It seems that all eyes are on Denver this week, site of the butt-kissing fiesta known as the Democratic Convention. To be fair, the Republican Convention isn't exactly pucker free… groveling, toadying and sucking up in the name of one's party or self-interest knows no boundaries. And that's just to get passes for the nightly parties and receptions where the cool kids hang out.
The problem is, while we all stare inward, mesmerized by the fascinating topic of “Will Hillary and Barack Unify in Time to Save the World?” the world is quickly becoming a more difficult and unstable place. Because we've got limited bandwidth, several global events with potentially significant repercussions have gone largely unreported or certainly under-reported by the media, pundits and others who take on the responsibility of informing the average Joe. In addition, the average Joe and whatever we call a female Joe have been worrying about what we've got in our wallets, the general shape of the U.S. economy and the nonstop heart pounding excitement of the presidential campaign.
Early in the campaign season both the Democrats and Republicans assumed that they'd be shaping much of their strategy around the issue of Iraq and other global concerns. More recently, they've brought the U.S. economy front and center, stumbling over each other to explain who has a better plan for our economic health and why the other is more elitist. Global matters took a backseat as oil prices rocketed skyward, the mortgage crisis deepened and it became clear that, in technical terms, the economy was in danger of plopping into the toilet.
As an aside, because both Democratic and Republican strategists start with the premise that the average American voter is in fact not as smart as a fifth grader, they frame their economic positions and claims in increasingly simple minded ways. Thus we're fed a steady diet of sound bites which, according to campaign theory, will cause us to react in a predictable fashion.
According to standard theory, providing the voters with too much detail about their economic plans will make said voters go all glassy-eyed and fall into a stupor. What a load of crap. Instead of inane promises such as “…I'll create millions of green collar jobs through pursuit of a serious alternative energy plan” or “…I'll make sure that every person in America has affordable, high quality health care”, how about we get some detail from the candidates as to how they plan on pulling these rabbits out of their hats?
Just once, I'd like to hear a candidate say “…well, things are really crappy right now. I'm not blaming one person or one administration, nothing happens in a bubble and a lot of events, decisions and actions over the years have contributed to the various problems we're facing. It's going to be unpleasant for a while, there aren't any easy answers and the stuff that needs doing is going to require sacrifice and work. There aren't any shortcuts so we all better get over our need for instant gratification. I might not be able to pull this off, but I'll sure as hell try. Here are our goals and here are our step by step plans for working to reach our objectives…” Now that candidate I'd vote for. But let's return to our topic for the day.
The focus on the economy shifted only slightly recently when Vladimir Putin dusted off the old “Property of Soviet Union” signs and began planting them around the neighboring country of Georgia. We all got a bit huffy over Russia's land grab but then quickly got distracted by the shiny lights and flat screen televisions on display at this week's convention in Denver.
Perhaps it's just me, and here I digress again, but I keep waiting for Bob Barker to walk out onto that stage and start telling delegates to come on down. Hopefully the first game will be the one with the mountain climber who yodels as he climbs past the various household products. Not that I ever watched the show.
The point being, whichever ticket wins in November, Obama/Biden or McCain/Mystery Choice, they will likely be confronting several worsening scenarios in locations around the globe that we can ill afford to ignore or mishandle. In an effort to provide a public service, the PWB will highlight select critical issues that we believe will immediately test the capabilities of the new administration.
We call this offering “Critical Issues”, a name created by intern #2 as she ran out of the PWB offices late for her yoga class. It's that attention to detail and dedication to professionalism that guarantees her a place in the ranks of the average as she moves through her career.
And so, for the edification of the next administration, the following is the first critical issue that will soon be nipping at your backside. 1). Pakistan. While we watched the Olympics and fretted about the economy, Pakistan's five-month-old coalition government collapsed. The coalition (okay it's essentially a former Prime Minister (Nawaz Sharif) previously banged up for corruption and the husband of the slain Benazir Bhutto (Asif Ali Zardari) also previously done up for corruption) stayed together long enough to force out former President Pervez Musharraf, abandoned by his supporters and allies like some kind of radioactive hot potato, but then fell apart due to an inability to actually run the country.
As a reminder, Pakistan is a nuclear nation. Their primary reason for wanting to keep some nukes on hand is that India, Pakistan's Lex Luthor, has nuclear weapons. In the great tradition of the cold war, Pakistan and India hold that neither will use nukes against the other since the reciprocation would lead to devastation. That theory tends to work as long as both countries are led by sane, rational governments.
Here's where it all goes skeewampus and why Pakistan tops our list of things the new administration should plan to address immediately. With the coalition of the corrupt now falling apart due to squabbling over who gets the nicer offices, there is a distinct lack of leadership guiding a country that is keeping nukes in the cupboard. This is what we would describe as “problematic”.
The presence of nukes and the non-presence of a stable and strong government leaves a disconcerting opportunity for the Taliban extremists and their Al Qaeda sidekicks operating and reportedly gaining strength along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and in the North-West Frontier province. It was very difficult for former President Musharraf, even when he was at the top of his game, to act aggressively against the extremists and provide some level of cooperation with the West in the fight against terrorism.
While Musharraf wasn't as tough as we would have liked in combating the Taliban and Al Qaeda in that region, he at least made an effort. The coalition of Zardari and Sharif seemed more interested in appeasement than confrontation.
The history of the Taliban and other extremists is essentially, if you give them an inch they eventually grab for a mile. One minute you've let them in as part of a power sharing government, the next it turns out girls can't go to school, which is okay since the schools are soon restricted to teaching only religion and you can't find a damn DVD anywhere in the whole country.
Can it get any worse? Well, it's rumored that the next President will be Zardari, husband of the deceased Bhutto. He stands to get elected in early September. That will put him in charge of the nukes, although it's likely the new government will enjoy neither a high degree of stability nor support.
Not knowing much about the man who could be president and have his finger on the button, I did a little research. Under the category of “Well isn't that a hoot”, according to medical testimony from a New York-based psychiatrist who treated Zardari, the guy was diagnosed with a major depressive disorder as a result of time spent in prison for corruption charges. Oh.
I'd suggest the next administration review the storage and security plans and procedures for the Pakistani nuke inventory. Hope for the best, plan for the worst as the saying goes. Here we're basically hoping for the best of the worst.
If you get the chance, send a note to the PWB and let us know what issues outside the U.S. have you most concerned, we'll be sure to highlight them in future columns. We would also appreciate your thoughts on the current presidential campaign and any recipes you might have for a really good margarita. Send your insights, complaints and bad jokes to email@example.com
Til' next week, stay safe.
Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant, writer and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures.