Critical Issues for 2012
January 9, 2012
Q1: How will the United States cut its defense spending?
A1: For the first time in a decade, the United States must now fit its military and diplomatic efforts to a budget ceiling far lower than in past years. The end of the war in Iraq and the beginning of withdrawals from Afghanistan will help, but many of the cuts must come on the “baseline” that does not include such spending. This will force the United States to make hard choices about its strategic commitments and rely more on its allies where it can. Making U.S. defense affordable, however, requires far better managed R&D and procurement, as well as an end to massive cost escalations, long delays in delivery, and continuing cuts in the planned total buy. It means bringing costs down for personnel and for operations and maintenance, while holding senior officials and managers personally accountable for success in every area. This requires a new culture in both the Departments of Defense and State, where performance and implementation are the key, not vague concepts and policy ideas.
Q2: Should the United States focus on Pacific or global security?
A2: The Department of Defense and the Obama administration are already involved in a global review of U.S. strategy, missions, and military deployments. It is unclear what the outcome will be in terms of cutbacks and realignments, but it is clear that some senior U.S. officers and defense officials believe the United States must concentrate on China as an emerging power; create a mix of air and sea forces that can deter and contain China from bases and naval positions outside the growing reach of China’s air and sea power; and focus on creating matching alliances throughout the Pacific. Others argue for an approach to hybrid warfare and global power projection with a more traditional mix of land forces. The outcome is far from clear, but every increase in pressure on military and foreign policy spending makes the choices harder and requires more trade-offs in the size and nature of U.S. forces and the ability to support Europe and contingencies outside the Pacific.
Q3: What will be the outcome of the “Arab Spring”?
A3: Calls for democracy and holding elections will not bring stability to any country in the Middle East and North Africa. It is going to take a decade before most countries undergoing revolutionary unrest can hope to create a stable political structure with real political parties and the capacity to govern—and many may fail. In the process, successful states will have to address fundamental problems in population growth and a youth explosion that is creating massive problems with real and disguised unemployment. They will have to restructure and liberalize their economies, sharply reduce gross inequalities in income and corruption, improve the rule of law and human rights, and deal with mixes of ethnic, sectarian, tribal, and regional problems. Success will also mean defining a role for Islam that both preserves the values of the people and provides tolerance and the ability to modernize—a challenge that already affects every state involved.
Q4: Will there be any progress in the Arab-Israeli conflict?
A4: It is all too clear that there are no near-term prospects for a meaningful Arab-Israeli peace over the next few years. Israeli and Palestinian politics are becoming steadily more polarized; the negotiating process is little more than an empty shell; U.S. election politics have tilted the United States toward Israel, while European and other outside nations tilt toward the Palestinians; and new settlements and housing developments create more “facts on the ground” that make it harder to create a viable Palestinian state. At the same time, Israel-Turkey tensions and political upheavals in Egypt, Jordan, and Syria raise more questions about future Arab support for peace.
Q5: Will Iran continue to pose a threat?
A5: Iran’s steady progress in building up an asymmetric threat in the Gulf, its long-range missile forces, and its capability to produce nuclear weapons are all making Iran the new threat for some policymakers and analysts—at least a rival of terrorism and China. The United States has not, however, defined clear policies for dealing with any key issue involving Iran: Iran’s priority relative to other threats in U.S. strategy and force plans; whether the United States can accept containing and deterring a nuclear Iran; the level and efficacy of sanctions; what posture is needed to deal with Iran’s asymmetric buildup in the Gulf and Indian Ocean; and how and whether to encourage regime change. Israel remains a key wild card in the process, as does the uncertainty of Iran’s future role in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. An election year is scarcely the best time to try to resolve these issues, but Iran’s nuclear progress is putting steadily greater pressure on the United States to make hard choices.
Q6: Is the Iraq war “over”?
A6: The withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq at the end of 2011 has not left that country with a functioning democracy or effective governance; nor has it put an end to high levels of local violence and critical tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites and Arabs and Kurds. In spite of U.S. aid, Iraq has massive poverty and unemployment; its per capita income is 161st in the world. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that its potential wealth is unlikely to increase at more than half the rate of production increases called for in Iraqi plans, and Iraq must deal with critical problems in health, education, local governance, and reforming its agriculture and state industries. The United States is seeking a new role in Iraq that can help that country deal with these issues and counter Iranian influence, but new power struggles broke out within days of the departure of U.S. forces and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s visit to Washington. Thus far, the United States has not been able to translate its Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq into any clear form of practical alliance. The United States may not have “lost” the war in Iraq, but it clearly has not yet won it.
Q7: Will the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan succeed?
A7: President Obama’s announcement that U.S. troops would leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014 has been followed by growing indications that the United States cannot achieve a favorable strategic outcome in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Central Asia. The United States and its allies have scored major tactical gains in southern Afghanistan, but relations with Pakistan have deteriorated to the crisis level, and polls show that Pakistanis see the United States as a security threat that rivals India. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan have weak, unstable, and corrupt governments and face massive economic problems. It is unclear that U.S. aid can change them or give them a serious hope of lasting stability and popular support. The United States and its allies are developing “transition” plans for Afghanistan that do offer hope, but they seem likely to require an average of at least $10 billion a year in aid through 2025, as well as a major U.S. military advisory presence long after 2014. Making these “transition” plans effective requires decisive U.S. action beginning in 2012, given the 2014 withdrawal deadline, and this means the United States must now decide whether the risks and cost-benefits involved are worth it. Given the problems elsewhere in the region, the United States needs to make hard decisions about strategy and resource trade-offs. The question may increasingly become whether Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the rest of Central Asia are worth the cost, or whether the best way to win the “New Great Game” is not to play it.
Q8: Is Europe the new “sick man” of Europe?
A8: In retrospect, 2011 may be seen as the year when Turkey stopped trying to join the European Union, and the EU nations began to start thinking about joining Turkey. The United States now faces a “West” that is a major drag on the U.S. and global economy; that has deep and growing internal political divisions, including a steadily more authoritarian Russia; that spends less than 2 percent of its GDP on defense; and that sees British and French power projection capabilities going hollow outside of the Mediterranean. The U.S. partnership with other NATO nations did succeed in Libya, and economic cycles eventually change, but the United States has less and less reason to focus on Europe in a steadily more multipolar world.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.