Op-Ed: US Faces Daunting Foreign Policy Challenges in 2018


Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker.

2017 brought a wide array of international challenges to U.S. policymakers. 2018 promises more of the same.

On the positive side, perhaps the most significant development was the rollback of territory controlled by the Islamic State by the Iraqi military and the largely Kurdish, Syrian Democratic forces. Both received extensive support from U.S. military forces.

Mosul, in Iraq, the largest city controlled by ISIS, was liberated in June, while Raqqa, the Islamic State capital, fell in October.

The apocalyptic battle for Raqqa foretold by ISIS never materialized. As of January 2018, Islamic State forces had been reduced to a narrow pocket in the Euphrates Valley along the Syrian-Iraqi border.

The North Korean Threat

The rest of the international situation, however, offered little solace, and 2018 is unlikely to show much improvement.

The most significant event of 2017 was North Korea's continued development of its ballistic missile program.

Over 11 tests, Pyongyang provided convincing evidence that it has either achieved or is very close to mastering the capability of delivering a nuclear warhead almost anywhere in the world.

Most importantly, the range of its missiles now covers a large area of North America, possibly even to Washington, D.C., and the eastern seaboard of the U.S.

Despite the imposition of even more economic sanctions, Pyongyang shows no inclination to abandon its missile development program. Notwithstanding repeated U.S. threats to rain "fire and fury" over North Korea if Kim Jong-un does not abandon his nuclear program, Washington seems stymied.

Seoul is opposed to a military response from the U.S., fearing correctly that such a response would result in considerable damage to South Korea and horrendous loss of life.

Kim Jong-un has made overtures to South Korea to de-escalate the tension in the Korean Peninsula, while the U.S. keeps dropping the threshold that Pyongyang must meet in order to hold formal talks with Washington.

Given that the U.S. and North Korea have already been holding secret talks over the course of 2017, it's hard to see what formal talks would accomplish.

The most significant story of 2018 may well be how the rest of the world in general, and the U.S. in particular, accept the reality of a North Korea armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles.

China’s Growing Military Might

Elsewhere in East Asia, the most significant development is China’s continued militarization of the South and East China Sea. Beijing is continuing to develop military bases on several man-made islands and has deployed air forces and sophisticated defense capabilities.

These defenses consist of large-caliber anti-aircraft guns, a variety of close-in weapons systems (CIWS), as well as surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missile batteries.

The U.S. has done little beyond diplomatic protests and repeated Freedom of Navigation exercises to demonstrate that it does not recognize Chinese sovereignty over the man-made islands. This has turned out to be a largely legalistic response to a military development.

The fact is that Beijing is intent on pushing out its area denial zone from its coastal waters to the periphery of the East and South China Seas. That development will continue in 2018, and there is nothing on the horizon that will stop it.

China's aggressive gambit in East Asia is spurring a broad realignment that is resulting in a shared agenda of military cooperation between Japan, the U.S., India and Vietnam.

Of particular significance is the continued build-up of Japanese offensive military capabilities, as well as its missile defense systems, and the growing military cooperation between India with Vietnam.

Beijing seems unwilling to slow down its militarization of the East and South China Seas to forestall the development of what it sees as an anti-China alliance, relying instead on offers of investment and expanded trade through its One Belt One Road initiative to convince its neighbors that accepting Chinese hegemony in East Asia is a small price to pay for economic prosperity.

Relations With Pakistan Sour

U.S.-Pakistan relations steadily soured over the course of 2017, underscored by the Trump administration's announcement that it was suspending all financial and military aid to Karachi.

Continued American frustration at Pakistan’s unwillingness or inability to rein in Taliban safe havens in Pakistan is part of the issue.

So, too, is the consequence of the growing U.S.-Indian alignment in the Indian Ocean. Given the long-standing rivalry between Pakistan and India, ultimately the U.S. will have to make a choice on who its principal ally will be. It’s been clear for some time that Washington's choice will be India.


Afghanistan Stalemate

Afghanistan was no closer to finding stability in 2017 than it was in 2016 or will be in 2018. An expanded U.S. presence and more flexible rules of engagement, a stark difference between the Obama and Trump administrations, have slowed down the expansion of the Taliban's reach, but is has not stopped it.

Increasingly, Afghanistan feels like South Vietnam circa 1976. The Taliban seems to have little interest in a political solution, recognizing that it's likely to prevail if the U.S. and NATO forces leave.

A new generation of Afghans has grown up in the meantime, one that has little affinity for Taliban civil and political society, but it is almost entirely in the cities. The question is whether Afghan military forces can ever reach a level of effectiveness sufficient to counter the Taliban on their own.

So far, that goal has proven elusive, and there is little evidence it will ever be attainable.

The most likely scenario is more of the same, with the Taliban controlling or exerting significant influence in rural areas and the Afghan government retaining control of the major cities but, should the U.S. and NATO forces leave, probably little else.

The Middle East in Flux

In the Middle East, the principal axis of alignment is now the Sunni-Shia divide, personified by the Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies.

The Islamic State has been defeated. While it may hang onto some territory over 2018, it lacks any significant offensive capability. 2018 will likely bring more evidence of a return to its insurgency roots, as well as the continued expansion of its criminal activities in the Balkans and Western Europe.

In the meantime, Islamic State's franchises continue to thrive. While it has lost ground in Libya, it has developed a significant presence in the Sinai and Afghanistan, and its presence elsewhere in North Africa continues to grow. Its reach now extends from the Philippines to West Africa.

Civil wars in Syria and Yemen show no sign of ending and will continue into 2018. The Syrian opposition to Bashar al-Assad is down, but still a long way from being eliminated. Even with continued Russian support, Damascus will have a hard time re-establishing its authority over Syria.

Syria and Iraq are both failed states. Historic Syria, i.e. pre-2012 Syria, no longer exists and, like Humpty Dumpty, will never be put back together again, certainly not under an Assad government.

Reconstruction costs are enormous, far beyond Syria's capability to finance, and there is little interest in the rest of the world to shoulder those reconstruction costs.

Iraqi reconstruction will be equally staggering. Baghdad at least has oil revenues that it can rely on but, at current prices, those revenues will be insufficient to make rapid reconstruction possible.

Spacing reconstruction over the next decade will make its financing easier, although still difficult, but it is unlikely that Iraq's Sunni minority, the region where most of the damage was inflicted, will stand by and wait that long.

Both Syria and Iraq need a political solution but, for now, none is in the offing. Indeed, while it may suit them to go through the motions, neither Iran nor Russia want to see a political solution acceptable to the U.S. and its allies in either country.

The three wild cards in the Middle East are Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh's attempts to modernize its social and economic spheres are, in part, a reaction to low oil prices and the continued prospects of low prices.

Spreading the largess of petrodollars is simply not going to be sufficient to keep the peace, especially since a growing population requires ever more largess, while depressed oil prices are making the financing of that largess challenging.

That modernization, however, is revealing deep fissures in Saudi Arabia's ruling class and may well trigger a counter reaction. Can the Saudi monarchy modernize the country while still maintaining its grip?

Iran continues to aggressively expand its influence and military presence in the Middle East. As of the end of 2017, Tehran had announced that it would maintain a permanent military base in Syria and was dropping hints it wanted a similar presence in Iraq.

Ultimately, what Iran wants is a transportation corridor that connects it with its proxies in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza, and gives it the ability to resupply its most formidable proxy, Hezbollah, at will. It's unlikely to get what it wants, however, unless it can also defend it.

Domestic unrest in Iran is another unknown that may exert a significant impact on Tehran. While deeply embarrassing to the Iranian government, it is unlikely to result in a regime change or to a change in Iran's policies. Still, domestic unrest represents a vulnerability for the Iranian government that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia may choose to exploit.

Turkey Goes Rogue

Turkey is perhaps the most problematic wild card because it is increasingly a rogue actor.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's frequent hints at revisiting the 1924 Treaty of Lausanne, the agreement that sorted out the final disposition of the Ottoman Empire, may -- should Ankara prove to be serious about it -- be a source of instability in the region and scramble traditional alignments in the Middle East.

Turkey's recent agreement with Sudan, announced at the end of 2017, to lease the island of Suakin in the Red Sea, is a case in point.

Ostensibly, Ankara is going to develop the island as a resort and a transport hub for Turkish Muslims making the Hajj to Mecca. Other, for now unspecified, Turkish financed development projects have also been promised.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia see the agreement over Suakin Island as paving the way for a Turkish military base in the Red Sea.

Ankara is also increasingly competing with Riyadh to be perceived as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world by, among other things, competing to build mosques around the world. That competition has seen the two countries propose ever more grandiose plans to build a mosque in Havana, a city that has only a token Muslim population.

There is no appetite in the rest of the Middle East for resurrecting a neo-Ottoman Empire, not even bits and pieces of it.

Ankara's revisionist foreign policy is incompatible with U.S. and NATO policies. It is hard to see how Turkey can stay on its present course and remain a part of NATO.

For all practical purposes, Ankara has abandoned any prospect of joining the European Union, opting instead to further develop its bilateral relations with individual countries.

Within the EU, there is little support for Turkish membership anyway.

Festering Jihadism in North Africa

Across North Africa, the principal issue in 2017 was the widespread jihadist violence. Little will change in 2018.

Libya seems permanently split between the Western-backed government in Tripoli and the Russian- and Egyptian-backed government, led for all practical purposes by Khalifa Haftar, in Benghazi.

The Islamic State's position in Libya has been reduced but not eliminated. In the meantime, a variety of jihadist groups, many increasingly cross-linked, are operating from Somalia to West Africa.

Venezuela Crumbles

In South America, Venezuela continues to implode.

Shortages of hard currencies have made it impossible to import many necessities, and there are widespread shortages of basic food and consumer items from diapers to medicines.

The government's clumsy attempts at controlling prices and at expropriating businesses it deems not acting in the public interest have simply created more shortages, exacerbating an already difficult situation.

In one respect, the evolution of recent politics in Venezuela is nothing new. It's a tried and true scenario in Latin American politics: Strong man takes control and distributes wealth to cultivate support until he runs out of things to nationalize or other people's money, after which a steadily deteriorating economic situation creates social unrest.

At some point, the military refuses to quell public protests and instead begins supporting them, and the sawdust Caesar comes crashing down.

Under Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan government liberally distributed the proceeds from oil exports to cultivate public support, in the process starving the national oil company, PDVSA, of badly needed capital investment.

Now, low oil prices and dropping oil production have exacerbated Venezuela's financial crisis and sharply reduced government revenues.

The government of Nicolas Maduro, however, seems far longer lived than its other, Latin American strongman predecessors. One reason may be narcotics. Under Chavez, and continuing under Maduro, Venezuela has been transformed into a major narcotics transportation hub.

Narco-cash has helped maintain the Maduro government and co-opted leading figures in both the Venezuelan government and military.

Recently, the Trump administration named Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami as a major drug kingpin who has been active in narcotics for more than a decade. El Aissami is also believed to have long-standing ties to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

Mexican Drug Violence

While continued narcotics and criminal-related violence in Mexico seems less acute than the rest of the world's trouble spots, Mexico's proximity to the U.S. and the large numbers of Americans who visit Mexico each year make that violence no less significant.

The State Department announced on Jan. 10 a new warning system for travelers and promptly issued "Do Not Travel" warnings, its highest risk category, for the Mexican states of Colima, Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa and Tamaulipas.

Instability in Europe

In Europe, there is little progress in resolving the frozen conflict in Ukraine. Russian economic sanctions show no sign of being lifted. Indeed, given the allegations that the Kremlin conspired to promote the election of Donald Trump, any resolution will be harder while those allegations remain unresolved.

While any evidence that the campaign staff of Donald Trump knowingly conspired with Kremlin agents remains fleeting at best, there is little doubt that Russia tried to influence the outcome of the American election.

Moreover, according to a recent 206-page report by Democrat senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Kremlin has attempted to manipulate elections in some 20 different countries, including the U.S., over the last two decades.

Within the EU in the meantime, there continues to be a significant divide between the newer, East European members and their West European counterparts over a range of issues, most significantly EU policy toward refugees and their resettlement throughout the bloc.

Anti-EU and anti-immigration parties will likely continue to grow in popularity over 2018.

Angela Merkel’s recently announced alliance with the SPD in Germany will guarantee her an unprecedented fourth term as chancellor, but it will also make the anti-EU/anti-immigration Alternative for Germany the government's official opposition.

2018 will be a challenging year for U.S. policymakers, with plenty of continuing problems and no easy solutions in sight.

The Hawaiian government's erroneous civil defense warning on Jan. 13, and the ensuing panic it created, underscores that 2018 may well be a year of living on the edge.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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