Reasons to Be Thankful

Bubba, the fiscal swamp, after Gaza... the list goes on and on. 

Fiscal cliff? What fiscal cliff? Congress has taken the week off for Thanksgiving.  Middle East calamity? What Middle East calamity? The president is traipsing around Southeast Asia in a number of countries that haven't been urgently important to the United States since the 1970s.

To read the newspaper, you might conclude our leaders in Washington have their priorities all wrong. But then comes the news that, according to Jill Kelley,  America's most influential real housewife of Tampa Bay, both our CIA director and the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan took time out of their busy schedules to seek her help stopping the threat posed by Bubba the Love Sponge.

Mr. Love Sponge, for those of you who have missed this glittering chapter in America's national security history, had announced earlier this year that it was his intention to deep fry a copy of the Quran in animal fats. Apparently, according to the estimable Ms. Kelley, whose three visits to the White House last year almost certainly rank her ahead of many members of Congress or ex-presidents, the potential consequences of the repulsive shock jock's bit of performance diplomacy would have been devastating for America's standing in the Middle East. (While that is certainly true, you can't help but wonder whether policies our leaders apparently are more comfortable with, like invading people's countries, blowing up their villages, and killing their friends and family might be even more inflammatory.)

Fortunately for America, we have the honorary consul from South Korea, Miss Inviolability herself, Jill Kelley, just one touch of a speed dial button away from our national security brain's trust. Generals Petraeus and Allen were able to reach out to her, as they had done in the past when other Floridian nitwits had threatened harm to the Quran. She called the mayor of Tampa, to whom she asserted she was acting on behalf of the generals, and sought his assistance bringing the hammer of justice or at least good taste down on the Love Sponge, a man who until recently had been Tampa's most best-known resident and cultural leader.

As an aside, prior to this bizarro incident in America's War on Terror, Bubba had most recently made his way into the headlines when it was discovered that his then wife was the sex-tape partner of aging, former wrestler and reality show star Hulk Hogan. Thus it came to pass that the CIA sex scandal and the Hulk Hogan sex scandal somehow merged into one, both part of the seemingly permanent oil slick of sleaze that now floats on the surface of American society.

Do not despair, however. It is no accident that this vignette has drifted into view on the eve of Thanksgiving. It allows us to be thankful for our vigilant public officials and for public- service minded citizens like Mrs. Kelley, who are there to protect us from the blowback caused by the stupid publicity stunts of third-rate radio personalities. It also allows us to be thankful that Florida exists because if it did not, incidents like this might happen just anywhere at all and get in the way of the serious business of this country. It is also deeply funny -- the kind of thing God cooks up to put comedy writers in their place, reminding them that there is no one more hilarious than Him when He puts his mind to it.

That said, we have much more to be thankful for. Families, top the list of course.  And friends. And good health, if we are fortunate enough to have it. But we can add two other things to the list.

The first has to do with the fiscal cliff. Most of the time, if Congress is not doing anything, you can assume it is because our revered lawmakers are trying to do something but failing. In this particular case, I think Congress has felt comfortable going home for Thanksgiving because they know that they can work a deal to avoid hammering the economy by going over the fiscal cliff. They can make a few minor concessions and then do what they do best and punt the big issues to a distant future that seems impossible for them to imagine (which is anything beyond a couple weeks). They know that even if they were stymied and the market tanked, they could cut a deal the next day. And they will. We won't fix anything material this time around. But we also won't go over the fiscal cliff. Rather, by punting we will do something worse: sink further and further into a fiscal swamp that will get us not in one instant, but slowly and inexorably.

OK, maybe that's not something we can be unequivocally thankful for, so let me attempt to conclude on a more upbeat note by saying that the president's decision to continue on to Asia in the midst of a war in Gaza is encouraging on several levels. First, it shows the president is confident he and his team can manage the U.S. role in this conflict from wherever they are, as any modern administration should. Second, it sends an important message that the president is still committed to focusing on the big issues of the future rather than those of the past. Finally, it shows that the White House understands that Gaza is a short-term initiative by the Israelis. They felt, after absorbing far more rocket blows than any other nation would have, that action was required. The Israelis know that to be successful, efforts of this sort must be measured in days, not weeks or months.

Gaza will soon be over, and we will all be thankful for that. But the longer-term question will be whether Israeli leaders understands how the situation around them is shifting, and along with it America's attentions and needs. If they do-and it is likely take a future government to accept this-then they will realize that the United States is no longer the country most important to their future. Nor is it a changing, undependable Egypt. Nor is it a fragile Jordan. The country most important to the future of Israel is Palestine. Unless it emerges secure and economically viable, Israel will never know true security. That means building, not bombing their neighbor-the one path toward giving all the peoples of that battered corner of the world what they would most like to be thankful for: real peace.

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David Rothkopf

12 Catastrophes the Next President Must Avoid

We've heard plenty about what the candidates want to do in office, but the future will be determined by what Tuesday's winner doesn't do.

The more I come to understand about political leadership, the more I realize that some of the greatest achievements of America's best leaders didn't make the headlines and seldom show up in history books.  They were the things those leaders did not do, the paths they did not take, the wars they did not fight, the disasters they avoided.

Recently, Evan Thomas reminded us of one of the best examples of such leadership in Ike's Bluff, his excellent new biography of Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower, demeaned by John F. Kennedy as a dull paper-pusher of a president, masterfully resisted the pressure from within his own party to dangerously confront the Soviets.  He avoided a cataclysmic war by overseeing a process that allowed Washington leaders to come to understand that there was a better path by which we could contain the Soviets, through strength combined with forbearance, and allow the weakness of their system to undermine them over time. 

Other presidents have similarly succeeded by avoidance. George H.W.  Bush, to cite another example, deserves great credit for ensuring that when the Soviet empire did fall, as Eisenhower had much earlier worked to make happen, the transitions in Eastern Europe were peaceful.  Where there could have been chaos Bush reached out to other world leaders and produced an orderly handover of power. He also waged a war against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait in which he made the wise decision not to continue on to Baghdad, avoiding a messy conflagration like that which would later consume his son's presidency.   

Both Eisenhower and Bush paid a price for their successes. Eisenhower's image was for decades shaped by the Kennedy caricature of him, and it is only now that he is rightfully gaining recognition as being among the best presidents of the last century.  Bush did not win a second term as president in part because his accomplishments were too subtle to resonate with the public during the 1992 campaign. 

We get a distorted view of real leadership when we discount sometimes hard to see accomplishments that come from presidents with vision, restraint, and a knack for behind-the-scenes deftness. This struck me again last week when President Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie toured the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy. They were hailed as leaders for their very public reaction to a crisis when in fact, real leadership would have involved avoiding the crisis in the first place -- or reducing its consequences, as we might have done had Obama, Christie, and other officials taken warnings about the consequences of climate change, severe weather, and deteriorating infrastructure more seriously.  Indeed, just exercising enough prudence to take the measures that many urban planners around the world already do in areas threatened by such severe storms (regardless of their views about why such storms are now occurring with greater regularity) would have made the consequences of Sandy less grievous.

With Sandy fresh in our minds and Americans headed to the polls, it is worth looking ahead to consider what other avoidable catastrophes might be better measures of the next administration than stories the evening news can more easily point a camera at each night. Here are a dozen:

1. War with Iran -- and a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East

The easiest war to avoid may be the one everyone sees coming. But in the case of conflict with Iran, it will not be so simple. In the first instance, to stop Iranian weapons development will require a more credible threat of military action from powers capable of derailing the program than currently exists.  Next, while there are sensible arguments that suggest Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons is not only unavoidable but may not be disastrous given our deterrent capacity, the bigger risk is not from Iran but from a world in which Iran's rivals across the Persian Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia, to others in the region and emerging powers elsewhere around the world enter a nuclear arms race. Such a race would both geometrically increase the likelihood such weapons might be used but it would also sap precious resources from struggling economies that would better spend them elsewhere. It will take toughness with Iran and a recommitment to a new, more effective global nonproliferation regime as a top priority to avoid all those traps. 

2. Regional Conflagration in the Middle East

The Greater Middle East has not been more dangerous since the darkest days of the Cold War. Today instability from Tunisia to Pakistan means there's a real possibility of crises spreading rapidly -- and connecting up with each other. Syria, already now a proxy conflict between Iran on the one side and various Gulf states on the other, is one such example. But imagine the consequences of a collapsing regime in Jordan or, even more likely, of what the coming reckoning in a fractured Iraq will look like. The next U.S. administration will be tempted to lean back and indeed, must embrace solutions led by regional actors more than ever before. But as with Iran, it will take vastly more effective use of formal and informal global mechanisms to keep a lid on this region.

3. Escalating U.S. Involvement in an Unraveling Africa

Africa is the new Middle East. It is rich with resources, unstable, and targeted by insurgents, extremists, and major powers for both these reasons. Civil wars, corruption, historic instability, Islamic extremists, humanitarian crises, more active U.S. and European military presences, and rising stakes for China and other emerging powers have created a volatile situation that could gradually escalate into the world's newest quagmire.  Will the next U.S. president be sucked into the trap of incremental escalation like the that led to the Vietnam War?

4. The Next 9/11

Among those who have done the most with the least credit are those up and down the U.S. chain of command who have forestalled terror attacks. Since 9/11, the record of protecting the homeland and Americans around the world has been admirable. But the next president will have to do that, and then some: by avoiding another 9/11, I mean something more than confounding the plots of terrorists. I mean avoiding events that suck America into the orgy of political hysteria, government spending, and violating our own most cherished principles that marked our "war on terror." It is not enough simply to neutralize terrorists. We need to ensure that we regain the perspective that allows us to respond to threats proportionally and in ways that do not damage our standing in the world or ability to lead.  (Note: Waves of drone attacks, cyber incursions, and special ops only meet the first half of this guideline.)

5. A Trade War with China

With sluggish economies in the United States and China and both countries engaging in artificial devaluation of their currencies, it's easy to imagine scenarios that lead to conflict as blame-shifting escalates and populist impulses rule. That's especially the case given that China through subsidies and other unfair practices has yet to start playing by the international trade rules it accepted over a decade ago. But confrontation could easily get out of hand, threaten China's new leadership, and deteriorate into a real trade war.  Not only is this economically unhealthy for the world's two largest (and very interdependent) economies but it would be diplomatically devastating since many of the biggest problems require a kind of cooperation between the two sides we have seldom seen before.

6. A U.S. Fiscal Catastrophe

The "fiscal cliff" is only the first among many huge challenges associated with getting America's financial house in order. Failing to address these could further undercut America's credit rating, our ability to invest in our future or protect ourselves, and even lead to default. Neither the world economy nor our own can withstand more of the kind of brinksmanship and denial practiced by Washington in the past decade. Tax increases and spending cuts in programs beloved by both political parties in America are absolutely essential to beginning a trajectory of improvement in this critical area.

7. A Japan-Style American Stagnation

Austerity alone will not, however, do the trick. America is at a moment of huge opportunity. Of the world's developed economies, we are the one showing the most resilience.  We are home to a potential bonanza associated with new energy resources and we can borrow to invest in much needed infrastructure upgrades at very low cost (provided we do so wisely). We can make our educational system more effective at training the workers of tomorrow.  But this requires more than just speeches and modest gestures.  We must make growth a priority and yet do so in ways-such as removing regulatory obstacles, shifting from defense spending to investment spending at home, embracing foreign investment-that avoids the kind of multi-decade downturn that has straightjacketed Japan since the 1990s.

8. Economic Shocks from the Eurozone

While Europe made some progress in recent months toward calming market unease, austerity measures are likely to produce political pushback of a potentially extreme nature in the next couple of years. What's more, global shocks from other international crises, whether a war in Iran or an escalating Middle East conflict, could make the bad situation in Europe worse and compound any geopolitical misfortune with nasty economic consequences.  Such political reversals could also renew discussion of breaking up the European Union (which may or may not be a bad thing) and make markets very skittish again (which would be).  The United States will have to find a way to remain actively engaged but this may become even more challenging as some of the promising "fixes" of 2012 turn into the setbacks of 2013 and beyond.

9.  Shocks From a Warming Climate

It may be too late. We may not be able to reverse the changes to our environment that are making severe storms more common, melting our ice caps, and producing record high temperatures. If that's true, then we face a choice: reactive or proactive adaptation. Right now, we merely react, responding to disasters. But we could strengthen our sea walls, improve our electricity grids, rebuild ports and bridges and roadways. Of course, this should not supplant efforts to rein in carbon emissions-and we should embrace the fact that shifting from coal to gas power will help spur the American domestic energy revolution and create jobs and growth at home.  But the bigger point is that great leaders will be measured by how few tragic photo ops their successors feel obligated to stage in the wake of crises.

10. The Next Financial Market Crisis

Here's the bad news: Global markets are rife with more risks today than they were in 2008. There are more too-big-to-fail banks. There are larger and more complex and opaque oceans of derivatives churning. There is still no global regulation. There are still major markets containing big bubbles from Chinese real estate to the price of gold worldwide. In short, there is still the potential for such a massive meltdown that it could make the crisis that ushered in the Obama era look like mere prelude. It is time to get much more serious about U.S. and international oversight and enforcement, investing in the tools and people needed to identify and avoid future upsets.

11. 1960s-Style Social Unrest

It seems a long shot. And indeed, social crisis from the Middle East to China to an increasingly nationalistic and xenophobic Europe is more likely. But American leaders must focus on what they can control. And if inequality continues to grow in the United States; if our underclass, with its skyrocketing high school dropout rates, continues to fall faster and faster behind; if fiscal austerity forces us to shrink social programs and shrinking tax bases crush the ability of cities to tackle their problems (or pay their pensions), America may see unrest evoking that of the 1960s...or worse. We run a great risk if we view what is happening in this country merely as a cyclical slowdown. Any society that pushes the rich and poor farther and farther apart is broken. And we need to address the problem just as we did the racial divides that haunted us in the ‘60s-as a matter of grave national urgency.

12. An Era of Permanent War

Cyberwar is often called "white collar conflict." This is both a blessing and a curse. It is stealthy and may cause less loss of life than traditional armed conflicts. But this makes it more tempting to engage in. And a world in which nations constantly probe and injure one another from afar could turn out to be vastly more dangerous in the long run. Cyberattacks will produce damage that demands retribution. Trust and stability will be undermined. And societies will reel not just from attacks that target infrastructure or markets but also from the civil liberties likely to be constrained in an effort to reduce the likelihood of future intrusions. The next American administration needs to be careful that it does not see such attacks-or the other "limited footprint" tools of war, from drones to special operations-as so "low risk" that it over-utilizes them. Otherwise, we'll be creating more risks than we alleviate.

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images