Welcome to the Situation Room: 3 Looming Crises for the Next U.S. President
Let's be perfectly blunt and honest: with a little less than three months to go before Election Day, the American people have no clue whatsoever which candidate will have the privilege of serving as the forty-fifth president of the United States. If the election were held today, Hillary Clinton would defeat Donald Trump by a resounding margin the likes we haven’t seen since George H. W. Bush’s rout of Michael Dukakis.
But 2016 has proven to be anything but a normal election year. Trump’s bid for the White House was supposed to be an entertaining spectacle for a couple of months, but has instead turned out to be one of the most successful campaigns in modern Republican Party history. Who knows? By the time November 8 hits the calendar, polls that currently give Hillary Clinton a respectable lead nationally could be whittled down to the low single digits.
But just because we have several more months of campaigning doesn’t mean we can’t plan for the future. Whether it’s Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton that wins on November 8, the forty-fifth president will come into office with a full plate of foreign-policy problems that need solving and international crises that need calming.
Here are the top three items that a President Clinton or a President Trump will have to deal with almost immediately.
The civil war in Syria is not just a typical conflict within state borders between a government and an insurgent force, but rather a collection of conflicts that have served as the region’s bleeding ulcer. The five-and-a-half years of shelling, indiscriminate mortar and artillery fire, starvation sieges, barrel-bomb attacks, torture, and chemical-weapons use has turned a once proud and historic society into one that is broken, divided and perhaps beyond repair. The Syria as we all knew it before Bashar al-Assad ordered the use of force against protesters in March 2011—that of a unified country where multiple religious denominations could live next to each other in peace—is in the year 2016 a collection of shifting fiefdoms and front lines. The city of Aleppo, the oldest inhabited city in history, is now a pile of soot and destroyed buildings, one that the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross calls “one of the most devastating urban conflicts in modern times.”
The next POTUS will enter office dealing with a region that is far bloodier and more chaotic than it was eight years ago. Pacifying the Middle Eastern region, or at least limiting the violence and decreasing the flow of refugees, will require an immediate launch of an interagency U.S. policy review on Syria even before he or she takes the oath of office in January 2017.
Tackling Syria, of course, means tackling the terrorism and extremism that Islamic State represents. Fortunately for the next commander-in-chief, ISIS’s allure as a jihadist movement has waned considerably from its peak in July 2014, when the movement humiliated U.S.-trained and -financed Iraqi security forces over a matter of days. ISIS’s oil production, oil revenue, foreign-fighter flow and territorial control have all decreased over the past year due to the combination of U.S. power in the air and engagement on the ground from local forces.
And yet, the shrinking of the caliphate in eastern Syria and western Iraq doesn’t mean that ISIS is a spent force. Islamic State in 2017 will not mimic 2010’s Al Qaeda in Iraq; ISIS has mastered the art of recruitment through social media, and is far more open to small-scale attacks by lone wolves than Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda ever was. For ISIS, a mastery of Islam is not a prerequisite from bestowing an individual as a soldier of the caliphate; all one needs to do is act out and make it known to the world that they are conducting violence on ISIS’s behalf. This will be a very difficult problem for the next president to prevent, as President Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel and President François Hollande have all learned.
Relations with Russia
U.S.-Russia relations are in the dumps. The reset policy that the Obama administration attempted to cultivate during its first term was destroyed almost as soon as Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin for another term. With the exception of Russia’s important cooperation during the nuclear negotiations with Iran, Washington and Moscow are all too often at the opposite sides of international conflict. Syria, Ukraine, NATO military exercises close to the Russian border, the fight against ISIS and nuclear modernization plans have all contributed to a poor and tumultuous bilateral relationship—and the personal chemistry between Obama and Putin certainly hasn’t helped either.
Russia, however, is still a very important global power. Whether politicians in Washington would like to admit it or not, some issues are simply too difficult to resolve without Moscow’s cooperation. But in order to get Moscow to cooperate, the United States needs an administration that is open to letting bygones be bygones, and a president who is humble and pragmatic enough to understand that the Russians also have national interests that they need to defend. The United States shouldn’t cede Ukraine to Russia’s influence for assistance in Syria, for instance. But neither should it continue to advocate for NATO’s further expansion, or actively incorporate Ukraine into the West.
Daniel R. DePetris has written for CNN.com, Small Wars Journal and the Diplomat.