The major events in foreign affairs of 2012

The Middle East, Afghanistan, China -- the hits just keep coming

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I will devote my next-to-last column of the year today to what I consider the most important events in foreign affairs for the United States in 2012. Next week I will address the most important foreign challenges we will face in 2013.

Top of the list for 2012 were continuing developments in the Middle East, centering on the changes occurring as part of the Arab Spring. These are important to the United States for two reasons, unchanged over the past 70 years or so.

The first reason is the continued dependence of the United States on oil imports from the region. Various developments at home, some of them dumb luck and others more deliberate, can reduce that dependence, but not much and not for some time. The second is the continued attachment of the United States to guaranteeing the security of Israel. Israel's situation in the Middle East deteriorated in 2012 as its formerly stable neighbors evolved. Egypt is democratizing, Syria lurched deeper into a hopeless swamp of violent disorder, and Jordan totters. Israel's own government, led by the bellicose Benjamin Netanyahu, doesn't seem to understand the changing realities of its region.

Second on the list in 2012 were the changes in the Afghanistan-Pakistan situation. The United States is trying to decide whether to pull out of Afghanistan in 2013 or in 2014, but it has concluded, somewhat unhappily, that it is time to finish U.S. involvement there.

The dream of creating Afghan armed forces capable of defending the place went bust in 2012 as Afghans in uniforms that we provided attacked and killed our forces. The Pentagon concluded in an end-of-the-year report that only a small percentage of the Afghan forces we trained could fight without U.S. logistics and leadership. Also concluded was that the earlier dream of creating a credible and sustainable economy in Afghanistan through aid and investment was unrealistic in the face of ancient Afghan customs of corruption and tribalism.

Concomitant U.S. drone and other attacks inside Pakistan fired up hatred of the United States to the point that a decent relationship with Pakistan, necessary in part because of its nuclear weapons capacity, has become virtually impossible.

Third in 2012 was the once-every-10-years change in the leadership of China, America's rising rival, where Xi Jinping was installed as president. The U.S. trading and creditor-debtor relationship with China continued to rise in importance through longevity and magnitude. China moved from the world's third-largest to second-largest economy, surpassing Japan. China flexed its muscles. President Barack Obama decided in 2012 that the United States would "pivot" toward East Asia, implicitly away from the Middle East and South Asia. That's important.

Fourth in 2012 was the growing evidence of global warming and the continued indifference of America's leadership and population to it. It may be that the whole thing is cyclical, or that it is inevitable no matter what the United States or anyone else does, but should America just ignore it while spending time and money on rebuilding the New Jersey beaches, or the New Orleans dikes, or on trying to build a wall to keep the water out of southern Manhattan? Maybe the persistent drought is some kind of nasty act of God and we should all just pray.

Fifth and very important in 2012, given the size and similarity between Europe's economic issues and our own, were the reasonably successful efforts on the part of the Europeans in dealing with their formidable financial problems. The Europeans conceptualized and dealt with the problems of Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain as European matters, even though it is not difficult to see the differences between these countries and some of Europe's healthier economies, such as Germany and France.

Americans, by contrast, tend to take a "beggar thy neighbor" approach to such matters. Michigan passed a so-called "right to work" law to keep Indiana from stealing its jobs. Does any American in Pennsylvania give a toss about the health care situation of a poor person in Alabama? Some Northerners would actually like to see South Carolina or Texas be allowed to secede.

Sixth in 2012 included the threat of a U.S. war with Iran that Israel and others would have liked to drag us into. Then came the Syrian civil war, again sold heavily by the American military-industrial complex and some of the Sunni Arab states of the Middle East -- Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey -- as something we just had to get involved in. Syria certainly got a lot of attention in 2012 and, at the end of the year, seemed to be on a major downward spiral with no end in sight.

Seventh in my rank-order of important developments in 2012 was the reelection to the presidency of Russia for another six years of Vladimir V. Putin, probably the toughest world leader with whom the United States must contend. Even though the Soviet Union is gone, its successor is still a major world power, a veto-bearing member of the U.N. Security Council and a country with global power and influence, as we are seeing in the Syrian affair. No American administration since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990 has showed any particular aptitude for doing useful business with Russia, particularly with Mr. Putin. He is tough and intelligent and showed in 2012 that he knows the United States well enough to make serious trouble for us. Our Congress puts some of his people on a black list; he cuts off American meat exports to Russia.

Finally, there was the reelection of Mr. Obama to a second term. He will also -- shortly, I hope -- have a new secretary of state in place to spearhead U.S. foreign affairs for the next four years. Next week I will preview what I see as the U.S. foreign policy agenda for 2013.

dansimpson

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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