Top 5 Foreign Policy Takeaways of 2013

The year has provided plenty of lessons from abroad


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This year may have provided the Obama administration with plenty of lessons on website building and fiscal fiscos, but 2013 has also highlighted trends, developments, and lessons that will impact America's foreign policy for the rest of Obama's presidency and beyond. The past year has shown the different sort of interventions undertaken to address Islamism, the moral hypocrisy of the United States' foreign aid policy, the growth of the drone club, Africa's role in the War on Terror, and the effect American snooping can have on relations abroad.  

One: Not all interventions have to be vast nation-building exercises

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Since the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 the Taliban have been removed from power and American forces have killed Osama Bin Laden. Yet despite these successes American forces remain in Afghanistan.

During the more than 12 years the American military has been in Afghanistan, the U.S. also invaded and withdrew from Iraq, a mission that was sold as a liberation.

Despite the American military adventures since 9/11, Iraq is still a bloody mess gripped by sectarian violence, the Taliban continue to organize and carry out attacks in Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda and its allies continue to operate not only in neighboring Pakistan, but also in Yemen, Syria, and swathes of North Africa.

While the failures of America's most recent interventions should be noted, in the last year there has been a demonstration of a style of military intervention very different from the American interventions since 2001 that demonstrate that not all foreign adventures need to be attempts at nation-building. 

In January this year, the French launched an intervention in Mali in order to halt the advance of jihadists who had take over much of the north of their former colony. Some people, myself included, were wary of the mission, and warned of the potential blowback that could have negative impacts in the region and in France.

However, almost a year after the intervention began, the French mission in Mali has provided lessons that American policy-makers can learn from as long as they insist on throwing America's military might around.

The French intervened at the invitation of the Malian government and with the backing of countries and organizations in the region, lending the mission credibility and support. 

The mission also had clear and realistic victory conditions. Jihadists in northern Mali did pose a threat to Mali's security and integrity, and French President Francois Hollande made clear that the purpose of the intervention was to push jihadists out of the territory they had taken.

Aside from the invitation to intervene and the clear victory conditions, the French mission in Mali also demonstrated the effectiveness of a comparatively small, well trained, and highly deployable military, something American lawmakers should keep in mind given how much of the American government's spending is dedicated to the military. In the 21st Century it is increasingly likely that the sort missions seen in Mali will become more common than the embedded and vast interventions that U.S. has recently pursued.

The fact that the French intervention in Mali has succeeded in removing jihadists from their strongholds in northern Mali does not necessarily mean that foreign intervention is always the right policy to pursue when countries are suffering internal unrest.

However, if the U.S. is going to continue in the misguided trend of being overly involved in the world (something recent polling suggests most Americans are against), the French intervention in Mali provides an example of how every intervention need not also be a vast nation-building exercise and that certain conditions makes foreign military adventures abroad much easier to execute.

Next: America's foreign aid policy is morally confused and diplomatically awkward

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Two: America's foreign aid policies are not applied consistently

In July, democratically elected Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi was removed from power by the military following days of protests against his expansion of presidential powers. Not long after Morsi's removal, some of his supporters set up a protest camp in Cairo. In August, the security forces moved in to remove the protesters; the resulting clashes resulted in the deaths of hundreds, and were condemned across the Muslim world and the West.

While the removal of the president of the world's most populous Arab country is undoubtedly significant, what was especially notable in the U.S. was the Obama administration's reluctance to declare what happened in July a coup, thereby highlighting the moral hypocrisy of America's foreign aid policy and the diplomatic headaches that can arise from America's overinvolvement in foreign affairs.

It is not as if the Obama administration is reluctant to declare coups. Since Obama's first inauguration his administration has declared coups in Mali and Honduras. Egypt presented a different and more awkward situation than those seen in Mali and Honduras because of the Obama administration's Egyptian foreign aid policy and its relationship with Israel.

For decades the U.S. contributed a huge amount of foreign aid to Egypt, regardless of who was in charge. Despite the overthrow of an elected leader and the brutal crackdown on protesters American aid to Egypt continued. Some aid was eventually suspended, but the move was long overdue.

That it took the Obama administration months to suspend aid to a country where the military was slaughtering its citizens after overthrowing a government is a national embarrassment that highlights the fact that a morally consistent and diplomatically sensible position would be for the U.S. to treat all brutal regimes the same and drastically cut its foreign aid budget.

Next: The drone club is growing

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Three: Other Countries Turn to Drones

Since Obama's inauguration the number of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Afghanistan has increased to levels not seen during Bush's presidency. Since 2010 the number of drone strikes in Pakistan has been falling. Yet despite the declining number of drone strikes since 2010, in 2013 alone the Obama administration has so far carried out 25 drone strikes in Pakistan and 25 drone strikes in Yemen.

The use of drones has been criticized over their ineffectiveness and also their illegality. In the summer of 2012, a former CIA official warned that drone strikes in Yemen result in too many civilian casualties and could create safe havens for terrorists, and in October this year Nabeel Khoury, a Senior Fellow for Middle East and National Security at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, wrote that "Given Yemen's tribal structure, the U.S. generates roughly forty to sixty new enemies for every AQAP operative killed by drones."

In the same month that Khoury's estimate of the number of enemies created by drone strikes in Yemen was published Amnesty International said that the American drone strikes in Pakistan could constitute war crimes.

Despite the worries associated with the drone program the U.S. and others are continuing to develop drones into more autonomous — and deadly — tools. This year the Navy landed an unmanned drone on a moving aircraft carrier for the first time and launched a drone from a submerged submarine.

Even with all of the problems associated with the American use of drones in the ongoing War on Terror, 2013 has seen other countries developing drones of their own.

This year, Pakistan formally announced what are called "Strategically Unmanned Aerial Vehicles," known as Burraq and Shahpar, despite protests in Pakistan against the U.S. drone strikes there.

Last month, Europe announces creation of "drone users club" in an attempt to compete with UAVs built by the U.S. and Israel, the world largest drone exporter.

China reportedly flew its first stealth drone this year, and the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission noted in its annual report that the Chinese Wing Loong drone, which was presented last year, is so similar to the American Predator drone that some analysts suspect that espionage may have contributed to its development.

Like them or hate them, 2013 has shown us that drones are going to continue to be a part of warfare in the 21st Century.

Next: Africa is becoming increasingly prevalent in The War on Terror 

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Four: All Eyes on Africa in War on Terror

Since the beginning of the War on Terror most of the American public's attention has been focused on the Middle East and Asia, with American combat troops taking part in operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, 2013 has provided numerous examples of how the Africa will play an increasing role in the War on Terror, the ongoing campaign against Al Qaeda as well as its affiliates and allies.

The intervention in Mali discussed earlier is the most prominent examples of the influence Al Qaeda-linked groups have in northern Africa. But Mali, and northern Africa more broadly, is not the only place in the continent where Islamists have been operating.

In September, members of the Somali-based Al Qaeda-linked group Al Shabab entered the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya and carried out an attack that would result in the deaths of 61 civilians and six Kenyan soldiers. According to an Al Shabab spokesman, the attack was launched in response to the presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia.

Less than a month after the attack the U.S. carried out raids in Somalia and Libya, targeting an Al Shabab leader and Abu Anas al-Liby, who is suspected of having links to Al Qaeda and planning attacks on American embassies in Africa in 1998. 

After al-Liby was taken to a U.S. Navy ship in the Mediterranean for questioning, thereby allowing al-Liby to be interrogated indefinitely, another sign that the Bush administration may be gone, but its attitudes towards civil liberties remain.

Early this year it was reported that the U.S. had been flying drones out of a base in Niger, an indication that America's drone war in Africa, which has been waged in the Horn of Africa for some time, is expanding. Another sign that the U.S. is expecting to carry out more missions in Africa is the build up of American bases in Italy.

Although the U.S. has withdrawn from Iraq and is trying to organize a withdrawal from Afghanistan, news this year suggests that the War on Terror will continued to be waged, but that more of its focus will shift towards Africa.   

Next: The NSA's snooping doesn't just have Americans concerned 

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Five: NSA Surveillance Has Damaged World Relationships

While reporting on the information leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has been met with some bipartisan support of the NSA's surveillance as well as justified domestic anger, it has also prompted understandable outrage across the globe.

Included among the reports on the NSA's activities are allegations that the NSA spied on millions of Brazilians, collected data on the Internet and phone use of millions of French citizens, tracked millions of Spanish phone calls, and spied on German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Elsewhere, reporting on Snowden's revelations have done damage to the Indonesia-Australia relationship and have exposed an uncomfortable level of collusion between intelligence agencies around the world.

The timing of the leaks could hardly have come at a worse time for the Obama administration, which is trying to negotiate a free trade deal with the European Union. Unsurprisingly, in the wake of the allegations of NSA snooping the French sought to postpone talks, and there is speculation that the NSA revelations will affect future negotiations on the deal, with Merkel saying last month that the news of the NSA's snooping were putting the negotiations "to the test."

More recently, it has been reported that the NSA leaks could cost U.S. tech companies billions of dollars as foreign clients take their business elsewhere. 

Shortly after the news of the Snowden leaks first broke much attention was given to the terrifying civil liberty violations committed by the NSA. However, reporting on the response to the Snowden leaks abroad shows that the while the news of the NSA may well have prompted a long overdue debate on civil liberties at home, it has also affected America's credibility and could harm the American economy to the tune of billions of dollars in the future.