Overseas Challenges Mount for White House

Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- President Bush faces an array of foreign policy challenges in the new year at least as daunting as any since the Cold War ended -- and at a point pivotal for his presidency as well as the 2004 campaign.

A seemingly inevitable war looms in Iraq. North Korea is defiantly pushing ahead with its nuclear program. Afghanistan is mired in problems and an unresolved conflict. In a symptom of Latin America's woes, Venezuela's president is threatening martial law to end deadly protests. Arab-Israeli hostilities are greater than at any time since the 1993 peace process was launched. Renewed tensions between India and Pakistan appear likely once the snow melts in disputed Kashmir.

Ever lurking in the background is the dangerous mix of Islamic extremism and terrorism, both of which are likely to be deeply affected by the administration's course in 2003.

And Osama bin Laden is still on the loose.

"These are issues that were developing in the late 1990s, but what's new is the risk of all these quite different problems becoming acute crises simultaneously," said James Steinberg, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution and a National Security Council and State Department official in the Clinton administration.

The current and probable crises of 2003 come in the critical third year of Bush's presidency, which will shape the legacy of his term as well as the issues of elections next year, analysts predict.

Iraq is at the top of the list. What happens in the confrontation between Bush and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein -- especially whether Washington goes it alone or with the world's approval -- is likely to have the biggest impact on America's international stature, as well as Bush's standing at home.

"It's indisputable that Iraq is the legacy issue for George Bush

But launching an invasion carries risks.

"If Iraq goes poorly and it takes longer than expected, it will hang over all other alliance relationships as well as other efforts to pursue a positive agenda in the Muslim world," Laipson said. "If we're talking a year from now about the application of American force in Iraq and it hasn't brought about change, it will weigh heavily on the administration. It could face serious consequences."

Although it has seized the limelight lately, North Korea is unlikely to develop into a full-blown crisis that will require military action this year, analysts say.

And officials in the U.S. predict that the standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear program will be solved diplomatically over the next couple of months.

An initial compromise is likely to include aid and international guarantees of North Korea's security in exchange for a pledge by the Pyongyang regime to finally abandon its nuclear program, State Department officials say.

South Korean and Japanese officials are due in Washington on Monday for talks on a three-stage South Korean plan to end the standoff.

But the road could get rocky again during negotiations over monitoring and verification, especially because the Bush administration wants to include more issues upfront, including troop withdrawals on the peninsula, than the Clinton administration did in negotiating agreements on nuclear and missile programs in the 1990s.

More problematic in 2003 will be the war on terrorism, predict analysts and U.S. officials.

Terrorism is proving an ever more difficult issue because it is now empowered by globalization, making it one of the most pervasive trends this century.

"Globalization has been more beneficial for small networks of stateless individuals than for centralized hierarchal nation states," said Moises Naim, editor of Foreign Policy magazine and a former World Bank official.

As a result, most predictions for the year are dark.

"Can we get through 2003 without some major attack? The odds are against it," said one U.S. official who requested anonymity.

"It's impossible to think something won't happen," said terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, Washington director for the Rand Corp. think tank.

"Last year, we began to see things we only imagined years ago, like a missile attack against [an Israeli] passenger airliner, in the year of the greatest worldwide effort ever against terrorism. And look at all that's been intercepted before it could occur, which hasn't flagged or flattened terrorists' determination.

"It's just a matter of time before we're not as successful or lucky."

Terrorism may be fueled by the continued expansion of militant Islam in 2003 for several reasons, U.S. officials say. The issues that inspire extremism -- from the Palestinians to Chechnya and Kashmir -- will not be resolved; they may even become hotter.

Indeed, Israeli elections this month, in which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party and other right-wing groups are widely expected to win, are unlikely to be a catalyst to end the stalemated peace process, analysts say.

The result is likely to be potentially explosive anger and hatred on both sides.

"The polarization in the Mideast conflict and the potential for violence and terrorism is worse than in decades," said a senior U.S. intelligence official, who requested anonymity.

An Iraq war could also stimulate the extremist movement, regardless how it turned out. Radical mosques and schools and the financial sources that support them still dominate the Islamic landscape.

And the U.S. struggle to track down Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders -- key to stabilizing Afghanistan -- is spurring animosity in Pakistan. Both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf are exposed politically -- and even physically, analysts warn.

So terrorism is likely to be a key barometer in determining the standing of both this president and the nation by year's end, Hoffman said.

Having reconfigured his government, deployed thousands of troops and poured billions of dollars into the fight, Bush may appear particularly vulnerable if Bin Laden and his inner circle are still roaming free.

Just as worrisome to long-term U.S. interests, however, is the growing turmoil in Venezuela, Latin America's oldest democracy, a key global oil producer and a microcosm of how economic woes are undermining fragile governments.

"Venezuela is a bellwether about whether second-generation democracies can succeed. At the moment, there's a lack of confidence about whether democracy is working for the people, which is bad for us as we don't want to see a return to autocratic governments in the continent next door," Steinberg said.

Venezuela's political crisis over the controversial rule of President Hugo Chavez has also begun to spill over into U.S. economic markets by boosting the price of oil.

Although 2003 has the potential to be an annus horribilis, America's image abroad may be more vulnerable than Bush's standing at home, some say.

"What's so striking to me is the extent to which so many of these issues do not yet play domestically," the intelligence official said.

"There's no internal debate driven by Congress, the Democrats or the public. Maybe a war or another terrorist attack will change that, but for now foreign policy seems almost an abstraction."

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