The List

Over the Horizon

Five unlikely but extremely destabilizing global crises that Obama must prepare for now.

U.S. President Barack Obama begins his second term at a critical moment in world affairs -- al Qaeda raising its head in North Africa, President Bashar al-Assad possibly preparing to use chemical weapons in Syria, Iran moving toward the nuclear weapons threshold, and tensions rising in Asia. An unstable world promises to present the president with many challenges in the next four years, and his advisors are already grappling with how to confront them.

Some looming challenges -- like the America's debt or China's rise -- have been the focus of a good deal of attention. However, low-probability but high-impact "black-swan" events could also define Obama's second term, diverting the president from his intended foreign-policy agenda. These events would be so catastrophic that he needs to take steps now to minimize the risk that they might occur.

Here are some of the black swans that could upend the Obama administration's agenda over the next four years:

Confrontation over Korea

There is a serious risk of an acute U.S.-China confrontation over -- or even a direct military conflict on -- the Korean Peninsula. The North Korean regime is facing an existential internal crisis. Under such conditions, it is prone to lashing out at neighboring states or engaging in other forms of risky behavior. Although it seems strong, it is also dependent on China's support and vulnerable to quick-onset instability. If Washington and Beijing fail to coordinate and communicate before a collapse begins, we could face the possibility of a U.S.-China confrontation of almost unimaginable consequences.

The Obama administration has sought to sharpen Pyongyang's choices, pushing it to recognize that it can't have nuclear weapons and genuine national strength. To reduce the risks of a confrontation with China over the possibility of a North Korean collapse, the administration should pursue four objectives with Beijing. The countries should disclose information on the location, operation, and capabilities of each other's military forces that could soon intervene in North Korea; share intelligence on the known or suspected location of North Korea's weapons-of-mass-destruction assets; initiate planning for the evacuation of foreign citizens in South Korea; and discuss possible measures to avoid an acute humanitarian disaster among North Korean citizens seeking to flee.

PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images

Chaos in Kabul

As the 2014 transition to a radically diminished U.S. presence in Afghanistan approaches, the United States will leave behind a perilous security situation, a political system few Afghans see as legitimate, and a likely severe economic downturn. Obama has not yet specified how many U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after the transition, but he has made it very clear -- including during the recent visit by President Hamid Karzai -- that troop levels will be in the low thousands and that their functions will be restricted to very narrow counterterrorism and training missions. He also conditioned any continuing U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan on the signing of a status of forces agreement that grants immunity to U.S. soldiers, a condition that the Afghan government may find difficult to swallow. 

Although a massive security deterioration, including the possibility of civil war, is far from inevitable, it is a real possibility. Such a meltdown would leave the administration with few policy options, severely compromising America's ability to protect its interests in the region.

A major security collapse in Afghanistan would, in all likelihood, initially resemble the early 1990s pattern of infighting between ethnic groups and local power brokers, rather than the late 1990s, when a Taliban line of control moved steadily north. The extent of violence and fragmentation would depend on whether the Afghan army and police force splintered. 

Even then, the Afghan government may have enough strength to hold Kabul, major cities, and other parts of Afghanistan. The Taliban would easily control parts of the south and east, while fighting could break out elsewhere among members of a resurrected Northern Alliance or among Durrani Pashtun power brokers. But ethnic fighting could eventually explode even on the streets of Kabul, where Pashtuns harbor resentments about the post-2001 influx of Tajiks that changed land distribution in the capital. In the event of massive instability, a military coup is also a possibility, particularly if the 2014 presidential election is seen as illegitimate.

An unstable Afghanistan will be like an ulcer bleeding into Pakistan. It will further distract Pakistan's leaders from tackling their country's internal security, economic, energy, and social crises, and stemming the radicalization of Pakistani society. These trends, needless to say, will adversely affect U.S. interests. 

Even though U.S. leverage in Afghanistan diminishes daily, decisions made in Washington still critically affect Afghanistan's future. The Obama administration can mitigate risks by withdrawing at a judicious pace -- one that doesn't put an unbearable strain on Afghanistan's security capacity. It should also continue to provide security assistance, define negotiations with the Taliban and Afghan government as a broader reconciliation process, and encourage good governance.

Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

Camp David Collapse

Since the collapse of Hosni Mubarak's regime in Egypt, the United States has been resolutely focused on maintaining the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, which serves as a cornerstone of stability for the region, an anchor for U.S. influence in the Middle East, and a building block for efforts at Arab-Israeli coexistence. Happily, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy has signaled his willingness to set aside the Muslim Brotherhood's ideological opposition and most Egyptians' hostility to Israel. Several factors, however, could still destabilize the situation, including terrorist attacks in Sinai or from Gaza, the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, and populist demands to break relations with Israel. 

If Morsy were to ditch this peace treaty, it would represent a profound strategic defeat for the United States in the Middle East and could threaten a regional war. The United States should continue its policy of conditional engagement with Morsy's government and, in particular, deepen its security cooperation and coordination. It should also develop a new modus vivendi with Egyptian and Israeli partners through cooperation over common concerns in Sinai and Gaza that would advance the sustainability of the peace treaty.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Revolution in China 

While China continues on its path of growth and seeming political confidence, a number of problems lie beneath the surface of its apparent success. A sense of political uncertainty -- as well as a fear of sociopolitical instability -- is on the rise. Many in the country worry about environmental degradation, health hazards, and all manner of public safety problems. These pitfalls could trigger any number of major crises: slowed economic growth, widespread social unrest, vicious political infighting among the elite, rampant official corruption, and heightened Chinese nationalism in the wake of territorial disputes. In this rapidly modernizing but still oligarchic one-party state, it is not hard to see how such a crisis could take the form of a domestic revolution or foreign war.

Either event would be very disruptive, severely impairing global economic development and regional security in the Asia-Pacific. A combination of the two would constitute one of the most complicated foreign-policy problems of the president's second term. A domestic revolution and a foreign war would certainly be the defining events of our time. The latter could potentially risk leading the United States into military conflict in Asia.

The best way to prepare for either likelihood is for the White House to achieve a delicate balancing act -- cultivating a deeper relationship with Xi Jinping and his new leadership team on the one hand, and reaching out directly to the Chinese people on the other. The United States should more explicitly articulate to leaders in Beijing and the Chinese public the long-standing goodwill that the United States has toward China and America's firm commitment to democracy, human rights, media freedom, and the rule of law.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

The Big Thaw

Global warming is happening faster than predicted by scientists. Temperatures are rising, ice caps and glaciers are melting, and extreme weather is more frequent and intense than ever before in recent history. If these trends continue, the results will be monumental and far-reaching. But it could get even worse: If warming accelerates dramatically and if polar ice melts even faster -- particularly if the Greenland ice sheet or the West Antarctic ice sheet melts -- the results could be catastrophic.

Some scientists have suggested that the melting of polar ice has not previously proceeded in a smooth and linear process, but rather had "sensitive tipping points." Although unlikely, this raises the possibility of a black-swan nightmare in which rises in sea level coupled with extreme weather events threaten some of the world's major cities. It's not difficult to imagine another superstorm like Hurricane Sandy during Obama's second term, but perhaps we should be thinking -- and planning -- for a year in which we suffer through a dozen Sandys.

A significant rise in sea levels throughout the world would have a particularly devastating impact on concentrated populations living in low-lying coastal areas. The local economy, politics, and security in these regions would all be transformed, but perhaps the biggest impact would be climate-induced migration and displacement. The United States can help mitigate these risks by giving climate change a higher priority in international and domestic policymaking -- leading new multilateral initiatives and increasing mitigation and adaptation. 

Obama needs to keep his word and move climate change higher on his political agenda. In 2009, he pledged to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 to a level 17 percent lower than that in 2005 -- but no legislation, executive order, regulation, or published plan currently exists to translate this promise into action.

* * * 

All these black swans may seem to be leading the world into an era of greater violence and instability. But as Obama enters his second term, this time of uncertainty and instability is actually a moment of opportunity for the president. The world currently faces a "plastic juncture" -- a moment when the United States has a chance to remold the international system into something better. Obama has a unique opportunity to strengthen and extend the liberal world order from which Americans and so many others around the world have benefited.

To create a more secure and prosperous world, Obama will need to place a series of "big bets" -- investing his power, time, and prestige in major efforts that can have a transformational impact on America and the world, as well as on his legacy. But he will always need his radar tuned to those untoward events that could disrupt his best-laid plans.

TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Image

The List

6 Things You Need to Know About Denis McDonough

Get up to speed on the man most likely to be the next White House chief of staff.

Though he has mostly focused on domestic issues in laying out his second term agenda, U.S. President Barack Obama appears likely to dip into his foreign-policy team in appointing his next chief of staff -- the White House official responsible for making the trains run on time. The latest reports indicate he's leaning toward Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough.

It would be a major promotion: The chief of staff acts as both a key advisor and the staffer with the most influence in carrying out the president's agenda. The post has also frequently been a stepping-stone to cabinet-level -- or higher -- positions for such notables as Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney (under President Gerald Ford) James Baker (Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush) and Leon Panetta (Bill Clinton).

But McDonough, though a ubiquitous presence in the White House and consummate Washington insider, doesn't have much of a public profile. Here are some key facts to know about Obama's new right-hand man.

1.  He's Washington to the bone

The former college football star from the small town of Stillwater, Minnesota arrived in the nation's capital in the mid-1990s to attend a master's program at Georgetown University. He was mentored early in his career by CIA legend Cleveland Cram -- a fellow St. John's University alumnus who was by then the agency's in-house historian. Getting his foot in the door on Capitol Hill as an intern for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, McDonough rose quickly, serving as committee staffer, advisor to committee chair Lee Hamilton, and then foreign-policy aide to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

It was McDonough who called then junior White House staffers John Yoo and Alberto Gonzales on the night of Sept. 11 to ask what the Senate could do to help -- a process that led to the "Authorization for the Use of Force Against Terrorists," which gave the George W. Bush administration the legal power to launch the war in Afghanistan. He was also Daschle's point man on discussions over the subsequent authorization of force in Iraq. (McDonough would tell journalist James Mann years later that Congress shouldn't have been so quick to agree to the White House's demands.)

After Daschle was defeated in 2005, McDonough worked for a short time for senator -- and future interior secretary -- Ken Salazar, then moved to the Center for American Progress, where he was a senior fellow focusing on foreign policy.

2.  He's one of the campaign guys

McDonough, 43, is a textbook example of an "Obamian," Mann's term for the young aides who joined the administration straight from the campaign trail and whose worldview had been shaped more by the post-9/11 years than by the Vietnam war. McDonough was recommended to Obama by their old boss Daschle, one of the earliest prominent Democrats to support the campaign, and worked under Mark Lippert, Obama's main foreign-policy aide and a fellow former Daschle staffer. (According to journalist Bob Woodward, Obama referred to his two main foreign policy advisors as "Thing one" and "Thing two" -- a Dr. Seuss reference.) In the summer of 2007, when Lippert, a Navy reservist, was called up to active duty, McDonough took his place as Obama's main day-to-day advisor on foreign affairs.

McDonough had first joined the administration as head of strategic communications for the National Security Council (NSC). He again took Lippert's place as the NSC's chief of staff in 2009 when Lippert again returned to the Navy, and was named deputy national security advisor in 2010.

According to Woodward, McDonough -- along with Lippert and speechwriter Ben Rhodes -- has been a key member of the campaign "tribe" within Obama's team, competing with the "Hillary tribe" at the State Department and the "Chicago tribe" centered around political advisor David Axelrod. Mann writes that "McDonough, Lippert and Rhodes worked so closely with Obama on foreign policy issues that they almost seemed like a single entity." The White House's top Afghanistan advisor, retired Gen. Douglas Lute, dubbed them less generously "the insurgency."

3.  He's Obama's enforcer

According to numerous accounts, when staffers receive a directive from McDonough, they can generally assume it's coming directly from the president. According to the  Helene Cooper of the New York Times, "When it comes to national security, Mr. Obama's inner circle is so tight it largely consists of Mr. McDonough." This has sometimes rubbed other staffers the wrong way, particularly Jones, who as national security advisor technically outranked McDonough but, according to Woodward's account, never enjoyed the easy rapport or access to the president of his young deputy. According to Mann's book, McDonough was -- for the most part -- the only White House staffer kept fully in the loop during the preparations for the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound.

McDonough's duties have often included calling in senior officials for a dressing down when they go off message. Senior figures including Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal and the late Afghan envoy Richard Holbrooke have reportedly been on the receiving end of McDonough's broadsides.

4.  He keeps a low profile

Though he's a near-ubiquitous presence in high-profile national security meetings and seems to be constantly at the president's side, it can be difficult to pin down McDonough's worldview or the exact nature of his responsibilities -- which clearly go beyond the official mandate of his job -- as he rarely talks about himself, preferring to keep the spotlight on his boss. After Cooper's profile -- for which he declined to comment -- appeared in the Times in 2010, Slate's Jack Shafer took the paper to task for providing little new information about him.

McDonough's low profile might seem odd considering the frequency with which he talks to the press. Cooper's profile describes him haranguing a reporter all the way home from the White House to Takoma Park, a neighborhood on Washington's northeastern border, on his bicycle. As Mann puts it, McDonough "rarely said or did anything without the president's approval." Comparing his style with that of the outspoken, self-promoting Holbrooke, Mann writes that "nether was modest about calling reporters to try to shape a story in advance or to complain about something after it appeared. But the similarities stopped there. Holbrooke called the press on matters involving himself or his own causes; McDonough was a staff man who pushed, equally aggressively, on behalf of his boss."

5.  He's a realist

To the extent that we know anything about McDonough's views, he seems to be more in the realist camp. According to Mann's account, while Rhodes tended to argue that the United States should be providing more support for democratic movements abroad during the 2009 Iranian uprising and the Arab Spring, McDonough tended to be more cautious, siding with realists like future CIA Director nominee John Brennan and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon over interventionists like Susan Rice and Samantha Power. It was McDonough who cited former George H.W. Bush advisor Brent Scowcroft as a model for the Obama administration's foreign policy in 2010.

When asked why the administration had intervened in to topple a dictatorship in Libya as opposed to Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria in March 2011, McDonough said, "We don't make decisions about questions like intervention based on consistency or precedent. We make them based on how we can best advance our interests in the region" -- a response that could be viewed as either textbook realism or a cynical excuse for inconsistency.

6.  He's not a Middle East guy

Given the national security debates of the 2012 election and the controversies that have emerged over the nominations of Chuck Hagel and John Brennan, one might get the impression U.S. foreign-policy is focused solely on the Middle East. McDonough's portfolio is a bit more varied. He was something of a generalist during his time as a fellow at CAP, for instance, writing about issues ranging from congressional oversight of the intelligence services to immigration to green energy and China.

His original interest was in Latin America, dating back to his college days when his favorite teacher was a Spanish professor and Borges scholar. He traveled widely in Latin America after college and taught for a while in Belize. As a House Foreign Relations Committee staffer, he handled the Latin America portfolio. Years later, he would be dispatched to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, where he reportedly played a critical role in pressuring Florida officials to resume medical evacuation flights.

McDonough was also an early and enthusiastic proponent of Obama's Asia "pivot," telling Mann, "We are reorienting our focus to Asia" nearly a year before Clinton officially announced the policy in an article for Foreign Policy.

But overall, McDonough seems to have been more enforcer than advisor, and his role in the second term is likely to be more about carrying out the president's policies than shaping them.

J. Dana Stuster contributed research to this article.

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