And Barack Obama thought he had problems with domestic politics. Just in time for, well, the run-up to the presidential race, President Obama finds that he has multiplying headaches on the international front.
Only a few weeks after definitively learning that, yes, it really was "the economy, stupid," at least as far as the midterm elections were concerned, Obama has several big new headaches in regards to Korea, Afghanistan, the unending Israeli-Palestinian question, and Russia. And this is before the forthcoming Wikileaks info-dump.
This week, North Korea attacked South Korea again. This week, our Afghan War surpasses the Soviets' Afghan War in length. This week, Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations hang by a thread. And this week, Obama is struggling to gain Senate ratification of the big nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.
* The crisis on the Korean peninsula. The USS George Washington aircraft carrier strike group is en route, as seen in the footage above.
While Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were in Indiana on Tuesday, trying at last to get some credit for saving the American auto industry, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, and other top officials conferred for hours in the Situation Room. Upon his return, Obama joined them, conferred with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, and ordered the USS George Washington to the area.
Obama's big economic revitalization and Middle America event of the week, highlighting the saving of the US auto industry, was overshadowed by the crisis precipitated by North Korea's attack early Tuesday morning on a South Korean island. During a sustained artillery barrage, two South Korean marines and two civilians were killed, with dozens wounded.
The survivors were evacuated to Inchon on the mainland, ironically the site of General Douglas MacArthur's famed 1950 amphibious maneuver which decisively ended the North Korean advance during the early phase of the Korean War.
The island is near the Northern Limit Line, a border imposed by the United Nations after the Korean War. Ever-defiant North Korea says it does not recognize the border.
Earlier this year, a North Korean torpedo sunk a South Korean Navy corvette in the area, though North Korea denies responsibility.
North Korea has a large military, but can be defeated fairly readily by South Korean forces with a major assist from the 29,000 US troops in-country and major air and naval assets in-theater. The problem is that North Korea can exact a terrible cost as it goes down.
Seoul, for example, the capital of South Korea and one of the most modern cities in the world, is within easy range of the North Korean weapons.
Just a few days earlier came word from Stanford physicist Siegfried Hecker that he had just toured a brand new North Korean nuclear enrichment facility that violates UN sanctions against the renegade state. He says that North Korea's nuclear program is significantly more advanced than thought.
As always with the Hermit State, the question is what is it up to? To gain attention, certainly. But to what end? Simply money to go away for a while? Are these moves designed to solidify military support behind the Dear Leader's twenty-something chosen successor and heir?
The George Washington strike group is scheduled to begin joint exercises with the South Korean Navy in the Yellow Sea off the Korean coast on Sunday. I'm told the group consists of the aircraft carrier, two guided missile cruisers with Aegis combat systems (linked computers and radars), seven destroyers, two submarines, and of course the carrier air wing with more than 60 jet aircraft. There are also helicopters and special operations troops in the mix.
China, which has repeatedly protested the U.S. Navy's operations in international waters in its vicinity, is being unusually quiet about this. Which may be a sign that its ally North Korea has gone too far.
*On Saturday, America's Afghan War surpasses the length of the Soviets' Afghan War. And that certainly went well for the Soviet Union, which merely ceased to exist not long after.
Last weekend, NATO leaders again assessed the Afghan War and made some decisions.
While the US will begin a drawdown next summer, and other NATO nations have already begun and in some cases, withdrawn altogether already, the full NATO drawdown is to conclude in 2014, at which time the full handover of security responsibility to the Afghan forces is to commence.
Except that the US and NATO will retain some forces in Afghanistan past that, per a new agreement with the Karzai government. And that the US is saying that forces will be ready to undertake combat operations in Afghanistan after the security handover in 2014. But NATO sources are saying that they will not go beyond training and support at that time.
Working together with the U.S. and NATO, unless Republicans succeed in blocking the "reset" of relations by killing the nuclear weapons treaty, Russia has concluded an agreement with NATO for expanded supply routes into Afghanistan, as well as training for counter-narcotics operations and for Afghan helicopter pilots, the Russians being the experts in helicopter operations in Afghanistan, having conducted more of them than anyone else ever has in their losing Afghan War in the 1980s, which led to the downfall of the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, while all these machinations in a notably unsuccessful cause ensued, a turning point may have been reached. A Quinnipiac poll last week showed plunging support for the Afghan War.
For the first time, most Americans, as reflected by the poll, don't think that the U.S. should be involved in Afghanistan.
50 percent now say the U.S. should not be involved in Afghanistan now, while 44 percent say we are doing the right thing by fighting the war in Afghanistan. That's the actual wording of the question, incidentally.
In January, 59 percent said we should be there, with only 35 percent opposed.
Which means that in only a 10-month span of time, opinion on the Afghan War has gone from plus-24 to minus-6.
That's a very striking turnaround, especially since the war was barely discussed during this campaign season. You can bet it will be discussed as the presidential campaign ramps up.
It's only because of heavy support from Republicans that the current question is at all close.
Republicans back the war, 64-31.
But Democrats oppose the war, 62-33, as do independents, 54-40.
* Then there is Obama's hoped-for resumption of the Middle East peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.
Not at all unexpectedly, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas says that he will not return to the direct negotiations with Israel so long as its new proposed freeze on settlements in disputed areas by religious fundamentalists only lasts 90 days, and especially so long as it does not involve East Jerusalem.
Is this at all a surprise?
Israel has the most right-wing government in its history, in which conservative Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu is a relative moderate. His right-wing coalition depends on religious fundamentalists. Which means that the settlers hold the whip hand.
As for Abbas, he doesn't even represent all the Palestinians. The ones he doesn't represent are led by elements far more radical than he, clearly anti-Israel.
The situation has boiled down to two extremes demanding not peace but victory and dominion over a small patch of land. If Obama could solve that, he'd rate a second Nobel Peace Prize. But I suspect he'll have to make do with the one.
* Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is Russia. Obama is struggling to get the U.S. Senate to at last ratify the big nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, which is merely the lynchpin of the "reset" of U.S. relations with Russia.
Obama returned last weekend from the NATO, NATO-Russia Council, and European Union summits in Lisbon, Portugal. While there he participated in the annual NATO summit -- which will be held somewhere in the U.S. when Obama runs for reelection in 2012 -- and two brief summits thrown on after the NATO summit, those of the NATO-Russia Council and the European Union.
As expected, Obama came away with agreement that the drawdown in Afghanistan, set to begin on a very limited basis in 2011, is to end in 2014 with the full handover of security responsibilities from the US and NATO to the Afghan government. There were also significant developments between NATO and Russia.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev came personally to the meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, a group designed to foster better relations between the alliance formed to counter the late Soviet Union and the central successor government to the USSR.
After the discussions, which included a seemingly impromptu private meeting between Obama and Medvedev, NATO Secretary General Anders Fog Rasmussen announced that NATO strongly urges the U.S. Senate to ratify the US-Russia nuclear arms reductions treaty, presently stalled by Republican opposition, calling it a high priority for NATO and European security.
The NATO leader also hailed progress toward a joint US-NATO missile shield with Russian participation. The missile shield was once widely seen as an anti-Russian move. He also hailed new agreements for Russian aid in moving military supplies into Afghanistan and in providing training for counter-narcotics raiding parties and helicopter crews inside Afghanistan. Russia had previously joined in moves to contain North Korea's and Iran's rogue nuclear programs, and canceled a big contract to provide Iran with top-line anti-aircraft systems.
But will this promising rapprochement between the U.S., NATO, and Russia continue if conservative Republicans in the U.S. Senate succeed in blocking ratification of a treaty leading to big reductions in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals? Or would that be viewed in Moscow as a slap in the face, a sign that neo-Cold Warriors in the U.S. are predominant over not only Obama and the Democrats, but also past Republican Secretaries of State George Shultz, James Baker, Colin Powell, and Henry Kissinger, all of whom strongly support the treaty?
And how absolutely lunatic would that be? We'll still have more than enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over even with the treaty's ratification. That ought to be good enough for even the most extreme far-right politicians.