New year's list: America faces a thicket of foreign challenges

Written by Susan Mannella on .

Predicting which foreign policy issues will consume the attention of the United States in 2010 requires the observer to differentiate between chronic problems and unanticipated ones.

America's deep-set foreign policy challenges include the 7-year-old war in Iraq, the 9-year-old war in Afghanistan and the 62-year-old Middle East conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. All three will demand U.S. attention next year.

In Iraq the problem will be withdrawing the 120,000 U.S. troops on schedule, starting with 70,000 by the end of August. The Iraqis are already fighting among themselves and those who have a stake in American troops remaining there to keep them in power -- starting with Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki and his government -- will drag their feet to slow the U.S. withdrawal. From the American point of view, considering both troops and money, it is essential that this affair be brought to an end on time.

In Afghanistan, and the closely related problem of Pakistan, the hard part will be escalating the U.S. troop presence there by 30,000, to 100,000 while, first, demonstrating to the American people that what is being achieved is worth the cost in casualties and money, and, second, not agitating the Afghans and the Pakistanis to the extent that resistance to the U.S. role is broadened and heightened.

The problems in the two countries are different. In Afghanistan, the United States seeks to encourage President Hamid Karzai's government to take more responsibility for what happens, particularly on the security side. In Pakistan, it is rather a question of not taking action in 2010 that results in the overthrow of its fragile civilian government. In both countries, civilian casualties caused by U.S. military action -- particularly unmanned aircraft attacks -- continue to increase anti-American fury among the population. The worst scenario, which is increasingly possible, is that Pakistani and Afghan government forces begin fighting against Americans in 2010.

The Middle East peace process, designed to bring to an end the old conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, is stalled cold again. The Israelis are playing Bob the Builder on settlements, the Palestinians are close to hopelessly divided and the Americans seem to have no leverage with either. There is no reason to think that paralysis in the negotiations means peace and quiet. It is likely, rather, that the Palestinians, feeling increasingly cornered, will step up the violence against the Israelis and the Israelis will then come down on them with full force. A third intifada, or uprising, in 2010 would put heavy pressure on the United States, considered to be Israel's minder, to become much more involved in reviving the peace process. That, for President Barack Obama, will be time-consuming, heavy diplomatic lifting.

America's "company store" relationship with China will be an issue in 2010, if for nothing else than its economic and financial implications here at home. The United States buys big from China; China loans the money back to the U.S. government to keep it afloat with its huge level of debt. America must have some room to push and pull with China on global issues, such as climate change, but it is limited in what it can do because of the vital financial relationship. This problem will only get worse next year and is probably chronic.

Smaller but nonetheless serious issues include the new, escalating U.S. involvement in the civil war in Yemen, America's evolving relationship with the new government in Japan, prickly ties with Russia and trying to be friends with everyone in Latin America while sticking Washington's thumb in the eyes of Cuba and Venezuela. The Somali pirates must remain a problem that the United States does not clasp to its breast. Mexico probably needs to be considered a domestic, as opposed to a foreign policy, problem for the most part, given the close overall relationship.

Then there are the multilateral issues -- climate change, epidemics, counterterrorism, nuclear nonproliferation, disarmament and the like. Probably at least one of the 54 African countries will implode in 2010.

All in all, there will be plenty to do and crawling beneath the covers is not an option, tempting though isolationism might be in the face of this unappetizing menu.

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