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Analysis: Asia stacked with problems for Obama

  • Story Highlights
  • Riminton: Afghanistan, Pakistan top of Obama's list of challenges in Asia
  • North Korea and possibility of nuclear-armed Iran also high on list
  • Powell: Obama ready to face unpleasant surprises
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By CNN Correspondent Hugh Riminton
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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Donald Rumsfeld was much pilloried for his musings on the "unknown unknowns" that bedevil defense planning. But an echo of that warning was floated Wednesday by another former Bush administration official as the election result became known.

Dealing with North Korea 's Kim Jong Il: One of the many challenges facing the next U.S. president.

"Something's going to come along," former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told me in Hong Kong. "Somebody out there will try to take advantage of a change in administration and the newness of a new administration."

But his "stronger point," he said, was that something will happen that has nothing to do with testing a president. "It's just going to happen."

Barack Obama, the 44th President, will face a tough enough time with the "known unknowns."

Remarkably, Iraq is not the first challenge.

Saving Afghanistan and strengthening a crumbling Pakistan are top of the pile.

After meeting with senior Pakistani officials, including President Asif Ali Zardari this week, the new head of U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus, said extremism in the Pakistani borderlands now poses an "existential threat" to the state of Pakistan.

"All parties recognize the nature of the threat, the significance of the extremist activity and the threat it poses to this country, to Afghanistan and beyond this region," he said.

Joe Biden made plain the incoming administration's view during the vice-presidential debate. He identified Pakistan as a bigger danger even than a nuclear-armed Iran.

"I promise you, if an attack comes in the homeland," he said, "it's going to come from al Qaeda planning in the hills of Afghanistan and Pakistan."

The message seems clear: The primary focus is not Iraq. It's back to fixing up after 9/11.

A nuclear-armed Iran, however, would be -- in Biden's words -- "a game-changer."

Having risked campaign capital with his offer to talk with Iran, President-elect Obama can be expected to follow through.

"We might be able to make progress and other countries are more likely to join us," says Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former National Security Adviser.

The universal expectation: a different tone under a President Obama. Brzezinski says allies are more likely to engage with the U-S and the Iranians be drawn in "if we don't conduct the negotiations in an atmosphere of mutual abuse or of military threats."

North Korea is another challenge. Kim Jong Il, the leader of the world's weakest nuclear power is in uncertain health. With no obvious succession plans and with recent bellicose threats to resume a nuclear program, North Korea needs close watching.

The six-party process that draws in North Korea's four neighbors, plus the United States, will remain the strategic platform, with China the key player in nudging Pyongyang along.

Meanwhile, China, Japan, South Korea, and other Asian export-driven nations will be nudging the new U.S. President to do what will be his first priority anyway: fix the U.S.economy.

To face the security risks, known and unknown, Colin Powell believes Americans have chosen a man with "every potential to be a great president."

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Powell wept as he watched Obama's victory speech. But he says "we haven't elected Superman. We've elected a human being with strengths and weaknesses...we all have to work together to help him."

But the Republican Powell, who endorsed Obama in the last weeks of the campaign, says he is "reasonably comfortable [Obama] will be ready for that first crisis, even if it is a surprise."

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