The List

America's Other Most Embarrassing Allies

Hosni Mubarak has plenty of company.

Maintaining good relations with autocrats is an unfortunate but often necessary component of the delicate balancing act that is U.S. foreign policy. But as Washington learned once again this week, supporting a strongman for the sake of stability can present risks of its own. Here are eight more alliances that could prove embarrassing. 

SAUDI ARABIA

Leader: King Abdullah

Record: The king has ruled Saudi Arabia since 2005. As ruler of a country with no elections, parliament, or political parties, Abdullah and his family exercise unchecked power within the kingdom, and -- thanks to their control of one-fifth of the world's oil reserves and Islam's two holiest sites -- quite a bit of influence beyond their borders as well. Abdullah surprised many by undertaking some minor reforms of the country's clerical establishment in 2009, though this may have had more to do with a desire to consolidate his power than any enlightened pluralistic impulses. The 86-year-old king has suffered poor health in recent years, leading to speculation about which of his relatives will succeed him.

The kingdom remains one of the most repressive countries on Earth, particularly so for its 9 million female citizens, who are prevented from holding many jobs or driving and are considered by law to be legally beholden to their husbands. Practicing any religion other than Islam is banned. Torture and detention without trial are commonplace. Around 2,000 people were arrested in 2009 alone on political charges.

U.S. support: Whether they're kissing and holding hands or bowing, American presidents of both parties can be counted on to show their affection for the House of Saud, a tradition dating back to Franklin Roosevelt's administration. As the only country in the world with "spare production capacity" -- enough extra oil that they can affect global energy prices at will -- Saudi cooperation is crucial in order to keep the U.S. economy humming.

Since 9/11, the Saudis have also provided aid and intelligence to the U.S.-led war on terrorism and cracked down on violent extremists in the kingdom and across the border in Yemen. Yet questions remain about the degree to which members of the Saudi royal family still provide financial assistance to Al Qaeda. The U.S. also relies on Saudi Arabia's stabilizing influence in the Middle East as a counterweight to Iran and as a mediator with the Palestinian Authority. In 2010, the relationship was further cemented by a $60 billion weapons deal including fighter jets, helicopters, and missiles.

YEMEN

Leader: Ali Abdullah Saleh

Record: Saleh first took power in Northern Yemen in a military coup in 1978 and has ruled the entire country since unification in 1991. Opposition parties are marginalized, parliamentary elections have been indefinitely postponed, and civilians are frequently caught up in military strikes in the country's lawless south.

Yemen is both one of the world's least stable countries, with an ongoing insurgency by Shiite rebels in the country's south, and one of the most repressive: Arbitrary detention and torture are pervasive and "honor killings" of women by family members frequently go unpunished. Inspired by the events in Tunisia and Egypt, demonstrators have taken to the streets of the capital Sana'a for near-daily protests since mid-January, demanding Saleh's removal as president.

U.S. support: Saleh might seem like an unlikely U.S. ally. In addition to his autocratic style and tolerance of official corruption, he was a close ally of Saddam Hussein and supported Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. But counterterrorism makes for strange bedfellows: Extremist groups within Yemen have been the source of numerous anti-American terrorist attacks, from the USS Cole bombing in 2000 to the 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot to the 2010 printer bomb attempt. It's also reputedly the home of noted terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Given the dangers emanating from Yemen, U.S. policymakers have decided that Saleh's efforts to restore order the country are the best bet for preventing further attacks, and military aid to the country has more than doubled since the Christmas plot. U.S. military aid to Yemen will likely reach $250 million in 2011, in addition to substantial increases in development aid.  

JORDAN

Leader: King Abdullah II

Record: When the Western-educated Abdullah took the throne in 1999, hopes were high that political reforms would follow. The government lifted 20 years of martial law in 1989, restoring the country's parliament. But open democracy did not follow: The country's election system remains deeply flawed, gerrymandered to support tribal candidates and government loyalists. The country's largest opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic Action Front, has boycotted the last two parliamentary elections citing widespread fraud and vote-buying. The government has cited the electoral success of Hamas in the nearby Palestinian territories to justify the slow pace of political reforms in the country.

Abdullah's economic reforms have produced steady GDP growth, but like Egypt, this hasn't translated into improved quality of life for the country's poorest citizens. Unemployment may be as high as 30 percent in the kingdom, and the poverty rate is around 25 percent. Thousands protested the government's economic policies with a sit-in outside parliament on Jan. 16.

Update: On Feb. 1, Jordan's Prime Minister Samir al-Rifai stepped down amid widespread protests over the government's economic policies. King Abdullah quickly named Marouf Bakhit as his replacement. 

U.S. support: The U.S. relies on Jordan for counterterrorism assistance as well as its often constructive role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Under the Hashemite royal family, Jordan has pursued one of the most consistently pro-American foreign policies in the Middle East. It has been rewarded with more than $6 billion in development aid since 1952; it's the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid on a per-capita basis. In 2010, the U.S. and Jordan signed a development deal worth $360 million. The U.S. has also provided significant aid to the Jordan military, including a new fleet of F-16 fighters in 2007.  

ETHIOPIA

Leader: Meles Zenawi

Record: The 2010 election, in which Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's party won a remarkable 99.6 percent of the vote, was the culmination of what Human Rights Watch called "the government's five-year strategy of systematically closing down space for political dissent and independent criticism." This included attacks and arrests of prominent opposition figures, the shutting down of newspapers and assaults on journalists critical of the government, and doling out international food aid as an incentive to get poor Ethiopians to join the ruling party.

In addition to attacks on domestic media and NGOs, the government also jammed broadcasts by Voice of America and Deutsche Welle in the run-up to the elections. The U.S. NGO Freedom House downgraded Ethiopia to "Not Free" for the first time in its annual Freedom in the World survey this year.

U.S. support: Bordered by Sudan and Somalia, Ethiopia benefits from being an at least nominally pro-American government in a very dangerous neighborhood. In 1998, U.S. President Bill Clinton described Zenawi as the leader of an "African Renaissance." Washington's strong support for Addis Ababa continued under President George W. Bush, who saw Zenawi's primarily Christian government as a bulwark against Islamic extremism in East Africa, and poured in millions in military aid. Bush opposed legislation linking military aid for Ethiopia to human rights and gave tacit support for the country's 2006 invasion of Somalia.

The rhetoric is somewhat less enthusiastic under the Obama administration -- the State Department strongly criticized the 2010 election, for instance -- but the U.S. will continue to fund Ethiopia to the tune of $583.5 million this year, despite evidence that the government is directly using this aid to suppress dissent. 

UGANDA

Leader: Yoweri Museveni

Record: Museveni talks a big game on democracy, economic development, and anti-corruption efforts, and to be fair he did institute a number of promising reforms early in his presidency, encouraging the development of free press and elections following decades of strongman rule. But the president has lately started to resemble his predecessors, abolishing term limits after nearly three decades in office, launching legal attacks on independent journalists, harassing opposition parties and flying a $50 million private jet while more than a third of his people live on less than $1 a day, having previously criticized other African leaders for indulging in similar perks. NGOs have also documented numerous cases of unlawful detention and torture by the country's Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force.

Uganda came under international condemnation in 2010 for a proposed law, still pending, that would punish homosexuality with harsh sentences including the death penalty. Museveni initially supported the law, but later backed off after several countries in Europe threatened to withhold foreign aid. The country's most prominent gay rights activist, David Kato, was beaten to death on Jan. 27, just weeks after a popular tabloid published his photo along with the caption, "Hang Them."

U.S. support: Uganda's stable government, economic growth, and effective response to HIV/AIDS have made it something of a poster child for African development, and it's one of the top recipients of U.S. aid in Africa. Additionally, Museveni has helped out his friends in Washington by contributing nearly 3,000 peacekeepers to the international mission in Somalia and carried out a massive military offensive against the Lord's Resistance Army, one of Africa's most notorious rebel groups.

Obama at first appeared reluctant to cozy up to Museveni, denying several attempts by the Ugandan leader to secure a White House meeting and publicly criticizing the anti-gay bill. But the U.S. administration was nearly silent after Museveni used the 2010 World Cup bombing committed by Somalia's al-Shabab militants in Kampala as a pretext to further restrict media coverage and opposition parties, likely balancing democracy concerns with the need for Uganda's continued support in Somalia. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson even told reporters that Uganda had conducted "free and fair elections, in 2006, contradicting the State Department's own reports, which cited numerous irregularities.

UZBEKISTAN

Leader: Islam Karimov

Record: Karimov, Uzbekistan's first and only post-independence president, has routinely stifled political dissent in Uzbekistan, banning opposition groups -- particularly Islamic ones -- stifling the press and jailing thousands. His country is routinely cited as one of the world's worst torturers, with punishments including beatings, rape, and even boiling meted out in its overcrowded jails. Uzbekistan faced international condemnation in 2005 after hundreds of unarmed protesters demonstrating in support of a group of arrested local businessmen were shot by security forces in the city of Andijan. Karimov has repeatedly extended his own tenure beyond the constitutionally mandated two-term limit and international observers have dismissed the country's elections as shams.    

U.S. support: Uzbekistan shut down a U.S. airbase in the country in 2005, after U.S. criticism of the events at Andijan. The base remains closed, but relations are improving. Gen. David Petraeus made a high-profile visit to the country in 2009 to discuss a possible Uzbek role in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. In April of that year, the two countries signed a deal to allow supplies for the NATO effort to travel through Uzbekistan. In November 2010, Centcom commander Gen. James Mattis visited Uzbekistan to sign a security cooperation pact, including military training.

The administration has continued to push Uzbekistan to improve its human rights record, but the country's real estate -- and proximity to the war in Afghanistan -- is evidently too valuable for it to be cut off altogether.

KAZAKHSTAN

Leader: Nursultan Nazarbayev

Record: Nazarbayev, former leader of the Kazakh Communist Party, has ruled the country without any serious political challenge since independence in 1991. Restrictive election laws make it nearly impossible to opposition parties to run, anti-government newspapers are routinely harassed and shut down, and corruption -- particularly related to the country's energy sector -- is reportedly pervasive throughout the state. 

In January, the compliant Kazakh Parliament asked Nazarbayev to call a referendum that would extend his term to 2020, skipping the planned 2012 and 2017 elections entirely. Police cracked down hard on opposition protests against the move. After international condemnation of the plan, Nazarbayev scrapped it and instead called for snap presidential elections to be held nearly two years ahead of schedule.

U.S. support: Kazakhstan and the United States have cooperated closely since 1996 on a project to secure and dispose of the country's Soviet-era nuclear material. Kazakhstan has also provided transit routes for the U.S.-led war effort in Afghanistan. The country's estimated 85 trillion cubic feet of natural gas also make it a highly attractive regional partner.  

To be fair, Kazakhstan isn't nearly as repressive as its central Asian neighbors, has been far more effective at delivering economic growth, and is -- along with Ukraine -- one of the great nonproliferation success stories since the end of the Cold War. But U.S. praise for the regime, which has never held a genuinely contested election, has been ridiculously effusive at times. In a 2006 meeting between Bush and Nazarbayev, the U.S. president described Kazakhstan as a "free nation" with a "commitment to institutions that will enable liberty to flourish."

VIETNAM

Leader: Nguyen Tan Dung

Record: The Communist Party of Vietnam is the only party allowed by law and appoints the country's leaders from within its own ranks -- Nguyen Tan Dung was reappointed for a second term in Jan. 26. According to Human Rights Watch, Vietnam has intensified its repression of human rights over the past year, imprisoning human rights defenders, bloggers, and anti-corruption campaigners. Religious groups, both Christian and Buddhist, have faced repeated harassment. Police brutality and deaths under police custody are commonplace.

Like China, Vietnam filters the Internet within the country, blocking objectionable websites and requiring service providers and Internet cafes to install monitoring software to track users. 

U.S. support: Thirty-five years after the end of the Vietnam War and 15 after diplomatic relations were restored, the U.S.-Vietnam relationship has never been closer. The two countries signed a free-trade agreement in 2006, moving Vietnam one step closer to WTO membership. With an eye toward a rising China, the two countries have also deepened defense cooperation, including military drills and a potential civilian nuclear deal. In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that despite "profound differences" over human rights, it was time for the countries to take their relationship to the "next level." 

Those two impulses may prove more difficult to reconcile than Clinton had hoped: In January 2011, the United States registered a protest with the Vietnamese government after a U.S. diplomat was wrestled to the ground and then arrested by police while trying to visit the home of a prominent Vietnamese dissident.  

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The List

10 Global Issues Obama Won't Talk About But Should

Tuesday's State of the Union will most likely be a domestically focused speech. But if his administration is going to get serious about foreign policy, Obama might want to take a look at FP's cheat sheet.

Mexico: Arguably, the most important foreign-policy question to the United States isn't Iran or Afghanistan or China -- but neighboring Mexico, where nearly 35,000 people have died over the last five years as a result of the raging narcowar. Since Mexican President Felipe Calderón began his crackdown on drug cartels in 2006, Mexico has been transformed -- and not necessarily for the better. The United States is intimately involved in the conflict; American drug users drive demand for the Mexican narcotics trade. Even more directly, 90 percent of the firearms used in the conflict are thought to come from north of the border.

So far, Barack Obama's administration has focused on managing security challenges along the U.S. border, providing Mexico with military assistance, and helping curb the flow of American guns into the south. Last May, the White House also announced that an additional 1,200 U.S. troops would be sent to monitor the border. Obama has visited Mexico, as has Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was in Mexico on Monday.

Why won't it come up? Because Mexico is a lightning rod, not just because of drug policy but also immigration, somethign both parties have struggled to tackle in recent years. Obama, who has said he wants comprehensive legislation and considered moving forward with a new policy right after the administration floated health care, warned last fall that he's unlikely to be able to find the political support to get it passed anytime soon.

U.S. Special Agent Rodney Irby guards marijuana seized on Jan. 18 in the Tohono O'odham Nation, Arizona.
John Moore/Getty Images

The European debt crisis: On the heels of European Union bailouts for Greece and Ireland last year, worries are mounting that a host of other indebted eurozone nations will soon be in need of their own rescue funds. The new sick men of Europe are Portugal, Italy, and Spain. And despite vows from all three countries that they won't need a bailout, investors are skeptical. Pimco, the bond-trading investment giant, now predicts that France and Germany will have to put even more money into saving the euro than they have already -- this despite last May's creation of a $1 trillion eurozone-wide contingency fund to prevent future debt crises.

Obama is unlikely to speak to this directly, not least because of the unfavorable comparisons that one could draw to the United States' own indebtedness. But a eurozone default would hurt the American and global economies enormously. Nearly a quarter of all U.S. exports go to Europe. Economists also fear that a euro zone domino effect could hit U.S. banks and send a contagion through the financial system, just as the fall of Lehman brothers did two and a half years ago. Plus, this is no post-WWII world; the United States is not about to come to Europe's rescue. Instead, it's China that has offered to help out -- buying 6 billion euros of Spanish debt, for example.

Obama will be under enough pressure to talk about the U.S. deficit without mentioning Europe. Newly elected House Republicans have called for big cuts in federal spending -- $2.5 trillion over the next 10 years. And even if not everyone agrees about how to do it, public opinion polls show a strong domestic concern over federal debt.

Red flags lay in front of riot policemen after a demonstration against austerity measures in Athens on Dec. 2, 2010.
ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

Kashmir: Even if Obama's speech mentions relations with (and between) India and Pakistan, it's unlikely to touch upon Kashmir, the restive mountain region that is the epicenter of tensions between the two nuclear-armed countries. Both nations claim to control the territory, and India has an estimated 350,000 troops stationed there. The debate over just who should control what is a 60-year-long argument, but it's also critically important for U.S. counterterrorism goals: Pakistan has been reluctant to divert its troops to fighting the Taliban in its northwestern provinces, citing the "Indian threat" on its other borders.

But Kashmir isn't just a proxy for India-Pakistan conflict. The territory's 5.4 million people, who are almost entirely Muslim, have grievances of their own. And in recent months, youths -- many of them unemployed and unable to find work -- have taken to the streets to protest, throwing rocks at Indian soldiers and calling for independence from both India and Pakistan. In 2008, Indian authorities said that some 47,000 people had died in the last two decades of Kashmir turmoil.

So far, the United States has tried to stay out of the Kashmir debate. Washington has done little, and some analysts believe that even earnest attempts to help would be for naught. The contested region was even removed from the portfolio of the late Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Still, Washington has a vested interest in seeing a peaceful, long-term resolution to the Kashmir crisis and will surely be watching when India and Pakistan finally sit down for talks on the matter next month.

Kashmiris watch while activists and supporters of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front march to mark International Human Rights Day in Srinagar on Dec. 10, 2010.
TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images

Sudan: On Jan. 9, something incredible happened in Sudan. Six years after a U.S.-brokered peace agreement ended a decades-long civil war, the south voted on whether to secede from the north -- a choice that an overwhelming 99 percent of its citizens made, according to preliminary results. What's almost as incredible as the reality of a new, independent South Sudan is that the referendum took place at all -- not to mention on time and without violence. And it had much to do with the full-court diplomatic press that the Obama administration put on the Sudanese government in Khartoum in recent months.

All this, Obama may mention. But what he likely won't say is that the news is not all good. Before the south declares independence, a whole host of complex details -- from the delineation of the border to exact definitions of citizenship -- will have to be ironed out between the north and the south. Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir is an expert at the art of brinkmanship and may push negotiations to the last possible moment to win concessions about sharing oil wealth, for example. There's also no guarantee that a new, independent south would be more capable of governing itself well than its ex-overlord in the north. But the worst news of all is that Bashir may now seek to tighten his hold over Darfur, the want-away western region that has seen so much suffering in years past, while all international eyes are focused on the south.

Polling officials count ballots in Juba on Jan. 15, in Southern Sudan's landmark independence vote.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Yemen: A decade after the USS Cole bombing, Yemen is still a hot spot in the middle of a dangerous neighborhood. This tiny country across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia, has moved up the list of top concerns for counterterrorism officials in recent years. Weakly governed, internally divided, economically bankrupt, and geographically cursed, Yemen has recently become the unwelcome host to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, including such charismatic figures as the American-born jihadist Anwar al-Awlaki, idolized by the Fort Hood shooter, among others.

Yemen was back in the headlines a year ago, after the Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried to blow up a U.S.-bound passenger jet after training in Yemen. And late last year, WikiLeaks cables revealed that the United States has been undertaking airstrikes in the territory to target suspected terrorists. Yet other U.S. military aid, the cables claim, was diverted by the government for unintended purposes -- such as keeping opposition rebels at bay. It's a telltale example of the difficulties of working with imperfect allies in the war on terror, something Obama is understandably loath to mention.

There's one more reason that Yemen is on the agenda these days: Guantánamo Bay. Obama has come under pressure from his left-leaning base for failing to close the prison by his self-imposed deadline of January 2010 and for restarting military commissions. Many of the detainees in question? They're Yemeni.

Yemeni army troops take position in the hills overlooking the southern town of Huta on Sept. 27, 2010.
AFP/Getty Images

The dollar: The greenback isn't as popular as it once was. For the last two years, everyone from the World Bank to the United Nations has warned that the U.S. dollar can't remain the world's reserve currency forever. Most recently, French President Nicolas Sarkozy brought up the matter with Barack Obama in Washington in January. And during Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to the White House last week, he described the dollar-denominated system as a "product of the past."

If the world did eventually diversify its way out of the dollar, it would mean big changes for the United States. Right now, the United States enjoys huge advantages when borrowing on international markets. Its exports don't face the same currency barriers that confront many other countries, which have to pay a premium to buy dollars in which to trade. Of course, a real move away from the dollar is a long way off. No suitable alternative is yet tempting enough for investors, and central banks are already so technically adept at dealing in dollars that it would take years to make the switch. But neither can the United States take its dollar diplomacy for granted anymore.

For Obama (and every other U.S. politician, regardless of their political stripes), the idea of a new world currency order smells of American declinism. And the message of Tuesday's speech is likely to be precisely the opposite. As Politico put it, "atmospherics over policy."

Dollars and yuan notes at a Beijing bank on May 15, 2006.
China Photos/Getty Images

Northern distribution network: Throughout the first half of 2010, NATO convoys heading into Afghanistan -- carrying everything from fuel to food -- increasingly came under assault as they made their way from Karachi, Pakistan, up to the northern border with Afghanistan. Then, in late September, Pakistan closed the route in protest of civilian deaths from U.S. drone strikes, though it was reopened in October. Between the militants and the politics, the U.S. military and its allies have been looking for other ways into Afghanistan.

What they have started to rely on to supplement Pakistan is the so-called northern distribution network, which carries goods into Afghanistan via Russia and Central Asia. The good news was that Moscow -- and the governments in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan -- have allowed the transit of U.S. cargo. The bad news was that this supply route is also fraught with pitfalls, from arduous delays to bribes and extortion.

The supply-route troubles are yet another sign of the precarious relationships that the United States and its allies must maintain to continue the fight in Afghanistan. Pakistan's intransigence in combating the Taliban has already been much lamented. Now, the U.S. government has had to get uncomfortably cozy with Central Asian states as well, for example Uzbekistan, led by strongman Islam Karimov and Kyrgyzstan, where bloody unrest unseated ex-Soviet strongman Kurmanbek Bakiyev last year.

Washington has little choice but to grin and bear its unsavory allies; there just aren't too many other options. As of October 2010, half of all supplies for the battlefield in Afghanistan came through Pakistan, another 30 percent through Central Asia, and 20 percent by air.

Fuel trucks carrying fuel supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan burn following an attack by militants in Baluchistan province, on Oct. 9, 2010.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

WikiLeaks: Much ink has been spilled debating what WikiLeaks means for the Obama administration's diplomacy efforts worldwide. Many of the cables are embarrassing; others reveal behind-the-scenes dealings with difficult allies such as Yemen and Pakistan that American diplomats surely wish had been kept quiet. There's certainly a reason that the U.S. government called allies to warn of forthcoming WikiLeaks launches and pre-empt the damage.

Still, the Obama administration has said -- at least in public -- that WikiLeaks has done no serious harm to its ability to conduct foreign affairs. Defense Secretary Robert Gates summed it up this way: "Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest."

That hasn't stopped the administration from moving forward with attempts to build a case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, however, as well as Bradley Manning, the Army private who is accused of downloading and leaking the diplomatic cables, Iraq files, and Afghanistan files. (Manning is now in detention in the United States; Assange is under house arrest in Britain while he awaits an extradition hearing to face sexual misconduct charges in Sweden.) Yet regardless of the outcome of the cases pending against Assange and Manning, what seems certain is that the WikiLeaks idea -- posting government secrets publicly online -- will be with us for quite some time. There's already a world of copycats. So perhaps it's not the past revealed in the diplomatic cables Obama should talk about, but the future of U.S. relations in a WikiLeaking world.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaves a news conference at the Frontline Club in London, on Jan. 17.
CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

Palestine: Middle East peace talks have more often been more ice than thaw over the last decade. But these days, they're in a deep freeze. U.S. attempts to broker direct talks collapsed so badly last fall that Washington couldn't bring both sides back to the negotiating table. Now, there are indications that the White House has given up on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a negotiator who actually wants peace. And to make matters worse, Palestinian officials are up in arms over papers leaked to Al Jazeera revealed on Monday that Palestinian negotiators were willing to make deep and potentially unpopular concessions to Israel. Unwillingness or inability to compromise on the Israeli side and fractured politics and weak bargaining on the Palestinian side seem insurmountable obstacles.

Which is why it's worth taking note of at least one unexpected Middle East drive that has recently gained momentum: Palestine's push for unilateral recognition of statehood at the United Nations. Earlier this month, Guyana, joined seven other Latin American nations in recognizing Palestine. Russia announced on Jan. 18 that it will also recognize a Palestinian state. Although Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said that Palestine won't declare independence unilaterally, the debate about a U.N. resolution continues. The White House would be very unlikely to back such a resolution, should it ever come to a vote. And though Obama has committed his administration to the goal of Middle East peace, it's unlikely that this will be at the top of the agenda as the president gears up for a reelection that's going to be largely defined by domestic issues.

A Palestinian youth hurls a stone toward Israeli troops in the West Bank village of Nilin on Jan. 14.
ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images

South America: When was the last time that you heard an American president utter the words "South America" in a State of the Union address? If you can't remember, that's because it's been awhile -- 1998, to be exact.

Since the end of the Cold War, when Washington sniffed Soviet influence in its backyard, U.S.-South American policy has slumped in importance. As Moisés Naím, a former editor in chief of Foreign Policy, explained back in 2006, "Latin America's weight in the world has been shrinking. It is not an economic powerhouse, a security threat, or a population bomb. Even its tragedies pale in comparison to Africa's."

To be fair, certain countries have taken a higher priority here and there. Colombia, for example, where the United States has invested $8 billion over the last decade in combating a narco-trafficking insurgency, got a shout out from Obama in his 2008 address as a top U.S. ally. Still, as a whole, Latin America has fallen off the radar in a world where Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, China, Iran, Europe, and a host of other countries and challenges come first. Even the fiery rhetoric of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez fails these days to catch more than cursory U.S. attention.

So what? One might note that, while the United States has left South America -- long its backyard -- largely to its own devices, China hasn't. Not that South America particularly needs much help getting on these days. The region's economies have been such a huge success story in the post-financial crisis environment that some are calling this the Latin American decade.

Chilean President Sebastián Piñera and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao attend a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 16, 2010.
PETAR KUJUNDZIC/AFP/Getty Images