Four Global Crisis Spots

Of course, any American president has umpteen international issues to address in any given year – including those that can be foreseen as well as those that pop up. Managing the three big wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan), the three additional major crisis spots (North Korea, Iran, the Arab-Israeli “peace process”), and the three big, new rising or declining powers of the early 21st century (Russia, China, India) takes a huge amount of time and effort. So do other broad transnational issues including energy and climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, international crime, immigration. And the global economy continues to be perhaps the most important issue of all in many ways.

But for my money, four specific security issues will reach crucial and predictable milestones in 2010 – and for all of them, the role of American policy will have a major influence on outcomes. They are the following:

Afghanistan. Although some worry that his timeline to start bringing U.S. troops home in mid-2011 suggests wavering commitment, President Obama has in fact been very tough and resolute in regards to this war. He will effectively triple U.S. combat forces in the war in his first 18 months in office, ultimately siding with Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Pentagon leadership over some major doubters in the White House and the Democratic Party. But as commendable as this decision was, it reflected only our inputs to policy, and should not be confused with results.

In the course of 2010 we will see if the strategy, now that it is properly resourced (with Gen. McChrystal soon to have at least 95 percent of all the troops he requested), can really work. This will require among other things continued engagement with President Hamid Karzai, including a friendly but firm sort of pressure to improve his governance, and constant attention to the civilian side of the policy, starting with the need for a strong international aid coordinator as counterpart to Gen. McChrystal in his military role. Look for growing areas of the country in which violence begins to subside gradually, and Afghans increasingly show confidence in NATO and their own government, if things go as we hope.

Pakistan. Here the U.S. role is less direct, of course, but the stakes are even higher. The dynamics are not totally dissimilar. Again, we need to help prop up the legitimacy and improve the performance of an indigenous government of questionable standing among its own people. We also need to help in continuing to reverse battlefield trends that were going the wrong way into at least part of 2009. The government has gained greater resolve in recent months but there is a long ways to go. And the nation’s economy went into a funk along with most of the rest of the globe in late 2008 and 2009, jeopardizing efforts to bring Pakistan’s huge youth demographics into the labor force.

U.S. policy went in the right direction in 2009 with more security and economic aid flowing to Islamabad. But we need to work with Pakistanis to be sure the money gets to the right places, including the nation’s northwest and its school system and its underclasses. And we need to continue our long, slow efforts to bolster America’s relationship with the country after years of neglect and distrust on both sides. More aid resources may be needed, if Pakistan’s policies improve enough to warrant further investment.

Iran. Alas Tehran is headed towards a nuclear bomb in all likelihood, and it is dubious that even a military strike could do more than delay the inevitable. But we can make the costs so high that Iran’s leaders either think twice about their pursuit of a bomb, or further jeopardize their moral and political authority with their own people. This requires patient application of sanctions, a policy begun under President Bush and increasingly intensified under Mr. Obama as he realized that leaders in Tehran in fact were not interested in “unclenching their fist,” to use the line from his inaugural address.

2010 will likely be the year when any Israeli military strike would occur; my own hope is that it will not happen, and that instead we will continue to harness international indignation with Tehran to put pressure on its leaders. Even if we fail to prevent Iran from getting the bomb in this way, we can move seamlessly into a policy of containment that limits the size of Iran’s arsenal while making clear to future leaders of the country that they can only rejoin the international community through verifiable disarmament in the future.

Nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear weapons testing. Finally, 2010 is the year when the U.S. Senate may consider ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) on nuclear weapons, signed under Bill Clinton but previously rejected by the Senate during his administration. Since then, our nuclear arsenal has held up even better than expected, more alternatives to nuclear testing to preserve confidence in the arsenal have been devised, and verification methods have been honed (allowing us for example to detect North Korea’s sub-kiloton test of 2006). The case for ratification is strong. If it occurs here, that will be a good boost in the arm for the broader international effort to delegitimize nuclear weapons – not necessarily stopping Iran from getting the bomb, alas, but making it easier to pressure Tehran as well as leaders in Pyongyang if they move in provocative nuclear directions.

So battlefield trends in Afghanistan and Pakistan, sanctions trends towards Iran, and the fate of the CTBT in the U.S. Senate would be among my most important indicators to watch on the international front in 2010.