As the New Year begins it is worthwhile to reflect on the year that has past and asses the past strategic predictions. I look at my previous post 2014 Recap, 2015 Predictions and there were a number of points that were right on. The events that continue to distract us in the foreign policy arena remain the same with some minor additions. When we look at the year to come, there is no doubt some things will still surprise, but the general strategic trends remain unchanged.
The major long term problem facing the US foreign policy is the rise of China. As predicted in last year’s post, the South China Sea is becoming more of a possible flashpoint, especially given the amount of island building conducted by China there. Late last year, the US began responding to the Chinese unilateral actions by sending ships and airplanes through the air and sea claimed by China. It is a good start for the US response, which should continue into 2016, to the Chinese provocations especially given that their nebulous claims are based on the “Nine Dashed Line.” In the coming year the US has to continue to remind China that no matter what facts on the ground China tries to make, the US will not recognize their island builds and land grabs in the South China Sea.
The potential for conflict between the US and China is still low, but has increased slightly given the current Chinese economic slowdown and the election of a new Taiwanese president. The best way a dictatorship can distract from domestic problems is nationalism, militarisms and their attendant problems. It remains to be seen if this year Chinese leadership will put more emphasis on these distractions. Contrary to previous popular belief, and as demonstrated by the incompetent handling of the Chinese stock market crash, the Chinese leadership and decision making leaves a lot to be desired. There is no reason to believe that they would handle an international crisis any better. The US could find itself in a shooting war sooner than we think.
With that in mind, the Middle East drain on our resources has to stop. It would be a true game changer if the coming year was actually the one when we stop wasting our resources fighting other people’s wars. While the Iran nuclear deal gives us a generational opportunity to realign our policy in the Middle East, our support of Sunni Arab dictators enabled the current Sunni extremists’ religious attacks against us, and to stop it we have to stop our support of those same Sunni Arab countries. The worst offender, Saudi Arabia, should be completely cut off from any US support and protection, given the Saudi financial support of the Wahhabi religious movement. The sooner the house of Saud falls, the better. Until it is dealt with, the US will be under the perpetual low grade threat from the Sunni extremists supported by the Saudi government. There really is no difference between what Saudi Arabia and ISIL both support, except the people in charge. Given the Sunni extremists hatred of Shiites, Iran is our natural ally in this fight. It doesn’t mean that they are somehow our best friend, but it does mean we have the same goals to accomplish.
The probability of this realignment happening is unfortunately very low. We still refuse to believe that the problems of the Middle East will be solved by the people that live there, while ignoring the root of the problem. The best we can do is to guide the process along, while preserving our resources. Our continued insistence on preserving the borders of countries which were created in the middle of WWI by the former colonial powers is fallacy. Until we recognize this and push for the breakup of countries such as Iraq and Syria, the conflict will continue. Our highest probability of success in that region would involve us recognizing that such realities already exist on the ground. To imagine that we can somehow make people that hate each other live in the same country peacefully is a fantasy.
With regards to ISIL, not much will change. Their base of support in the Sunni community remains the same. The continued bombing will tactically degrade ISIL, but will not strategically defeat it. The group itself might disappear, highly unlikely, but even then some other Sunni Arab Wahhabi group will take up its cause of Sunni Arab dominance. Our best strategy would be to treat them as a minor irritant and to rely on the local Kurd and Shiite allies to contain them, while at the same time cutting off their source of men and funding from the Gulf States.
Russia is going to continue its slow decline. It will remain our regional adversary but not someone we should be concerned about. The Ukrainian crisis will remain a frozen conflict. Until Ukraine fundamentally changes and becomes a country people want to fight and die for, Russia will have the upper hand in any local conflict given its numerical and economic superiority. Nevertheless, the conflict does not fundamentally affect our foreign policy.
Afghan government will slowly continue to lose ground. Their corruption and incompetence will impede any possibility of them actually governing the country and creating armed forces that are willing to fight and die for it. With continued US support, the Afghan government could hold the major population areas, but until it reforms itself, all we are doing is throwing good money after the bad. Supporting a corrupt and predatory government is not a winning long term strategy as showcased by South Vietnam. We should remove our support completely from Afghanistan. Only then will the Afghan government take responsibility for governing their country.
As 2016 takes shape, our strategic thought has to be focused on China. The distractions of the Middle East and Afghanistan can be dealt with by the locals there. Unless we rebalance our military force towards the Asian theater, the potential for conflict there actually increases as the time goes on. Only complete and overwhelming force can prevent a shooting war between US and China. That force can only be assembled if we stop being distracted by the Middle East and Afghanistan.