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Ten Foreign Policy Challenges for the Next President

November 4, 2011
National security hotspots  click on countries for profiles


The next president will have to contend with national security and foreign policy concerns ranging from nuclear threats to piracy on the high seas.

Use the interactive map at left to explore those hotspots.


As tens of thousands of Yemeni protesters rise up against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Washington is closely watching developments in this country that hosts militants from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula —a group that U.S. officials say is the biggest risk to the American homeland and the most capable of successfully attacking U.S. cities.

Saleh was America’s ally in combating AQAP, quietly allowing U.S. drone operations inside Yemen to target the network’s operatives. Washington was concerned during the Yemen protests that AQAP would have more latitude to launch attacks; still, a U.S. drone and jet strike carried out by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command killed Anwar al Awlaki in September. Awlaki, an American citizen, is suspected of masterminding the plot to blow up a Detroit-bound passenger jet on Christmas Day 2009.


Tensions between Washington and nuclear-armed Pakistan have been high since a CIA agent was charged with killing two Pakistanis in January. The covert U.S. raid to kill Osama bin Laden in May exacerbated the situation. Congressional lawmakers have asked how Pakistani intelligence could have failed to notice bin Laden’s presence in a military garrison town for years.

In the wake of the raid, Pakistan has demanded that the United States withdraw many of its military personnel, and has warned that any new raids would prompt a far-reaching reevaluation of Islamabad’s ties with Washington. The U.S. is pressuring Pakistan to step up its efforts to fight the Haqqani network, a Pakistani militant group believed to be responsible for brazen and increasingly complex attacks in neighboring Afghanistan and India.


After a decade of war in Afghanistan. U.S. military commanders claim progress even as militants continue to carry out violent and spectacular attacks against Western and Afghan government targets.

Officials say that the progress is fragile and reversible. President Obama has announced plans to withdraw all 33,000 ‘”surge” forces by next summer, leaving around 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan next fall. The United States is slated to hand security control to Afghan forces by 2014.

Despite billions of dollars spent training the Afghan security forces, attrition and illiteracy rates remain high. The recent assassination of the country’s top peace broker and the lack of depth in the political field dim prospects that a U.S.-backed reconciliation process between militants and the Afghan government will succeed.


The weak government of Somalia, a country still ranked as the No.1 failed state in the annual ranking prepared by the Fund for Peace, has so far failed to effectively take on the militant Islamist group al-Shabaab. The United States is increasingly worried that some of the group’s leaders are coordinating more closely with other extremist groups across Africa to expand their range of targets.

The Somali government’s inability to deal with the country’s famine and disease has contributed to the deaths of up to 1 million people, according to the BBC. Areas of Shabaab-controlled territory are some of the worst hit by drought and famine; the U.S. recently relaxed its terrorism rules to enable humanitarian groups to distribute aid within Southern Somalia, even if some of the assistance is diverted to al-Shabaab. Somali pirates have also become a major threat to international shipping in the region.


This is a particularly uneasy time for one of America’s closest allies, as Israel worries about its security after the Arab Spring protest movements have toppled neighboring Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and sparked escalating unrest in Syria.

The Jewish state receives more U.S. assistance than any other country, and the $3 billion a year in military aid has helped make Israel’s armed forces one of the most sophisticated in the world. Israel recently tested a long-range ballistic missile, fueling a flurry of speculation over whether Israeli leaders were contemplating a unilateral strike against Iran’s suspected nuclear-weapons facilities.

The Palestinians defied the United States and Israel by seeking membership in the United Nations as an independent state. They have also called for an immediate end to Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank as a condition for returning to long-stalled peace talks.


As the United States and the international community wind down operations to protect Libyans in their fight against Muammar el-Qaddafi, some hawkish members of Congress are looking for similar intervention in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad is enmeshed in a brutal crackdown against his people.

With hundreds of demonstrators killed in the months of violence, pressure is increasing on Western leaders to act. Still, while the U.S. has ramped up sanctions against the Syrian government and sought to tighten the financial and diplomatic vise around Damascus, it’s unlikely that Washington will intervene militarily.

Syria has a large and modern military with advanced Russian-made air defense systems and—like its ally, Iran—exerts effective operational control over Hezbollah, the highly trained Lebanese militia that fought the vaunted Israeli military to a standstill in 2006, all the while pelting civilian targets in northern Israel with hundreds of rockets.

North Korea

North Korea remains the most reclusive and isolated nation on earth, and one of the most dangerous—thanks to its enigmatic leader Kim Jung-Il’s repressive regime, its dangerous military confrontations with South Korea, and its continuing pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Last year, North Korean forces torpedoed a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors; and shelled a South Korean island, killing two marines. Seoul was restrained last year but has promised to retaliate against any more provocations from Pyongyang, worrying officials in the U.S. and Japan.

So far, 2011 has been quiet, and last month the North Korean regime resumed denuclearization talks with the United States; previous talks have resulted in food aid for the famished nation. But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in Asia at the time, said he was “skeptical” and warned Pyongyang “continues to engage in reckless and provocative behavior.”


After years of economic buildup, China is rapidly expanding and modernizing its military arsenal to protect its new interests and project a stronger regional force. The People’s Liberation Army continues to claim controversial rights to the South China Sea and is deploying ships farther from the Chinese mainland than ever in humanitarian and anti-piracy missions, investing in “antiaccess” missiles intended to push U.S. aircraft carriers away from its sphere, and ramping up electronic attacks and cyberwarfare.

In some areas, the buildup is moving faster than U.S. intelligence officials predicted, but the Pentagon says that China will have limited ability to reach the United States for some time, that it lacks stealth technology, and that its lone outdated aircraft carrier is not operational. Pentagon officials trying to open steadier military relations with Beijing insist that China is no adversary, with an estimated defense budget of just $160 billion, but they’re watching the Asian giant closely.


The coming withdrawal of all American forces means that U.S. influence is at an all-time low, leaving Washington with few tools to affect Iraq's future. The United States has two separate concerns about Iraq.

The first is that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is showing alarming signs of becoming the next Arab dictator. The second is that Iraq is forging ever-closer ties to Iran and Syria, both of which the U.S. sees as enemies.

The United States will continue to supply financial aid and will have an ongoing civilian presence in Iraq, with three significant diplomatic presences built up in Baghdad, Basra in the south, and Irbil in the north.


Despite the democratic successes of the Arab Spring, Tehran's de facto political control of Lebanon and Syria has remained intact; it is forging a strong political alliance with Iraq; and it continues to press ahead with its nuclear-weapons program.

The Bush administration's efforts to dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons failed, and the Obama administration's diplomatic outreach to the country’s leadership has likewise registered no gains. That leaves policymakers in Washington— and the next president— with a very difficult choice: Continue to use sanctions and diplomatic pressure but risk seeing Iran go nuclear in the next one to three years, or undertake military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities at the risk of a broader regional conflagration.

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