Every year, leaders from the intelligence community testify in Congress on the threats facing the United States now and in the imminent future. As the former Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, I’ve been there and done it. It’s a tough gig: Figuring out priorities is just one part of it — more complicated is the ripple effect. Like throwing a pebble in a pond, any move the United States makes is likely to ripple well beyond the initial point of impact.
You can see what the brief said last year: One glance and you get a quick idea — there’s a lot to worry about, four or five action movies’ worth. There’s plenty on this president’s plate, precisely because everything is so interconnected.
So you might ask, as I did, what are the issues where progress — or failure – is likely to have the biggest impact? There are dozens of possible answers; here are my top four:
It’s a microcosm of all the revolutionary changes underway in the Middle East — and well beyond.
If the conflict doesn’t get resolved, and fast, we could see a violence-driven redrawing of the Middle East map.
Nearly every country in the Middle East is wrapped up, financially or militarily, in supporting either the Assad regime or the rebels. And if they’re not fighting, they’re still embroiled, as sources for the thousands of foreign fighters drawn to the rebel cause (in fact, these militia-like forces come from as far away as Bangladesh, Britain and Australia).
The bloodshed, like a lethal Midas, is spilling into every country Syria touches and coloring it red: refugees fleeing into Jordan, Sunni extremist terrorism brewing in Iraq.
And the conflict is polarizing the region along its principal religious cleavage — one Americans now find all too familiar: Sunni supporters (Saudi Arabia in the lead) versus Shia regimes (Iran, Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and various Iraqi Shia groups).
And thanks to the success Al Qaeda forces have had in consolidating territory in northeastern Syria, the jihadists now have their best chance in a decade at a brand new haven for planning operations against the U.S. and others.
If the conflict doesn’t get resolved, and fast, we could see a violence-driven redrawing of the Middle East map — made worse if multiethnic Syria breaks up, if sectarian strife leads to the fracturing of Iraq or if smaller neighbor countries get overwhelmed by the tidal wave of refugees and carnage threatening their porous borders.
That worst-case scenario is now officially thinkable — and would be impossible, in the eyes of the world and our own citizenry, for the U.S. to ignore.
2. China versus Japan
Tensions between China and Japan are mounting — and shifting dynamics across Asia in a dangerous direction, leaving the United States in an uncomfortable spot diplomatically and militarily.
This is precisely the wrong equation for stability on the continent, let alone prosperity and cooperation.
The immediate flash point: the dispute over who owns the Senkaku Islands (currently part of Japan but claimed by China). But it’s bigger still: The scuffle taps into a deeper well of differences between the two historic rivals — recall their enemy status in World War II, to start with, not to mention the centuries of rivalry that preceded it.
Ominously, this coincides with two trends that could spark dangerous miscalculation: growing nationalism in China and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s desire to push past the pacifism that’s defined Japan since WWII. Meanwhile, Japan has tugged on the U.S.’s coattails, arguing that China’s claim to an air-defense zone around the island chain cannot be accepted, stoking suspicion in China that Japan and the U.S. are conspiring to isolate it — a circumstance that feeds China’s long-standing paranoia about encirclement. And it reinforces Tokyo’s fear of a looming, aggressive Beijing.
This is precisely the wrong equation for stability on the continent, let alone prosperity and cooperation. What’s needed is a three-way partnership between the U.S., China and Japan — a collaboration that looks more remote than it has been for decades.
After a decade-long struggle, American efforts look frozen at an impasse in negotiations with Kabul. At the heart of the issue lies a bilateral security agreement that would permit a residual U.S. force of several thousand to stick around after 2014. Afghan President Hamid Karzai regularly piles on new conditions for signing the agreement, most recently a demand that Afghan prisoners at Guantanamo Bay be released and the U.S. arrange peace talks with the Taliban.
If America cannot win agreement to stay, chances spike that there will be an extremist resurgence — the very thing the U.S. has worked to prevent ever since Al Qaeda jihadists based in Afghanistan plotted the 9/11 attacks 12 years ago. The analogy isn’t perfect, but you need only look to current events in Iraq, where no sooner did the U.S. fail in 2011 to agree on a residual force —and Al Qaeda stepped in to stage a violently successful comeback.
Our Afghan investment in blood and treasure is on the line.
4. Nuclear proliferation
Negotiations with Iran, aimed at eliminating the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon, form the leading edge of this global problem. And it’s all coming to a head in 2014 or shortly thereafter, with talks between Iran and a coalition of six countries on a six-month lease with an option to extend for an unspecified period.
The talks have made some progress — with an agreement for Iran to begin halting some nuclear activity starting January 20 (as negotiations continue on a more comprehensive deal). But the talks are deeply unpopular among many of Iran’s regional adversaries, from Israel to Saudi Arabia — meaning that success will require something like to a diplomatic miracle. But if it comes through, this would be the most consequential nonproliferation victory in decades — setting a clear precedent and discouraging many others with nuclear ambitions.
Failure, on the other hand, would confirm our worst fears about Iran’s intentions; embolden others in the region to “go nuclear”; and further damage U.S. leadership, already sharply questioned there and in other parts of the world.
Other hot-button issues competing for these top spots include the constitutional crisis in Egypt; the struggle between secularism and religion in Turkey, Russia’s drive to pull former parts of the Soviet Union closer; the collapse of order across multiple African nations; the ongoing financial crisis in Europe; the tenuous negotiations to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and the divide in Latin America between liberalizing prosperous countries and those moving away from democratic norms. But most are like the ripples in the pond — guaranteed to be affected for better or worse by the movement on the issues I’ve identified here.
Here’s the bottom line: 2014 is stacked with high-stakes issues for the United States and its leadership capital. Depending on how these issues break down, this could be the year when U.S. global leadership is dramatically strengthened — or sharply reduced.
Why you should care
Because nothing short of American leadership capital is at stake – with 11 months left and counting.