The incoming Commander-in-Chief already has a handful of issues waiting for him or her on January 20th and surely doesn't need any more foreign policy headaches. Unfortunately, the job is "Leader of the Free World" and not "Autopilot of the Worldwide Ramones/P-Funk Block Party."
Inevitably, things go awry. Reactions have unintended consequences. If you don't believe in unintended consequences, imagine landing on an aircraft carrier emblazoned with a big "Mission Accomplished" banner. By the middle of your replacement's second term, al-Qaeda in Iraq is now ISIS and the guy who starred on Celebrity Apprentice is almost in charge of deciding how to handle it.
Think about that . . .
Here are ten imminent wars the incoming Chief Executive will have to keep the U.S. out of... or prevent entirely.
Check out the WATM podcast to hear the author and other veterans discuss the incoming Commander-in-Chief's war challenges come January 20th.
1. China vs. Everyone in the Pacific
In 2013, China declared the Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu Islands, depending on which side of the issue you're on) to be part of its East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone. Since then, Chinese and Japanese air and naval assets have taken many opportunities to troll each other. The Chinese people see these provocations as violations of their sovereignty and anti-Japanese demonstrations erupted in China. World War II memories die hard.
The islands themselves are just an excuse. The prominent ideology espoused by Chinese President Xi Jinping is that of the "Chinese Dream," one that recaptures lost Chinese greatness and prestige. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is a hardline nationalist, is unlikely to bow to Beijing just because of a military buildup. On the contrary, Japan's legislature just changed the constitution to allow Japanese troops to engage in combat outside of a defensive posture for the first time since WWII.
Elsewhere, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam are all vying for control of the Spratly Islands. The Spratlys are a small, seemingly unimportant set of "maritime features" in the South China Sea that would extend each country's maritime boundary significantly. They sit on trade routes. Oh, and there are oil and natural gas reserves there. China started building artificial islands and military bases in the Spratlys, which is interesting because the U.S. now has mutual defense treaties with Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan. So the next U.S. President will also have to be prepared for...
2. China vs. The United States
The term "peaceful rise" isn't thrown around quite as much as it used to be. That was Chinese President Hu Jintao's official ideology, but he left power in 2012. China under Xi Jinping is much more aggressive in its rise. Chinese hackers stole blueprints for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter just before China's military revealed a homegrown design, which looked a lot like the F-35. The People's Republic also finished a Russian-designed aircraft carrier, its first ever. It now has a second, entirely Chinese one under construction.
The Chinese specially developed the DF-21D Anti-Ship missile for use against carriers and other advanced ships of the U.S. Navy. The ballistic missile looks a lot like nuclear missiles and can carry a nuclear payload. Once a Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile sinks its first U.S. carrier, there's no going back – a downed carrier would kill 6,000 sailors. This is why China develops weapons to deny the U.S. sea superiority and deter American aggression in their backyard before a war begins.
3. Russia vs. NATO
The expansion of NATO as a bulwark against Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe is a challenge to the status quo of the last thirty years. While the end of the Cold War should have changed the way the Russians and the West interact, Russian influence is still aggressive. Russia does not take kindly to the idea of NATO's expansion into former Eastern Bloc countries like Ukraine, which resulted in the 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
Now the Alliance is deploying thousands of troops to Poland and the Baltic countries as a counter to Russian aggression. Threats made by Russian President Vladimir Putin are always serious. He didn't just annex Crimea. In 2008, he invaded the former Soviet Republic of Georgia to "protect Russian-speaking minorities" in the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Putin claims the right of Russia to protect the rights of Russian-speaking minorities abroad and uses military force to do so.
4. Iran vs. Saudi Arabia
The Sunni-Shia religious civil war rages on by proxy all over the Middle East. In Yemen, Iranian-backed Houthi tribes ousted the Saudi-backed government of Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi. The Houthis are still fighting for deposed dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose regime was a victim of the 2012 Arab Spring. Saudi Arabia intervened shortly after with a coalition of Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE. The war in Yemen now includes al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi warned the sudden uptick in sectarian violence may spill over into the greater Middle East.
The proxy war is already in Iraq. The Iraqi government is using a makeshift alliance of Americans, Shia militias, and Iranian advisors to retake territory captured by ISIS in 2014. In Syria, forces loyal to al-Qaeda are funded by Sunni proxies while the Asad regime and Hezbollah fighters are supported by Iran and Russia (meanwhile, everyone is fighting ISIS). At the same time, both Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to stockpile weapons and develop new weapon systems. There may come a time when the two decide they've had enough of proxy wars and just decide to duke it out for keeps. In the meantime, the two keep battlefields in the countries between them to avoid fighting at home.
5. Civil War in Iraq
It's great to form an unlikely alliance against a joint enemy, especially when the enemy is ISIS. Once the terror group is gone the Sunnis in Anbar will demand equal treatment under the law, only now they'll be surrounded by Shia militias and Iranian arms and money. It wouldn't be a stretch to see Sunnis in Anbar seek autonomy like the Kurdish regions enjoy in Northern Iraq, except Anbar doesn't have the resources for independence like the Kurds seek. Speaking of which...
6. Kurdistan Independence War
The Kurds in Iraq and Syria bore the brunt of rescuing minorities in Iraq and Syria from the atrocities of the Islamic State. They also were the workhorse behind turning the tide of the ISIS advance and putting the terror group on the defensive. They shifted the momentum against ISIS at places like Sinjar and Kobane and the terror group has never recovered. ISIS is slowly collapsing as the Kurdish YPG in Syria approach the ISIS capital at Raqqa. The Kurdish people will feel they've earned an independent Kurdistan for doing the region a solid, especially if the YPG capture Raqqa before the Syrian government.
An independent Kurdistan would carve out parts of Iraq, Syria, and maybe even Southern Turkey. The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has been an active terrorist organization in Turkey for decades. The Turks, a NATO ally, see the Syrian Kurdish YPG (People' Protection Units) as an extension of the PKK – in their eyes, a terrorist army. In Iraq, the Kurdish Autonomous Regions are rich in oil and are unlikely to be given away by the government in Baghdad. The Kurds will have to fight all three governments and will come to the U.S. for help.
7. Israel vs. Hezbollah
For those out of the know, Israel takes its security seriously. When Hezbollah fighters switched their focus to support the Asad regime in Syria, Israel took the opportunity to disrupt any Hezbollah supply line that might be used against the Jewish state. Many high-profile Hezbollah figures have died in Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011 – including Mustafa Badreddine, the military commander of the militia in Syria.
Hezbollah isn't a country. The group's power base is in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, which is far from Lebanon's border with Israel. When the fighting in Syria stops, Hezbollah will not forget its age-old enemy and is likely to retaliate. The Israel Defence Force has never hesitated to invade Lebanon with the aim of taking out Hezbollah fighters. The last time was in 2006 and Israel is already planning for the next one.
8. Civil War in Turkey
The Turkish people are facing an identity crisis. The current President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has slowly brought the Turkish economy to a more modern, robust level. The cost was a turn away from the secular democracy that defined the Turkish government.
Turkey's military has traditionally been the guarantor of its democracy, overthrowing the government whenever it felt a slide toward religiosity, as it did in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997. In 2012, Erdoğan purged the military, jailing dozens of officers to prevent a coup. As he and his ruling AKP become increasingly authoritarian and insufficiently responsive to terror attacks from ISIS, rumors of such a coup will only start to spread.
9. Civil War in Afghanistan
The U.S. and NATO allies can't stay in Afghanistan forever. The Taliban doesn't face the same opposition from Western troops they once faced before the drawdown in 2014 and the citizens of those countries aren't interested in sending their troops back. In 2014, the Pakistani military's Operation Zarb-e-Azb in its Waziristan tribal regions unseated thousands of fighters who likely found their way back to Afghanistan, ready to start again. The Afghan security forces are unlikely to be able to stand up to these battle-hardened jihadists without U.S. support.
10. China vs. India
China and India went to war in 1962 because Chairman Mao thought India was against its takeover of Tibet (Indians granted asylum to the Dalai Lama). The war lasted all of a month and only resulted in slight boundary changes which have never been fully addressed. The coming war may be nominally over the Himalayan boundaries between the two countries, but in reality, it will be about water. The two countries both want the hydropower and water from the Yarlung Tsangpo–Brahmaputra River. The river starts in Tibet then flows into India and Bangladesh. In 2008, a Chinese dam project on the Yarlung–Tsangpo worried the Indians about the diversion of the water and the use of water as a weapon and is now a major issue in bilateral talks.
In the event of a war with China, their perpetual enemy, Pakistan would likely join in on the Chinese side. The Chinese are heavily invested in Pakistan, especially in the disputed area of Kashmir. This investment allows the Chinese People's Liberation Army to project power well into Central Asia and keep jihadists away from its borders. Individually, India can beat Pakistan and make a stand against China, but is unlikely to win against both.
Bonus: North Korea vs. Anyone
If anyone was going to invade North Korea, they would have done it by now. Seriously, what does this country have to do to get its government ousted?