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Top 10 foreign policy issues facing Obama

Difficult situations remain for President Obama in Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Israel. NBC's Richard Engel discusses what Obama needs to do to overcome these challenges in his second term.

News analysis

Updated at 5:41 a.m. ET on Nov. 7: Barack Obama faces no shortage of foreign challenges as he enters his second term as commander in chief.

While it is impossible to predict what may come, here’s a look at 10 issues likely to emerge as priorities for his administration:

1. Possible Afghan collapse/civil war
The Afghan government has been propped up by American and NATO troops and money but has failed in its basic functions of establishing national trust, security and unity. Afghanistan could devolve into a civil war as U.S. troops draw down in 2014, with old rivalries re-emerging between the north and south/southeast.

Watch the drama of election night quickly unfold in a three minutes montage of sights and sounds.

Once again, the country could be torn by an ethnic war between the Pashtuns and the now-defunct Northern Alliance, a legion of Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara militias. The risk is that Afghan security forces will then split along ethnic lines and President Hamid Karzai, whom critics accuse of being an uncooperative U.S. ally, could become an even greater liability.

On a recent visit to Afghanistan I spoke to some Tajik villagers outside Kabul, who promised me they would start fighting once American troops leave. They said they would battle a group of pro-Taliban Pashtun villagers nearby. When asked if Karzai's troops would be able to stop a clash, one tribal elder told me, "The corrupt government in Kabul? It can't do anything."

The dangers of an Afghan collapse are many: Afghan deaths, a loss of American prestige, a loss of NATO prestige, a moral blow to U.S. troops and veterans, a Taliban resurgence, huge setbacks for women, and greater power for Pakistan and Pakistani extremists.

Read more Afghanistan coverage from NBCNews.com

Aref Karimi / AFP - Getty Images

More than ten years after the beginning of the war, Afghanistan faces external pressure to reform as well as ongoing internal conflicts.

2. Possible Iran implosion or explosion
Iran, which is being pushed to a breaking point by U.S.-led currency and banking sanctions, won't simply sit back and watch its economy crumble. Persia is 7,000 years old and will fight to survive.

The increasingly isolated country is likely to act in one of three ways: accommodation and negotiation, weaponization, or diversion.

Faced with the crippling sanctions, Iran could simply decide it is paying too high a cost to pursue its nuclear program and could opt for negotiations and reconciliation with the United States and other members of the international community. This is clearly the preferred option of American leaders.


The other possibilities are more problematic. Iran could rush toward a nuclear capability, deciding the best way to survive is to obtain weapons so horrific that no one would dare attack. A nuclear program has arguably worked as a deterrent for North Korea and other states -- would Moammar Gadhafi have been deposed and summarily killed if Libya had had nuclear weapons? Iranians might not think so.

The Iranian economy is in free fall, with its currency, the rial hitting a record low. NBC's Ali Arouzi reports.

Source: Back-channel talks but no US-Iran deal on one-to-one nuclear meeting

A less risky approach would be to provoke a diversionary conflict through Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, the Shiites in Bahrain, the Kurdistan Workers Party in Syria and Turkey, its position in the Strait of Hormuz -- or it could try to inflame anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment.

Iran also could try to attack the American economy through sabotage or cyber warfare. Cornered as it is, Iran could become the aggressor instead of -- as it sees itself -- the passive victim.

At schools, in shops, and on the streets of big cities and small towns, daily life plays out in Iran.

How Iran acts is up to its choosing but it's hard to see how it won't act -- for better or worse -- as the sanctions continue to bite.

Read more Iran coverage from NBCNews.com

3. Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood
The Arab Spring has empowered the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East and beyond. It and other ideologically similar and allied groups run the governments of Egypt, Tunisia and Gaza.

In Syria, the Brotherhood has a strong presence among the rebels and in Yemen, it runs half the government and much of the state's day-to-day functions. In Jordan and Morocco, the Brotherhood is the main opposition to the countries' ruling royal families. In leaderless Libya, it is an increasingly organized voice. And in Algeria, the movement's officials warn that their revolution is coming.

The Muslim Brotherhood's influence in the Middle East is likely to evolve in one of two ways. Military regimes that have been pushed aside could fight back and launch counter-Islamic revolutions, clawing back the Brotherhood's gains and keeping it tied up in internal political battles. This is already starting to happen in Egypt.

Analysis: Egypt's big turn under the Muslim Brotherhood

Conversely, the Muslim Brotherhood could consolidate its gains and dominate electoral politics in the Middle East for the next several years.

For the United States, the rise of the Brotherhood is not in itself a major challenge. Most of its leaders say they want good relations and economic ties with Washington. The problem, however, is Israel. The Brotherhood is fundamentally anti-Israel, and Washington is fundamentally pro-Israel.

While analysts can debate which presidential candidate is closer to Israel, both have expressed their commitment to it and its security -- just as every U.S. president has done.

But the Muslim Brotherhood will not make the same commitments to Israel's integrity and security. While campaigning to win the election in Egypt, the Brotherhood held rallies featuring speakers who called for the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate with Jerusalem as its capital.

In an attempt to convey what he sees as a threat to Israel's existence, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used a cartoon to illustrate how close he says Iran is to developing a nuclear weapon. In a speech at the United Nations General Assembly he asked the world to help stop them. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

The Brotherhood does not understand why Washington chooses to befriend one small country at the expense of relations with millions of Arabs and over a billion Muslims. Washington rejects having to make this choice.

This rift could become a showdown and devolve into violence. The timing depends on American policy and outside provocations that can be either by design -- "peace" flotillas to Gaza, Hamas rockets, an Israeli assault on Gaza -- or by accident, such as bigoted and dumb Internet movies.

4. Cyber threat
The United States has spent a decade fighting terrorists with some notable and many debatable successes. But bombs aren't the only kind of threat. In fact, a successful cyber attack could cause national and international chaos far exceeding a bombing in a major U.S. city.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently warned about a possible cyber Pearl Harbor. Many military officials and analysts I know fully agree with him.

Panetta: Cyber intruders have already infiltrated US systems

5. Israeli strike on Iran
Israel may attack Iran's nuclear program if it believes sanctions are failing. The strike would likely delay but not stop the program, experts say. For the time being, Israel has decided to wait and see what impact the international sanctions have.

If Iran chooses a quick rush to make a bomb, Israel will most likely change course and opt for a military solution. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made that point abundantly clear when he drew a red line at the United Nations and held up a picture of a bomb.

Read more Israel coverage from NBCNews.com

6. Revival of al-Qaida/Ansar al-Sharia
Al-Qaida's leaders have been killed and hunted, but the group hasn't gone away. Many al-Qaida factions have re-branded themselves under a new name: Ansar al-Sharia (partisans of Islamic law). Some of the militants also are finding new comfortable homes in the post-Arab Spring Middle East, blending into Salafist (Sunni fundamentalist) movements.

7. Rift with Pakistan
Pakistan and the United States have been locked in an uncomfortable marriage since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, and arguably long before that.

US, Pakistan should 'divorce,' ex-ambassador to Washington says

Critics accuse Pakistan of taking American counter-terrorism money and military support, while at the same time supporting terrorist groups.

Muhammed Muheisen / AP

Images of daily life, political pursuits, religious rites and deadly violence.

If the United States cuts off Pakistan -- which may happen as Washington becomes less reliant on Pakistani supply routes into Afghanistan -- Islamabad could become more belligerent, which would cause relations to deteriorate further. The withdrawal from Afghanistan will change the costly status quo that has existed with Pakistan since 9/11, and that change is unlikely to go smoothly.

Read more Pakistan coverage from NBCNews.com

8. Mexico and the growing war on drugs
According to some estimates, Mexico has become the most dangerous country in the world. Around 50,000 people have been killed in the country's drug wars. It is unclear if Mexico's President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto will be able to contain the violence, which has spread south to Central America and is showing signs of leaking north into the United States.

Read more Mexico coverage from NBCNews.com

Mexico's drug war is also part of a drug culture with roots in music, movies and even religion

9. US 'pivot' to Asia/China slowdown
In 2011, China overtook Japan to become the world's second-largest economy after the United States. The Obama administration has acknowledged China's growing military and political power, and has pledged to "pivot" or deploy more than half of the U.S.' naval assets to the Asia-Pacific region by the end of the decade. This, some argue, has contributed to souring relations between the two powers.

Adding to the troubles, China isn't cheap anymore and Chinese workers are no longer as willing to accept poor conditions and little pay. Strikes are increasingly common. Removing dissent from Chinese Internet sites is a full-time job for government censors. Growth rates remain high, but the cost of living and labor demands are going up.

Factories are already moving out of China to cheaper labor markets in Indonesia and Bangladesh. If China's economic growth slows for a prolonged period, the world will be dramatically impacted. The country's economic expansion has driven up oil prices and has made parts of the Middle East, Russia and Brazil exceptionally rich. Could labor unrest threaten the ruling Communist Party's grip? Any move from this giant creates a huge wake that will quickly wash onto American shores.

Read more China coverage on NBC's Behind The Wall

10. United States: Drifting?
For a decade, the United States has made fighting terrorism its main foreign policy goal. This is by definition a reactionary policy and is limited in focus -- without a global vision or sense of destiny.

In contrast, American rivals appear to have grand plans in place. Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, seems intent on regaining its Soviet and Tsarist glory. Turkey is flexing its muscles regionally and is re-establishing some of its Ottoman legacy and prominence. China is looking to consolidate its hold on swathes of Asia and beyond.

Full coverage: NBCNews.com's The World is Watching series

But what does the United States want to do? What is our goal? It is impossible to be influential if we don't know where we are going -- and any malaise would be damaging to the national interest. World powers must move to survive. Drifting is sinking.

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