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Obama and the Matrix

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

We face an unpredictable interplay between terrorists, enabler states, and reckless world powers that support them.

While grappling with a global financial meltdown, President Obama and his national security team must also devise a new strategy to deal with three interlacing orders of physical threat to the American homeland.

The first order of threat is familiar—the terrorists who yearn to bring weapons of mass destruction into our cities. This threat was highlighted when former Vice President Dick Cheney recently asserted that terrorists are actively planning to mount a nuclear or biological attack on the United States. Add to that concern the fact that our principle ally, Great Britain, is also a likely target of such an attack. If successful, the detonation of a weapon of mass destruction in, say, New York City or London would mark a humanitarian and economic trauma not experienced by this country since the Civil War and by Britain since the Blitz.

Mitigating this threat was, as Cheney’s comment revealed, an obsessive concern of the Bush administration. As grave as such an attack would be, however, it is not the most serious danger the United States faces, nor should it be the singular security concern of the Obama administration.

The second order of threat is comprised of enabler states that lend the resources and cover for terrorists to operate—North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and segments of the Saudi and Pakistani regimes. The ultimate goal of these regimes, or fifth columnists within these regimes, is to destabilize America and our allies by proliferating weapons of mass destruction.

Today’s crowded world scene is as pregnant with conflict as the Edwardian era that preceded the First World War.

If that were not enough for President Obama to contend with, there is a third order of threat—newly emergent China and lumbering Russia.

Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has likened the ascent of modern China to the rise of Germany after Bismarck—a sure prescription for future tension and dangerous confrontation. Indeed, this future may have already arrived in the recent dispute between a U.S. Navy ship and Chinese-flagged trawlers in the South China Sea. Add to that the rise of India (with its nuclear tensions with China and Pakistan), and the elevation of the U.S.-Japanese military alliance (countering both China and Russia), and you begin to see a crowded world scene that is as pregnant with potential conflict as the Edwardian era that preceded the First World War.

The danger of this world scene is further enhanced by an irrational anti-Americanism that autocrats around the world use to whip up hysteria and crush dissent at home. Foremost in this campaign is Medvedev-Putin’s Russia, which dispatched Russian long-range bombers to the edge of Canadian airspace during President Obama’s first foreign trip to Ottawa.

As grave as an attack by a weapon of mass destruction would be, it is not the most serious danger the United States faces.

While Vice President Biden speaks of a “reset button” in U.S.-Russian relations, if anything Moscow’s rhetoric since Obama’s election has come to rival that of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez or Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. No doubt the regime’s pervasive anti-Americanism is partly a way of justifying its domestic expansion of power. But there is little reason to doubt that Vladimir Putin, and much of the Russian elite, long for the humiliation of the United States. Indeed, the dean of that country’s most prestigious school for diplomats has made a second career on national television by predicting, with the blessing of the Kremlin, the impending breakup of the United States into six autonomous regions in 2010. Putin himself openly compares America to Nazi Germany. Anti-Americanism in Russia, as in Iran and Venezuela, has far outpaced any rational response to any historic or imagined grievance.

What, then, is the greatest of these three orders of threat? It is the matrix itself. The biggest danger we face is that the unpredictable interplay between terrorists, their enabler states, and reckless world powers that support them will lead to miscalculation and tragedy on a scale few currently imagine is possible.

Russia is the likeliest catalyst for such a global catastrophe. It has some of the attributes of a great power—history, size, and above all, 6,000 nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert. And yet it has the psychological characteristics of a much smaller rogue state—hyperbolic rhetoric, wounded pride woven into a sense of grievance, and an appetite for risky, dramatic action.

The prime challenge for President Obama and American statesmen in the years ahead will be to choose the correct blend of diplomatic engagement and military confrontation necessary to cool down this three-order matrix of threats and prevent a catastrophic global war no belligerent could survive.

Mark W. Davis, a White House speechwriter who drafted foreign policy addresses for President George H.W. Bush, now works as a global business consultant with the Washington, D.C.–based White House Writers Group.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/The Bergman Group.

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