The year ahead is likely to bring unforeseen foreign-policy challenges.  Two years ago nobody anticipated the “Arab Spring,” and that phenomenon’s causes, significance, and future developments are still a matter of dispute.  The North Korean regime is fundamentally less stable than at any time since the 1950-53 war, and its sudden unraveling could cause a first-class regional tsunami.  Similar uncertainty applies to Pakistan, a chronically fragile multiethnic state ruled by the Punjabi elite, with three quarters of the country’s 180 million Muslims perceiving the United States as an enemy.  All of Africa, on both sides of the Sahara, is unstable.  Last but not least, the euro may collapse and leave a trail of social, economic, and political devastation in its wake.

Setting such “known unknowns” aside, several key themes will be on Obama’s foreign-policy agenda in the months ahead that will require strategic planning and realist assessment of costs and benefits—decisionmaking imperatives that were obviously missing in last summer’s Syrian crisis.  The first of them is the U.S. relationship with China, which I outlined in some detail in the December issue.  The still-unresolved strategic dilemma is whether the United States should try to contain China by maintaining regional preponderance, or develop offshore-balancing strategies that will accommodate change while upholding key American interests in the region.

The “pivot to Asia” has no geostrategic substance so long as this question remains open.  The Chinese believe, with some reason, that the “pivot” is designed to curtail their attempts to redefine the regional balance in line with the changing relative strength of the key players.  The potential for a sudden crisis is greater than it would have been had a reassessment of U.S. goals in the region taken place before the pivot was announced.  That reassessment should start with the acceptance that America’s economic, military, and moral power is declining in relation to the growing powers of the Eurasian heartland, and that managing desirable outcomes along its edges—in Europe, in the greater Middle East, the Subcontinent, and the Far East—requires a strategic leitmotif.  The maintenance of U.S. carrier groups in Japan, ground forces on the 38th Parallel, and air bases in Guam and Diego Garcia should be connected to a coherent grand strategy.  Such a strategy would need to take into account the fact that China’s economic and political weight versus that of the other countries in the region—U.S. allies Japan and South Korea included—is far greater now than that of the Soviet Union vis-à-vis our European allies during the Cold War.  Preoccupied as he is with domestic fiascos of his own making, President Barack Obama should find the time to initiate a thorough interdepartmental examination of the issue.

In Syria the fighting will continue, but a military stalemate has already taken place.  The Christian-killing rebels are controlling large areas in the north and east of the country, while government forces have extended control over their strongholds in Damascus, the coastal strip, and the areas along the border with Lebanon.  Bashar’s forces will not collapse, and the rebels will not unite.  Neither side can win, which should be just fine with the United States.

In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood has been unable to prevent the military from establishing control.  Its leaders are in jail, and those still at large have been unable to adjust to pressure and revert to the underground tactics that functioned well under Mubarak.  Egypt’s “deep state” has been able to stabilize the country, partly because of General Sisi’s prudent disregard for Brotherhood-friendly advice coming from Washington.  Egypt’s future president will face many challenges in 2014, especially in kick-starting the country’s faltering economy, but dealing with them will be easier with the Muslim Brotherhood’s ongoing demise as a major political, social, and moral force.  That demise fits in neatly with the American interest in the region, and should be accepted with good grace.  Some time next spring, Obama should resume military aid to Egypt—a minor budgetary item—to underscore that acceptance and to help Sisi contain the ongoing Al Qae­da insurgency in the Sinai.

Negotiations with Iran will continue in 2014, and there will be no war (as I have predicted in these pages every year since Obama’s election).  In the end, it is likely that Iran will remain only theoretically nuclear-capable—which is to say, allowed to enrich uranium at low levels in return for a gradual easing of sanctions—within the purview of an international supervision regime designed to prevent any sudden weaponizing breakthrough.  Israel and Saudi Arabia are unhappy that the United States will not enter a risky imbroglio for the sake of their strategic interests, but neither will act unilaterally to alter that outcome.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened to do so, but he was not being serious.

Despite Washington’s rhetoric, the U.S. government does not support Israel’s insistence that all Iranian uranium-enrichment facilities should be shut down and all stocks of fissile material removed from the country.  In the final settlement Iran’s demand that she should not be prevented from the legal use of nuclear technology for electricity generation and other peaceful purposes is likely to be accepted in some form.

In 2014 Secretary of State John Kerry will likely continue his quest for a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  That endeavor is futile.  Israel is no longer seriously interested in a two-state solution, much to the peril of her long-term survival as a Jewish state.  The Palestinian leadership cannot settle for anything less.  If and when the two sides decide that it is in their interest to sign a deal, it will happen regardless of the good offices of an intermediary seen as untrustworthy by one side and fundamentally biased by the other.  It would be in the American interest to sit back and let them continue on their long road to nowhere until they decide they have had enough.

In the final months of 2013 U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia took a sharply downward turn, starting with Riyadh’s unprecedented refusal of a two-year stint on the U.N. Security Council.  The Saudi royals are unhappy that the United States did not intervene in Syria in September and even more displeased with the subsequent thaw in Washington’s relations with Tehran.  Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who used to be one of the most influential foreigners in Washington during his 22-year ambassadorial tenure, told European diplomats at the end of October that the kingdom would make a “major shift” in relations with the United States.  On the same day another influential Saudi royal, former intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal, openly criticized Obama’s policies on Iran and Syria in a speech delivered in Washington.

The State Department has tried to downplay these differences, but John Kerry’s visit to Riyadh on November 4 left them unresolved.  In the meantime Saudi stock is falling in Washington.  “We know their game,” U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a senior House Democrat, told Reuters.  “They’re trying to send a signal that we should all get involved militarily in Syria, and I think that would be a big mistake to get in the middle of the Syrian civil war,” he continued.  “And the Saudis should start by stopping their funding of the al Qaeda-related groups in Syria.”  More significantly, in mid-November CIA Director John Brennan reportedly canceled a scheduled meeting with Prince Bandar at short notice.

The Saudis are aware that the United States is on the road to energy self-sufficiency thanks to shale gas, and that their influence in Washington will diminish accordingly.  In hopes of postponing that moment, they are keen for Iran to remain under sanctions, not only because of strategic and sectarian rivalry (which is real), but because loosening sanctions would bring some 800,000 barrels of Iranian oil to the global market, driving prices down and eroding Saudi earnings and clout.  Having lived for decades under the American military umbrella, they are also worried by the “pivot to Asia,” which is intended to move America’s focus away from the Middle East.

The Saudi connection is ready for a thorough review.  It is in the American interest to give up the fiction that Saudi Arabia is an ally of the United States.  It is not in the American interest to side with the Saudis’ jihadist clients in Syria, or to support Riyadh in the regional Sunni-Shi’ite power struggle, not to mention the ongoing Saudi-financed spread of Wahhabism in the West.  Quite the contrary: That interest would be best served by encouraging the development of a regional balance-of-power system, which demands continued dialogue with Iran and gradual diplomatic and military disengagement from the region.  By not appeasing the royal kleptocracy, President Obama may partly atone for his infamous low bow when he met Saudi King Abdullah in 2009.  A step in the right direction in the year ahead would be for the Obama administration to consider relocating the home of the U.S Fifth Fleet away from Bahrain, a Saudi client state with a Shi’ite majority, and a simmering social and political cauldron.  Another would be to make the administration’s eccentric preoccupation with “human rights” applicable to the desert bastion of Islamofascism.  Asking for the right of Saudi women to drive cars would be consistent with U.S. foreign-policy obsessions in other parts of the world.

A major uncertainty in 2014 concerns the scheduled completion of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of the year.  John Kerry announced on November 20 that the United States and Afghanistan had signed a bilateral security agreement that may provide for an indefinite deployment of U.S. soldiers in the country, albeit no longer as “combat troops.”  Two days earlier Gen. Martin Dempsey of the Joint Chiefs admitted that Afghanistan could not survive without “a ubiquitous presence of U.S. military forces.”  That much is true, but the continued presence of American forces—however limited—is futile.  It cannot and will not deter Afghanistan’s eventual return to the tribal state of nature.

The American interest will continue to suffer from the absence of a consistent grand strategy in 2014.  The balance between the ends and means of American power in a multipolar world has not been found.  A new, realist paradigm is needed. 

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