Big Questions for a New Year

It is a new year, but the world and nation are still agonizing over a lot of old problems. President George W. Bush has promised that the long, hard fight against terrorism has just begun, but it is far from clear exactly what the next phase in that war will be. At home, a faltering economy and vanished government surplus promise a new budgetary day of reckoning.

Those are just two of the big questions looming over Washington as the new year dawns. Here is a brief rundown.

Will Bush go after other terrorists?

Administration officials say yes, but they offer few clues about how or where, mostly because the issue is still the subject of fierce internal debate.

Should Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein be next on the U.S. target list? What, exactly, does the administration plan to do about Syria, Lebanon and Mideast terror groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah? So far, the signals are mixed.

Will the administration develop a more aggressive strategy to slow the spread of weapons of mass destruction?

For all the talk on the subject, the world is still racing toward the proliferation nightmare, with various Mideast bad guys leading the charge. The need for strong, new efforts has never been greater, but it is unclear if the administration, whose go-it-alone approach last year angered much of the world, is ready to mount a broad, sustained international effort.

Will the administration get wise about some of its Arab “allies”?

Egypt, the recipient of almost $2 billion annually in U.S. aid, continues to propagate anti-Western, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in its official media. Saudi Arabia still protects the Islamic radicals who have fueled Osama bin Laden’s terror network. The administration is increasingly aware of these failings but uncertain how to respond.

The decisions made in the next 12 months will have long-lasting consequences.

Will Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reveal a peace plan?

Sharon has gotten away with his tough military response to Palestinian terror because Yasser Arafat’s two-faced game has become evident even to hardened U.S. State Department types.

But he has revealed no strategy for moving beyond endless confrontation, and he has fostered the suspicion that he has none. If his only goal is to destabilize Arafat and bring about a harsh new status quo, conflict with Washington will not be long in coming.

Will Arafat stop playing the chump?

One of the tragedies of the Palestinian people is that Arafat keeps getting mislead by his Arab friends, who goad him to continue the conflict with Israel as a way of defusing their own domestic discontent. It is in Arafat’s best interests to reach a real peace agreement with Israel and stick to it, but his best buddies keep whispering otherwise in his ear.

Those friends are leading the impressionable, weak Arafat and his gullible people to disaster.

Will Europe stop playing the role of enabler for Arafat?

Do not hold your breath. Despite hints of new cooperation with Washington, the Europeans remain hostile to Israel — in many ways as a surrogate for their jealousy of U.S. preeminence in world affairs.

Equally interesting: Will European nations go after the terror cells that have proliferated in their countries, or will their traditional fear of antagonizing Arab allies win the day?

Will the U.S. ease sanctions on Iran?

Pressure is mounting to do so, but pro-Israel groups are adamantly opposed. The situation in Iran is murkier than ever. Some tough choices lie ahead; stay tuned.

Will Bush make major domestic concessions to the religious right?

He tossed them Attorney General John Ashcroft, whose attachment to the National Rifle Association apparently exceeds his desire to fight terrorism, but that is about it. However, congressional elections come later this year, and the preliminaries for the next presidential contest are already underway. Bush, most political experts agree, will have to reinforce his base, which means the religious right. The big question is: How far will he go?