WASHINGTON — America's foreign policy is clearly at a turning point at the end of 2007. The biggest evidence of that, of course, is the shotgun marriage Condoleezza Rice tried to broker between Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf and the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto ended tragically with the assassination of the opposition leader. Having encouraged Bhutto to return from her self-imposed exile, the U.S. is now left with no good choices in what is arguably the most dangerous part of the world.
That only underscores one of the hazards of looking into a crystal ball on foreign policy: at year's end, you have to live with your predictions. Looking back at 2007, and ahead to 2008, we had some hits, some runs, and our share of errors.
What does the coming year hold? That depends on decisions still to be made in distant capitals and remote tribal territories, as well as by key players in a deeply divided Bush cabinet.
The year that was: 2007
This time last year, the administration was fighting against the widespread conclusion that it had become mired in an Iraqi civil war. The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group had provided an exit strategy, but President Bush had rejected it. I did not see another way out. Enter Gen. David Petraeus, the American commander whose execution of the "surge" strategy is widely credited with a decline in daily violence. Oil production is up, a semblance of civil order is returning to neighborhoods of Baghdad and American casualties are down.
But can this improvement be sustained? There is still no evidence that the Maliki government can meet long overdue benchmarks for political reconciliation. And a year after the departure of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, disagreements between the Pentagon and the State Department are more muted but are still hamstringing critical decisions about Iraq and Iran.
The State Department would like to credit Iran for fewer improvised explosive devices in Iraq, and less outside support for the Iraqi insurgency. The Pentagon says that judgment is premature.
At this time last year, America and its European allies were still trying to get Russia to support U.N. action punishing Iran for allegedly hiding a nuclear weapons program. A year later, securing another resolution from the U.N. is even less likely. Despite a disastrous trip by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the U.S., the administration's policy imploded because of an explosive report from its own intelligence community.
The controversial National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concluded that Iran abandoned its weapons program in 2003, even while finding ample evidence that Iran had been seeking weapons — contrary to Tehran's denials. The consensus that Iran gave up on its nuclear weapons ambition four years ago was a huge embarrassment to the administration's hardliners. Five years after the president designated Iran as a charter member of the "axis of evil," international support for isolating Iran has all but evaporated.
Still, despite Ahmadinejad's aberrant behavior, recent positive signals from his nuclear negotiators could lead to the first serious diplomatic talks with Tehran since the beginning of the Bush presidency. Key to this will be whether Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice persuades the president to abandon a precondition that has been a continual barrier to negotiations — that the U.S. demand that Iran suspend all research, even peaceful research, before talks with the U.S. can begin.
It took all year, but by November, for the first time since he took office, Bush permitted Rice to convene Palestinians and Israelis to a peace conference.
Held in Annapolis, Md., the meetings were most memorable for the guest list: Saudi Arabia and Syria both sent delegation, though Syria only showed up only after winning a guarantee that the U.S. would permit its priority — return of the Golan Heights — to be among the topics on the informal agenda.
Syria’s participation was most notable because only two months earlier, Israel had taken military action against a still-mysterious military facility, with no protest from Syria. Clearly, Damascus was caught red-handed — reportedly, with a nuclear facility engineered by North Korea. At year’s end, it seemed likely that secret talks between Israel and Syria were already underway. Will the old adage still prove true — that the road to peace in the Middle East has to go through Damascus?
After a year of torturous negotiations, progress toward denuclearizing North Korea was finally within reach, even if not by the New Year’s deadline.
Despite pushback by administration skeptics — and hardliners such as former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton — Rice and her top negotiator, Christopher Hill, have pushed steadily toward an agreement. And in April, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson took a delegation to Pyongyang as an information envoy to receive the remains of six U.S. service members lost in the Korean War, with NBC News accompanying exclusively.
Now everything depends on North Korea complying with demands for full disclosure of its nuclear stockpiles, along with disabling its reactor at Yongbon — a dismantling operation already well underway.
What to watch in 2008So what can we expect from 2008? Here are the issues and trends I will be keeping an eye on in the new year.
It is likely that Rice will go to Pyongyang early in 2008, the first step toward normalizing relations with North Korea. Could she possible go at the same time as the New York Philharmonic's visit in February, the first cultural exchange between the U.S. and the Kim Jong Il's regime? Perhaps not, but the idea of Rice, an accomplished musician, playing piano in one of the great Stalinist concert halls in the Hermit Kingdom is certainly intriguing! Who knows, there could be a presidential visit before year's end.
Don't count on a "final agreement" between Israel and the Palestinians, but I wouldn't rule out a breakthrough between Israel and Syria. Could the return of the Golan Heights to Syria be the first step before Bush leaves office?
The White House won't admit it readily, but the force structure alone will dictate troop withdrawals from Iraq in the year ahead. If the "surge" maintains the current calm long enough to permit more civilian and political reconciliation during the current "lull," so much the better.
The Pentagon and NATO expect rising violence in the largely overlooked war in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida insurgents are crossing freely from Pakistan. This could be the second most dangerous place in the world in 2008.
Declining support for tough sanctions could provide enough incentive for an overture from the U.S. to Tehran. This would be a real test of Rice's clout with Bush and Ahmadinejad's sway with Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamaei, who has signaled a greater openness toward the West than his bombastic president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Setbacks for the West in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2007 will strengthen al-Qaida in 2008. Whether the U.S. is able to capture Osama bin Laden will depend more on luck than any actionable intelligence.
This is the issue that will overtake most other, more traditional foreign policy issues. Watch the presidential debates for an idea as to how "mainstream" environmental concerns have become in the past few years. U.S. diplomats will find themselves increasingly isolated in the year ahead if they do not respond.
Beijing will become the capital of the world on August 8, 2008. Converging on the Olympics: world attention on China's extraordinary economic promise, its unparalleled pollution, its tainted goods and its dynamic population. Prediction: the Olympics will produce a record number of medals for China's athletes and a great leap forward for China's relations with the U.S.
Andrea Mitchell is NBC News' chief foreign affairs correspondent and is based in Washington, D.C.