Eleven hot spots to keep an eye on in the year ahead.
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.
5. Aggressiveness in Moscow. Czar Vladimir’s Russia will continue to push and probe the West. Angered by Washington’s determination to build—and Europe’s eagerness to host—missile defenses, Putin and his puppets have engaged in a host of Cold War-style behavior of late: simulated invasions of Poland (complete with mock nuclear attacks), outlandish and outsized claims on the Arctic, bomber buzzings of U.S. ships and of Canadian airspace, diplomatic gamesmanship over Iran’s nuclear program, and mischief in Central Asia aimed at undermining NATO operations in Afghanistan. As long as Putin is pulling the levers of power—and that could be a very long time—and as long as global energy demand keeps oil prices high, Russia will conduct a foreign policy at odds with the West.
6. Sunset in Europe? Speaking of the West, that part of the West known as Europe seems to be withering away. Not only are countries like Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy bankrupt or on the verge of insolvency, not only is the EU’s once-vaunted euro nearing a breaking point, but Europe—at least its western half—is taking actions that will dramatically reduce its capacity to exert international influence: The British army is shrinking to 95,000 troops; Britain’s fleet of destroyers and frigates will be cut from 23 to just 10 ships; Britain’s only aircraft carrier capable of deploying fixed-wing planes will be mothballed; and entire squadrons of warplanes will be retired. Britain and France are so focused on defense cuts that they have agreed to share an aircraft carrier. Germany will shed 70,000 military personnel over the next three years. Italy is planning 10-percent cuts in every ministry, translating into the reduction of 10,000 troops. Not coincidentally, several European nations are pulling out of Afghanistan or planning their exits.
7. Sunset for the Space Shuttle. The Space Shuttle will make its final flight sometime this year, probably in the spring. Regrettably, the last Shuttle flight will begin America’s self-imposed exile from space. Because the United States has no replacement for the Shuttle ready, America will rely on Russian rockets to deliver U.S. astronauts and unmanned vehicles to handle U.S. interests in space. That’s not a good position to be in.
8. Deepening Problems in Mexico. The optimists look at Mexico’s bloody drug war, which claimed some 13,000 people in 2010, and see it as proof that the Mexican government is standing up to the cartels and committed to defending the rule of law. And that may be true. But the realists look at Mexico and see a nearly failed state—on America’s border. USAToday reports that U.S. forces are in Mexico, although they are limited to “small numbers of trainers who do not participate in operations.” According to U.S. Northern Command, U.S. military training teams rotate through Mexico each year. When will the situation demand more from the U.S. military? The U.S. Joint Forces Command issued a paper in 2008 challenging policymakers and military planners to prepare for a worst-case scenario involving the “rapid and sudden collapse” of Mexico, adding, “Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response.”
9. The War on Terror Spreading. Speaking of failed states, the epicenter of the war on terror is spreading in two directions. One of them is Pakistan. The dramatic increase in U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan in 2010 is indication that a) Washington views the terror threat in Pakistan as real and b) Islamabad is either unable or unwilling to deal with the threat in an effective manner.
10. Yemen Worsening. The other place where the war on terror will likely be waged more vigorously in 2011 is Yemen. Rep. Jane Harman, an expert on intelligence issues, warns, “We’re much more likely to be attacked in the U.S. by someone inspired by, or trained by, people in Yemen than anything that comes out of Afghanistan.” Yemen’s branch of al Qaeda (AQAP) has been very active of late: the parcel-bomb plot that attempted to take down aircraft with bombs disguised as printing cartridges; the so-called “underwear bomber” who tried to blow Northwest 253 out of the sky on Christmas Day in 2009; the downing of a UPS cargo plane in September 2010; and the killing of at least 50 Yemeni officials in 2010 are all linked to AQAP. Counterterrorism funding for Yemen more than doubled in 2010, jumping from $70 million to $155 million. U.S. Central Command recently proposed sending $1.2 billion in aid and equipment to Yemen over the next five years—or $240 million annually. To put that in perspective, this category of funding for Yemen was just $4.6 million in 2006.
11. No News in Iraq. Finally, if the trend lines of the past 40 months hold, it’s a safe bet that Iraq won’t be in the news in 2011, because good news is not news, at least not according to major media outlets.
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.