Obama learns the world is a dangerous place

Pirates, rogue states and failed states challenge global security and stability

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The Gazette, Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Barack Obama can be forgiven for wondering if the world is a more dangerous place than he bargained for when he ran for president of the United States.

A very strong case can be made that at no time since John F. Kennedy became president in 1961, the year of Obama's birth, have the U.S. and its NATO allies, including Canada, faced such daunting challenges to global security and stability.

NATO and Soviet forces, armed with thousands of nuclear weapons, faced each other in a permanent standoff, across Europe and across the seas, where the only deterrent to global annihilation was the doctrine of mutual assured destruction, aptly named MAD.

But at least the Soviets were a known adversary, and a predictable one. And after both sides went to the brink in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, Kennedy negotiated the ban on atmospheric nuclear testing in 1963, the signal achievement of his presidency, unmatched until the Reagan-Gorbachev arms reduction accords of the late 1980s.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War signalled what the first George Bush called "the new world order." It could also be called the Pax Americana, with a lone dominant superpower, and it lasted only a decade, from the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 to the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001.

This is the situation Obama inherited from the second George Bush, a world where conventional military forces are tormented by terrorists, insurgents and even pirates.

Obama's morning briefing isn't about the challenge posed by a known state actor, the Soviets, but failed states and rogue states, a highly combustible and unpredictable mix.

The failed states include Somalia, home to the pirates terrorizing maritime commerce along the east coast of Africa; Afghanistan, where the U.S., Canada and NATO are bedeviled by an intensifying Taliban insurgency; and in our own hemisphere, Haiti, a tragically broken nation in which Canada has interests as obvious as the concerns of our governor-general for the fate of her mother country.

The rogue states include North Korea, which tested a missile two weeks ago on the very day Obama made a speech in Prague on arms control; Iran, which has the scientific and financial wherewithal to build nuclear weapons and deliver them as far away as Israel, which already has nuclear weapons.

And then there's Pakistan, a country of 150 million people, wracked by poverty, seething with secular tensions, and a safe haven for the Taliban and Al-Qa'ida, using the wild western region of the country as a staging ground for their insurgency across an unpatrollable border into Afghanistan. Pakistan already has nuclear weapons, dozens of them. It might be the most unstable and dangerous country in the world.

How's the briefing so far today, Mr. President?

Obama is probably getting an idea of what Joe Biden, his vice-president, meant during the campaign when he surmised that Obama would be tested in unforeseen ways in the first months of his presidency. Biden was criticized then for shooting from the lip, but his comments have proven prescient.

We've had some idea of Obama's management style in the way the U.S. faced down Somali pirates last weekend, and we are getting an idea of the choices he is making in Afghanistan, both of which could prove to be defining moments of his presidency.

For the Somali pirates, it is all about the money, and the commercial shipping companies have been paying kings' ransoms to liberate their ships, cargo and crew. This is not something out of Robert Louis Stevenson, it's not Peter Pan against Captain Hook, but a reminder that piracy has been going on for as long as ships have been sailing the seven seas.

Rather than arming their crews with weapons, shipping firms have tried to find safety in numbers, travelling in convoys off the horn of Africa, an area so vast that not even the U.S. Navy can patrol it effectively against brigands travelling in speedboats, and armed with AK-47s.

But when pirates took the U.S. captain of the Maersk Alabama hostage, they were surrounded off the Somali coast and taken down by U.S. Navy Seal sharpshooters, in an operation quietly authorized by Obama.

This might prove to be a Reaganesque moment. In 1981, Ronald Reagan fired striking U.S. air traffic controllers, and the Soviets later said this was the moment they learned he meant business.

Similarly, the pirates might learn that Obama, without bluster or threats, means to enforce the law of the high seas. The stability and prosperity of the world, very much including Canada, depends on the safety of maritime commerce. Seventy per cent of global trade moves by ship through shipping lanes like the Horn of Africa and Suez, to ports such as Halifax, Vancouver and Montreal, and from there by rail and intermodal transport to North American and other world markets.

Obama has put the pirates on notice: Don't mess with him. He's from the South Side of Chicago.

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