The Magazine

Testing 1-2-3

Biden predicted Obama would be tested by our adversaries. He was right.

Feb 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 21 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Joe Biden was right.

That's not a sentence we expect to type too often over the next four years, but it's proper to give credit where credit is due. And, on October 19, at a fundraiser in Seattle, the vice-presidential candidate explained:

And here's the point I want to make. Mark my words. Mark my words. It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama. .  .  . Remember I said it standing here if you don't remember anything else I said. Watch, we're gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy. .  .  . I can give you at least four or five scenarios from where it might originate. .  .  . They may emanate from the Middle East. They may emanate from the sub-continent. They may emanate from Russia's newly emboldened position.

Various unsavory characters do seem to have marked Biden's words.

The Iranian regime, having spent the first couple of weeks of Barack Obama's presidency preemptively scorning his overtures, mocking his weakness, and assuring the world its nuclear program is nonnegotiable, last Tuesday reported it had launched a satellite into orbit, making clear that Iran intends to have a missile launch capability on which to deploy its nuclear warheads.

Sounds like a test by the mullahs.

On the same day as the Iranian satellite launch, it was reported that, under pressure and inducements from Russia, Kyrgyzstan would no longer allow the United States to use an airbase that supports coalition military operations in Afghanistan. This came as Obama plans to increase U.S. force levels in Afghanistan, and the already overburdened supply lines from Pakistan seem increasingly vulnerable to attacks from Taliban forces in that country's frontier areas.

Sounds like a test by Vladimir Putin.

And on that very same day, North Korea, having in the first week of the Obama presidency scrapped all its agreements with South Korea and warned of war on the Korean peninsula, was reported to be preparing to test a new ballistic missile, the Taepodong-2, which is intended to eventually have a long enough range to hit U.S. territory.

Sounds like a test by Kim Jong-Il.

Now these aren't big tests. They're more like pop -quizzes, preparatory to the real exams. And it's understandable that the Obama administration, whose foreign policy apparatus is not yet fully staffed and, indeed, seems barely organized, hasn't responded much to them one way or the other.

But these quizzes are a taste of what's to come. And they suggest Obama had better focus on the commander in chief part of his job, not just on his domestic concerns.

In this respect, the most worrisome signal of the past week was something the president said last Tuesday, in one of his stimulus-promoting interviews, the very day all these testing foreign policy developments were reported. Obama assured CNN's Anderson Cooper, "Look, the only measure of my success as president, when people look back five years from now or nine years from now, is going to be, did I get this economy fixed?"

We hope this was just inflated rhetoric used to further hype the stimulus package. We trust Obama doesn't believe the economy will be the only measure--or even the primary measure--of his success as president. This wasn't even the case for Franklin D. Roosevelt, who took over the country in the middle of the Depression. And every president since World War II--with the possible exception of Bill Clinton in that brief post-Cold War/pre-September 11 holiday from history--has been judged more centrally and fundamentally for his foreign policy performance than for his economic efforts.

After all, the economy will sooner or later fix itself. Government actions can help or hurt, and the debate over those actions is important. But whatever happens with the stimulus package, Obama is neither going to "fix" nor destroy the economy. There will eventually be an economic recovery.

But there won't be a recovery--at least not an easy one--from a world in which American power recedes, in which jihadists and dictators are empowered, in which nuclear proliferation accelerates, in which terror groups get access to weapons of mass destruction. There's no natural recovery if jihadist Iran goes nuclear or nuclear Pakistan goes jihadist. Is our new commander in chief fully aware how dangerous the world can get, and how fast, when America is weak or distracted? He might reflect on the consequences of our neglect of our foreign policy in 1933-39, when we were obsessed with our economic problems--or even in 1993-2000.