In 2012, Dr. Lamont Colucci was approached by U.S. News and World Report to write a weekly column on foreign policy and national security. This is under the aegis of World Report – Insights, perspectives, and commentary on foreign affairs. View the article on USNews.com
2015 will go down as an annus horribilis for United States foreign affairs and national security. The missteps of two terms of the Obama administration have blossomed into a new normal of crises, competition and miscalculation. In general the international system and in parallel fashion U.S. foreign policy is more problematic today than on Jan. 1 of this year. The Obama administration’s reliance on inertia has hit a wall that can no longer hold. The numerous forks in the road have become narrow and tortured and the next president will need to spend an enormous amount of time correcting these mistakes.
One can examine a number of case studies that are illustrative of the major issues in the world today and include the following: The Islamic State group and Islamic extremism, cyberwar, Libya, Russia, Ukraine, China, Japan, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. There is not a single one that shows more promise today than a year ago. The current administration has plunged the country into a permanent crisis mode that is dangerous and to many, incomprehensible.
Islamic State group and Islamic extremism. The Islamic State group has dominated world media attention and is considered by many to be the single most difficult issue that will face the next president in the near term. Although the Islamic State group does not pose a strategic threat in the manner that Russia or China could, it poses the worst problem for our Middle Eastern allies such as Israel and Jordan and contributes to a multitude of other problems such as the destabilization of Iraq and refugees, and is an illustration of the problems of current American foreign policy. Though the Islamic State group has stalled on some of its territorial conquests, it has also metastasized into areas well beyond the borders of the northern Middle East. The Islamic State group, its adherents, franchises and allies have claimed to be behind attacks in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Turkey, Algeria, the Philippines, Nigeria, Sudan, Lebanon, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Tunisia and Mali.
The Islamic State group also poses a growing threat to homeland security and claimed to be behind the May 5 attack in Garland, Texas. The FBI in the Twin Cities area openly worries about Islamic State-inspired attacks among the Somali population. The potential here for “lone wolves,” or “self-radicalized” inspired and affiliated attacks is high and has already been witnessed in places like France where the Islamic State group is linked to the Charlie Hebdo attack in January and the train attack (stopped primarily by three American servicemen) in August. Western nations also believe that the Islamic State group was behind the October bombing of the Russian airliner traveling from Egypt back to Russia, killing all 224 people on board. The paradigm shifted on Nov. 13, 2015, when three Islamic State assault teams engaged in a well-coordinated mass attack in Paris, resulting in over 100 dead. This coupled with assaults during the same time period against civilian targets in Beirut and Baghdad has forced all governments to reevaluate their policies. In May 2015, the Islamic State group claimed to have cells in 15 states in the United States of America. By year’s end, this all came to fruition with the death of 14 Americans in San Bernardino. The intelligence and law enforcement community seem to all be suggesting that 2016 will be worse.
Although the Islamic State group is facing pressure from a variety of nation states and allied groups, they have managed to transform a radical Sunni terrorist movement led by al-Qaida into a full blown territorial insurgency. This transformation has been missed by the media and even many experts. The Islamic State group is not a terrorist group: Typical counterterrorism tactics, the limited coalition air war, let alone law enforcement measures, will not stop a pseudo-state that has resorted to using chemical weapons.
Further, the Islamic State group has given Russia the twin gift of being so evil that Russian involvement has been perceived as neutral by many, and their client, Assad, is therefore not so bad. Russia can not only justify intervention but support for the current Syrian regime.
Cyberwar. The threat of cyberwarfare continued to rise during this year. Although the media was focused primarily on the November 2014 Sony hack, probably by North Korea, 2015 proved to be a greater security problem in cyberspace. Notably, the two strategic threats to the United States, Russia and China, were behind the most notorious of them. Russia was behind attacks against the German parliament and the American Joints Chiefs of Staff, and China was behind the attacks on the Japanese pension system and the United States Office of Personnel Management. The first notable cyberattack of the year was on the Japan Pension Service. This attack revealed roughly 1.25 million employees’ personal information. In a very similar move, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management was hacked and revealed roughly 22.1 million federal workers’ personal information. China was blamed for both attacks, and some theorize that China is building a database of federal employees. Both the White House and German parliament were hacked within two months, with Russia being the primary suspect. This resulted in the leaking of nonclassified, but sensitive, data. The last hack of note came on July 25. The Joint Chiefs of Staff email was disrupted, and their email server was disrupted for 11 days. The suspected culprit was again Russia.
The next president will need to decide how the United States will respond to cyberattacks that are acts of war.
Libya. Libya is often touted by President Obama and candidates like Hilary Clinton as one of the major foreign policy success stories. The narrative is based on the premise that the United States had a very light footprint and was able to topple the rogue leader, Moammar Gadhafi. However, the story is far from over. Libya has descended into a state of anarchy and chaos divided along rival lines and warlords. Perhaps the greatest threat to U.S. foreign policy is the rise of the Islamic State group in Libya in places like the port city of Sirte. Libya is the Obama foreign policy writ large; it is the perfect foreign policy case study of the two terms of his presidency. It combined the unwillingness to lead, the justification of limited intervention with ambiguous human rights and a total inability to follow through. Although much time has been spent on the tragedy of the events in Benghazi, the larger tragedy of Libya and the worsening situation is the key to understanding the world today under an America that is often in retreat.
Russia. This has been a banner period for Russia. Although many have focused on the problems in the economy, the Russian economy continues to remain slumped, with a 2.2 percent economic decrease in the first quarter and a 4.6 percent decrease from last year. Experts predict that the Russian economy will continue to shudder and hurt despite Putin’s tough stances. However, this has never stopped Russian Tsarism or Soviet imperialism of the past. There is no reason to believe this is different. In fact, a rousing foreign adventure often distracts the Russian population. Russia overtook U.S. diplomacy over the Syrian chemical weapons issue, allowing for the world to calm itself over Assad’s other abuses. Russia then took advantage of the situation to militarily insert itself directly into the Syrian equation. Russia’s geostrategic position in the Middle East has not been this strong since the height of the Cold War. Russia’s foreign policy is based on a cold calculation of Russian national interests abroad, nothing more or less. Second, Russia has clear goals of where it wants to be at the end of these diplomatic exercises.
Russia has re-emerged as a worldwide player and will be the most difficult long-term strategic threat the next president will face.
Ukraine. Directly related to Russia is Ukraine. Jan. 17 marked a major Russian offensive in Ukraine. Claims of at least 9,000 Russia troops arose repeatedly. Beginning in early February and throughout the year, these calls continued, effectively calling Kiev to retreat and surrender. Though continuous efforts toward a peace process would be called throughout the following months, they would all be met with Putin’s insistence that Ukraine leave the rebels alone. Ceasefires were called and broken and in late March and April, hostilities resumed and with it came with another influx of Russian troops on April 24. The summer fighting turned into another round of current ceasefires. The next president will face a fundamental choice of whether to face off against the Russians with strong and lethal assistance to the Ukrainian government. The world media seems to have tired of the issue, and this plays well into Russian designs.
China. China also suffered from poor economic news during this year. China’s growth fell to a 20 year low and it has been forced to devalue its currency to keep imports more competitive. It was able to vie for an international focus point by creating the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank despite protests from the United States. President Xi has attempted to ally public fears with a two-pronged attack. The first is on the domestic front by announcing another round of aggressive anti-corruption campaigns. The second is on demonstrating a more ambitious foreign policy. It is abundantly clear that the People’s Republic of China is in the throes of a revival of 19th-century navalism, realizing that the pathway to great-power status, international-trade protection and intimidation capability runs through maritime power. Since Beijing realizes it still cannot battle the U.S. Navy in a symmetrical fashion, they are investing heavily in information warfare and “non-contact” warfare such as anti-access and area-denial strategies.
China poses the second most important strategic concern to the next president, and whatever merit President Obama’s pivot to Asia has, it will need to be transformed into a coherent, strong and consistent policy in the Pacific Rim.
Japan. In light of the rising threat of China and the continued threat from North Korea, Japan has embarked on its most impressive security change since the 1950s. Japan is hampered by a Constitution that the United States wrote and also depends on America for large areas of its security. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is continuing the evolution away from both of these dependencies by slowly returning Japan to its intrinsic geopolitical imperatives. This continues at a quick pace (for Japan) marked by the Diet’s passage in July of new security changes that give Japan the right to “collective self-defense.” Japan is emerging from its WWII shell, and the trajectory will require a deft policy that ensures the U.S.-Japan alliance which is the lynchpin for all of U.S. foreign policy in Asia.
Iran. The attention paid to Iran has been over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and it has been soundly criticized by many over its verifiability and enforcement mechanisms. Lost in the tumult is Iran’s ramping up activity in Syria to support Assad and Hezbollah, the rebels in Yemen and terrorism in Gaza. The fundamental question for the next president will be whether the nuclear agreement makes sense or whether it needs to be dissolved. However, this does not answer the greater question of U.S. foreign policy towards Iran, which is bent on domination of the region, the state sponsorship of terrorism and the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Instead of focusing on the “comprehensive” plan for action, there needs to be a comprehensive Iranian policy. Iran has proven to be the Obama administration’s worst mistake, and the next president will pay for this disaster with time, money, resources and, most likely, blood.
Afghanistan. The Taliban have shown their resilience this year and managed to spread not only throughout Afghanistan again, but to their farthest extent than 2001. They managed to capture the city of Kunduz despite being massively outnumbered by Afghani forces, and have even been offered a possible position in the government by Afghani leaders. President Obama reversed himself in October, announcing that the total withdrawal of American forces is cancelled and that American forces will remain well into 2016 and possibly beyond. Afghanistan, like Libya, also illustrates the problem of Obama’s foreign policy writ large. The allergy to hard power in large numbers was compounded by a battle-hardened enemy who is determined to win at any cost. All of this is further complicated by the Islamic State’s advance into Afghanistan. The town of Sangin, once a Taliban stronghold, now plays host to the Islamic State group black flag. In addition, the Islamic State group has claimed the Khorasan Province. Although they will clash with the Taliban, this could be a short-lived victory if it gains a serious foothold.
The next president will need to address what victory looks like in Afghanistan and engage a policy that will achieve it.
Syria. Chaos, death and violence in Syria have only worsened. If Libya and Afghanistan illustrate the low points of American foreign policy during this period, Syria is the epic tragedy. Not only have both Assad and the Islamic State group continued to use chemical weapons, but the conditions that America refused to address have allowed the Russians to break down the front door and gain a foothold. Further, although Russia partially justified intervention due to the Islamic State group in Syria, Russia is primarily targeting other anti-Assad rebels, some of which are supported by the United States, who was forced to abandon its $500 million dollar training program. If Russia and China are the long-term strategic issues the next president must come to terms with, and the Islamic State group is the medium term threat, Syria is the issue that the next president faces minutes after inauguration. The situation in Syria is worse today than yesterday, and there is no indication that the problems of American foreign policy will be better come Election Day.
Iraq. Iraq mirrors Syria, and the central government is still in dire straits. Although the United States is trying to train up the Iraq army for their offensives in Anbar province, the Iraq government continues to be plagued by corruption and an inability to gain recruits. The oil-dependent economy suffers from the problems in the world oil market. Further, both Russia and Iran have used this time period to exploit America’s unwillingness to lead and are gaining influence in the Iraq government. The fundamental question the next president will face in Iraq is whether America is committed to an Arab-Muslim democracy in the Middle East or not.
Conclusion. It would be difficult to point to an area in international relations or American foreign policy that is better today than it was when the presidential campaign season started. In general the world is worse off, and American strategic interests are more threatened than they were in 2014. The trajectory on most fronts is darker. The next president has as very simple calculation in foreign policy to make: Does he want to enhance and expand the Pax Americana or manage its decline?