January gives a foreign affairs columnist the excuse to predict what will be the most gripping stories of 2006, and what readers should watch for in each case.
Some choices are obvious, some more subjective. Here are three I know will grab me in the coming year.
No surprise, the biggest - when it comes to immediate American foreign policy concerns - will still be Iraq.
President Bush has staked his foreign policy reputation on stabilizing that country; he says Iraqi democracy will inspire positive change in the region. So far, the results have been just the opposite: Continuing violence has enhanced the fears of many Arabs that democracy will bring chaos, and it is inspiring terrorist recruitment. The strong election showing of Iraqi religious parties raises the specter that Mideast democracy is likely to usher in Islamic states.
So what should you watch for in Iraq in 2006? Look for two key signals, one political, the other military. The political signal: During the next four to six months it will become apparent whether Iraq's parties can rise above their sectarian interests and keep the country together. That will require a pact among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds that divides power and oil earnings.
If the parties fail, the country will sink into de facto partition with Kurdish and Shiite militias policing the north and south. Baghdad and the Sunni regions will remain a battlefield of ethnic violence in which terrorists can flourish.
The military signal? Watch for the withdrawal of tens of thousands of U.S. troops in 2006, and for the impact this will have on Iraqi violence. U.S. military leaders say the current troop levels cannot be maintained because of the strain they have imposed on reservists.
"I don't think we can sustain this level of presence with the size force we have," former Secretary of State Colin Powell told ABC-TV last week. "You can't keep sending them back over and over. "
Powell also predicted that Iraqi security forces would be able to take over the security burden; this is far less certain. The Iraqi military is riven by the same ethnic and religious divisions that are splitting the country. Absent an Iraqi political accord, security forces won't be able to stop the slide toward civil war.
Far from Iraq, the biggest foreign policy story for the long run will be Whither China? It's almost impossible to convey the drama and speed of China's stunning growth, which is creating a new global superpower. China is poised to overtake Britain as the world's fourth largest economy.
A Chinese-born friend, now a successful U.S. citizen, wrote this sobering e-mail: "Each time I return to visit my family (in China), I feel poorer. My status in my family and in the Chinese society has dropped from 'rich Chinese American' to the third world class."
What to watch for in 2006? Whether Beijing and Washington overcome mutual suspicions to cooperate on key issues like getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. And how Beijing handles its mammoth need for new energy supplies, which has driven up world oil prices and unnerved Congress.
But the China story that fascinates me most is the push by a new generation of lawyers, law professors and students to convince their government to enforce laws ignored by corrupt local party bosses and police. This "rule of law" movement is an attempt to make China's frozen political system more responsive. Angry peasants and workers whose land is being seized or towns and villages polluted are holding demonstrations in record numbers. China's stability depends on whether its leaders heed the public pressure from below.
The most unnerving story to watch is the future behavior of Iran's mercurial new President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He recently urged that Israel be wiped off the map and suggested the Holocaust was a myth. His rhetoric comes at a time when Iran is pursuing nuclear technology that U.S. and European experts believe is aimed at making nuclear weapons.
Equally unsettling, Ahmadinejad talks about the need to hasten the return of the Twelfth Imam of Shiite Islam (who is reputedly in hiding). Like the "end times" and Armageddon central to Christian fundamentalism, the "Return" is supposed to trigger bloody battles leading to a millennium of peace and justice. When Mideast fundamentalists seeking bombs start talking of end times, it's time for the world to start worrying.
What to watch for in Tehran? Whether Ahmadinejad accedes or not to U.S., European and Russian diplomatic pressure to stop enriching nuclear fuel. If diplomacy doesn't work, we're all in a pickle, because no military option is likely to halt this dispersed and secret underground program.
Let's all hope that a global spirit of reason, tolerance and compromise is more apparent in 2006 than it was in 2005.