As the Bush administration prepares for its second four-year term in office, the main U.S. foreign policy challenges include bringing peace to the Middle East and ensuring democracy in Iraq. Other major issues include concerns over the development of nuclear weapons in Iran and North Korea.
One day after the U.S. election results were officially called in President Bush's favor, a group of scholars from the Brookings Institution research organization examined the outstanding issues the Bush administration will face in the international arena.
At the top of the agenda is President Bush's goal of bringing democracy to Iraq. Senior Brookings fellow Martin Indyk, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel twice during the Clinton administration, said elections planned for Iraq in January could alienate the country's Sunni Muslim population, if insecurity makes it impossible to hold elections in the so-called Sunni triangle, an area in central Iraq. But he added that delaying the elections until the Sunni triangle is stabilized risks alienating Iraq's dominant Shia Muslims.
"It's not a simple decision, but it's one that cannot be avoided in the very short-term," he said. "I think it's very important, in this process, to understand that elections do not equal democracy. That the process of building democracy in Iraq, just like the process of building a capable Iraqi army and police and security forces, is going to take time. And if it is rushed, it can produce an exacerbation of the already difficult circumstances we face."
Another issue Ambassador Indyk predicts will dominate the foreign policy agenda is Middle East peace, and the future of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks without Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He says any new Palestinian leader will need stronger backing from the United States and Israel than has been shown so far.
As an example, he pointed to Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, who only spent a few months as Palestinian prime minister last year.
"I think there was a lesson to be learned, by both the United States and Israel, as to what happened when Abu Mazen was appointed as prime minister, as a result of Palestinians responding to George Bush's initial call for a new leadership? Yet, the United States and Israel did not do enough to help show that he could deliver for his people," he added.
The third area of concern in the region is Iran, and the possibility that Tehran could develop nuclear weapons. Ambassador Indyk says the Bush administration has relied on Europe to deal with Iran, but now, in its second term, faces two stark choices.
"Do we want the Europeans to continue to take the lead in this process, where they will inevitably take a softer line than we will, inevitably try to do a deal with the Iranians that we will be less than happy with, in the hope that they will fail, and therefore we will get them on board for sanctions in the United Nations, which the Europeans will fight mightily against imposing?" he asked. "Or, do we want to engage the Iranians ourselves, in an effort to try to forestall that nuclear program?"
Another country that is posing an urgent nuclear challenge to the United States is North Korea, which is suspected of possessing nuclear weapons.
Senior Brookings fellow Richard Bush, who is no relation to President Bush, said the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia have been talking with North Korea in an effort to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis.
Mr. Bush said he believes Pyongyang is actually happy to see President Bush re-elected because of subtle disagreements on how to negotiate with North Korea that have emerged between the United States and its allies.
"This may seem like a bizarre thing to say because North Korea was put in the axis of evil. But think about it. Think about the way the Bush administration has put North Korea in a pretty decent position," he explained. "Our rigid approach to the six-party talks has divided us from our friends and some of our allies."
Mr. Bush said China has expressed unhappiness with the U.S. approach on North Korea. But he says the Chinese leadership is mostly content to see President Bush re-elected because his administration has allowed China to expand its influence in Asia with little cost.
South Korea is another Asian nation that has criticized the Bush administration's policy on North Korea, saying Washington is too inflexible. The Brookings analyst said he believes Seoul will be watching closely to see what happens to Secretary of State Colin Powell, who he says is seen in South Korea as the U.S. voice of reason on the matter.