By Aaron Friedberg
Joe Biden caused a flap during the campaign when he told an audience that, within six months, an adversary of the United States would seek to test a newly elected President Obama. This remark was indiscrete, but it was not ridiculous. Biden referred in passing to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which was triggered by the discovery of a Soviet attempt to sneak nuclear-tipped rockets within range of the United States. Nikita Khrushchev may have decided to try this dangerous gambit because he believed the young, newly elected American president was too weak and inexperienced to respond effectively.
From what direction will the next challenge come? Unfortunately, you don’t have to be on the distribution list for top-secret communication intercepts to pick up some of the possible danger signals: On November 5, one day after the election, Russia warned that it would deploy new missiles aimed at Europe if the United States went ahead with a plan to station part of a new missile defense system in Poland.
Since November, both Osama bin Laden and his right-hand man, Ayman Al-Zawahiri have issued statements threatening new attacks on America and its allies, and making dismissive references to President Obama. One week before the inauguration, the North Korean government let it be known that it had weaponized most of its stockpile of plutonium and might have to “retaliate” for what it termed the “confrontational” policies of the South.
On January 22, China Daily, the official English language newspaper, printed a surprisingly harsh critique of both the incoming and outgoing presidents and blamed the United States, among other things, for the current financial crisis.
How seriously should we take all of this? Russia, North Korea, and China are most likely posturing ahead of expected negotiations with the U.S. (on missile defenses and NATO expansion, nuclear weapons and trade, respectively). Al Qaeda’s latest threats probably don’t tell us anything more than we already know: namely that bin Laden and his minions remain determined to kill Americans in large numbers. Still, it is possible that al Qaeda’s leadership believes that the election of a new president requires some kind of spectacular response. This could be the case if they interpret the administration’s policy changes as a sign of weakness or, alternatively, if they fear that these shifts might actually succeed in undermining their support.
What may be most worrisome here is the dog that hasn’t barked, at least not yet. The Iranian regime probably hopes that it can draw the new administration into protracted negotiations while it presses ahead with the development of a nuclear weapon. If this is Tehran’s game, it would make sense to tone down the usual insults and signal a willingness to talk. Iran may well pose a serious challenge to the new administration, but probably in another year or two, rather than the next six months.