Top 5 Foreign Policy Challenges for US, 2012

My list of challenges last year this time more or less nailed it, especially my concerns about the Mubarak era ending in Egypt. Many of the dangers to which I pointed still exist, of course, but a whole host of new difficulties has emerged.

5. The compromise reached in Yemen is unacceptable to many reformers. Although Ali Abdullah Saieh says he is stepping down in favor of his vice president, he seems likely to remain the power behind the throne. He essentially has amnesty for his crimes through 2011. Yemen even in the best of times faces severe problems of water and resources and extreme rural poverty. Muslim radical movements are significant in the rural areas. Instability in Yemen can affect security in the Red Sea, southern Saudi Arabia, and even the US itself, as with the bombing plots originating there. The US should pressure Saleh to make the transition to another leader quicker and less chaotic.

4. Pakistan’s politics is crisis-prone, but this year governance reached new lows of efficiency. The possibility that president Asaf Ali Zardari attempted to reach out to the US military for help with curbing his own officer corps, dubbed “Memogate” in Islamabad, has made relations between the civilian government and the military “frosty.” The US Congress is withholding military aid to Pakistan this year, which has already begun driving Pakistan closer to China. Flashpoints include hot pursuit at the AfPak border, US drone strikes on militants in the Federally Administered Tribal areas, NATO transport of goods through Pakistan to Afghanistan, and covert Pakistani support for the Haqqani Network, which the uS calls a terrorist organization. Bad relations between the US and Pakistan could negatively affect the course of the Afghan War and presents problems for US policy in South Asia as a whole.

3. The crisis in Syria remains grave. It can only end in one of three ways: The regime succeeds in repressing the reform movement, 2) the reform movement comes to power, or 3) the regime makes enough changes to allow a slow transition away from one-party authoritarianism. In the meantime, destabilizing hostilities could break out, with resultant instability in Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

2. The elections in Egypt are producing a parliament strongly dominated by representatives of political Islam, whether the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafis. The Muslim Brotherhood is making it clear that they want to submit the 1979 Camp David Peace treaty to a national referendum. A Muslim Brotherhood prime minister or president is most unlikely to be willing to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu or to continue to help impose a blockade on the Palestinian civilians of Gaza. The Egyptian military is still ultimately in control, and it does not want hostilities with Israel, so that this change is unlikely to go beyond producing tensions. But if the Israelis believed that the Egyptians were lax in their inspections at the Rafah checkpoint at Gaza, they might well bomb it, risking killing Egyptian troops. How such actions could spiral out of control is something no one can predict. In any case, rising Egyptian-Israeli tensions for the first time since the early 1970s present a severe challenge to US policy, which attempts to maintain good relations with both.

1. Iran presents the greatest challenges to Washington policy, mainly because Washington insists on building up Iran as a threat. The Iraq of PM Nouri al-Maliki has been moving closer to Iran, both because al-Maliki owes his position as prime minister to Iran, and in part because Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain has alarmed Shiite-ruled Baghdad. The low-key war between the US and Iran could be ratcheted up by legislation just passed by Congress that targets the Central Bank, based in Tehran. The US is increasingly blockading Iran, an act of war in international law, and the possibility of escalating tensions leading in unexpected and tragic directions cannot be discounted.

15 Responses

  1. Prof. Cole, first, thank you for your insights which I usually find spot on. I say “usually” because no one is perfect and therefore this post leaves me with one question. You preveiously wrote, in effect, that concerns over Islamist dominance of the Egyptian parliament was over-stated yet now that concern makes the top 5 foreign policy challenge list for the U.S. (interesting all are ME based, I agree with your implicit conclusion that North Korea is a tempest in a teapot). Has your thinking changed, are there different facts on the ground, or had you initially miscalculated? No answer will make me stop reading, re-posting, and recommending your work but I think this needs a forthright response. Thank you again for your work and Happy New Year!

  2. #5 I suspect is even more dire than you describe, and I’m resisting the inclination to say so merely due to a common fascination with large-scale kinetics.

    Your other problems are festering and potentially chronic, but situations we in our parochialism can live with. But the business with Iran, if it goes sideways, can disrupt our safe little All-American lives immensly.

    What you aren’t apparently factoring-in is how bringing so many combustable elements (diplomatic, military, political) into relative antagonistic proximity increases the odds of an unforeseeable (in its details) incident, with huge consequences. Add to this how the incessant, longterm, and ongoing drumbeat by the Usual Suspects has instilled a sense of inevitability of a large and direct conflict on the American Sheeple (ie, “they’ve been just asking for it since like forever.”

    Happy New Year

  3. I see no mention of the Israeli – Palestinian conflict, is it because it is now out of American Foreign policy reach?

    • That was basically my thought, too. I’m assuming the whole Israeli issue is considered unresolvable – at least DURING AN ELECTION YEAR.

      What I would like to see would be a re-elected Barack Obama who is freed of the requirement to pander to the AIPACkers and who will use his considerable political skill, courage, and strength to rein in the out-of-control Israeli right. If he does anything now short of a full genuflecting pander, the wingnut right will paint him as the proverbial Hitler-loving Jew killer, and news-starved Americans will believe it.

  4. “Washington insists on building up Iran as a threat.”
    Yes, this has been going on for years (if not decades) but finally it is at an explosive point and I am disgusted to watch this happen. …It is not advised to use your imagination towards what could go down in the next twelve months (regardless of how interesting it is to watch this masterfully played chess game).

    I feel that in regards to the US, Pakistan should move to spot 3 (or even 2), but I am fairly ignorant of the weight Syria holds in the region.

    ,-And poor Egypt: 2012 will not be a year of peace.

    Happy 2012 and may it be full of peace

  5. I agree Iran is the top foreign policy challenge for the US in 2012. A war in the gulf would be an even greater ‘strategic disaster’ for the US than Iraq, which killed American Hyper-power and the uni-polar global order the US had won by default.

    A war in the gulf, straits of Hormuz and littoral coastal zones near Iran may prove that carrier task forces are as obsolete as battleships were proved at Pearl Harbor. Sunk or decimated naval task forces mean the end of American power projection, any pretensions to global and possibly regional hegemony, not to mention the destruction of the US economy should the straits remain closed.

    • I’m very concerned how Americans will react the first time we lose a carrier. If we freak out and double down on the war and on carrier construction, we will find few friends in the world. If we give in and keep the carrier groups away from hot spots, their utility will collapse as their weakness is exploited by everyone all at once. We should have started preparing for this moment 20 years ago.

      • I thought it was only me thinking along these lines.

        Once you get past the hang-up about the US being immune to this sort of thing through its Gods-Given excellence, it appears long, long overdue. The technology is simply too accessible. How long will it be before the Iranians can launch a few hundred (!!!) knock-off Chinese cruise missiles with a 300 mile range, with a new chip that on a given day can evade the multi-zillion dollar defenses build at the course of decades….which even now are expected to only stop a handful?

        Whatever fine tactics our people might deploy, including a pre-emptive sneak attack, a fate along these lines appears is locked on unless we have a massive shift in our attitude. If not this week, then soon. Big dumb, brute force military force, like the US 5th fleet, is on a crash course with negative time and space. Could the US possibly get its head around loosing a dozen big capital ships in a few hours, along with 6-8,000 sailors.

        We (the US), can still make a huge positive difference in the world, but we’ve got to be smart and I see nothing but dumb when it comes to this situation.

    • The destruction of the battleship fleet at Pearl Harbor – the heart of American naval power at the time – certainly didn’t prevent us from projecting power over the next few years.

      The increased precision of the American land-based bomber fleet makes large numbers of sorties from carriers less important. When one B-2 can effectively, reliably hit a couple dozen different targets and then go home to Missouri, carrier aviation becomes less important.

      • The US has no where near the massive numbers of B-2 bombers or whiz bang missiles necessary to pulverize Iranians into submission.

        In any case relying upon air-power alone is a losers strategy. The doctrine failed to deliver victory in WWII, Vietnam and the US wasted billions on high tech ordnance trying to cow Saddam Hussein. As a stand alone response to an Iranian closure of the straits its guaranteed to fail spectacularly and no one will be going home to “Missouri” or by Xmas.

        The Iranians will target the tankers, forcing US naval task forces and assets into harms way, in a littoral, war-fighting environment to protect those tankers. It can’t be done ‘over the horizon.’

        • The US has no where near the massive numbers of B-2 bombers or whiz bang missiles necessary to pulverize Iranians into submission.

          We would certainly have less capability, no question, compared to having naval aviation in close. I’m disagreeing with the overheated rhetoric about “the end of American power projection, any pretensions to global and possibly regional hegemony.” Too far!

          In addition to the expansion in the capabilities of the bomber fleet – which serves to greatly reduce the sheer numbers needed by greatly upping accuracy, and thus making each sortie count a great deal more – your statement is too absolute about the aircraft carriers themselves. They would be forced to stand farther off, thus reducing the number of sorties by making the planes fly further, but they wouldn’t be out of the battle.

          The Iranians will target the tankers, forcing US naval task forces and assets into harms way, in a littoral, war-fighting environment to protect those tankers.

          …for as long as their minute Navy and shore batteries remained operational. Even a carrier-less Navy + air power could suppress Iranian fire.

          BTW, the reference to “Missouri” is to one of the bases from which B-2s fly – and from which they have been used any number of times to hit targets in the region and return home. I could just as well have said Diego Garcia or Baghram.

  6. The low-key war between the US and Iran could be ratcheted up by legislation just passed by Congress that targets the Central Bank, based in Tehran.”

    A few details about the “low key war” would be fascinating since the Administration has give no indication to the public that it exists. What are we doing to Iran, and almost more importantly, what is Iran doing to us?

  7. “In any case, rising Egyptian-Israeli tensions for the first time since the early 1970s present a severe challenge to US policy, which attempts to maintain good relations with both.”

    I’d qualify that with ‘as long as Egyptians recognize their sub-altern status’. It seems as if the Bondsman has had enough – the challenge for the US is to accept that and work within a new Middle East.

  8. Re. Challenge 2, Elections in Egypt: according to Ron Nixon NYT 4/14/11, same American sponsored NGOs investigated by Egyptian army now were there under Mubarak promoting democracy & training activists; indirect role in Arab Spring. If so, how can the Arab Spring have come as a surprise to the US (see your Ten Myths)? Now that outcome elections will be political Islam in Egypt, prob. Libya, etc. relations with Israel will be affected. Will US policy re. Israel change or will US try to rein in political Islam e.g. by supporting Egyptian army? Will it look the other way while Assad continues repression? Will it support MB victory at polls in Libya?

    • If so, how can the Arab Spring have come as a surprise to the US?

      Organizations like the National Democratic Institute and private pro-democracy NGOs have operations all over the world. It’s still a surprise when a democratic uprising breaks out. They’re not a very powerful tool for making things happen on our schedule.

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