2014 was such a grim year for foreign policy that I’d like to write a column predicting things will get better next year.
In truth, there’s scant reason to hope that the Islamic State will soon be destroyed, Vladimir Putin will see the light, or Kim Jong Un will agree to appear on “The Daily Show.” However, if one suspends disbelief, it’s possible to imagine how some of the grim conflicts of the past year could ease. So here are the hopeful signs to watch for (and why they probably won’t materialize) in 2015.
Can the Islamic State be rolled back? Last year, the sectarian policies of Iraq’s Shiite former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, drove Sunnis into the arms of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), which seized a third of the country.
One can imagine how the situation could be reversed in 2015. The new Shiite prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, appears willing to reach out to Sunnis and help them shake off the Islamic State. He is trying to reform a corrupt army that collapsed as the jihadis advanced.
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Many Sunnis are tiring of the repression and incompetent governance of the so-called caliphate run by the Islamic State. But al-Abadi’s outreach is opposed by Iran, which has huge influence in Iraq and wants Shiite dominance there to continue. Moreover, Iraqi Sunnis won’t fight the Islamic State unless Baghdad gives them more military aid and political power, along with a bigger role in a reformed army.
So watch to see whether Washington gives firm, consistent backing to al-Abadi and persuades other Sunni Arab states to do likewise. This won’t require combat troops, but it will require more than tough talk from the White House or Congress. Intense U.S. diplomacy and full presidential attention will be needed. If al-Abadi gets that, there’s a chance that the Islamic State’s gains can be reversed in Iraq in 2015, which would also weaken the group across the border in Syria.
But there’s little chance that the Syrian civil war will stop in the coming 12 months. Moscow and Tehran won’t let Bashar al-Assad lose, while the more moderate rebels (along with their Arab and Western backers) are too divided to win. That means the fighting will continue.
Will Putin stop messing with his neighbors? His seizure of Crimea was a violation of international law that rivals Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. (Both men claimed they were taking back territory to which they had a historical right.) Only Russia’s sinking economy — hit by falling oil prices and Western sanctions — has prevented Putin from seizing more Ukrainian turf to create a land bridge to occupied Crimea.
Watch to see if oil prices stay low (which could be the best foreign policy news of 2015 as well as 2014). Putin would then have to release more billions in hard currency reserves to pay pensions and help Russian companies repay their foreign debts. That would create pressure for him to back off Ukraine to get sanctions lifted. But Putin’s dreams of re-creating the Russian empire may trump rational concerns.
Will Afghanistan fall to the Taliban following the exit of the last U.S. combat troops this year? There are a few kernels of good news on this front. Afghanistan’s new tandem government of President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah is a great improvement over the mercurial Hamid Karzai — if they can finally agree on a Cabinet. Meantime, Taliban leaders appear to be embroiled in deadly quarrels with each other.
What’s important to watch is whether neighboring Pakistan has finally decided to stop its longtime backing of the Afghan Taliban as a means of outflanking Indian influence in Afghanistan. The Afghans could have settled their own problems years ago if the Pakistanis hadn’t trained and armed the Afghan Taliban and given them safe haven in their country.
The recent Taliban massacre of 132 schoolchildren in Pakistan has led wavering politicians there to declare war on all Taliban, both Afghan and Pakistani. Pakistan’s army commander, Gen. Raheel Sharif, is talking the same way. If these leaders really mean it this time, they can pressure the Afghan Taliban to pursue their goals by political rather than violent means. One sign of Islamabad’s sincerity would be an arrest of Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who is believed to be living in Karachi. But I’m not holding my breath.
There could be good news on several other fronts, although the odds are iffy. In 2015, we'll learn whether it’s possible to negotiate a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Even if that occurs, advocates are far too optimistic that it will lead Iran to normalize relations with the West.
In Israel, a March election could produce a government less eager to settle or annex much of the West Bank, but it may be too late for Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate a deal for two states.
As for Kim Jong Un, watch to see if his Chinese allies finally tire of his antics and try to curb him in the new year.
And then there’s Cuba. The long-overdue U.S. recognition of its government was one of the most positive foreign policy stories of 2014. In 2015, watch to see if more people-to-people contact, and global exposure to Cuban art, music, sports, and 1950s Chevies, creates pressure for gradual political change.