A Look At International Challenges In Year Ahead

Iran isn't the only foreign policy challenge in the headlines and on the horizon. Former Assistant Secretary of State James Rubin talks to host Guy Raz about the international hot spots the Obama administration should be watching in the year ahead.

GUY RAZ, host:

Now, while Iran will no doubt pose an increasing challenge for President Obama's foreign policy team next year, there are other flashpoints in the region the White House will be paying close attention to. And according to James Rubin, a former assistant secretary of State in the Clinton administration, 2010 may bring Iraq right back to the front pages.

Mr. JAMES RUBIN (Adjunct Professor, Columbia University; Former Assistant Secretary of State): Things really are better than they were at the height of the brutal civil war a couple of years ago, but there still is very intense violence there, massive bombing attacks by insurgents. Some even say that the al-Qaida movement is returning. And then the biggest challenge for Iraq is the struggle between the Arab portion of Iraq and the Kurdish portion of Iraq over this big city where so many oil fields are located, known as Kirkuk, and that is a powder keg that could genuinely explode in the coming year.

RAZ: James Rubin, next year, presumably, the big foreign policy challenges for the president will be foreign policy challenges from this past year: Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan. Is that - in your view, is that what the White House will be focusing on when it looks abroad?

Mr. RUBIN: Well, I do think, although we've focused a lot on the al-Qaida problem within Pakistan, there's a much bigger problem that you began to see when the constitutional court declared the amnesty for the current president and all of his colleagues invalid. So the whole civilian government is in jeopardy now in Pakistan.

If that were to collapse, or there would be some calamity like that in Pakistan, I think that will then take over the whole agenda because, as Pakistan goes, not only does it determine what happens with Afghanistan, it could affect the whole movement of extremism in the world.

This is a nuclear power. Their forces are arrayed against India, another nuclear power. So I think that's a country whose future will be so important that it could shift the planned agenda.

RAZ: What is the one foreign policy story that you think might flare up next year that we're not talking about or not yet thinking about?

Mr. RUBIN: Well, I think it's certainly possible that the issue of Syria could really remake the Middle East. As Syria goes, so does the relative balance of power between Iran on the one hand and the so-called moderate Arab states and Israel on the other. And there is a possibility that exists all the time that the Syrian leadership will negotiate privately with the Israelis or others to shift its support from Iran to the moderate Arab states and Israel.

If that were to happen, and it could happen secretly, could come upon us without us knowing it, that would not only be a step towards peace in the Middle East, between Israel and Syria, but it would be a real change in terms of Iran's showing relative weakness and the moderate forces in that part of the world showing strength.

RAZ: That's James Rubin. He's an adjunct professor of international affairs at Columbia University. He was an assistant secretary of State in the Clinton administration.

James Rubin, thank you so much.

Mr. RUBIN: Pleasure to be with you.

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