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12:01AM

Blast from my past: "The State of the World"--with commentary track (2007)

 

The State of the World

 

by Thomas P.M. Barnett

 

Illustration by Joe McKendry

 

Esquire, May 2007, pp. 108-15 & 136.


COMMENTARY TRACK:

In this exclusive post, writer Thomas P.M. Barnett reassesses and updates his overview of the global geopolitical situation. [DATED: 30 April 2007]

By Thomas P.M. Barnett

Mark Warren, my editor at Esquire asked me to write a blog post on "The State of the World" in order to extend or update it a bit. So... This behemoth weighs in at roughly 6,500 words -- 500 longer than the actual piece. Oh well, Marty Scorsese always out-blabs his own movies when he does commentary, but that’s the whole idea, is it not?

What most people don’t realize is that, if an article appears in the May issue, it comes out in early April, which means it goes to the printers in early March, which means you edited it in February and probably wrote it in late January or early February, meaning you researched or reported it back in December. Now, when it’s a set piece (e.g., you interview somebody), the timeline’s not so crucial, but when you’re presenting the “State of the World,” you’re trapped somewhat in dealing with current events (duh!), so you’re not only dealing with some hedging language here and there, you risk some great intervening event ruining your whole party.

I had my share of fear in that regard on this piece, in large part because it seemed like Bush was launching a number of diplomatic initiatives around the dial as the piece was “shipping out” (meaning, going to the printers in early March). So factoring in all those possibilities was crucial, and yet, I had high expectations that no serious breakthroughs would be achieved, in keeping with the tone of the piece (Bush’s post-presidency). I’m unhappy to say I wasn’t disappointed by the administration, which just confirms my judgment rendered long ago that Bush’s post-presidency basically began with Katrina (can’t get it done in Iraq, can’t get it done at home), hence the general trend of rising backtalk from the world (and the Dems), less cooperation from major allies, and more powers taking matters into their own hands (including Nancy Pelosi), seems to proceed apace.

What I’m going to do in this post is this:

  1. Deconstruct the thinking behind each segment, providing director’s commentary, so to speak. 
  2. Extend each segment by rendering a judgment as to how it’s held up over the past few weeks. 
  3. Give you a sense of where my thinking is going now on each segment.

So, I’ll give you a sort of a past-present-future troika for each segment.

I’ll be as blabby as I g -- damn wanna be, because that’s how I blog, so don’t wade through all this unless you’re naturally a “Disc 2” kind of DVD watcher and love this sort of backstory detail (like most egomaniacs, I love to deconstruct my own thinking most of all).

Let me start with the extended title page and intro.

The State of the--

No, screw that. Let me start with the cover!

The May 2007 Cover 

Deconstruction: I totally approve of Halle Berry on the cover.

How it holds up: Like most men my age, I’ve never quite gotten over Monster’s Ball and like to be reminded of that fact as frequently as possible. 

Looking further ahead: I may try to link up with fellow Hoosier Tom Chiarella on the subject. Halle “interviewed” him for the piece.

As I’ve over said about working for Esquire, it’s not like I was the guy who shot Britney Spears when she wasn’t wearing any pants. But I have met the people who did...

Okay, back to the original plan. 

Now that the Bush presidency is over, it's time those of us left behind assess the damage and seize the opportunities. There's plenty of both. But there's no time to waste, so let's get started: the good news, the bad news, and the news that could change everything.

COMMENTARY TRACK:

Deconstruction: This was the title of the piece from basically the moment Mark proposed it to me in early December. As soon as he planted that seed, I started setting aside articles from my blog collection that I thought were appropriate. Easy to do at the end of the year, because everyone’s writing that sort of stuff.

I was excited to try the piece and wasn’t particularly intimidated by the scope, because it’s the sort of world-survey stuff I grew up on during my early years of doing strategic planning for the Navy at the Center for Naval Analyses. Seriously, we’d just sit around cranking this sort of stuff like we were doing daily warm-up exercises or something -- you know, sharpening-the-blade kind of activity.

About two weeks before I started brainstorming on the structure of the piece at the beginning of Feb, I interviewed my old mentor at CNA, Hank Gaffney, who’s famous for generating this sort of material in his sleep. I simply talked him through a tour of the world’s major regions and major relationship and major crises, and we calibrated our sense of what was going on. It was an up-front sanity check for me to make sure I wasn’t going off on any benders. I later had Hank read the piece for any boners that stuck out, because when you write at this level, you naturally step on toes and transgress reality now and then, because you’re compositing a lot of trends and material and bold statements like that can be poorly rendered if you’re not careful. Hank caught a few, gave me several parentheticals to insert, and generally validated the piece (no, he doesn’t agree with every take I offer here, but I don’t expect that from anyone).

Now, the big question for me on this piece was structure. How to do the tour without being highly repetitive (I mean, everything feeds into everything else) and highly contradictory (when you’re whipping through things, it’s always appropriately ass-covering to say, “on the other hand” every other sentence)? Plus, it’s just the nature of the time we’re in now that it’s both pregnant with possibility and dulled by a sense of interregnum: you can see so much potential right on the horizon, you just know that most of it will wait until Bush is out of office. On the other hand … (see how easy that is!), I know from other end-of-term times that a lot of below-the-radar stuff does actually get accomplished in the waning months of a presidency, often by the most anonymous of people, so you don’t want to shut any doors on stuff.

To that end, I kept finding myself struggling to define the governing structure of the piece. Would I just run Bush out of town on a rail? Would I give you the half-glass-full wherever possible and leave open the notion of the great foreign policy correction designed to secure the legacy?

Then I thought: I’ve already given Bush the two “Mr. President” pieces, and since he had his chances (as all presidents do), now was the time to take stock in that early-post-presidency sense (my argument on the blog for months now), while simultaneously setting up the conversation for what comes next, since the election’s preliminaries are already overshadowing this presidency. So I was tempted to offer some grading scheme, although that always seems so prosaic. I thought about thumbs-up or thumbs-down (so very Rome). I even toyed with glass-half-full or empty. None were rocking my boat.

I knew there was a host of issues I wanted to cover, so I spent the entire Friday (about ten hours straight) before the Super Bowl just sitting in my home office above the garage writing list after list on my white board, seeing what would stick. I kept struggling with a sequence for the issues, but each time I tried to craft one, I realized I was setting myself up for a particular line of argument, and I didn’t want to commit to any one line of reasoning. I wanted to go bang-bang through the subjects, saying what I felt was going well, where I was scared, and where I thought the next possibilities were.

Now, when I’m trying to dissect the world like that, I often build a big matrix full of questions to organize and deconflict the material (so you don’t repeat too much). I tried a variety of approaches, but kept coming back to “the good,” “the bad,” and “the wildcard” (or basically, the optimistic view, the pessimistic view, and what could change either). I’m just anal enough to like a round number (ten, dozen, “sweet sixteen,” etc.), so I kept dicking around with the number of issues to cover, mentally deconflicting the implied components.

Once I had the list down, I started to fill in the blanks on good-bad-wildcards, but I kept thinking, “This is going to be a waste of time because I won’t structure the piece like this.” I kept hoping that giving it this sort of structure would reveal an obvious narrative logic, but it didn’t.

Finally, it dawned on me: just forget the narrative logic and make the piece modular. That way I didn’t have to choose whether I’d go overboard on Bush either way. Instead, I’d give both arguments plus the look-ahead segue. Plus, if I kept it super-modular, I could avoid a lot of bridging language that would force me to shorthand a lot of material (when you write in the essay structure, you constantly have to write yourself into and out of paragraphs, and so you spend a lot of words making all those transitions happen). So doing entries meant I could keep it bang-bang but likewise dense, plus I could go both ways on the judgment and intrigue you with the wildcards as provocative projections.

Once I started thinking this way, the piece seemed a lot easier. Plus, it felt like I was -- in many ways -- going back to the “map” article and coming full circle on the Bush administration: here I would just repeat the tight briefing style of delivery that Mark had talked me into on the hotspot survey we added to the ’03 map.

Having settled all that (and clearing it with Mark by phone), I quickly ginned out my matrix on the 16 subjects, and decided I would write them without thinking about sequence, so they’d need to stand alone, material-wise. I planned each segment to be about op-ed column size, or about 700-750 words, which gave me about 300 for good and 300 for bad and maybe a quick 150 for the wildcard. Pretty tight quarters.

I wrote half of the entries over the next day (Saturday) and the other half on Sunday, finishing just before the kickoff of the Super Bowl. As I penned them, they felt great, so I felt pretty relaxed about how the edit would go with Mark.

How it holds up: Mark wrote the expanded sub-title himself, and once I saw it, I felt a bit shocked about committing myself to the post-presidency idea. But when I thought about it more, I realized this was just Mark recognizing a major theme from my blog over the past year, and either I believed in that analysis or I didn’t. I did, so I got comfortable with the opening and remain so to this day.

As I noted above, Bush and Co. (specifically Rice) gave me a bit of a scare in late February and early March when it seemed like he was finally getting around to the Iraq Study Group’s recommendation to start engaging the region as a whole in serious diplomacy (especially coming on the heels of the announced freeze deal with Kim Jong Il), but as we’ve seen since, all of that’s gone basically nowhere, in large part, I would argue, because everyone’s discounting this presidency pretty heavily, meaning they’re balancing the utility of any deal now versus waiting on possible bargains down the road in the administration’s last days or the successor administration’s first days.

So when I read the title and intro today, I’m still very cool with it. We’re giving you the state of the world, so do with it what you will, America.

Looking further ahead: I keep coming back to this prediction I made when I first started writing about the emerging Bush post-presidency: everyone in the world is going to reduce prices by about half whenever the new president arrives in Jan ’09. By that I mean it’ll be 50 percent off the top of any implied price for renewed cooperation for America. Everyone will give the new president a massive discount because everyone will be so happy to have America-the-Normal back. Frankly, they miss us when we’re gone.

The only guy I think who might not get that discount would be McCain, because of his stand on Iraq. Everyone else seems so clearly solutions-based in their thinking -- as in, how does America get what it wants out of the Middle East as soon as possible? -- that I don’t see their elevation to the presidency signaling anything but the notion that everything (and everyone) is on the table for negotiation come Jan ’09.

No, that doesn’t mean any “selling down the river” stuff to any ridiculous degree. It just means flexibility and pragmatism and deal-making will be the order of the day. I think everyone around the world will welcome that new tone and that it’ll pay off, because -- again -- the world misses America when we go off on a bender like Bush on Iraq.

 

 

001 Iran: The Coming Distraction

Good News: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suffered a worse midterm election than George Bush, with his political allies losing metro elections all over the country and his mullah mentors failing to grab seats in the crucial Assembly of Experts, a college-of-cardinals body that'll pick Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's successor. With the supreme leader on a Francisco Franco-like deathwatch, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani's stunning resurrection (crushed by Ahmadinejad in the '05 presidential election, now he's the Assembly's deputy mullah) suggests our latest Muslim "Hitler" is nothing more than a Persian Newt Gingrich. And over the next two years, we're looking at a potential wholesale swap-out of the senior leadership, and if the result isn't more pragmatism, expect supremely pissed-off college students to do more than just chant "Death to the dictator," like they did recently during an Ahmadinejad speech. Iran is crumbling from within, economically and socially, much like the late-Brezhnevian Soviet Union. In any post-Khamenei scenario, Rafsanjani could easily play Andropov (patron) to the rise of some would-be reformer (like the currently ascending mayor of Tehran) who'd likely try to restructure (perestroika, anyone?) the failed revolutionary system as a going concern in the global economy. Bush's recent full-court press -- UN sanctions, moving a carrier battle group into the Persian Gulf, arresting Iranian operatives in Iraq -- has put the mullahs on the defensive and might end up being very clever. But the president's got to be careful. The minute he gets violent, Beijing and Moscow are outta here, not to mention the American public.

Bad News: Iran is successfully spreading its influence throughout the region, with significant regime-bonding investment strategies unfolding in southern Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. But since that's intimately tied to the price of oil, Iran's strategy is subject to Saudi containment. Tehran's mullahs may put a muzzle on Ahmadinejad now and dump him in two years, but they still want the bomb (and no, that's not an irrational desire after we toppled regimes to their east and west). As far as they're concerned, America's wars to date have left Iran the regional kingpin, and they're right. So Tehran might as well start acting like it while taking the necessary precautions against an inevitable downstream military confrontation with Washington. (Did I mention that the Persians gave us chess?) Iran's shown itself to be a crafty asymmetrical warrior, using proxies Hamas and Hezbollah to demonstrate that it can conflate the region's conflicts at will, so it is not to be underestimated. The mullahs get deterrence all right, as well as preemptive war. If you're unconvinced, talk to Israel as it continues to lick its wounds from last summer.

Wild Card: As Tehran nears the bomb, Israel may well strike first, convinced the second Holocaust is imminent due to Ahmadinejad's skill at turning phrases. A signal of the end times to many believers, it may well be Dick Cheney's plan all along. The problem is, Israel's not up for much more than a token strike (unless it goes preemptively nuclear, at which point all bets are off), so having Israel try and fail conventionally may be a necessary precursor for Bush's -- and the Saudis' -- final solution. But don't expect Iran's pragmatic mullahs to sit on their hands in the meantime. They recognize a losing hand when they see one and may well trade off on Lebanon and Shiite Iraq if Israel's push comes to Bush's shove. At that point, everyone will recognize that Riyadh -- and not Tehran -- really won the Iraq war.

COMMENTARY TRACK:

Deconstruction: To me, this was always the most animating aspect of the list: the sense that Bush is gearing up for another war. As I’ve written in my blog extensively, I believe Bush and Cheney were clearly setting Iran up for a major military strike/war before the end of their second term. You could just see it in the whole re-running of the WMD drama. No surprise, but Tehran didn’t sit on its ass waiting for the blow, using their proxies in the region to launch a pre-emptive asymmetrical strike against our proxies in the region (i.e., Hamas and Hezbollah target Israel), striking with great purpose before the midterm elections rolled around over here. By doing this, Tehran’s basically said, “You think I can’t conflate this mother-f -- ker anytime I want? Then you don’t get this whole Shiia thing, do you?”

And no, Bush doesn’t get it.

How it holds up: The vaunted F2F opportunity at the regional peace conference on Iraq came and went without so much as a whimper (seriously, read any press on it?). Bush continues the press on Iran with targeted sanctions and the plus-up in naval activity arrives on schedule, but since Bush is not really offering any out here, or even a serious venue to discuss such an exit for Iran, nothing seems to be happening.

Everyone got excited when the Russians seemed to yank Tehran’s chain on back-payments for the nuke work, but that’s just a contractor bitching, because Moscow really does want to protect Tehran’s back on this, not because of any ideological solidarity. This is strictly business, nothing personal.

China continues to play along and why the hell not? If it works (the squeeze), then Iran’s not a hotspot anymore and China can access its oil and gas in peace. If it goes badly and the West tries to shut down Iranian oil exports, then China will just step in and steal Japan’s share (something Tokyo freaks about silently on the sidelines).

The EU and its companies will string this out as long as possible. No one wants to lose access to Iran, because once lost, companies find it extremely hard to get back in again down the road. Frankly, it’s better for us if such companies don’t lose access, because eventually our solution set becomes reconnecting Iran to the world through business.

As for the recent British hostages deal, as far as I was concerned, that was just another asymmetrical strike against our proxies in the region. We slap on some harder sanctions and start snatching Iranian operatives in Iraq, so Tehran fights back by grabbing some Brits: all designed to signal without triggering direct conflict with the U.S. What’s the signal? Tehran wants to deal.

Hardliners on our side keep saying, “But we’ve offered Iran plenty in the past and it keeps saying no.” That’s bullshit. We’ve never offered Iran anything of value that it really wants. Basically, Tehran wants some sense of regime security and its place in the sun and Bush doesn’t want to offer either, so Iran keeps fighting back the best it can and we keep taking the pain, hoping we can drive up Iran’s pain in a nastier way that will bring them to the table on our terms. That won’t happen because Iran won’t roll over on the nuclear question so long as the U.S. threatens regime change.

As I wrote in Esquire back in early 2004, I’d temporize on the nukes (Iranian nukes will change nothing) and cut what deals are necessary to get us relief on Iraq, setting up the mullahs for the soft-kill through expanded economic connectivity. I’d send Nixon to China (read Margaret MacMillan’s brilliant book, “Nixon and Mao” for all the fascinating parallels here) and finesse Iran over the longer haul. But since the Bush crowd is so impatient and so godawfully Manichean in its mindset, there’s just no chance that’ll start before Jan ’09, when we’ll still be trying to figure out how to find a place for Iran in the Middle East. So Bush punts on that one.

Looking further ahead: It does worry me how so many in Congress and so many of the prez candidates are mouthing hot-and-heavy on Iran, like it’s time to check who’s gone limp on this litmus test, because it’s all just so Rovian to fall into that trap. Sometimes when you watch lips moving you hear the House of Saud talking, sometimes you hear AIPAC, and sometimes it’s just the usual end-of-times crap that’s so popular nowadays (“Iran gets the bomb and our Savior returns to protect the Holy Land!”).

The overwhelming presumption of Iranian irrationality just doesn’t impress me. We’re just not being very rational ourselves, just because both the Saudis and the Israelis are working overtime to get us hot and bothered enough to do their dirty work for them. It’s bad enough that we swallow our enemies’ propaganda so willingly, but when our “allies” do it, we should know better. No one should expect the Saudis or the Israelis to look out for anybody but themselves.

Our interests on Iran seem clear: we have to find a place for it in the Middle East. The revolution has failed and the society is sinking fast. It feels empowered in the region because of the Shiia revival, but that’s got a short half-life. The mullahs know their long-term situation is not bright, and the smart ones realize that their bargaining position will never be better than it is now (e.g., America hurting in Iraq and Afghanistan, they’re close to the bomb, Shiia revival, Bush’s post-presidency), so the time for deal-making is at hand. Would we get a fair shake from Tehran? Hell no. They’d try and take us for everything they could, given our difficulties in Iraq, but here is where our silly need for clear “victories” does us in. They are plenty of ways to skin this cat, but Bush seems intent on just rerunning the whole Iraq approach again on Iran, and that’s not going to solve Iran prior to the end of the term, and that means Iran will continue to screw us as much as possible on the subject of Iraq in the meantime.

And that really sucks if you have any loved ones in Iraq right now.

 

002 The Middle East: The Big Bang Theory

Good News: It's not as dead as you may think -- or pray. Cynically expressed, the Big Bang strategy was always about speeding the killing necessary to trigger systemic change, so the worse Iraq becomes, the more the process picks up speed. I mean, you can't get to the punch line any faster than by forcing the House of Saud to deal directly with an Al Qaeda hornet's nest right next door in the Sunni Triangle (the Saudis' first choice was a security fence on the border -- go figure!) while simultaneously triggering Riyadh's proxy war with Tehran in Baghdad. Toss in some Israeli nukes and finally the neocons have really got this party started, because those are the three knockdown fights they believe need to unfold before any serious restructuring of the region's power relationships can occur. A lesser variant has Washington prying Damascus away from Tehran, holding down the fort in Baghdad, and getting Riyadh's tacit approval for Israel's preemptive war on Iran in exchange for a supported solution on Palestine, but that almost seems boring in comparison.

Bad News: It's not as dead as you may think -- or pray. Bush and the neocons never had a clue about what was naturally coming on the heels of Saddam's fall (i.e., the Shiite revival) any more than they had a plan about Iraq's postwar occupation. Their in-progress Iranification of the Long War against the global jihadist movement makes even less sense than Bush's poorly planned decision to invade Saddam's secularized Iraq. The Salafist jihad spearheaded by Al Qaeda is exclusively Sunni derived, so why add into the mix their hated enemies, the Shiites? Bush is like the barroom brawler who enters the joint and declares, "I'm taking all of you bastards on" -- read: axis of evil -- "right here and now!" His administration has committed the fatal mistake that Clinton deftly avoided in the Balkans: They've let the conflicts accumulate instead of tackling them sequentially. The White House's unfolding Iran strategy is nothing more than an ass-covering exercise on Iraq and Afghanistan -- a third splendid little war to divert attention from the two previous failures.

Wild Card: If there was ever a time for Al Qaeda to cripple Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure, now is it. Delivered with the right fingerprints, Al Qaeda might be able to get just enough unity among the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel for a full-blown war with Iran. Nothing would set China on a more aggressive course regarding its long-term access to energy in the region, and therein lies Osama bin Laden's best hope for setting "rising Asia" against an aging West in the Persian Gulf.

COMMENTARY TRACK:

Deconstruction: Of all the segments, this one drove me to the good-bad-wildcard approach the most, because I’m so clearly of two minds on the subject. Yes, it would have been better if we had done Iraq right from the start, but since we didn’t and we’re stuck with Bush through Jan ’09, there’s almost the sense that the worst Iraq gets, the more it is likely to foster desperate and dangerous change in the region, and since any change beats the status quo, you have almost this perverse, pro-Bush desire to hope that Bush continues to screw up Iraq so that the follow-on regional dynamics are as profoundly upsetting as possible.

Then you start getting paranoid and wondering if Bush and Cheney do that on purpose, and thus you get the tone of this segment.

How it holds up: Because this is meta-analysis of region-wide possibilities, this one was going to get screwed up by current events only if Rice pulled off some magic at the regional peace conference on Iraq, which she didn’t even seem to try. I know it seems like Sy Hersh is going overboard on the Iran war scenario, but I honestly think it’s very important to sound that alarm early and often on Bush and Cheney because -- again -- left to their own devices, I do think they were targeting Iran for the end of the second term. Given the macho factor in DC on the Iran issue, I do worry that the right trolley car coming down the street will suddenly become enough for Bush to sell his next war on his way out the door, bequeathing to the next president a serious lemon just like his old man did to Clinton on Somalia (“Have a nice presidency, asshole!”).

Looking further ahead: The more I think about the Middle East in grand historical terms, the more I believe that its capacity for self-destruction will do itself in. Yes, everyone will continue to buy its oil and gas, but no one will be planning to keep the region in its future requirements and everyone will slowly but deeply discount their connectivity to the place. To the extent that happens and alternative energy dependencies are pursued, the Middle East can be effectively firewalled from globalization’s future, making Africa’s future bright by default (the last great untapped labor pool).

The bright spot? The smallest Gulf states seem to be pursuing the most innovative and intelligent economic connectivity with the outside world. If they can have a Singapore-like demonstration effect and pull the others along, then there’s reason for optimism. Again, the scarier we make Iraq look, the more these countries are incentivized to imagine a different future -- sad to say.

Then again, fear is a great motivator toward change.

 

003 Globalization: Life During Wartime

Good News: The world has never enjoyed a bigger and more dynamic global economy than the one we're riding high on right now, with unprecedented amounts of poverty reduction concentrated in China and India alone. Advanced economies are expanding steadily in the 2 to 3 percent range, while emerging markets dash along in the 7 to 8 percent range, giving us a stunning -- and steady -- global growth rate of roughly 5 percent. Rising Asia will add upwards of a billion new consumers (i.e., people with disposable income) in the coming years, providing the biggest single impulse the global economy has ever experienced. Financial flows in 2005 hit $6 trillion, more than double the total in 2002. If terrorists are running the world, nobody has told the global financial markets.

Bad News: There's plenty to be nervous about, especially if you're a white-collar worker who's always assumed your job can't be outsourced. (Hint: If your graduate degree involved tons of memorizing facts, you're in the crosshairs.) But with financial panics becoming far less frequent and damaging (e.g., a recent scare in Thailand passed without turning contagious), the biggest dangers now are political. Trade protectionism is on the rise (keep an eye on our Democratic Congress), and the World Trade Organization's Doha Development Round is going nowhere because the West refuses to reduce agricultural subsidies. But neither trend surprises, as a rising tide lifts everybody's demands when it comes to trade deals.

Wild Card: A supply shock in the maxed-out oil industry, which faces a persistently rising long-term global demand due overwhelmingly to skyrocketing requirements in emerging markets led by China and India. "Peak oil" predictions are overblown, focusing exclusively on easily extracted, known conventional reserves. If prices remain high, then the shift to exploiting unconventional reserves and alternative energy sources will grow exponentially. But timing is everything, so a shock to the system could have the lasting effect of moving us down the hydrocarbon chain faster toward hydrogen, nuclear, and renewables. When that happens, it won't be just Al Gore sticking out his chest in pride -- we'll all be able to breathe more easily.

COMMENTARY TRACK:

Deconstruction: First is simply to note the title of one of my all-time favorite Talking Heads songs.

I wrote this segment first and meant it to headline the piece, because to me, it’s stunning to realize that despite all this terrorism and Middle East bullshit, the world has never been more at peace or thriving economically as it is today. And the future’s so bright for globalization that I gotta wear shades to look ahead.

Most of the time I think it’s just me and my buddy Larry Kudlow sounding this non-alarm, because the fear mongering on CNN and Fox is just so frickin’ out of control at this point in history, as one uses it to condemn Bush’s failures (CNN) while the other uses that to excuse them (Fox).

How it holds up: Better than ever, I must say. Doha continues to go nowhere, but bilateral trade agreements are continuing to be cut (we’ve just finished our proposed free-trade pact with South Korea and Bush sends it soon to the Hill), and the Middle East continues to slowly but surely connect itself more and more to the outside world during this oil boom (unlike last boom).

Yes, I expect the Dems to do a certain amount of stupid stuff on trade in Congress, and I expect Bush to stand up for free trade and fight them tooth and nail (Bush has actually been wonderfully sensible on foreign trade throughout his time). Lou Dobbs and his ilk notwithstanding, I expect cooler heads to prevail, with the best news being that, other than Edwards, none of the prez candidates are talking much protectionism.

Looking further ahead: I’m hoping the Korean-U.S. deal, once it goes through Congress, will accelerate the movement toward a free trade agreement for Asia proper that integrates America nicely into the mix. The big fear of recent years was that the U.S. would eventually get shut out of any ASEAN-plus enlargement process, but if the Korean-U.S. deal serves as template for others to cut similar deals with us, then we might just negotiate ourselves right into some larger Pac-rim package, and that would be great.

 

004 Al Qaeda: The Global Brand

Good News: We have killed or captured a good portion of Al Qaeda's senior brain trust, meaning the generational cohort of leaders who built up the transnational network to the operational peak represented by the 9/11 strikes. As a result, Al Qaeda's network is a lot more diffuse and dispersed, with the surviving leadership's role trimmed back largely to inspirational guidance from above on strategy and tactics. Yes, Al Qaeda now takes credit for virtually every terrorist act across the globe, but the truth is that its operational center of gravity remains southwest Asia -- specifically Iraq's Sunni Triangle and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. As worldwide revolutionary movements go, this one is relatively contained and successful only in terms of generating local stalemates against intervening external powers, meaning we get to pick the fight and keep it consistently an "away game." As the Middle East "middle-ages" -- demographically speaking -- over the next quarter century, time is definitely on our side, since jihadism, like all revolutionary movements, is a young man's game.

Bad News: Al Qaeda's operational reach may now be effectively limited to the same territory (southwest Asia and extending to adjacent areas) as were the classic Middle Eastern terrorist groups of the 1970s and 1980s, but that just means America's efforts to date have made us safer at the expense of allies in Europe, Asia, and Africa. In short, we've turned back the clock but made no strategic headway, plus we've created a dual cause célèbre in Iraq and Afghanistan that will stoke Al Qaeda's recruitment efforts for the long haul. Neither winning nor losing, the Bush administration has merely engineered a back-to-the-future operational stalemate at an unsustainably high cost in blood and treasure, effectively isolating America from the world in the process. Strategically speaking, we've reached a dead end.

Wild Card: Al Qaeda's pursuit of a weapon of mass destruction (think biological, not nuclear) is unrelenting, meaning eventually we will face this threat, and ultimately one side in this Long War will need to break out of the strategic stalemate. The key question, then, is, Which side is more energized and which is more exhausted? With the majority of Gulf oil now flowing to Asia and that trend only increasing with time, won't the American public eventually revolt at the notion that it's their oil and our blood? Osama sure hopes that one more strategic bitch-slap does the job.

COMMENTARY TRACK:

Deconstruction: To me, this is both the most depressing and the most over-hyped segment, meaning you can feel bad about it but you really shouldn’t. By sinking our teeth into Afghanistan and Sunni Iraq (where the insurgency’s based), we give Al Qaeda a lot of definition and structure where there wouldn’t otherwise be, meaning we attract them to these battlegrounds of our choosing and let our professionals duke it out with their version of professionals. All said and done, our casualties have been low and slow in coming for a “global war,” and the fight’s over there instead of over here.

How it holds up: Just fine. I mean, you may hang on Peter Bergen’s every word about the whereabouts of Osama and Mullah Omar and so on and so forth, but as somebody who looks at this whole package as holistically as possible, it doesn’t strike me that terrorists are running anything in this world save for the tribal areas in NW Pakistan and Sunni Iraq -- and Allah bless ‘em -- they can have them both.

Looking further ahead: Yes, Virginia, there will be another 9/11. But keeping things in perspective, I don’t think al Qaeda will ever measure up to the hype nor justify the expenses we incur. I’m not saying the preparations we make, the security measures we take, or the money we spend is wasted. I think all that stuff is good and necessary and important for the sheer reason that globalization is complex and demands all such efforts.

I just don’t think that -- over time -- transnational terrorism will routinely be able to rise above the white noise level of day-to-day disruptions and disasters and snafus arising from globalization’s continued expansion.

 

005 Iraq: The Quagmire

Good News: The Kurdish areas are secure and thriving economically. Then again, they've been in the nation-building business ever since America started that no-fly zone in the early 1990s. The insurgency is still centered primarily in the Sunni Triangle, so many parts of the Shiite-controlled southeast are surviving okay, thanks in part to significant Iranian investment. Though the central government remains weak, it has forged some important compromises, like a deal to share oil revenue. Following our last best effort on the "surge," the inevitable U. S. drawdown -- and "drawback" from combat roles -- will look like Vietnam in reverse: We shift from direct action to advising locals. With any luck, Iraq's not much more of a fake state than Pakistan or Lebanon is, and America's military presence can retreat behind the wire of permanent bases in the Kurdish areas or Kuwait, where we currently keep about twenty-five thousand troops. By increasing our naval presence in the region, America can return somewhat to its historic role as offshore balancer in the region. And by participating in the regional peace conference on Iraq, it seems Bush may have finally discovered diplomacy in the Middle East. About time.

Bad News: Baghdad itself is an unmitigated disaster, and the Sunni Triangle has become a no-go zone for all but the most heavily armed outsiders. The horrific social toll of constant violence and massive unemployment is measured in dog years, meaning Bush's surge strategy is far too little and way too late. There is no "Iraq" any more than there was a "Yugoslavia," so America will have to accept this Humpty Dumpty outcome for what it is: a Balkans done backward. The Iraq Study Group rejected partitioning, saying it would be impossible to divide up major cities. Too bad the locals didn't get the word, because that low-grade "ethnic cleansing" proceeds rather vigorously -- neighborhood by neighborhood -- fueled by rising sectarian violence that outside interested parties (Iran, Saudi Arabia) clearly feed. America cannot stem this tide; only a combined effort by the neighbors can.

Wild Card: The right wrong move by embryonic Kurdistan could trigger a military intervention from anxious Turkey, especially after the highly contested oil-rich city of Kirkuk votes to join "free Kurdistan." Also looming is a Saudi-Iranian proxy war within Iraq itself, just as the persecution and targeting of restive Shiite minorities by entrenched Sunni regimes hits an inflection point regionwide -- nudge-nudge, wink-wink from the White House. For now, the Saudis seem content to 1) limit Iran's oil revenue by ramping up their production and 2) curb Iran's influence in Lebanon by funding Hezbollah's opponents. The regional peace conference on Iraq puts everyone at the same table, but if Sy Hersh is correct that Bush has already "redirected" on Iran, that parley might just be for show.

COMMENTARY TRACK:

Deconstruction: This was the trickiest one to write, given all the competing perspectives on the subject. I mean, you could spend 10k words on definitional issues alone (Civil war or not? Winning or losing? What do any of these words mean anyway?).

How it holds up: The whole McCain deal on walking through a market struck me as odd (why does he choose stands like that?), although his basic take on our predicament remains sound (from America’s perspective, “victory” or “progress” is all about reducing U.S. casualties). I just wonder why talking about what comes next is such a third rail for so many politicians (“Give the surge a chance!”), when everyone should know that the surge will logically succeed over the short haul but get untenable over the longer haul (opponents will lay lower and simply wait us out, knowing our troops strains will grow almost exponentially).

Given that Bush isn’t really trying any serious regional diplomacy, I can’t escape the feeling that the surge was never designed to succeed in the first place, but just to give Bush the excuse to broaden the conflict to include Iran down the road (again, the animating aspect to this entire piece) because then he can say, “I tried, but Iran screwed us over and now it’s payback!”

Looking further ahead: This segment is obviously the most frustrating to contemplate, in large part because Bush continues to make our military fight under the worst possible strategic circumstances.

As I look to the next prez, only Giuliani makes me think he’s got the go-your-own-way courage to cut the deals necessary to extricate our combat troops from harm’s way in a reasonable amount of time while making that transition seem less like a “loss” and more just plain common sense. I mean, you take what you can get after a while, and what we’ve got is a free and safe Kurdistan, and relatively stable and safe and recovering Shiite Iraq, and that hell-hole called Sunni-land.

The notion that we somehow “lose Iraq” unless we fight it out in Sunni-land until all the bitter-enders have all met their bitter end is just goofy.

Since Bush seems unable to define anything short of that mythical desired outcome as “victory,” we’re in desperate need of somebody who can. Hell, the Balkans were a piecemeal victory/stalemate/loss that slowly but surely turned into something we’re all relatively proud of, so why do we think we’re ever going to reach some magical moment where everything’s perfect in Iraq as a whole so we can pull out with our pride somehow completely restored?

Simply put, Rudy’s the most Nixonian of the bunch, and we need a plain-talking hardass to make this work. He’s got just enough gravitas and just enough arrogance to pull it off -- unless the cast of “Law & Order” runs as a full-slate.

 

006 The Long War: The Theater-After-Next

Good News: As we squeeze the Persian Gulf-centric radical Salafi jihadist movement, that balloon can expand in two directions over the near term: north into Central Asia or south into Africa. For now, Central Asia is relatively quiet, and local authoritarian regimes -- with the consent and support of all interested outside parties -- aim to keep it that way. Simply put, there are just too many untapped energy reserves in that region for neighboring great powers (e.g., Russia, Turkey, India, China, and even Shiite Iran) to let radical Sunni terror networks establish significant beachheads. Remember, China and Russia set up the Shanghai Cooperation Organization way before 9/11, so calling our recent arrival (now down to just one military base in Kyrgyzstan) the resumption of the "great game" is a bit much. The Chinese and Russians are basically watching our backs on this one, and we should continue to let them do so because...

Bad News: ...This fight's headed south into sub-Saharan Africa over the long haul. The recent rise and fall of the Islamic courts in Somalia was but a preview of coming attractions. Don't believe? Then check out similar north-versus-south (i.e., Muslim versus Christian) fights simmering across a wide swath of middle Africa (basically where the desert meets the grasslands and forests), because it might not surprise you to find out that the cowboy and the farmer still can't be friends. Al Qaeda, according to our Defense Intelligence Agency, recently brokered an alliance with the Algerian Group for Salafist Preaching and Combat and has famously issued threats regarding any potential Western intervention in Sudan's Darfur region to stem the genocidal war being waged by the invasive Arab janjaweed against indigenous black Africans. Success in the Long War will not be marked by less violence or less resistance but by a shift in the geographic center of gravity out of the Gulf region and into Africa. Egypt, with its looming succession from Mubarak father to son (Hosni to Gamal), will continue to either fulfill or fail in its role as continental bulwark, much the way secular (and poorly appreciated) Turkey holds the line for Europe. But in the end, Africa simply offers too many attractive traction points for the Salafi jihadists not to engage as the Middle East middle-ages.

Wild Card: Bush has already announced and will sign into existence sometime between now and the end of his administration a new regional U. S. combatant command: AFRICOM, or African Command. The placeholder, the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, now sits in a former French Foreign Legion post in Djibouti. It was originally set up as a picket line to trap Al Qaeda operatives as they exited the Gulf for the dark continent. These are the guys who recently helped engineer Ethiopia's intervention in Somalia, and their command represents a serious experiment in combining the "Three D's": diplomacy, development, and defense. AFRICOM will be the future of the fight and the fight of the future.

COMMENTARY TRACK:

Deconstruction: This is really based off the slide in my briefing that deconstructs our efforts to lay a Big Bang on the region. The assumption is, eventually we succeed (time is simply on our side, so it’s all about not screwing up in the meantime). When we do, where does the fight go next? Logic says the radical Salafis will retreat to the northern half of Africa, so then the next question becomes, How do we make that continent as unattractive as possible to radical Islam over the coming years and decades?

How it holds up: This is basically the subject of my next piece for Esquire, which I’m structuring right now as I finish up interviews back here in the States, so I’m passing on this one.

Looking further ahead: Look no further than the July issue.

 

007 Defense Department: The New Coin of the Realm

Good News: The Army and Marine Corps continue to calibrate their forces and doctrine to adapt to the long-term challenges of counterinsurgency and a return to the frontier-taming functions last witnessed when our Army of the West really was just our Army in our West. With General George Casey coming back from Iraq to become Army chief of staff and General David Petraeus, chief architect of the U. S. military's new counterinsurgency manual, slotting in behind him in Baghdad, that much needed trend can only accelerate. Two other solid moves by Bush: 1) selecting former CIA chief Robert Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense (at this point in the fight, it's better that insider agency types run the Pentagon than the outsider neocons) and 2) sliding Admiral "Fox" Fallon over from Pacific Command to Central Command, bringing along his substantial diplomatic experience and stubbornly strategic vision. (He led a PACOM effort to bolster military-to-military ties with China despite disapproval from Rumsfeld's Pentagon.) With AFRICOM standing up in 2008, we're seeing some serious lessons being learned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Failure is a great teacher.

Bad News: The acquisition overhang from Rumsfeld's transformation initiative remains large, meaning we've still got way too many absurdly complex and expensive weapon systems and platforms (e.g., ships, aircraft) in the pipeline. As ongoing, largely ground operations increasingly exhaust the Army and Marine Corps (and their respective reserve components) both in personnel and equipment, many tough funding cuts loom on the horizon. Rumsfeld never confronted those hard choices, preferring in the end to send his generals to the Hill to beg for more money and let defense contractors stuff emergency supplemental bills with their pet programs. Hopefully, intel-savvy Gates will recognize that a substantial resource shift must ensue, in effect curtailing the Pentagon's obsession with smart weapons and boosting its ability to crank out smarter soldiers. But much depends on how Gates and the Bush administration continue to interpret China's rise in military terms. If you keep hearing the word hedge, then expect the Pentagon to keep overstuffing the war-fighting force while starving the nation-building one, and that nasty habit matters plenty if it's your loved ones over in southwest Asia today.

Wild Card: A winner would be Congress somehow stepping up and delivering "Goldwater-Nichols II," or an omnibus restructuring legislation that fixes the broken interagency process (the real cause of our failures in Iraq and Afghanistan) just as the original fixed the dysfunctional interservice rivalries that plagued our military in the post-Vietnam era. Of course, the really bold step would be to create some Cabinet-level department that focuses on transition or failed states. We basically know how to deal with countries in war (Defense) and peace (State). What we lack, though, is a bureaucratic center of gravity that specializes in getting weak states from war to peace. Presidential candidates and a blue-ribbon commission or two are already raising this proposal, so it's out there, waiting for our next massive fuckup to bring it into being.

COMMENTARY TRACK:

Deconstruction: This one is pretty straightforward analysis of institutional change, very much in line historically with the “Monks of War” piece from March of last year.

In general, I’m very optimistic about the scope and rate of change in the military’s adaptation to the Long War. Clearly, Iraq’s the great strain, but nobody’s talking about packing it all in after we wrap up Iraq, so there’s a clear consensus growing that the military needs to adapt itself comprehensively to this new security environment.

As recently as last Quadrennial Defense Review (2005), you were seeing a lot of idiotic articles claiming the Middle East is “just a blip” and the real long-term fight is with China, but the continuing crushing reality of Iraq and Afghanistan and the rising sense of Africa’s importance seems to have squelched that talk -- and that’s both realistic and good.

How it holds up: Both Fallon and Petraeus are such straight-talking, stand-up guys that no matter how the surge goes (and I expect it to go better at first but then become unsustainable over time), there won’t be any silly stab-in-the-back mentality among the military. Guys like Petraeus cut their teeth in the Balkans, and they’re simply too smart for that intellectual dodge, so again, I’m very confident that the learning curve flattens but we keep climbing it vigorously across the defense community.

Looking further ahead: The question of how Africa Command turns out is a big indicator of the military’s further strategic adjustment in this Long War. Again, I beg off of that one until the July issue.

Other than that, expect to hear a lot of very legitimate “train wreck” tales about personnel and some very hyperbolic ones on long-term force structure acquisition (most of the high-end stuff we’re buying today we could purchase in smaller future numbers and still easily remain the world’s strongest military without any loss in our ability to hedge on China).

In industry, watch how Lockheed Martin uses its new purchase, Pacific Architects & Engineering, to move into the “second half” or postwar/post-disaster world. PAE is the KBR of the State Department. Lock-Mart bought it to position itself better for the future, and when the world’s largest defense contractor makes a move like that, you pay attention.

 

008 War on Terror: The Legal Underpinnings

Good News: The International Criminal Court was set up in The Hague in 2002 as a permanent version of the UN-sponsored International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. As an international court of last resort, it's designed to put war criminals on trial for crimes against humanity. With 104 signatory states, the ICC possesses a well-credentialed system for adjudicating and imprisoning such bad actors. What it's missing is a mechanism for bringing them to justice. Oddly enough, the United States possesses a military force with global reach that routinely snatches these guys, only to hide them in secret prisons and put them on secret trial with secret evidence. The U. S. has kept the court at arm's length, fearing its power enough to negotiate bilateral immunity treaties with roughly a hundred states around the world where we anticipate the possibility of future military interventions (since we fear our soldiers and officials will be subject to war-crime accusations). These arrangements will retard the development of global case law. Eventually, Washington will come to its senses.

Bad News: The Bush administration's continuing Dirty Harry take on the Geneva Conventions destroys America's international reputation for the rule of law, providing us with a host of highly questionable practices in the name of "global war," such as the suspension of habeas corpus, the holding of ghost detainees who disappear into the paperwork, the ordering of "extraordinary renditions," by which suspects are deposited with allies who have long histories of torture, and the extraction of confessions by methods right out of the Salem witch trials. If our own Supreme Court can't stomach much of this, how can we expect to win any hearts and minds abroad by mimicking the human-rights abuses of the very same authoritarian regimes (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Egypt) targeted by our lawless enemies, the Salafi jihadists?

Wild Card: Abu Ghraib didn't do it. Gitmo hasn't done it. Short of killing fields being dug up, it's hard to imagine what would dramatically alter the playing field as seen by the Bush-Cheney team. Bush the Decider, after all, basically blew off both the November election and the Iraq Study Group, so it would seem he's not one to be swayed by much when his famous gut tells him otherwise. Our best hope would seem to be for our Supreme Court to step up more aggressively over time -- maybe even before Oslo starts handing out Nobel prizes to the whistle-blowers.

COMMENTARY TRACK:

Deconstruction: This one is my favorite segment, very much an extension of the “Dirty Harry” piece I wrote for Wired way back when (Oops! Shouldn’t have mentioned that!). It’s such an obvious and clear-headed point that you’d think it wouldn’t need to be stated in print, and yet it’s so great to do just that and make clear that America needs to rejoin the world on this contentious subject.

How it holds up: No problems here. We’re never going to be able to talk ourselves out of this pathway of realigning our rule set on terror with some larger, globally-accepted rule set like that being forged by the International Criminal Court, because all the secret trials and stuff will continue to embarrass ourselves no matter how they turn out.

Looking further ahead: This one is such a no-brainer for a new president, that I assume almost any of the front-runners could handle it (aren’t they all lawyers?).

No big whoop for anybody who doesn’t gag on the word “multilateral.”

 

 

009 Afghanipakistan: The Ungovernable

Good News: The Karzai regime muddles along, keeping the bulk of Afghanistan reasonably stable while enabling legitimate economic growth in those pockets not controlled by the druggies. The Musharraf regime does one better in Pakistan, which is growing at a solid clip and finally starting to attract foreign direct investment that underscores its strategic location as connector between the energy-rich southwest-central Asia and the energy-hungry south and east Asia. When you're talking about the parts of both countries that are effectively governed by the center, either situation is arguably described as a slowly modernizing "success story" in the Long War. Hey, when Iraq defines the floor, these two mark -- by comparison -- the ceiling.

Bad News: The problem is, of course, that neither capital effectively controls the hinterlands, which overlap precipitously along their shared, mountainous border. There the poppy trade booms, prestate tribalism rules, and the Taliban are back in the business of state-sponsored terror, thanks in no small part to a de facto peace treaty with Musharraf's regime. The Pashtun tribes of northwest Pakistan have been ungovernable for as long as history records. While outsiders can effectively ally with them against perceived common enemies, as America did against the Soviets in Afghanistan, none have effectively conquered them. And yet the Taliban are carving out a ministate within these lands, employing their usual brutal techniques. The result is, once again, a secure sanctuary for Al Qaeda's global leadership (to include Osama bin Laden) and a training ground for motivated jihadists.

Wild Card: The next 9/11-like attack on American soil -- especially if WMD are involved -- could well trigger the gravest consequences for the Taliban's state-within-a-state. Americans might just countenance a limited nuclear strike in an eye-for-an-eye moment of unleashed fury and frustration. Unthinkable? We did it to Japan under far cooler circumstances but for similar reasons -- namely, a full-scale invasion seemed prohibitively costly in human life. Is nuking Afghanistan advisable? No, nuking is always a bad idea. But rubble, as they say, makes no trouble, and bombing them back to the Stone Age would be a very short trip.

COMMENTARY TRACK:

Deconstruction: This one also leverages itself off a previous piece I wrote for my syndicated weekly column, although I expanded the logic considerably with recent intelligence reports.

This segment was hard to keep balanced in that the good news ain’t so good and the bad news could get awfully bad if the right lucky strike gets pulled off.

How it holds up: Everything on this one tracks nicely.

Looking further ahead: This one scares me the most for all the obvious reasons.

 

 

010 China: The Slated Near-Peer

Good News: China's torrid growth continues, despite all predictions that it must soon end lest it tear the country apart through some combination of the horrific environmental disasters just unfolding, a financial panic caused by a still-rickety banking system, or -- Mao forbid! -- political unrest among the masses of rural peasants left behind in abject poverty. So long as the foreign direct investment flows (China's the number-one target in the world outside the West) and export volume rises, the Chinese Communist Party, which has staked its regime legitimacy almost entirely on raising income levels, continues to pull off the seemingly impossible: creating a world-class domestic market while whittling down the world's largest state sector. How hard is that? Bill Clinton created more than twenty million new jobs in America across his eight years as president. China's leaders need to generate almost the same number of new jobs every year to keep this juggernaut moving forward.

Bad News: China's military buildup is real, although America's slated to outspend it by roughly $10 trillion over the next two decades, so our lead seems pretty safe. What's so scary right now about China's strategic relationship with the United States, or lack thereof, is that our economic interdependence is very real and rapidly expanding while our security ties remain embryonic at best and highly suspicious at worst. Even if we get past North Korea, the Taiwan situation still divides us strategically, and as China increasingly penetrates the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America with its rather unprincipled investment strategies, opportunities for conflict with U. S. security interests will abound. Given the right breakdown of cooperation over Iran (or failure to get any in places like Sudan, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Venezuela -- you name it), wecould be looking at a resumption of cold-war binary thinking by which Washington hawks calculate every international loss (or even slight) as China's zero-sum gain. Factor in a Democratic-led Congress eager to take on the threat of "cheap Chinese labor" and their underappreciated currency, and what should be globalization's strongest bilateral relationship could easily turn into its worst -- even the cause for its demise.

Wild Card: You'll get the same answer from Wall Street CEOs and White House staffers: Nobody wants to see a financial meltdown triggered inside China, because nobody -- and I mean nobody -- has any idea how bad that could get for the global economy as a whole. Eventually, something has to give in China's still-white-hot economy, so the question really isn't Can a financial panic happen in China? but rather How will America handle it when it does?

COMMENTARY TRACK:

Deconstruction: If you read my blog, you know I write about China constantly, so this one was easy to pen. It reads like a greatest-hits list of statements from my current brief on global affairs, so it’s very much my mainstream thinking.

How it holds up: Bush continues to be very reasonable and moderate on China, and for that I thank him. Unlike Clinton, Bush has plenty of China hawks to parry, and he’s remained vigilant on that subject -- probably his greatest foreign policy achievement.

Looking further ahead: The big thing on China that I always mention is the swap-out of their leadership from the 4th to 5th generations, a shift that will dramatically increase our potential cooperation with China.

Actually, I have a piece sitting with Esquire right now on this subject, so I’m hoping to have another major-league swing at this later in the year.

 

011 North Korea: the Persistent Outlier

Good News: The Bush administration has been successful in maintaining a fairly coherent unity of effort with Russia, Japan, China, and South Korea, in that we're all still talking and cooperating and worrying about the same things. Admittedly, we've not accomplished much vis-a-vis Kim Jong Il's regime (the recent deal smells of a Clinton-like "freeze," with the truly hard details -- like the actual bombs -- left to the future), but the dialogue itself is laying the groundwork for a post-Kim effort to construct an East Asia NATO-like security architecture that cements China's role as the Germany of Asia and ends fears of emerging security rivalries with offshore Japan. (Asia's never enjoyed a stable peace when both China and Japan were powerful.) While Kim's successfully blackmailed us in the past on nukes, his kleptocratic regime's reliance on self-financing through criminal activities does leave it vulnerable to the sort of stringent financial sanctions recently imposed by the U. S. That tactic begins to work when Chinese banks, more interested in maintaining their international credit ratings, start choosing transparency over illicit dealings with Pyongyang. Talk Tokyo and Beijing into a naval blockade and we may set an endgame in motion.

Bad News: The recent Bush deal is a bad deal that should give no one comfort, as it is unlikely to force Kim into giving up his nukes (not when the blackmailing still works for aid), and then there's the unacknowledged second nuclear program that Pyongyang bought from Pakistan years back. We haven't even begun the negotiations on that one yet. Unlike the years-in-the-making danger of a nuclear Iran, Kim's got the necessary missile technology in hand, and he tested his first crude nuke last October. Remembering East Germany's fate, Kim confronts the high likelihood of not just near-term attempts at regime change but the inevitable liquidation of his entire nation as the wrong half of the last divided-state situation to linger beyond the cold war. Despite Ahmadinejad's fiery threats, Iran's mullahs have plenty to live for, while Kim's got everything to lose, making his long-demonstrated siege mentality and willingness to sacrifice millions of his own people to preserve his rule two crucial indicators of his undeterrability. The problem with the slow squeeze we're pursuing is that eventually it'll trigger some reckless act from Kim, which in turn sets in motion the following scary scenario: South Korean and U. S. forces pouring in from the south and sea, Chinese forces entering from the north to prevent refugee flows, and somewhere in that small chaotic space, the world's fourth-largest military armed with some unknown number of nuclear devices and a Gotterdämmerung-inducing ideology of racial superiority. No wonder Beijing's not so psyched to get it on.

Wild Card: Beijing's clearly in the driver's seat on this one, which makes the government's not-so-quiet examination of Ceausescu's rapid fall in Romania in late 1989 (hint: Moscow's KGB gave him a push) all the more telling. China's leaders are definitely exploring an exit strategy on this one, the timing of which couldn't be more crucial for the future of Sino-American relations.

COMMENTARY TRACK:

Deconstruction: This one’s based largely on conversations I’ve had with the Chinese during two trips last year to Beijing. I remain consistent on the subject: I don’t think Beijing’s leaders can turn Kim into a “mini-me Deng Xiaoping,” so either they get rid of him or they risk a far riskier conflict scenario that puts them at great danger of miscalculation with the U.S.

How it holds up: Chris Hill is one of those career diplomats who often rise up to become second-tier superstars at the end of an administration -- you know, when all the principles get bored with the details of foreign policy. He’s done a magnificent job of simply keeping the whole thing moving, even as the current envisioned outcome is totally Clintonian.

Looking further ahead: In my observation, both South Korea and China are preparing fairly realistically in military terms for North Korea’s collapse, so I’m optimistic that when the times comes it’ll go okay.

 

012 The White House: The Bush Imperative

Good News: There's about twenty months left in W.'s presidency and his heart's one helluva lot stronger than Cheney's. The Iraq tie-down pretty much means Bush can't start any more wars anywhere else, despite all the tough talk. Much like Jimmy Carter near the end, Bush seems wholly engulfed by the Gulf, but since nobody other than that pesky Hugo Chávez seems intent on pressing our disadvantage, that's probably a good thing. Although this administration has been willfully oblivious to its gargantuan federal deficits up to now (what is it about Republican administrations?), Bush has somewhat cynically found religion on the subject recently, declaring his new goal of eliminating those deficits somewhere around the end of his successor's first term. Talk about passing the buck! Then again, if Bush's surge strategy in Iraq creates even the slightest semblance of job-not-too-horrendously-done and allows for our troops' effective withdrawal from combat duty there by January 2009, I doubt we'd hear any complaints from the new resident at 1600.

Bad News: Condoleezza Rice is proving to be an even weaker secretary of state than Colin Powell, although at least she talks out of only one side of her mouth. Then again, since Rice's diplomacy consists solely of delivering White House talking points the world over, that is a mean trick. All dissing aside, the real problem with American diplomacy under Bush (if you can call it diplomacy) is that Dick Cheney has been in charge of it all along, and now that ¸ber-ally Don Rumsfeld is gone at Defense, we won't even see its muscular version (the Bush Doctrine) employed anymore, leaving us with basically no foreign policy whatsoever. The big problem with this state of affairs is that Bush's postpresidency has started earlier in his second term than any leader since Richard Nixon, leaving America's global leadership adrift at a rather fluid moment in history. I'm not just talking the Long War but the other 95 percent of reality that actually makes the world go round. With Tony Blair leaving office in the UK, there's virtually no adult supervision left anywhere, which is sad because, with a global economy humming as nice as this one is, the world could really take advantage of some visionary leadership right now to tackle a host of compelling global challenges like AIDS, global warming, childhood diseases -- you know, the whole Two Bills/Bono agenda!

Wild Card: Bush has said repeatedly that he's on a personal mission to deny Iran nuclear weapons, and Cheney wants nothing more than to go down in history as the man who restored power to the American presidency. Put those two scary dynamics together and you've got the mother of all October surprises come 2008. Washington is naturally all abuzz with this prospect, causing Bush to deny publicly any plans for war. But as we've learned with this administration, it's Deny, deny, deny, and then strike! If and when Bush pulls that trigger, watch the Democratic Congress start impeachment proceedings. That'll make it two-for-two with Boomer presidents, but that only makes sense for a generation who came of age with Watergate.

COMMENTARY TRACK:

Deconstruction: Clearly, I tee off on Rice here, but I honestly think she deserves it. She is the classic example of the Peter Principle whereby people get promoted beyond their skills. As the consummate protégé, she’s just not genetically cut out to be a serious leader and Bush’s second term suffers dramatically as a result (though not Cheney’s ...).

Mark set this one up as the “great ending” prior to the jump page. It’s the climax of the piece, in many ways.

How it holds up: Well, since this one lays out the fear that’s animated my thinking on Bush and Cheney for quite some time now (the planned inevitable strike on Iran somewhere near the end off the second term), there was never any danger of it being up-staged in the meantime, unless you believe those rumors that the Bush White House offered a variety of strike packages to Blair WRT the hostage mini-crisis.

Looking further ahead: I do honestly feel that if people who care about this subject don’t continue to attack this notion, we seriously risk its unfolding. Bush may get nostalgic near the end, but Cheney will not.

 

013 The Rising East: The Degree of Compliance

Good News: The Bush administration has been successful in drawing both Russia and China into multilateral security discussions on Iran and North Korea, and even when both nations routinely water down our proposed responses, they're staying in the conversation, offering their own helpful ideas (like Moscow's proposal to outsource Iran's uranium enrichment) and generally becoming more comfortable coordinating security policies with the West's great powers on issues of shared concern. It may not sound like much, but such routine is what builds up relationships over the long haul. As Washington's relatively successful courtship of rising India has shown, it's the small gestures that matter most, like the United States finally acknowledging New Delhi's standing as a nuclear power. With India and China, we're looking at two big body shops -- as in, million-man-plus armies -- that logically should someday soon be enlisted for long-term cooperative peacekeeping and nation-building efforts in Africa, where both nations currently deploy tens of thousands of nationals in market-making commercial and developmental activities. You want to do stuff on the cheap? Well, you better find cheap labor.

Bad News: Each of the big players suffers from strategic myopia, meaning none are currently capable of punching their weight internationally at America's side. With Russia, it's their obsession with their so-called near abroad (the Caucasus and Central Asia) and Putin's aggressive push to renationalize the commanding heights of Russia's new economy -- namely, the energy sector. The Chinese, despite their ballooning reliance on distant foreign energy sources, still act as though their entire strategic environment boils down to the Taiwan Strait. Ditto for India and Kashmir. South Korea's ready to climb on Oprah's couch over its queer embrace of its long-lost sibling to the north, but don't expect it to climb out of any foxholes anytime soon on our behalf. Toss in glass-jaw Japan and there's not really anybody in the East we can count on in a tight spot.

Wild Card: The truly intriguing wild cards are local disasters that provide the U. S. military the pretext for drawing out these rising states' militaries in cooperative humanitarian responses, the way the 2004 Christmas tsunamis helped the Pentagon reestablish military-to-military ties with Indonesia (as well as triggering the internal solution of Indonesia's Aceh secessionist movement). If there's going to be a global-warming tipping-point disaster, it'll probably unfold in the East Asian littoral.

COMMENTARY TRACK:

Deconstruction: Pretty basic stuff. Just couldn’t do a tour of the world and not address India and Russia on some strategic level.

How it holds up: The “bad news” stuff is my most depressing take on the subject, because -- of course -- I advocate aggressive partnering with these nations. But the truth is, there will be a lot of hand-holding and strategic mentoring between here and getting these new pillars to the altar on such alliances. Each day we see plenty of evidence that all of these players are punching below their weight internationally on military affairs, and yet each sees their global economic profile continue to blossom.

Looking further ahead: We desperately need a visionary on this subject in the White House in 2009. I’d rule out McCain and Edwards and Thompson, but Clinton, Obama, Giuliani and Romney could all make it happen. We have simply got to abandon this Bush habit of casually adding new enemies while adding no new allies.

 

014 The Aging West: The State of Alliance

Good News: Recent elections and those looming on the horizon are not producing a crop of anti-American leaders among our traditional allies, which is extraordinarily generous on their part given the unprecedented anti-Americanism that's pervaded the vast majority of the world across the Bush administration. With France and the UK in transition, Germany's Angela Merkel has emerged as Europe's most powerful female leader since Margaret Thatcher, to whom the "iron Frau" is most commonly compared. Most important for America, Merkel is intent on keeping the transatlantic relationship strong and bolstering the role of NATO as its preeminent security structure. With Shinzo Abe taking the reins in economically resurgent Japan and pushing for expanded ties with NATO, we're seeing the old West as a whole assume a more forward-leaning security posture. Given the UN's enduring weakness, NATO's imprimatur is as close as America can get to approval by the international community for most overseas military interventions, with our Balkan missions serving as the best model to date.

Bad News: Though NATO is in Afghanistan, the many operational limitations imposed by individual members make its employment consistently suboptimal, and it has done little to bolster U. S. troop efforts to tame the Taliban's growing influence in the south. As for Iraq, the Middle East, much like all of Africa, simply remains a bridge too far for this collection of former colonial powers who aren't much interested in any lengthy return engagements (although the French occasionally pop up in Africa now and then). Other than the Brits (who've already opted out of Bush's surge strategy in Iraq), it is hard to imagine NATO countries taking serious numbers of casualties anywhere outside of Europe (okay, the French and Italian effort in south Lebanon has some merit), not with the EU's growing unease over its "absorption capacity" of new eastern members and popular fears of the invasive species known as Homo Islamicus. In a Long War with a high body requirement, it's unrealistic for America to assume that its traditional military allies, all of whom are demographically moribund, will suffice for the quagmire-like interventions that lie ahead.

Wild Card: The globalization wormhole that connects the United Kingdom to Pakistan features substantial two-way traffic whose upshot is a steady stream of radicalized expats landing in British working-class neighborhoods on a daily basis. The West's "stargate" on this, Britain's world-class internal security service, MI5, cannot possibly uncover every plot, so if that lucky strike hits the right target at the right time, our European friends could suddenly veer into a Children of Men-like extreme-lockdown scenario.

COMMENTARY TRACK: 

Deconstruction: My ode to Mark Steyn, God forgive him. 

How it holds up: Since I ask nothing of the Europeans, they cannot disappoint me, now can they?

Still, it’s sad to contemplate less utility over time in this alliance, because so many of these officers are really quite exceptional and can teach us a lot. But maybe that’s the way to look at it: not many bodies but plenty of good mentors.

Looking further ahead: Actually, I take back what I said on Afghanipakistan, because this scenario is the one I truly think is inevitable, despite the new James Bond. 

 

015 All the Rest: Other Complications

Good News: Despite all the ominous news, the developing world is not awash in civil strife. Africa, for example, was suffering from sixteen major civil or cross-border conflicts half a decade ago but endures only a half dozen today. Thanks to the commodities boom, infrastructure development there has shifted from being a supply-push aid effort led by the West to a demand-pull construction effort led by the East. In Latin America, the only serious insurgency still operating is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the dozen recent elections there produced far more market-friendly leaders than Chávez-like populists. East Asia's relatively quiet, with nasty flare-ups in Sri Lanka and East Timor, and the dominant economic trends there continue to be rapid marketization and long-term integration with China, globalization's premier final assembler of manufactured goods. Best of all, the current oil boom has triggered voluminous "east-east" capital flows, whereby Arab energy producers direct their surplus capital to Asia's infrastructure build-out while Asia's high savings rates are beginning to flow into the Gulf's emerging financial hubs, in addition to its energy sector. 

Bad News: The West's stubborn holdout on its agricultural subsidies keeps the WTO's Doha Round from doing what it should to jump-start agricultural markets in developing economies. While China's doing plenty to create infrastructure in many resource-rich states, it's also replicating the profile that European colonial powers once employed: trading low-cost manufactures for even lower-end commodities. Net result? Local producers and small manufacturers tend to be crowded out by China's Wal-Mart-like impact. No wonder rising economic nationalism in Latin America, for example, is increasingly directed at China instead of just the usual culprits in the West.

Wild Card: Anything that torpedoes China's economic juggernaut would have a huge impact throughout the developing world, so probably the nastiest wild card to cue up would be the SARS/avian-flu-after-next that both derails Asian economies while overwhelming the meager public-health capacities of developing economies.

COMMENTARY TRACK:

Deconstruction: Of all the titles, this one I regret the most, because, truth be told, there are very few complications out there.

Actually, come to think of it, this is the one title Warren changed! The original was, “the complicating variance” (to rhyme with “alliance” and “compliance”).

Of all the segments, this is the one I owe the most to Hank in terms of his inputs and guidance.

How it holds up: Just fine. Again, the world’s much quieter and far more peaceful than people realize. In historical terms, we’ve never had it so good. 

Looking further ahead: It’s the most inevitable scenario (something bad this way comes to China’s financial markets), but after the stock bubble burst in the Middle East and Thailand’s currency scare passed with no real after-effect, I’m getting much more optimistic on this score.

 

016 The Wildest Card: 2008

The ancient Greek poet Archilochus said, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Let me submit that we're living through the final months of the hedgehog presidency of one George W. Bush, whose greatest failure has been his lack of strategic imagination.

Now, as the 2008 presidential campaign gears up, let me presume to offer this: avoid hedgehogs. Don't listen to candidates who tell you this whole election boils down to one thing and one thing alone. We need a president with more than one answer to every question, one whose tool kit is as diverse as his -- or her -- ideology is flexible. We need a deal maker, a compromiser, a closer. We need someone able to finish what others cannot and start that which others dare not.

We need a leader who knows many things, because we've had quite enough of those who know only one big thing.

COMMENTARY TRACK: 

Deconstruction: Sharp readers will recognize this as a lift from a column I wrote on Bush months ago. No worries, as I retain copyright. 

Honestly, I threw in these paras to end the piece because I couldn’t think of any better way to terminate the first draft and the Super Bowl kickoff was just minutes away and I figured Mark would toss it and make me write something new.

How it holds up: Mark didn’t toss it because it remains three of the coolest paras I’ve ever written in terms of soaring political prose.

Looking further ahead: So far I’ve mixed it up with representatives/operatives of two Dem candidates (Clinton distantly, Obama once-removed) and two GOP guys (Brownback F2F twice on Iran and a credible candidate to be named later -- after I sit down with him this Friday and give him the full-up brief). This last possibility intrigues me most, because word is, he really loved Pentagon’s New Map.

My wife, as always, worries I’m turning Republican. I keep telling her the Dems won’t have me!

But on some level, I say, “F -- k ‘em all!’ I can’t wait on these people to get elected. With the Bush post-presidency so moribund, I decided to pursue my own personal foreign policy a while back and it’s going great so far.

I suggest you do the same...

 

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