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International troublespots bedevil U.S. elections

Iraq and Afghanistan are making headlines this week, but North Korea and Pakistan present growing foreign-policy concerns. Here's a survey, and a chastened hope that matters just don't get worse.
North Korea presents a threat that could color U.S. election campaigns over the next two years. Here, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates look out over North Korea from the Demilitarized Zone.

North Korea presents a threat that could color U.S. election campaigns over the next two years. Here, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates look out over North Korea from the Demilitarized Zone. Cherie Cullen/U.S. Department of Defense

Labor Day marks the traditional kickoff of the political-campaign season, although in recent years that season has never ended. The current financial/economic situation — and, most importantly, the unemployment rate — will be issue No. 1 in this fall's congressional and state-level campaigns. Yes, even larger than our local decisions about marijuana legalization and control of state liquor sales.

But just below the surface lurk foreign policy/national security issues that will grow in importance going into the 2012 national elections. An overseas crisis, or domestic terrorist incident, could become issue No. 1 this fall, if it were sufficiently large and dramatic. Let's sort these issues out. Some will be more important two years from now than they are today.

Iraq: Only some 50,000 U.S. troops, none in a combat role, remain stationed in Iraq. Present plans call for their withdrawal by the end of 2011. But there is a big question: What if, by then, the country remains unstable and Iranian and Al Qaida influence appears to be growing?

An Iraqi government is yet to be formed, many months after national elections earlier this year. Terrorist bombings and other incidents are again on the upswing. Their objective, of course, is to demonstrate that Iraqi military and security forces cannot maintain order within the country. This is the classic tactic, historically, of insurgent groups trying to undermine those in power. Ordinary citizens, anywhere, value daily security over everything else. When those governing cannot provide it, they are rejected.

Neighboring Iran has been infiltrating and funding Shiite factions and, additionally, providing arms and money to terrorists. It seeks to control, or have a major voice, in whatever eventual Iraqi regime emerges. Other Iraqi neighbors also have a hand in domestic intrigue there.

Why can't Iraqi leaders get their political act together? Can't they see that, without a functioning and publicly accepted central government, chaos could reign? The answer is that the country historically has been divided among Shiiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, and factions within those groups, and there is no tradition of peaceful, democratic consensus-building among them.

Factions do not compromise; they contest each other for power. It is quite possible that, a year from now, not much will have changed from the status quo. That is, a credible, respected central government will not yet be in place, and those seeking power will simply be waiting for the U.S. to clear out before making their final moves.

Afghanistan: The situation there is even more perplexing. We have many more troops stationed in Afghanistan than in Iraq and they are actively in combat. Afghanistan, also, is a country without a tradition of viable, democratically elected central governments. It has over centuries shed outsiders who were confident of their power to change the society or control events.

The Taliban are not popular among ordinary Afghans. But, on the other hand, neither are local officials, perceived as corrupt and ineffectual. The tribal culture's traditions date back centuries. A well known Afghan saying: I against my brothers; my brothers and I against our cousins; my brothers, cousins, and I against everyone.

The principal domestic industry there is production and marketing of narcotics. Neighboring Pakistan — playing a double game — allows Taliban and Al Qaida fighters and their weapons to move freely across the Pak-Afghan border and to find refuge on Pak territory.

President Obama initially pointed to a mid-2011 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Since then, he and Pentagon leaders have clarified that mid-2011 would mark only the beginning of a drawdown.

We have made progress in recent months with special-operations forays against Taliban and Al Qaida leaders. But, longer term, there is no possibility whatever of a decisive military victory that could empower an accepted central government. The notion of "winning hearts and minds" is a nice one but largely irrelevant. Afghans will cast their lot with whomever can provide order and security in their immediate living areas. Time is not on our side.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Sep 2, 8:50 a.m. Inappropriate

A good overview of the immediate foreign policy challenges. You might add to that list the deteriorating situation in Mexico, where the battle between the government and drug lords is approaching the level of an insurgency.

I would have to disagree with the comment about the Taliban taking over Pakistan. This scenario, floated quite often in the press, is not realistic. The Taliban finds its base of support almost entirely in the northwest part of the country, a rural, almost a "wild west" kind of location. They have no support in urbanized Pakistan. While dangerous and formidable, their level of strength is such that they could never challenge the national government directly. As for the strength of that national government, Pakistani civil society is stronger that most Americans give it credit for, and the central government is more stable. An analogy to US history, which illustrates the unlikelihood of the Taliban taking over Pakistan, would be of the KKK taking over the US federal government in the 1880s.

Posted Thu, Sep 2, 10:48 a.m. Inappropriate

"The futures of Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and North Korea all lie within the hands of the inhabitants of those countries."

I hope this is not the case, at least for North Korea. The residents are starving and brainwashed. If you're right, my chances of being able to visit my mother's village before I start drawing Social Security are even worse than my chances of being able to draw Social Security.

Posted Thu, Sep 2, 12:36 p.m. Inappropriate

Quinn, the conspiratorial view of Islam that you have repeatedly posted here in recent days is reminiscent of the seventeenth century railings about the evils of "popery".

Posted Thu, Sep 2, 3 p.m. Inappropriate

An important wild card in any analysis of US foreign policy, especially as it relates to conflict zones, is the role of development. Support for development and all it entails is increasingly becoming the third leg of our foreign policy along with defense and diplomacy. The Obama administration, from the Defense Department to the State Department, and actually across the whole of federal government, is engaged in a thorough revision of our foreign assistance programs. The Pentagon’s generals have made it clear in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review that civilian leadership in the areas of humanitarian aid, development, and governance is essential, and must compliment military strength. As does the President’s National Security Strategy released in May.

At the center of the new thinking is how we can support the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, and thereby best extend our foreign policy concerns to more least-developed nations, including incipient major conflict zones such as the Horn of Africa, as well as to the some of the current hot spots. One of those, Palestine (the West Bank part), is now experiencing a growing economy which is credited with helping to change the minds of some opponents to a peace accord with Israel.

The State Department has just issued the US Strategy for meeting the MDGs, honchoed by Dr. Rajiv Shah; head of USAID and formerly with the Gates Foundation. The Strategy involves numerous new global initiatives that address food security, health, education, and other important development goals. And Shah will play a central role in the UN’s Summit on the MDGs in New York later this month.

All of this is playing out with little media attention. It should be one of the biggest news stories, even though it may not yield the short-term results some politicians and pundits wish for.

Posted Thu, Sep 2, 3:35 p.m. Inappropriate

Responding to issues raised in the above comments.

1. An Islamic takeover of Pakistan is our worst nightmare but not at this point a probability. But it is important to prepare for worst-case situations. Any such takeover, of course, would not take place through normal electoral processes but through a coup undertaken by intelligence-service, military, and extremist political elements.

2. Dick Nelson is quite right that wise economic-development strategies
can help low- and rising-income countries achieve stability. But these for the most part are not related to the most vexing trouble spots. Poverty is not neceesarily a precursor to wrenching political disorder.
Leaders of extremist and violent movements often as not havc eomc from
well-educated and often comfortable personal backgrounds. People who have the time and inclination for political theory. The obvious most recent example is Osama bin Laden. Pakistan has made striking economic progress in recent years---at least until the floods now swamping the country---yet at the same time has seen rising levels of extremist activity and sentiment.

3. Yes, I could have listed Mexico as well. Narcotics gangs have inflitrated and influenced all levels of the Mexican political system. They have destabilized daily life in Mexico. They are involved in human, narcotics, and arms trafficking across our border. Mexico is not, however, a direct military threat to countries of its region. It is unlikely to start a war. It poses a chronic and serious rather than immediate and critical challenge. It is governed corruptly but not by
a regime bent on territorial conquest or imposition of an estreme and rigid ideology either domestically or internationally.

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