New Year Fraught with Old Dangers

By: Greg C. Reeson

It is, of course, impossible to know for sure what dangers the United States will face in 2008. Russian aggressiveness, Chinese military investment, Pakistani instability, and the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are obvious threats that need to be addressed, but the security problems faced by the American government go far beyond the obvious. Danger lurks everywhere, and 2008 promises to challenge us with threats both new and old.

The Middle East, which has presented the United States with challenges to its security since the conclusion of World War II, is a good place to start. And with the security situation in Iraq growing better each day, no country in the Middle East demands more American attention right now than Iran.

Iran has done its very best to live up to its status as a charter member of President Bush’s “axis of evil.” While the recent National Intelligence Estimate surmised that Tehran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, no doubt in part because American troops were a little too close for comfort in neighboring Iraq, the U.S. intelligence community could only say with “moderate confidence” that the program had not been restarted. According to the 2007 Terrorist Threat to the Homeland document produced by the National Intelligence Council, the term “moderate confidence” is used in situations where “…the information is interpreted in various ways, we have alternative views, or the information is credible and plausible but not corroborated sufficiently to warrant a higher level of confidence” (emphasis mine). In other words, they’re not really sure.

Even if Iran has not restarted its weapons program, though, the continued enrichment of uranium in open defiance of United Nations resolutions allows Tehran the ability to convert any civilian nuclear program to a weapons program with relatively little effort. Add to the nuclear issue continued meddling in Iraq, support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, pursuit of advanced military equipment from Russia, and aid to Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and you have an Iranian government that is acting recklessly and dangerously in a bid to become the dominant power in the Middle East. Iran poses a serious threat to the region, to the United States, and to the international community, and that threat cannot be discounted.

Iraq faces a critical year in 2008, one which will have serious implications for our national security. U.S. military forces will begin to draw down from the surge, creating the possibility of fragmentation into separate autonomous regions or even states if political progress is not realized soon. Political accommodation does not necessarily have to start in Baghdad, though, and signs are already emerging that indicate local and provincial governmental bodies are moving forward where the Maliki government in Baghdad remains stalled.

Iraqi security forces are gaining competence and experience with each passing day, and their ability to take over security operations from U.S. forces will be critical to maintaining a unified Iraq. As American troops necessarily begin drawing down, it will be absolutely essential that conditions are created that allow Iraq to move forward without the need for U.S. military forces to return. Diplomatic engagement with Iraq’s neighbors will be critical as well to prevent meddling by regional players eager to take advantage of the U.S. departure.

Afghanistan will continue to be a problem for the United States, and it is possible that additional American military forces will be needed to boost a substandard NATO effort. Only a concerted offensive push against remaining Taliban and al-Qaeda elements, with an easing of national restrictions on troop employment, together with a substantive reconstruction strategy and counter-drug plan will save Afghanistan from the complete collapse it is now facing.

In South Asia, Pakistan is our most immediate concern. The assassination of former Prime Minister and head of the Pakistan People’s Party Benazir Bhutto could lead political fragmentation, forcing President Pervez Musharraf to consolidate his hold on power to prevent all-out civil war. Parliamentary elections scheduled for January 8 will likely be postponed as Musharraf attempts to crack down on the rising extremist threat that Pakistan faces. So far it appears that Musharraf has the support of the military establishment, backing that will be critical to shoring up a weak government that could threaten India and cooperation with the United States in its war against terror in Afghanistan. Musharraf himself is not as important to the United States as is a stable Pakistani government that supports democratic principles and the rule of law.

China will become increasingly important to U.S. national security interests in 2008, and it will be critical to look past the façade China will put up for the Beijing Olympics and focus our efforts on continued abuses of human rights, increasing investment in military capabilities, and looming economic problems that could affect the United States. China is probably the greatest long-term threat to America, and the Taiwanese presidential election scheduled for March could severely strain relations if Taiwan continues to push for independence from the mainland. China could, and should, figure prominently in U.S. negotiations with North Korea. While some progress was made last year, North Korea will take advantage of U.S. commitments elsewhere to trade nuclear concessions over time for guarantees of regime survival. Newly elected South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak has expressed a desire to work with North Korea and to invest in the North’s economy, no doubt an attempt to ease the massive financial burden that will accompany a North Korean implosion. Stability on the Korean peninsula is important to the United States, and desires for a nuclear-free North will have to be balanced against the consequences of governmental collapse.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin will leave the presidency and take up the role of prime minister. He is extremely popular with the citizenry, having moved Russia from the dark days following the collapse of the Soviet Union to a resurgent world power exerting its influence in the Caucasus, the Middle East, and in its diplomatic efforts at the United Nations. Russians once again see themselves as a great power, and Putin feels emboldened to continue his move away from democracy and toward autocratic control. Russia will in the coming year continue to oppose American efforts on its periphery, and will likely continue to back Serbia’s claim to the Kosovo Province. A unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo could spell disaster for U.S.-Russian relations, and could lead to a new round of bloodshed in the region. Russian aggressiveness will continue, and Putin will fight the United States on ballistic missile defense, Iran, the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, and NATO expansion.

Africa will continue to present significant challenges for the United States, with continuing conflict in Somalia, Darfur (and across Sudan), the Congo, and Uganda. The establishment of a new U.S. military combatant command, AFRICOM, should facilitate more significant American engagement on the continent. Military training for African nations, maritime security, economic development, and counterterrorism will be crucial to the future of what is fast becoming a security nightmare for the rest of the world.

In Latin America, Hugo Chavez will continue to oppose all things American, and his pursuit of foreign military equipment presents a major security threat to the region and to the United States. There is the potential for an arms race in our backyard while criminal elements and drug traffickers threaten the Southern U.S. border. 2008 could be a pivotal year for Cuba, especially if Fidel Castro fails to survive the next several months. In the event of Castro’s death, his brother Raul is likely to crack down on dissent in an effort to hold on to power, although his efforts will probably prove to be futile. The United States may well have to confront a governmental collapse in Cuba this year, and a strategy that involves key regional players will be critical for handling the demise of the Castros.

The next twelve months will be fraught with peril for the United States, and eyes around the world will be focused on the run-up to the November presidential election. Some states will take advantage of the uncertainty in America to jockey for position both regionally and internationally, while others will sit quietly and wait to see what happens. Foreign policy should be a determining factor in the election, and both our friends and our foes will be watching to see which candidate emerges victorious. This election is one of the most critical U.S. presidential contests in decades, and our choice will be critical to American standing in the world.

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