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With showdowns over spending, taxes and health care looming in 2011, it would be easy to focus on politics and domestic policy this year. But the White House and Congress should keep an eye on what’s happening in the world. As President Kennedy reminded his advisors, “Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.” What was true in 1961 is just as true in 2011.
1. Danger in Iran. Iran’s been a dangerous place for American interests since the 1979 revolution. Ever since, Iran has funded and fomented terror. Now, as the mullahs race toward joining the nuclear club, things seem to be nearing a tipping point. It was a year ago April, after all, that a high-level U.S. intelligence official concluded that Iran could have a nuclear bomb in 2011. The Arab states have quietly given Washington a green light to strike. The Europeans have begun to put teeth into their sanctions. And Israel is pressing Washington to do more—and soon. Perhaps Washington is beginning to move, albeit quietly. All we can piece together are shards and fragments of evidence: vague reports that Special Operations forces may be deployed for intelligence gathering in Iran, the successful Stuxnet cyber-attacks and well-timed comments from military officials that the U.S. has contingency plans to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.
2. Testing Times in Korea. As Kim Jong Il paves the way for the transfer of power to his son, and as South Korea continues to push back against North Korean aggression, the odds are good that Korea will be in the news for all the wrong reasons in 2011. What can we expect? North Korea’s actions in 2010 were among the most provocative and least constructive of any in the past decade: missile tests, artillery attacks and the sinking of a South Korean ship. We can hope for North Korea to be miraculously transformed from within, like Eastern Europe in 1989; we can hope for North Korea to learn from China and allow for economic liberalization; we can hope for China to start acting like a responsible regional actor and pull the reins on Pyongyang; we can even hope that the end of Kim Jong Il will create an opening for peaceful unification. Of course, that’s what everyone hoped in 1994-95, when Kim Jong Il took power after the passing of Kim Il Sung. In other words, we shouldn’t count on any of those outcomes. President Obama’s goal in 2011 will be the same as that of his predecessors: to avoid another Korean war. That’s how U.S. administrations measure success in Korea. And given what a second Korean war would look like, it’s a worthy goal.
3. Muscle Flexing in Japan. Japan is definitely preparing for the worst on the Korean peninsula. Doubtless, Tokyo is bracing for another North Korean nuclear test and watching the skies for another North Korean ICBM disguised as a “satellite.” Stung into action by North Korea’s artillery attack on South Korea and the North’s ongoing development of long-range missilery, the Japanese government has announced plans to deploy missile-defense assets “on all major Japanese islands,” UPI reports. With an eye on Beijing, Tokyo also plans to build up defenses in its southwestern territories and strengthen security partnerships with South Korea, Australia, India and the United States.
4. Opportunity for China. As alluded to above, 2011 will present Beijing with plenty of opportunities to prove it is a responsible regional player. Beijing could start by playing hard ball with Pyongyang. It could also stop its missile buildup opposite Taiwan, slow its military spending binge, explain its deployment of new carrier-killing missilery, and act more transparently in military matters and less aggressively in territorial disputes. But as with North Korea, the United States and its Pacific allies cannot base their defense policy on hope and hypotheticals. The odds are that Beijing won’t make the most of these opportunities. And so, Australia, Japan and the United States will continue to pursue a hedging strategy vis-à-vis China; India will continue to gravitate closer to the U.S.; countries like Vietnam and the Philippines will seek deeper partnerships with the U.S.; and the Asia-Pacific region will continue to be a dangerous place.
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