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Here's to a better 2011

I hope that 2011 will provide better foreign policy stories than 2010 did.

Consider this woeful litany: The continuing fighting in Afghanistan, the jihadis and floods of Pakistan, a recovering but deeply troubled Iraq, a nuclear-bent Iran that crushed the "Green" opposition. Add a failed Mideast peace process, an increasingly aggressive China and regressive Russia, and a United States drawn inward by domestic economic woes, and the list was enough to drive a foreign policy columnist into travel writing.

Yet, as the New Year starts, there's room for optimism. Here are some signs to watch for that would indicate 2011 might be a better year.

Afghanistan. This one's tricky (see, I'm already hedging). As Gen. David Petraeus puts it, "You are not going to see big flips" as you did in Iraq. However, if the U.S. troop surge can stabilize large parts of the Afghan south and the east, where the Taliban are strongest, more Afghans may resist the militants.

Signs to watch for: Will U.S. efforts to help stand up Afghan village police and local courts bear fruit? This would enhance security and address one of the prime issues that drives rural farmers toward the Taliban: the lack of local justice to resolve land disputes.

Pakistan. Signals from here will be most crucial for South Asia's future. Watch to see whether the Pakistani military finally goes after Afghan Taliban leaders who shelter in their country. The Pakistanis must first be convinced that U.S. troops won't leave Afghanistan in chaos, and that India won't use Afghanistan as a base from which to undermine them.

Iraq. Watch to see whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gives too little power to Sunnis and too much power to the forces of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. A good sign: If Maliki inks another security accord with the United States that leaves a small U.S. troop presence -- to keep Kurds and Arabs apart, and train the Iraqi army.

Iran. Last year a mysterious computer worm, along with accidents to key Iranian scientists, set back Iran's nuclear program. The Iranians blame Israel and the United States. Watch to see if sabotage continues to thwart Tehran's efforts; this will dampen talk of a possible Israeli or U.S. airstrike.

China. We all know Beijing is a rising power, but 2011 will show what kind of power it aspires to. Watch to see whether China remains aggressive about territorial disputes with other Asian nations, or grasps the wisdom of providing positive leadership in the region. One sign: whether Beijing does more to restrain its ally, North Korea.

Russia. It's hard to be optimistic after the 14-year sentence handed down last week in the Stalinesque show trial of former oil tycoon and political opposition figure, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin signaled he will continue policies that crush Russian innovation, discourage legitimate investors, and keep the country dependent on oil.

The Middle East. Sorry, I can't foresee any good news. The Israel-Palestinian peace process may limp along, going nowhere, but it is effectively frozen until some new explosion, which may be too late to revive it. Meantime, in the Arab world, Islamists wait in the wings until aging rulers pass from the scene.

The United States. Here's a real sign of good news: The recent, bipartisan Senate approval of the New START arms treaty indicates responsible Republicans will back President Obama on issues essential to American security. If so, Obama can exert strong leadership on many issues. If Republicans revert to the credo of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who says derailing Obama is the Republicans' top goal, then chances for foreign policy good news dim.

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