The November election was less than a month away when Sen. Joe Biden told an audience in Seattle that the world would soon test Barack Obama.
“Watch, we’re going to have a crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy,” Biden predicted. Within hours, the nation’s cabal of political analysts cried out in unison: gaffe, gaffe, gaffe!
As a political matter of that time, Biden’s remarks were certainly unwise. But if you look at the state of the world today, he was absolutely right.
“It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama,” he said. In fact, it has been only about two months, and one nation after another has been flinging serious challenges — so many that I can mention only a few, including Darfur.
Right about now, more than 1 million people are running out of food, clean water and health services. Right about now, the first cases of meningitis and dysentery are striking refugees. Without health care, some of them will die.
For six years, Western nations have decried the carnage in Darfur but done little if anything about it — until finally the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudan’s dictator-thug, Omar al-Bashir. After masterminding six years of genocidal violence, Bashir reacted by kicking out the aid workers who have been keeping more than 2 million people, refugees of Bashir’s slaughter, alive. On Monday, he ordered remaining aid workers to stop delivering food and medicine.
People are getting sick. A few days ago, Washington advised non-essential workers in its embassy there to leave. President Obama, what else, if anything, are you going to do?
North Korea is threatening to attack South Korea. Last week it warned that it would shoot down any South Korean airplane that crossed its airspace. Now, the South is diverting its air traffic. North Korea is also planning to launch a satellite next month, while Western intelligence agencies see this as a thinly veiled stratagem to test an intercontinental ballistic missile. The United States and United Nations are both criticizing this plan. President Obama, what else, if anything, are you going to do?
But one problem trumps them all. In Pakistan, riots and demonstrations consumed the nation until President Asif Ali Zardari offered a compromise a few days ago, reinstating the chief justice. And while the United States should shed few tears for Zardari, a corrupt autocrat, nothing should concern Washington more than assuring that Pakistan remains stable. The direction it is heading is anything but that.
Those riots followed one of the most dangerous decisions of modern times, Zardari’s agreement last month to acknowledge tacitly a military defeat at the hands of the Taliban and give them a safe-haven in the Swat Valley, just 100 miles from Islamabad, the capital. Don’t expect the Taliban to stop there.
“We are aware of the fact that the Taliban are trying to take over the state of Pakistan,” Zardari declared last month. “We are fighting for our survival.”
Fighting and losing.
I.E. Rehman, head of Pakistan’s Human Right Commission, says the Taliban are now poised to take over the Punjab province, home to 60 percent of the population. If Punjab falls, Pakistan is lost, and that possibility should frighten everyone in the world. What would prevent the Taliban, and their al-Qaida allies, from taking possession of Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons arsenal? And how could the United States ever stabilize Afghanistan?
“Already religious extremists have strong bases across” Punjab “and sympathizers in all arenas: political parties, services, the judiciary, the middle class — even the media,” Rehman wrote in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper. “For its part, the government is handicapped because of its failure to offer good governance.”
In Islamabad, government officials are insisting there is nothing to worry about.
“This is in no way a sign of weakness,” Sherry Rahman, the information minister, averred. Sure.
President Obama, what if anything are you going to do?
Certainly it is not America’s job to tamp every flare-up in the world. But these problems directly affect the safety and standing of the United States. North Korea and Pakistan have nuclear weapons. And Bashir’s impunity after six years of mass murder emboldens other dictators who realize they can do most anything to their own people without penalty or consequence.
Obama’s hands are full. The nation’s sinking economy requires immediate and constant attention. But as we are seeing, dictators and despots planning malevolent acts don’t wait around until Washington finds a convenient moment to respond.
— Joel Brinkley is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times and now a professor of journalism at Stanford University. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.