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The 12 (rocky) months of U.S. foreign policy

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The 12 (rocky) months of U.S. foreign policy

For the holiday season, a look at the foreign adventures this year that have brought joy and heartbreak to America and its, ahem, allies.

  • Joe Shlabotnik/Flickr

It’s been quite a year for U.S. foreign policy, with plenty of undertakings both naughty and nice.

Judging by world reaction, President Barack Obama and his team of diplomats found more than a bit of coal in their stockings at the end of 2013.

The major events are outlined below, twisted just a bit to fit a Christmas classic.

OK now, everybody sing: In the twelve months of this year, Obama gave to me …

1. Canary in a top-secret tree

NSA contractor Edward Snowden and his thousands of secret documents have arguably been the worst news ever for Washington’s image abroad.

The fuss cost Obama a one-on-one with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which was supposed to precede the G20 summit in St. Petersburg this September. The U.S. president looked coolly on his Russian counterpart’s decision to grant temporary asylum to the 30-year-old traitor/patriot/whistleblower/hero.

The revelations of mass surveillance also earned Washington a scolding from Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Rouseff called the spying “a breach of international law” and “an affront to the principles that must guide relations among (countries)” when she addressed the UN General Assembly in September.

Rousseff had earlier cancelled a state dinner at the White House to express her pique — becoming the first head of state ever to refuse to dine with the “leader of the free world.”

Angela Merkel was not amused, either, when it emerged that the NSA had been listening in on her personal calls. The German chancellor reportedly confronted Obama with the accusation that the NSA was like the East German secret police, the Stasi.

This is not a compliment.

By year’s end there were calls for amnesty for Snowden, including from the head of a government task force assessing the effect of the former contractor’s leaks (he wants the documents back in the vault).

Obama is coy on the issue. While he says he welcomes the discussion Snowden’s revelations have stimulated, he is not eager to let the young leaker off the hook.

The UK’s Channel 4 on Christmas Day gave Snowden his first television platform since he sought asylum in Russia, broadcasting a defiant, pre-recorded video from the isolated leaker as the annual “alternative” Christmas message to Queen Elizabeth II's Christmas Day broadcast on the BBC.

Snowden has made overtures to Brazil asking for asylum, perhaps weary of the Russian winter. But for now this songbird is stuck in a very cold tree.

2. Turtle doves (with eyes like hawks)

President Obama and China’s Xi Jinping could hardly have been cozier in their “shirtsleeves summit” held in Sunnylands, California in June. The major powers the two men helm are pretty far apart on issues like who is going to run the world, but they did agree on some smaller concerns, like limiting the use of hydrofluorocarbons and trying to keep North Korea under control.

Oh, yes, and cyber-spying. Each country has a beef with the other, but between China’s industrial hacking and the NSA’s universal approach to intelligence gathering, the moral high ground is very slippery.

It may be awhile before any long-range benefits from the summit can be assessed, but from China’s declaration of an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone in November, promptly followed by an unannounced flight into the disputed zone by two U.S. B-52 bombers, one might surmise there is still work to be done.

3. French hens to rule the security roost

France has been flexing its international muscles this year, battling Islamist insurgents in Mali and intervening in a violent conflict in the Central African Republic — leading security efforts that in a different year might have fallen to the U.S..

Let’s not forget that it was France who backed the U.S. in its plan to strike Syria in the wake of a chemical weapons attack in August. London refused.

But French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has also emerged as the leading skeptic on the nuclear deal with Iran, and Paris is taking credit for forcing more concessions out of Tehran.

These erstwhile “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” are proving they are no chickens.

4. Calling birds

Oh, the call that almost shook the world. When President Obama called President Hassan Rouhani of Iran in September it marked the first glimmer of hope in U.S.-Iranian relations since 1979, when a group of Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy and took 52 staffers hostage for 444 days.

There is finally the outline of a deal in place between Iran and major world powers to halt or scale back its nuclear program and to allow fuller inspection of its nuclear facilities.

Peace on Earth seems at hand.

Unless, of course, Israel manages to convince the world that Rouhani is merely a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or unless the Senate does what it has threatened to do and passes new sanctions against Tehran.

5. Gold rings: Olympic rings, that is

Just six weeks out from the Feb. 6 opening of the winter Olympics in Sochi, controversy was boiling as President Obama named his delegation to the Games.

It’s been a tricky time for working with Moscow. Its closeness to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad put it on a direct collision course with Washington, and it ended the year with a lucrative deal to drill for oil and gas in Syria’s waters, in defiance of Western sanctions.

Moscow also managed to discourage Ukraine’s westward leanings by offering Kiev an advantageous $15 billion deal not to sign agreements on political association and free trade with the European Union.

Including three openly gay athletes — tennis great Billie Jean King, figure skating champion Bryan Boitano and ice hockey medalist Caitlin Cahow — to represent the United States at the Olympics seems a deliberate act of defiance against Russia’s stringent anti-homosexual laws, or, as Saturday Night Live called it, “Obama’s big gay middle finger” aimed directly at Putin.

Obama has made no secret of his distaste for Moscow’s policy, saying in August that he had “no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them.”

6. Geese a-laying golden eggs

Getting into Afghanistan was easy. Getting out is much more difficult. After Afghan President Hamid Karzai refused to sign a torturously negotiated bilateral security arrangement this fall, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told him in no uncertain terms that he had better put ink to paper by year’s end or else … they would extend his deadline to January, or perhaps until the next Afghan administration.

The agreement would lay out the terms for a continued U.S. presence in the country following the withdrawal of combat troops in 2014.

Karzai is holding firm that an end to home raids and drone strikes talks with the Taliban must be part of the deal; he seems certain that the U.S. will come around to his way of thinking, and maybe he’s right.

After more than 12 years, a trillion bucks and countless lives, Washington still has little sway over Kabul. Talk about laying an egg!

7. Swans freely swimming

Well, one at least.

This September, Diana Nyad became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a protective cage. Many have made the trip, of course, on leaky rafts or overstuffed lifeboats, fleeing the regime of Fidel Castro in the hopes of a better life in the United States.

But those treacherous journeys could change now that Obama has shaken hands with Cuban President Raul Castro, Fidel’s little brother.

Obama seems ready to be a bit more relaxed about U.S. policy toward Cuba, as when he responded to the frenzied media buzz surrounding Jay-Z and Beyonce’s trip to the island this spring.

"You know, this is not something the White House was involved with," Obama said. "We've got better things to do."

8. Maids a-milking, or maybe not

If the continuing dysfunction in Congress continues to hold up the Farm Bill, milk could reach $8 a gallon! Programs for soil conservation will be gutted, and disaster is sure to follow.

So say the scaremongers, even as others plead for a more reasonable approach to ensuring continued food supplies. The U.S. system of subsidies and arcane regulations is no longer necessary given the efficiency of farmers, they say.

America is the world’s largest producer and exporter of food, an instrument of foreign policy that has usually been outweighed by, say, drones, bombs and boots on the ground.

But that could change as the world’s climate becomes ever more unpredictable and food supplies in some areas become increasingly scarce.

Even if the Farm Bill passes eventually, however, the environmental danger is not over. Hidden in the House version of the document is a provision that would bring public health and environmental protection measures to a screeching halt. The “Sound Science Act” has a great ring to it, but is so vague and broad that it would tie regulatory agencies in endless red tape before they could apply any cutting edge scientific discoveries to food production.

Given the importance of agriculture in mitigating the effects of climate change, this could be very bad news indeed.

9. State leaders dancing ...

... with U.S. top diplomat John Kerry, resplendent in a bright purple Balinese “endek” at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Bali, Indonesia, this October.

APEC was not exactly a stunning success for the Obama administration, even aside from Kerry’s choice of shirt.

Obama, billed as a main attraction, was a no-show, as he had to stay home to deal with a domestic crisis that had led to a government shutdown and some of the lowest approval ratings ever recorded for Congress.

The absence of the U.S. president was more than a disappointment for the Indonesians, however. It left China the dominant country at the gathering, with President Xi delivering the keynote address without even a mention of his American counterpart. This could be bad news for America’s self-image as the globe’s sole superpower.

10. "Diplomats" a-leaping

On the basketball court, that is. Former NBA star Dennis Rodman’s latest stunt trip to North Korea has raised eyebrows and tickled funny-bones around the world. But it’s no help to Washington that the eccentric Hall of Famer is now BFFs with Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un — who, incidentally, just had his uncle executed for vague crimes and misdemeanors which rendered him, in the words of North Korean media, “the scum of the Earth.”

Rodman still thinks Kim is “a good guy,” and wants to give him a present for his birthday on Jan. 8 — an exhibition game between NBA stars and a North Korean team. Rodman was holding tryouts for the home team in Pyongyang just last week.

He’s having some trouble coaxing his former colleagues into making the trip, though.

"You know, they're still afraid to come here,” he told the Associated Press after the tryouts. “But I'm just telling them, you know, don't be afraid man, it's all love, it's all love here."

11. Pipers piping … chemicals out of Syria

The debate over what to do in Syria was something of a disaster for U.S. diplomacy as well.

Obama had boxed himself in with a firm statement over “red lines,” only to hem and haw when that line was definitively crossed: in August a chemical weapons attack in a suburb of Damascus killed hundreds of civilians.

The resulting crisis tested the limits of the U.S. and the UK’s “special relationship” when London refused to back a strike against Assad. It also showed the U.S. president’s uneasiness about using military force: after asserting in no uncertain terms that he had the authority to launch a strike on his own, he decided at the last minute to throw the decision to Congress.

Secretary of State Kerry apparently stumbled into a solution — asking Syria to divest itself of its chemical weapons, monitored by an international team. Russia agreed, and the resulting deal between Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, averted a major crisis at least for the moment.

The U.S. and allies are now preparing to destroy the chemicals aboard ships at sea. What happens to all that chemical waste afterward is anybody’s guess.

12. Military drummers drumming

Egypt has certainly had a hard year, with little help from Washington. When President Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, was removed from power by the military in July, the Obama administration refused to call it a “coup.”

Using the c-word would have triggered the automatic suspension of military aid to Egypt, a move Washington was not yet prepared to make. The State Department went so far as to say that Egypt’s generals were merely “restoring democracy” by arresting the country’s elected representative.

Since then protests have swept the country, and Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood has been branded a terrorist organization.

Washington insists that Egypt is on a path to democracy (but has suspended a chunk of military aid just because).

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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