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Allan Topol Headshot

Happy New Year, Mr. President

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No American president has ever begun a year with as many different foreign policy crises as Obama now faces. It would be understandable if he took one look at this list, turned over the mantle of power to Vice President Biden, and remained in Hawaii playing golf.

Front and center is the Middle East -- the region Obama had hoped he could turn away from with his pivot to Asia. Not so. The war in Syria grinds on, civilian deaths mount day after day, and Assad remains firmly entrenched, thanks to Russian and Iranian support and the divisiveness of the rebels. A peace conference is scheduled for January in Switzerland, but what could that conceivably accomplish?

Iran is also on the front burner. The interim deal on nuclear weapons only has a six-month life. Once that is over, we will be in crisis mode. Many believe the Iranians will never abandon their nuclear weapons program. Skeptical members of Congress are anxious to rev up the sanctions, and Obama is desperate for a deal to point to a tangible foreign policy accomplishment for his legacy.

The Iranian problem is unfortunately larger than the nuclear issue. Tehran continues to foment trouble in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Israel through Shiite proxies like Hezbollah (Washington. Post, Nov. 21, 2013, P. A19). The Saudis and Gulf states are supporting Sunni fighters to do battle with them everywhere.

In Egypt, the military tightens its grip. We bet on the losing horse in Morsi. We may be watching the generals turn away from Washington and toward Moscow.

We were booted out of Iraq and the country is a mess. Every week brings new bombings. When Maliki, unable to maintain control, turned to Obama for assistance, the American president brushed aside his request.

Israel and the Palestinians are the focus of an Obama-Kerry peace initiative. It's hard to understand why the Americans want to stir up the only quiet area in the Middle East. Perhaps they still follow the outdated State Department belief that if those two reach an agreement, there will be peace throughout the Middle East. In view of what's happening elsewhere in the region, that concept is preposterous.

Saudi Arabia for decades was the firmest U.S. ally in the area as well as the source of much of our oil. A leading Saudi prince recently blasted U.S. Mideast policy. He said that Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states were "stunned" by secret American Iranian diplomacy (Wall Street Journal, Dec. 16, 2013, p. A-1).

Next is Afghanistan. Karzi has wrecked our exit strategy by refusing to sign the agreement. Whether or not he relents, we will leave. The Taliban will increase their control over parts of the country. Women and others will suffer. Here in the U.S., we will be left feeling that all of our casualties and money were in vain in what Obama called a war of necessity.

The Ukraine is a conflict that will continue and is likely to escalate. Putin is trying to rebuild his empire. This clashes with the view of many in the Ukraine who prefer to look west. Obama has to decide whether he will help them or be a bystander in this conflict.

Asia is likely to be extremely difficult in the coming year. China has thrown down a gauntlet to the U.S. with their declaration of an air defense zone in the East China Sea (Financial Times, Nov. 25, 2013, p. A11). The Chinese are also moving aggressively in territorial disputes with the Philippines and other Asian nations. The U.S. has treaty obligations and will be on the spot to defend our allies. All sides are playing a high-risk game that could lead to war.

Looking over this list, I concluded that it is no coincidence that so many foreign policy crises are occurring all at once. There are three factors, major upheavals in the world order, that are driving them.

The first is the renewed intensity of the Sunni-Shite animosity that has simmered to varying degrees since the death of Mohammad in 632 A.D. It is now exploding in full force. Unquestionably, it is responsible for most of the conflicts in the Middle East.

The second is Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is determined to put Russia back on the world stage and rebuild the Soviet empire. In the last 10 years, Putin has become more ruthless, both geopolitically and toward dissent. As he has gained strength and solidified his grip on power in Moscow, he is challenging the U.S. throughout the world (Economist, Dec. 7, 2013, p. 16).

The third is the incredible rise of China, which has gotten richer faster than any country in history. It has also increased its military at an unprecedented rate. Under Xi's new leadership, the military has increased power. They are determined to replace the U.S. as the primary power in Asia.

In a survey of 39 countries, most of the people in 23 thought that China has taken over or will take over as the dominant superpower (Economist, Nov. 23, 2013, p. 7). Obama has encouraged this result by signaling that the U.S. is withdrawing from its active leadership role in some hot spots, particularly the Middle East.

All this means that we enter a more uncertain world in 2014. The old sheriff is retiring. The new one is not yet on the scene. Chaos is replacing order. It will be a troublesome year fraught with international difficulties and danger.