The Landing Zone | 1.3.10
By Alan W. Dowd

An old Chinese proverb declares, “May you live in interesting times.” The year ahead will likely show us why these words are both a blessing and a curse.

Change is always interesting, and in an era marked by the global spread of democratic governance, change is often brought about at the ballot box. In 2010, there will be elections in a number of key countries.

The U.S. will hold congressional elections. A shift in power would probably influence domestic policy more than foreign policy. But as George W. Bush learned in the Beltway battle over the surge, as Bill Clinton learned in the Balkans and as Ronald Reagan learned in Central America, a determined Congress can have a significant impact on foreign policy.

Britain will hold elections and will likely oust the party of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, after 13 years in power. David Cameron, the would-be prime minister, has staked out a decidedly independent, pro-sovereignty position, promising that he would “never allow Britain to slide into a federal Europe.”

Iraqis will vote for parliament, testing a fragile political-constitutional system. The good news is that post-Baathist Iraq has risen to the occasion before, most recently in November, when the parliament hammered out a crucial set of rules for administering the 2010 election.

But elections are only a small part of the big picture in 2010 Iraq. By the end of August, the U.S. will withdraw all combat forces from Iraq, leaving 50,000 troops behind for training, counterinsurgency/counterterrorism and protection of U.S. facilities. In other words, August 2010 will mark the end of the war for American troops.

Beyond Iraq, there are elections in the Philippines, Ethiopia, the Palestinian territory, Brazil and elsewhere, but the elections in Ukraine, Poland and the CzechRepublic could be the most interesting vis-à-vis U.S. foreign and defense policy.

Still smarting from Washington’s retreat on missile defense, Czech and Polish politicians face electorates that could punish them for taking a risk on the U.S. missile defense program—a risk that appears to have yielded nothing more than Russian anger.

In Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western sitting president, is facing prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yanukovich. The bad news for those who want Ukraine to remain independent and Western-oriented is that Yushchenko’s poll numbers are dismal, Yanukovich was “Moscow’s man” in 2004, according to the BBC, and Tymoshenko is viewed as co-opted by Moscow. “We are happy working with the government of Yulia Tymoshenko,” Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has said.

Given Moscow’s military presence in the Crimea and refusal to view its former vassals as independent countries, who’s in charge in Ukraine—and how he or she relates to Russia—could have serious implications for the U.S and NATO. Ukraine is not a NATO member. Of course, neither was Georgia in 2008, yet the Russia-Georgia war badly damaged Western relations with Moscow.

NATO, by the way, will complete work on a new Strategic Concept in 2010. The Strategic Concept is a kind of mission statement. The last time NATO adopted a new Strategic Concept was in 1999. Much has changed since then. 

While on the subject of change, one big change that is supposed to happen in 2010 is the closure of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. However, it won’t happen on schedule. Missing the president’s January 2010 deadline is probably a good thing. The American people oppose the plan to shut down GITMO and move the detainees into the U.S. by a two-to-one margin—and understandably so. The alternatives to GITMO—handing over the detainees to other countries, where many have been released; transferring them to federal prisons; and/or trying them in U.S. courts—leave much to be desired.

Speaking of stateside trials, preparations for the Manhattan trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other al Qaeda terrorists will dominate the news in 2010.

That brings us to Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden and KSM hatched their mass-murder plan. After a thorough re-review, the president has ordered 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan; this follows his early-2009 deployment of about 20,000 troops. Perhaps by this time next year, we will be able to say that the Afghanistan surge worked as well as the Iraq surge. However, it would seem that letting the Taliban know when the U.S. will end its offensive—the president promises “after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home”—won’t make Gen. McChrystal’s mission any easier.

Next door to Afghanistan, only Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a handful of clerics know what 2010 holds for Iran. If 2009 is any guide, we can expect plenty of gamesmanship from Tehran and tough talk from the UN—but no real action. As French president Nicolas Sarkozy recently observed, “Since 2005, Iran has violated five Security Council resolutions….An offer of dialogue was made in 2005, an offer of dialogue was made in 2006, an offer of dialogue was made in 2007, an offer of dialogue was made in 2008, and another one was made in 2009….What did the international community gain from these offers?” His answer: “More enriched uranium, more centrifuges.”

Exasperated, Sarkozy finally concluded, “There comes a time when facts are stubborn and decisions must be made.”

When the French are talking tough and ready to act, you know we’re living in interesting times.

The Landing Zone is Dowd’s monthly column on national defense and international security featured on the American Legion's website.