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For Obama’s New Term, Cascading Crises

President Obama has only been reelected for one week, and already the U.S. and the world seem to be hit with a series of cascading crises, real and manufactured: the “fiscal cliff” budget negotiations in Washington; the Petraeus scandal; ongoing controversy over Benghazi; the recognition of the Syrian opposition by France, Turkey, and the Gulf States; signs of revolution in Jordan; unrest across southern Europe regarding austerity; and what looks like will soon be a new land war in Gaza. It’s as if the world held its collective breath until after the American elections, and is now vomiting all its accumulated bile at once.

The “fiscal cliff” is a manufactured problem, in the sense that it can be solved as soon as Obama can agree with Republican members of Congress on a plan to reduce the federal deficit, most likely through a combination of increased revenues (higher tax rates or lower deduction limits for the top 2%), tweaks to Social Security and Medicare, and trimming of domestic programs. Progressives insist there is no reason to cut the deficit for now, and technically they are right, because world markets are eager to buy U.S. Treasuries and fund our further debt. However, there is a limit to what the market will bear, as seen in Greece, Spain, Italy, and even France, which are all being forced into austerity precisely because the markets are unwilling to finance further spending. Nor do we want to end up like Japan, which has no problem with the markets but has carried debt equal to 200% of GDP for the better part of tweo decades, putting a brake on its economy. Careful debt trimming doesn’t seem like a bad idea to me, as a cautionary measure for the future. The trick will be to make most of the burden fall on the wealthy who have benefitted enormously over the past ten years, and are still benefiting despite the crisis, while preserving support for working families and small businesses that are essential to our fragile recovery. I have hope that common sense will prevail, and a reasonable compromise will be found over the coming weeks.

The Petraeus scandal — in which CIA director David Petraeus was caught in an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, when Broadwell sent threatening emails to another woman, Jill Kelley, whom she saw as a rival — provides a fascinating glimpse into how politics at the top level in Washington is deeply personal. Critics of the CIA-run drone warfare program, and the related militarization of the CIA, have rightly questioned why these aren’t the real scandal, rather than a personal dalliance that should have concerned no one but the parties involved. True, but people forget that for better or worse, Washington is a tightly knit social circle of highly ambitious people drawn by the taste of power. With elected officials, political appointees, military officers, lobbyists, and pundits switching roles as they climb the ladder of influence, there is much opportunity for intrigue, and personal relations do affect policy. Some people have asked whether Petraeus really had to resign, but he was the CIA director, and he exposed himself to the possibility of blackmail and manipulation — either from Broadwell herself if she turned vengeful, or from some interested third party who found out. Moreover, and most important in my mind, it seems that he didn’t report the situation to his boss, the Director of National Intelligence, as soon as he realized he was in hot water. Even after being interviewed by the FBI, he apparently said nothing, as if hoping to keep it to himself until it blew over. If I were his boss, James R. Clapper, the first thing I would have asked him after learning what happened is, “Why am I hearing this from the FBI and not from you?” Petraeus showed every sign of putting personal interest above the interests of the institution he was serving, and this would be a firing offense in any company.

The question of what happened in Benghazi seems to be one of those controversies that is ginned up for political advantage. Dark motives are being attributed to the Obama administration for initially blaming the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others on an angry mob gone out of control, rather than a preplanned attack by an extremist militia. The idea is that the Obama administration ignores terrorist threats or is perhaps even an enabler of them, and is now engaged in a coverup of that fact. This ignores that Ambassador Stevens himself was the person most responsible for assessing his embassy’s security needs, and he chose to take risks so he could meet with local leaders in their own homes, something that won him respect and admiration. Bssides, whether the attack was preplanned or not seems like a matter of semantics, since the Ansar al-Sharia militia was based nearby and its potential for violence was well known. Did they have the September 11 date in mind all along, or did they seize the opportunity of a mob that had gathered to protest the anti-Mohammed film? These are the kinds of details it is impossible to judge without careful investigation — and faced with the need to inform the American public, the administration went with the information it had in the first days after the attack. Those trying to turn this into a scandal seem to have the impression that the administration deliberately leaves its embassies unprotected because of “sensitivities in the region.” This is absurd because the last person interested in risking Stevens’ life was Obama himself, who had chosen this man for the post above all others because of his unique understanding of Libya and his communicative gifts.

Turning from Washington scandals to world affairs, the U.S. has finally succeeded, working behind the scenes with Qatar, France, Turkey, and its other allies in the region, to cajole the Syrian opposition into forming a unified coalition with a reasonable claim to international recognition and support. France has already granted recognition to the Syrian National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people, and it is poised to send them arms and other material aid. Turkey and six Gulf States have also extended recognition. While the U.S. is awaiting further proofs of the group’s legitimacy before going as far as Turkey or France, they are clearly pleased at this latest step, which Hillary Clinton called for a month ago. (When Hillary speaks, the world responds!) I suspect that the next move will be to help the SNC to establish a provisional government within Syria, perhaps with the aid of “humanitarian corridors” to ensure a flow of supplies, from which they will be able to call on the world to protect them against Assad’s aerial attacks. This will lead to either the declaration of a “no-fly zone” and an endgame similar to Libya, or if the Russians resist this, then pressure on the Russians to wash their hands of Assad and ensure a negotiated solution. In either case, NATO, the Arab League, and the U.S. are coming out of the closet in their direct backing of the Syrian opposition — and with that coalition behind them, it will be only a matter of time before the uprising succeeds.

This may seem like smart maneuvering by the Americans, or at least effective management of a situation they neither initiated nor control, but developments in neighboring Jordan cut against American interests in the short term. How many destabilized countries can the Middle East afford at once? Iraq has never returned to a stabilty after it was invaded by George W. Bush; tensions are rising in Lebanon as its many factions take sides in the Syrian confilct; and Egypt’s path to stability remains precarious a year and a half after the fall of Mubarak. Now Jordan, a U.S. ally and one of two Arab nations (along with Egypt) to have a peace treaty with Israel, has experienced three straight days of protests and rioting, aimed not at the puppet government but directly at the king. The trigger for the protests was a rise in the price of gasoline and bottled gas, due to the reduction of subsidies as part of economic reform efforts. Reports state that those protesting aren’t so much members of the organized opposition, but rather the underclass that knows little of politics, but regards their economic future with increasing desperation. Elections are coming soon that the opposition is likely to win, but recent constitutional reforms still leave King Abdullah with near-absolute power. He has already changed prime ministers four times in the past year, leaving himself isolated, with no positive effect on the lives of the people. This is an explosive situation that will be tricky to manage, should a longstanding U.S. ally fall to a popular uprising before the situation is resolved in Syria in favor of the NATO/Gulf alliance.

In Europe, the rolling austerity crisis trundles on with no end in sight. The EU as a whole just went officially into recession, meaning that it has known two consecutive quarters of economic contraction. The Greek parliament passed yet another round of severe austerity measures, guaranteeing the next installment of EU bailout aid, as violent protests occurred outside. Meanwhile, Spain and Portugal underwent a day of general strikes, as labor movements in Italy and elsewhere protested in solidarity. It’s possible that at some point a tipping point will be reached, and the people of southern Europe will decide that the price of economic unity with the more prosperous north is one they are no longer willing to pay. However, until now the politicians have been able to bring the people along with them, almost despite themselves, because everyone knows that the cost of a Euro breakup would be worse than the pain of gritting their teeth, for now, and enduring the attempts to fix the system. My sense is that eventually the crisis will burn itself out and stability will return, at the cost of several years or even a decade of lost economic potential for Europe. The alternative is a direct challenge to the global capitalist order itself. That could be interesting, but it’s not on the horizon for now.

And finally, on top of all that, things are heating up again in Gaza. You will recall that the last time Israel staged a ground invasion there, the result was hundreds of civilians dead (along with a large number of militants), leading to the Goldstone Report accusing Israel of war crimes, and the embarassing American veto of that report at the UN. Now, Israel is poised to do it again — they say they will invade Gaza and personally target any Hamas leader who dares to show his face. Apparently there have been an unusual number of missles landing in Israeli territory lately, and Israel has decided it is time to practice its favorite sport, aggressive deterrence. The first step was the assassination by missile of Ahmed al-Jabari, described in the Western press as Hamas’ top military leader. This was followed by a series of air strikes on missile launching sites in Gaza, and the ground invasion is now days, if not hours, away. President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt, whose Muslim Brotherhood faction shares ideological roots with Hamas, addressed the nation to say, “The Israelis must understand that we do not accept this aggression.” He also recalled his ambassador to Israel, and called on President Obama and the UN to intervene. He later went to Gaza himself on a solidarity visit, perhaps forcing the Israelis to put off their invasion for a day or two. Past experience shows that once the Israelis have made up their minds to do something, no outside pressure will deter them until they themselves decide they are finished. So we are likely to see a week or two of carnage in Gaza, adding yet one more match to the tinderbox in a region where flames are already bursting out all over.

Welcome to your second term, President Obama, and best of luck!