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The 36 tests of Barack Obama

The classic kung fu movie “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” (popularized in the U.S. by the Wu Tang Clan) consists almost entirely of an extended training sequence in which the hero must test himself in increasingly difficult “chambers” created by the Shaolin temple monks before achieving the martial arts mastery needed to vanquish his enemies. ...

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Chicago, Il - December 15, 2008-U.S. President-elect Barack Obama listens to a Vice President-elect Joe Biden during a news conference December 15, 2008. Credit: Jeff Haynes- Pool via CNP

The classic kung fu movie “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” (popularized in the U.S. by the Wu Tang Clan) consists almost entirely of an extended training sequence in which the hero must test himself in increasingly difficult “chambers” created by the Shaolin temple monks before achieving the martial arts mastery needed to vanquish his enemies.

Ever since Joe Biden’s infamous warning that Barack Obama would face “an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy,” observers seem to be treating international events as a series of Shaolin-like “tests” for the president-elect to pass before achieving bona-fide statesman status. The big question is which test Obama will have to face first.

Would Russia putting missiles on the EU’s doorstep be Obama’s first test? Or would it be Iraq? Or Afghanistan? Or Pakistan? The Mumbai attacks were a popular choice for a while. Dark horse contenders include instability in Somalia and cranky European allies. Lately, the violence in Gaza has seemed an increasingly likely candidate.

Or perhaps… all of the above?

Looking at international affairs this way is both misleading and unfortunately, overly optimistic. Unlike the Shaolin trainee, Obama doesn’t have the luxury of facing these tests one at a time, picking up valuable skills along the way. He’s going to have to face all of them at once, along with urgent domestic issues and an economy in shambles.

Contrary to what Obama’s secretary of state once said, there’s no such thing as a “commander-in-chief threshold.” Obama will not face down some international crisis and prove himself as a qualified world leader. He’s going to have to learn on the job and he will make rookie mistakes as well as (let’s hope) major breakthroughs.

It’s doubtful that any of the above situations are going to be “solved” no matter how brilliant Obama proves to be, and there’s a better-than-even chance that his biggest foreign policy test will be something that isn’t even on anyone’s radar right now. Americans will have a chance to judge whether he’s at least handled himself competently when he faces the presidency’s 36th chamber: re-election.

Photo by Jeff Haynes-Pool/Getty Images

 Twitter: @joshuakeating
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