allies, supporting free market capitalism, free expression and democratic government. On the other side, the Soviet Union and its satellites promoted their brand of totalitarianism and state-sponsored communism.

The Cold War was tense and dangerous, but in retrospect, at least we knew where the threats were coming from and who was on which side.

Oh, for such simple times. We now find ourselves in a world just as dangerous, but with varied foes on different fronts.

First there is the threat from Islamic extremism. As the nation discovered so painfully on Sept. 11, 2001, they will not be deterred from bringing down Western society and instilling their brand of medieval tyranny. We remain engaged in battle with these groups and their followers throughout the Middle East, spending thousands of lives and billions of dollars in the effort.

Violence in Iraq has calmed considerably since the administration boosted troop levels, but its government remains a work in progress. Yet Afghanistan, the original front against al-Qaida and the Taliban, has become increasingly unstable while terrorist chief Osama bin Laden remains at large in the region.

At the same time, Pakistan, a former ally in the Taliban fight, has a new leader less inclined to accede to U.S. concerns. Pakistanis already have engaged in skirmishes with U.S. troops near the Afghan border.

Iran remains an erratic enigma, developing its nuclear ambitions while supporting terrorist groups in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Syria also backs extremists in Lebanon and Palestine, creating a tighter cordon of enemies around Israel.

North Korea has toyed with its own nuclear program and continues to test the world's patience in standing down those efforts. China has emerged as a major economic power, slurping up a greater share of the world's oil while flooding markets with manufactured goods that frequently don't meet safety standards.

And our old enemy Russia is at it again, engaging in a conflict with the Republic of Georgia last summer over two breakaway provinces, alerting the world that its days of imperial wanderlust aren't over.

It's a big menu of headaches for the new president to inherit, one that will require a deft touch of diplomacy and a willingness to use U.S. economic and military strength to full advantage. Our national security and stability of the global economy are at stake.

The world was a less complicated place, but still dangerous, more than a century ago when another president spelled out his foreign policy strategy. It was Theodore Roosevelt whose doctrine was to "speak softly and carry a big stick."

That's a timeless motto the new president can follow. The United States needs to be wary of its enemies, generous with its allies and find the middle ground between diplomacy and power that has often been missing.

For some time, we were too shy in wielding the big stick. The tepid response to previous terrorist attacks - lobbing a few missiles into camps and shaking our fist, but little else - emboldened groups like al-Qaida to plot the mother of all attacks. While American military forces should never be sent into warfare as a first option and without careful deliberation, our might remains one of our greatest assets and needs to be used wisely and effectively.

But also missing in recent years has been more of the "speak softly" of the Rooseveltian model. Diplomacy should be the first response in an international crisis.

The new president should work to earn more of our allies' trust and support in battling extremist forces worldwide. He should continue to press the United Nations to become more relevant and enforce its own bylaws against nations that threaten their neighbors.

He should continue to press the offensive against terrorism groups in the Middle East, leaning on Syria and Iran to end their support and reaffirming our support for Israel and other allies in the region. And as troops are peeled off from the surge in Iraq, they could be redeployed in the short term to eradicate the Taliban forces in Afghanistan and, once and for all, bury bin Laden in a cave he won't climb out of.

And as we've seen in the past week, our economic future is linked to the stability of world markets. A more prosperous world is a safer world; the U.S. must do its part to help impoverished countries develop their nascent economies and stamp out the root causes of unrest and extremism. Eliminating poverty, disease and corruption abroad will open up more countries to U.S. goods while creating new business partners in the global marketplace.

The nation needs to establish trade agreements that protect U.S. interests while not impeding the flow of goods. To deal with the growing power and influence of China, we must continue to strike a balance, maintaining a healthy relationship while insisting on higher standards for the goods it exports. Those ties can better help us influence the leadership of the world's most populous nation to ensure that its motives are peaceful and that the oppression of its citizens is eased.

And the president also must guide the U.S. to take the lead in developing new energy sources that keep our economy strong while preserving our planet's health.

John McCain certainly has more experience in foreign policy circles than his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama. That experience is important and could serve him well in the White House. But judgment is also key, and either man could offer a stronger diplomatic approach than we have seen in recent years.

It is vital that the winner select national security and state department teams that can open up better lines of communications abroad and earn the trust of our allies. Either man as president would have an opportunity to start fresh and forge new, better relationships.

It's a complicated world and a fine line to walk, but our new leader can manage it with the right combination of soft and hard power. Our economic strength and future security rely on our president making the right choices from day one.



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