Monday, Jun 18, 2018
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Op-Ed Columns

Focus on Iraq has put other problems on the back burner

U.S. MILITARY planners once were expected at least to pretend that the United States was capable of fighting major wars in two different theatres at the same time. The usual hypotheses were a war in the Middle East and a war in the Korean peninsula or the Taiwan straits at the same time.

If there is still thought of that contingency around, the degree to which it falls in the fantasy category must have become clearer as war managers are forced to come to terms with the personnel and equipment shortages created by the Iraq War.

What we will focus on today is not these limitations on U.S. military capacity but, rather, the different political problems around the world that have been pushed to the side, by the government and the media, as the Iraq affair has inhaled all the oxygen in the American foreign policy apparatus.

None of this is to say that the United States should take responsibility for all of these problems. In fact, part of the trick of carrying out an effective foreign policy is for America to deal with the problems it has to deal with, while successfully off-loading those that it can safely relegate to other parties, whether it be the United Nations, a regional body, or the neighbors of a troubled country.

The problem of delegating responsibility for a problem is that the United States remains more or less the sole superpower and that the problem may surpass the capacities of the party to which America has delegated it. Following are some that we aren't dealing with at present.

1. Zimbabwe. President Robert Mugabe, 80, has trashed his country's economy and political system and nobody is doing anything about it. The United Nations won't touch it. The African Union won't involve itself because Zimbabwe's powerful neighbor, South Africa, perhaps the only country that could effectively put the screws to Mr. Mugabe, won't. In the meantime, the 13 million people of that formerly successful country sink deeper into economic misery and political repression.

2. Cyprus. There was a decent, U.N.-brokered chance for a settlement of the 30-year-old conflict between Greeks and Turks on that island in April of this year. The European Union sold out a settlement in order to obtain the cooperation of Greece, one of its members, in the expansion of the EU from 15 to 25 members. The United States fluttered its hands as the settlement collapsed, but played no meaningful role in trying to make it work.

3. Sri Lanka. For a while, the Norwegians had led negotiations that could have resulted in the resolution of a bloody two-decade conflict between the island's majority Sinhalese-speakers and its Tamil minority. Those negotiations came unstuck when, on the Tamil side, different factions began fighting each other.

Problems on the government side came from a president and a prime minister who decided that the negotiations would serve nicely as an election issue. Goodbye, negotiations. The U.S. role in trying to salvage the process? Basically, zero.

4. Canada. Neglect of this one is worse because it is bilateral, and a problem with what is America's most important neighbor. There has been for generations a border dispute between the United States and Canada over ownership of areas in the far north of both countries. One question is whether the Northwest Passage, a very old but not forgotten term, is in international waters or Canadian territorial waters. The question is becoming much more than academic as global warming is making it open to international shipping for nearly the whole year. There is also the question of who owns what up there, from mineral rights to diamonds, oil, and natural gas.

A less practical but nonetheless sensitive issue is the fact that the United States, Russia, Britain, and France still send submarines under the ice in the area without reference to Canadian authority over the area.

Now the Canadians are running military exercises around the area, in effect acting like the old wolf that goes around urinating on the boundaries of his territory to establish his claim to it.

This is a problem that U.S. diplomacy even at the White House level could usefully devote considerable attention to, if it were less preoccupied with the problems of Iraq. U.S. relations with Canada have been damaged by Canada's refusal to put troops in Iraq, stemming from Canadians' disapproval of the war.

5. Others. There are a few more, without even getting into the neglect of Afghanistan, which is resulting in increasing boldness on the part of the Taliban government that the United States displaced in late 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Some Latin American countries are suffering internal upheaval, based on political and economic problems. A Chinese giant that is now beginning to think about the regional political potential of its dominant economy is making former U.S. allies in Asia nervous.

The problem of Chechnya is becoming more burdensome to Russia and President Vladimir V. Putin, with concomitant risks.

Furthering Indian-Pakistani cooperation and progress toward an agreement on Kashmir has become a more distant interest of the United States, reflecting a slackening of interest in Afghanistan and South Asia in general.

Most of this won't change before the elections. We can hope, however, that, whoever wins, something happens with respect to Iraq after the elections to give some of these problems a place on the list of U.S. priorities.

These issues vary in importance, but all are important to the United States to some degree and should definitely not be left to rot in the bottom of the vegetable drawer.

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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