Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, does Washington see the lurking threats against America?

Though focused on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US must mind other trouble spots.

With the United States hyperfocused on its encounters with militant political Islam, especially in Southwest Asia (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran), the public can perhaps be forgiven for failing to see the full kaleidoscope of other challenges – military and otherwise – waiting unnoticed just over the horizon.

We are beset with information overload and thus become mesmerized with a single threat like Al Qaeda terrorism, missing other spots where trouble is brewing. 

Twenty-eight years ago this month, most of my London-based colleagues and I were sitting in Beirut awaiting a much-expected Israeli invasion of Lebanon to hammer Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization.

Israel’s Gen. Ariel Sharon was so confident of his invasion plan, “Operation Peace for Galilee,” that it was leaked in advance to newsmagazines and the papers – maps and all.  

From Beirut, reporters waited only for the ground to dry so Israel’s Merkava tanks would not get bogged down in Lebanon’s red spring mud. But then, on April 2, the ABC News desk called me and said, “Get the next plane to London. Argentina’s invaded the Falklands. Britain’s going to war.” Where are the Falklands? some reporters asked.

Later, I came to call this the “Falklands factor,” the unexpected, out-of-sight surprises that jump up to slap you on the back of the head, dragging nations into wars. Think Sarajevo, 1914. 

In an earlier column, I explained why the Arctic, with billions of dollars in undersea oil and natural- gas deposits, is becoming a military flash point. It may not be long before headlines cause you to ask, “Where is the Strait of Malacca, and why should I care?” It’s an Indian Ocean jugular through which passes much of China’s energy imports to fuel its burgeoning economy. Block the strait and China’s economy stalls. Beijing is rapidly building a strong Navy. Its regional rival India expects to build three nuclear-powered submarines and three aircraft carriers before 2015. The Indian Ocean is awash with conflict zones.

As Robert Kaplan pointed out in a Foreign Affairs article last year, “One reason that Beijing wants desperately to integrate Taiwan into its dominion is so that it can redirect its naval energies away from the Taiwan Strait and toward the Indian Ocean.” Mr. Kaplan notes that 70 percent of the world’s total petroleum-product traffic passes through the Indian Ocean. 

Not all the unforeseen dangers are military. A case can be made that the financial collapse in the last year of the Bush administration did more to weaken the US globally than did 9/11 and radical Islam combined. Put bluntly, the great recession ended America’s status as the sole superpower. 

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke of his “over the horizon” military and economic concerns in a speech last month at the National Defense University. He said Europe’s reluctance to meet its NATO commitments is a “temptation to miscalculation and aggression” by unspecified hostile powers. Implicit in his remarks was the conclusion that as long as Vladimir Putin is central among Moscow’s policymakers, he will be an irritant for America. 

Secretary Gates warned: “The demilitarization of Europe – where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it – has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving security and lasting peace in the 21st.” In other words, along Europe’s Baltic and Black Sea borders there are half a dozen potential clash points with Russia that America’s European allies may be too indifferent to defend.     

France’s willingness to sell an advanced Mistral warship to Russia poses serious problems. Carrying helicopters and tanks, these ships are ideal weapons and troop platforms for Russia to intimidate its Baltic and Black Sea neighbors. In a recent visit to Paris, Prime Minister Putin was quoted as saying, “I can assure you that if we purchase the armaments, we will use them wherever we deem it necessary.”

China’s investments in cyber and satellite warfare against a computer-dependent US military could become the Pentagon’s worst nightmare. Chinese and Russian spies have infiltrated the US electrical grid, while Chinese hackers have compiled a plan to disable the US aircraft carrier fleet, according to a City Journal article. 

Americans elect presidents to worry about these things. Our best wartime presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, were neither uniformed generals nor military experts. But they were unusually wise and learned. 

President Obama now duels with Iran while waging two other wars he inherited. We do not know how these conflicts will end. But his long, cautious study of Afghanistan before upping the ante there was at least a hopeful sign that if he ever has to fight his own “over the horizon” war, it will not be another ill-conceived, knee-jerk crusade that creates more enemies than it kills and costs more than the nation can afford. 

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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