For President-elect Barack Obama, the Urgent Demands of a Perilous World

Two wars. Nuclear wannabes. Terrorists. A global recession. Oh, and reversing Bush's legacy


Bush also passes on the campaign to vanquish al Qaeda. The often clandestine conflict has seen tactical victories but promises to go on for years. Al Qaeda has adapted to U.S. and allied pressure by morphing into a far-flung network of Islamist terrorist groups. Osama bin Laden remains at large, most likely holed up in Pakistani tribal lands.

Other risks are growing. Footloose foreign militants who gravitated to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan could well stage attacks elsewhere. Pakistan and its tribal areas are already considered the main wellspring of international terrorism, as November's stunning attacks in Mumbai help illustrate.

Plenty of other unfinished business awaits Obama. He and his choice for secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, will likely need to train much of their diplomatic energy on the Mideast. Bush recently argued that it "is a freer, more hopeful, and more promising place than it was in 2001." That is not the view there. Instead, the U.S.-led Iraq invasion and occupation, along with Bush's democracy-promoting "Freedom Agenda," are seen as having shaken, rather than settled, the region. Iran and the radical movements Hezbollah and Hamas have expanded their influence. U.S. activism for an Israeli-Palestinian peace came late, and the effort is stalled. Palestinians are divided into two camps, with Hamas having taken over Gaza after winning U.S.-promoted elections. Washington is distrusted by most Arabs as reflexively pro-Israel, leaving America's Arab allies on the defensive.

Advancing peace. Against that backdrop, the Israeli-Palestinian question is likely to see new attention. For all its frustrations, such peacemaking is still key to U.S. aims: reducing terrorism and anti-Americanism, blunting the influence of Iran and radical movements, bringing security to Israelis and Palestinians, and winning over Arab help on stabilizing Iraq and other issues.

Obama has said he will try to advance peace "from the minute I'm sworn into office." He may well feel compelled to, if only to ease the volatility of a region that can overwhelm other priorities and propel tragedy onto faraway shores. "What happens in the Middle East won't stay there. We're not talking about Las Vegas," says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

If Tehran went for broke, it might be able to build a nuclear weapon in two to five years. That could well trigger a nuclear arms race in the region and tempt a pre-emptive Israeli strike, if not a U.S. attack. Obama favors "tough but direct diplomacy" with Tehran without preconditions. Yet any initiative will prove difficult. Iran seems determined to proceed, having elevated its nuclear program to a national cause.

The other leading proliferation challenge comes from the far end of Asia. Under Bush, North Korea has gone from holding one or two bombs' worth of plutonium to as many as eight. Much of that advance occurred while administration hard-liners, hoping for regime change, resisted serious, direct talks with the North. It has now become a de facto nuclear power, testing one bomb in 2006. In the second Bush term, U.S. diplomats participated in a six-nation negotiating framework that yielded a general denuclearization agreement, a freeze on nuclear work, and some moves to disable its reactor complex in exchange for aid. But the secretive regime tirelessly assembled roadblocks, throwing the problem over to Obama. The North Koreans now apparently hope that Obama will offer more incentives for them to quit the nuclear business. Indeed, it is not at all certain that the North is even willing to give up all of its bombs and nuclear infrastructure.

Other problems will occupy the new administration as well. In Europe, old alliances need more repair work. Differences over handling a resur-gent Russia are widening, and Obama will press NATO to send more sol-diers to Afghanistan.

In Latin America, U.S. inattention has taken a toll, and Obama will feel pressure to correct it. The populist left has been winning elections. Venezuela's Hugo Chávez remains a champion to anti-U.S. movements. And Washington's fruitless Cuba policy, including the decades-old embargo, offends many in the region.