Foreign affairs in 2014

The big issues include the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks

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Writing a turn-of-the-year foreign affairs column presents the problem of whether to set out what one thinks will happen or what one believes should happen. This one will be a little of both.

The most important U.S. foreign affairs matter in suspension as the world wanders into 2014 are the negotiations underway between the Israelis and the Palestinians to achieve a two-state solution — Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and prosperity.

Those negotiations can proceed to resolution in 2014, given the desire of forward-looking Israelis and the severe need of Palestinians for such an agreement. That is what should happen. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry can help make it happen.

What I fear and think more likely, based on provocative attacks by elements among the Israelis and the Palestinians who have a stake in the status quo or who have unrealistic views of what the future might bring, is that the talks will break down over one or another incident. One troubling fact is the ability of the Israelis to keep Sunni and Shiite Muslims fighting each other rather than concentrating on acquiring a homeland for the Palestinians.

A second very important issue that will feature strongly in American and international diplomacy in 2014 is the relationship between Iran’s nuclear program and the international economic sanctions now being levied against Iran because of it.

The United States is the strongest advocate after Israel of continued economic punishment of Iran and its people. Nuclear nonproliferation, and the threat that an Iranian nuclear weapons capability poses to America’s allies in the Middle East — Israel and the Sunni states of Saudi Arabia and others in the Persian Gulf — as well as the economic opportunities that resumed trade with Iran would open, means that the United States has a large stake in the fate of the negotiations underway between Iran and the rest of the world.

In spite of efforts by some Israeli elements to torpedo an agreement through congressional action and the activities of some troglodyte elements in the Iranian political tapestry to kill the affair from that end, I believe negotiations can and will succeed in 2014, bringing a higher level of normality to Iran’s relations with the world for the first time since 1979.

A third big issue in 2014 will be the bloody civil war in Syria. I believe the war can be wound down but not ended in 2014, or for some time to come, given the intensity of the opposing parties in Syria and the role of foreign players, including the United States. The next step will be a conference in Switzerland this month that should include as many parties to the conflict as can be enticed to sit down together.

A fourth big issue in 2014 will be the U.S. attempt to pivot to Asia while not stumbling over the gopher holes strewn around the region by historic rivalries. These include China vs. Japan, Korea vs. Japan, North Korea vs. South Korea and Korea vs. China. This U.S. fancy footwork is possible. It would be helped if Mr. Obama can resist efforts by the Pentagon to over-militarize the new U.S. role in the region in the name of fattening its budget even further.

Among other less-so-but-still-important issues: U.S. relations with Russia need work. The Sochi Olympics already is presenting problems. In the name of all the American and other athletes who have prepared for years to participate, America has an obligation — which I believe it will fulfill — not to let a desire to stick our finger in Russia’s eye over the Edward J. Snowden affair cause us to make Russia’s Olympics problems worse, or a cause for U.S. crowing.

We should withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan on schedule at the end of the year for political and financial reasons. Thirteen years there is much more than enough. We should also not let the conflict over power in Iraq among the Shiites and Sunnis suck us back in. That is the Iraqis’ affair.

America has little interest in the internal squabbles in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and South Sudan. The people of those countries need to see for themselves the disadvantages of destroying their countries. Egypt’s military coup leaders need to be left also to pay the price of seeking to re-stifle democracy there.

The best thing the United States could do for itself in foreign affairs in 2014 is clean up its own financial act. Less money for a militarized foreign policy would mean more money to address the country’s problems of high poverty and low economic mobility that Mr. Obama has addressed in recent speeches.

There are also points to be scored by closing the U.S. military penal colony at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as Mr. Obama promised before his first election, and change course on spying — at least on our friends and allies if not on Americans, who seem sadly used to it — by the National Security Agency. The coming year will not be boring.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com,412-263-1976).

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