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Three New Year's wishes

By HARLAN ULLMAN, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   Jan. 8, 2014 at 12:03 AM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Jan. 8 (UPI) -- A week after New Year's Day isn't too late for making wishes for 2014.

Peace in Syria, Iraq and the Middle East looms large in the wishful category. So, too, does a successful agreement that effectively ensures Iran won't obtain nuclear weapons. And resolution of the conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India would greatly contribute to the global good.

Some would consider these wishes fantasy although, through U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's indefatigable persistence, efforts in Iran and the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict could bear fruit. We should know those results within several months.

If progress isn't sustained in both, the outlook for 2014 won't be a happy one.

For the United States, here are three wishes for '14. First, President Barack Obama needs to regroup, refresh his intellectual powers and set out an agenda based on several big ideas. Hopefully, his Hawaiian vacation charged his batteries. The next two wishes constitute big ideas he might consider.

At best, the U.S. economy is struggling. Sustained by the Federal Reserve's pumping of nearly $1 trillion a year into the economy by buying back bonds and debt, artificially low interest rates and corporations loaded with cash, the stock market has soared to record heights. Yet, annual growth is modest at best; unemployment high; and wealth and income disparity are likely to be (wrongly) elevated to key political issues framing the 2014 congressional elections.

Urgently needed is a major program to modernize the nation's infrastructure for the 21st century. Frequently recommended in this column is a private sector-led infrastructure bank capitalized to about $1 trillion through 30-year debt offerings incentivized by interest rates 2 or 3 percent above prime and paid for by toll and user fees generated from modernizing infrastructure from the power grid to Internet to ports, highways and education.

Such an effort will put the U.S. economy and the country on sounder footing for decades. Unfortunately, creating a bank will require strong and courageous leadership, qualities that seem to have gone on holiday in Washington.

Third is the wish for a foreign and national security policy Obama doctrine. Leading from behind isn't it and the strategic pivot to Asia, vacillations over whether to aid the Syrian opposition and the deterioration of the Iraqi state threatened by the emergence of a new al-Qaida in the form of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria haven't reassured friends and allies or deterred potential adversaries.

Presidential doctrines aren't new. George Washington warned of permanent foreign alliances. James Monroe declared the Western Hemisphere off-limits to further European colonization. More recently, Dwight Eisenhower had a doctrine. And Richard Nixon went a step further with two.

The Nixon Doctrine was the better known. It argued that regional states needed to be concerned with regional security issues while the United States would provide the larger geostrategic umbrella, namely dealing with the Soviet Union and global issues. A corollary or linchpin was the opening to China and triangle politics to counterbalance the Soviet Union through rapprochement between Beijing and Washington.

Nixon's second doctrine was the "Twin Pillar Policy" in the Persian Gulf built on de facto alliances with Iran under the shah and Saudi Arabia. The policy was based on the mutual fear and threat posed by the Soviet Union. However, the Sunni-Shiite rivalry was contained because, and despite justified criticism, as autocratic states, Iran and Saudi Arabia could ensure greater interests of security overrode competing religious ideologies.

Today, Obama needs a doctrine based on cooperation and coordination in which the United States is the facilitator and critical ingredient in dealing with other states based on mutual and common interests. More to the point, he needs to fashion not a two-pillar but three-pillar doctrine for the Middle East that brings together the Sunni and Shiite states along with Israel. The common glue is the threat of contagion of radical Islam in the form of new al-Qaida groups and the ISIS.

Given profoundly opposite stands taken vis-a-vis Syria by the United States and Saudi Arabia and Qatar, squaring this circle will be difficult. But it can be done. Russia can play a positive role. The key is linking Syria to Iran and then to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The agreement with Iran if successful will lift sanctions. Then, given a road map for Syria, Iran might be persuaded to withdraw Hezbollah putting great pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad to negotiate. Should that be accomplished, then Kerry's efforts to bring a successful conclusion to the Arab-Israeli might follow.

Many will argue this is wishful thinking in the extreme but sometimes that is what it takes to create and impose useful doctrines. And one is surely needed now.

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(Harlan Ullman is chairman of the Killowen Groupm, which advises leaders of government and business, and senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

© 2014 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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