By Micah Zenko and Andrew Miller.THE ATLANTIC. Dec 21, 2012
One of President Obama’s strongest applause lines on the campaign trail was his oft-repeated pledge to do “nation-building at home” during his second-term. This is the stated goal of many presidents facing reelection but, more often than not, unanticipated world events get in the way. In the Middle East, Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile is in a precarious state; in Asia, China’s territorial disputes with U.S. treaty allies are increasingly strident; in North Africa, the growth and collaboration of al-Qaeda-inspired extremists could result in safe haven for international terrorism. President Obama and his new foreign policy team cannot plan for, prevent, or mitigate all the crises that the United States could potentially face in 2013. With slight reductions to the defense and foreign affairs budgets on the horizon, they must prioritize the contingencies that warrant the attention of senior policymakers. The Center for Preventive Action’sPreventive Priorities Survey (PPS) seeks to help in that process by identifying plausible contingencies and ranking them based on their potential impact to U.S. interests and likelihood of occurring in 2013. The survey can be found here.
Perennial PPS consumers will notice changes to our methodology. For the first time, we used crowdsourcing to help identify the 30 contingencies appearing on this year’s survey. Harnessing social media (Facebook, Twitter, Quora, etc.), we solicited hundreds of suggestions from anyone and everyone with Internet access (thanks!) that helped bypass the media filter, which tends to focus on only that day’s headlines. For example, if you had relied on the media to anticipate the recent turmoil in Mali, you would have missed the simmering, widespread dissatisfaction with the corrupt and incompetent government in Bamako until the recent rebellion and coup.
Compared to the PPS 2012, the most notable change this year is the addition of the likelihood ranking. Previously, we asked survey respondents to rank the thirty contingencies based solely on their potential impact; however, by integrating likelihood, policymakers now have the full breadth of the most pressing strategic priorities. We included this added ranking with full recognition that international crises are notoriously difficult to anticipate. Even the U.S. intelligence community (IC), with a combined $75 billion annual budget, was caught off guard by one of the most important geopolitical events of the past decade: the Arab Spring. Although Director of National Intelligence James Clapper gave the IC “a B+, if not an A-” for envisioning the Arab Spring, many would rightly call this grade inflation.
We captured expert knowledge beyond the IC by asking over 1,500 U.S. government officials, academics, and forecasting experts to rank the likelihood and potential impact of the thirty contingencies that emerged from the initial crowdsourcing.
Many “Tier I” contingencies (i.e., high preventive priorities) appearing in last year’s PPS remained, suggesting a degree of intractability. The prospect, for instance, of a major military incident with China involving U.S. or allied forces has not dissipated in the last twelve months. Rather, as Sino-Japanese tensions heighten over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the threat has only worsened with little signs of a resolution on the horizon. At the same time, other Tier I contingencies are likely to come to a head in 2013. For instance, indicators point to Iranian nuclear crisis being addressed either through military or diplomatic means.
The 2012 PPS also highlighted the potential for “an outbreak of widespread civil violence in Syria.” This scenario has unfortunately become a reality today, and Syria’s instability appears far from over. To this end, the intensification of the Syrian civil war is the only contingency on this year’s survey to be rated as both having a high potential impact on U.S. interests and likely to occur. Another troubling aspect of the Syrian crisis — the possibility of nonstate actors acquiring chemical weapons — also received a Tier I ranking. President Obama’s warning that the use of such weapons would cross a “red line” demonstrates how the United States could be drawn into the protracted and deepening conflict.
Not all Tier I contingencies from last year’s PPS remained, however. A severe North Korean crisis, for instance, dropped to Tier II (i.e., mid-level preventive priorities). With the country’s leadership transition behind us, Kim Jong-un has less of a need to prove himself to the country’s defense establishment through provocative acts against South Korea. In addition, some contingencies also moved up into Tier II. Persistent terrorist activity by Boko Haram and heavy-handed responses from Nigerian security forces heightened the possibility that Nigeria could face increased political instability.
The lowest-priority contingencies fall in the Tier III category. They vary from an outbreak of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, to renewed electoral violence in Kenya. We understand that policymakers might feel comfortable ignoring altogether “low priority” contingencies. However, the potential consequences of a Tier III contingency — conflict between Sudan and South Sudan — shows why they should not. The Sudanese civil war killed nearly two million people and its resolution marked a significant diplomatic triumph for the United States. While core U.S. interests are not at stake, renewed war would roll back those diplomatic gains and likely lead to further humanitarian catastrophe.
Since the survey itself was limited to thirty contingencies, we also asked respondents to add potential crises that we might have missed. Some of the notable submissions:
-The outbreak of a third Palestinian intifada
-Widespread popular unrest in China triggered by dissatisfaction with economic prospects and political reforms
-Escalation of a U.S.-Iranian naval clash in the Persian Gulf
-A Sino-Indian border crisis
-Onset of elections-related instability and violence in Ethiopia
-Unrest in Cuba following the death of Fidel Castro and/or incapacitation of Raul Castro
-Widespread political unrest in Venezuela triggered by the death or incapacitation of Hugo Chavez
As the PPS shows, there is no shortage of potential crises that the Obama administration should consider. Even while the president attempts to address his domestic priorities, he cannot ignore warning signs abroad for such contingencies.