8/23/15

What role will national security/foreign affairs issues play in the 2016 elections?

I do not know.

A fairly long time before the 2014 mid-term elections—and well before most other pundits—I predicted that foreign affairs and national security would take a prominent role in determining the outcome of the 2014 elections; and I was correct. It was shortly after Putin’s Russia took Crimea and ISIS was still a Junior Varsity team according to our erstwhile president, but I knew that the malevolent players in the world would not allow the status quo to prevail and, thus, felt that things would escalate to a level that even the American electorate that is normally very focused on domestic issues (God only knows that they have a lot of those to focus on) will make national security a big issue for the elections. Then came the summer and the ISIS “eruption” and there was no going back. National security catapulted to the forefront of the electorate psyche and was clearly one of the reasons for the strong Republican showing in the elections.

The conventional wisdom since then is that the same will happen in 2016 as national security is pretty high up there as an issue at the moment. I, however, am not sure.

On the face of it all these nefarious players have already achieved everything that they wanted to achieve, so it is likely that they will just leave the status quo as-is. If that is the case it is likely that domestic concerns will once again take predominance in the electorate mind and foreign affairs will fade into the background. It is not that the world situation is not terrible—it is—but the effect on elections in the US is determined by the momentum and not by the level. So it needs to be escalating in order to gain traction in the American psyche.

Here is my thumbnail sketch analysis of where we are:

  • North Korea: As I maintained throughout the years, the DPRK is not independent to do any serious harm on its own. Beyond small stuff that will cause pain in South Korea but will not reach worldwide crisis level, the DPRK is a tool in the China’s kit. Therefore, if anything happens there it would be triggered by China.
  • China: China’s main concern is to secure for itself the vast mineral resources that it needs to continue its economic expansion without being dependent on others. The ostensible trigger for the Japanese attack on the USA in 1941 was the effort by the USA to choke-off Japan’s supply of oil. China has learned that lesson and is very focused on making sure that they own and control enough natural resources to protect their economic progress and emerging world dominance via economic and other coercion. Having said that, they have already achieved practical domination of the China Sea (and they are continuing apace without interruption), thus providing it with huge mineral resources and control of important sea-lanes for world trade and logistics. That is more important to them than any land “acquisition” and, given their very long-term horizon, they can afford to proceed with tortoise speed and avoid any physical action that will rise to the level of a worldwide event. Not that their domination of the South and East China Sea is not hugely consequential and not that it, in itself, is not of a worldwide importance but, unfortunately, given the short-term nature of Western media and short span of public attention coupled with the naïve and feckless administration in the USA, it did not get above the radar.
  • Iran: Well, we all know about them. They have achieved an unbelievable coup in turning a losing hand into a major win by taking advantage of the worst US administration ever. They got everything they could have asked for and more. What else will they do to make national security headlines in the next 18 months?
  • Russia: As I wrote in a very recent post, Russia too has achieved its main goal- securing the North Pole mineral riches and logistical routes domination for itself. Ukraine is just a diversion and it is not necessary for them to raise the temperature there significantly. I predict a low level conflict there, which in essence is the status quo.
  • ISIS and other forms of Sunni terror groups: I do not expect any major strategic world level event there. ISIS is not going to take on Bagdad, for instance. So again it is likely that the low level conflict there will continue but nothing that will rise to world crisis level.

That is my likely scenario prognosis: no major escalation on any front and thus allowing the current national security situation to ramble on. It is a terrible situation and very damaging but, because it is stabilized, it could very well become a low level issue for the American electorate.

There are two potential areas where events may dictate differently.

  1. China: China is a very unstable country. All the progress achieved there over the last few decades is built on an unstable foundation. Tyranny, by definition, is unstable. It does not have the same mechanisms to release pressures that democracies have. Mechanisms such as elections, free media and free speech, demonstrations, etc. Thus pressure always builds inside tyranny and the craving for change is always there. China is a special case. In addition to the normal instability emanating from these subterranean pressures China has about 50,000,000 (yes, FIFTY MILLION!) men aged 25-50 who have no families due to its one child policy. This is a very unstable group for obvious reasons. The economic progress that China enjoyed over the last few decades is faltering and possibly, as some are suggesting, even turning into a significant slowdown. The effects of the natural instability of tyrannies, this very explosive group of men plus economic slowdown may combine to generate high level of unrest in China. The normal rulebook of dictatorships, if such unrest becomes significant, is to make an effort to divert attention from domestic issues by creating a conflict abroad. That could lead to rash and dangerous moves such as, for instance, an invasion of Taiwan. That will be a worldwide crisis. It will put the Obama administration on the spot and although I do not think that they will do anything material to respond, it will be enough to raise national security back to the forefront of the electorate mind. This is a farfetched scenario but is within the realm of possibility.
  2. Terror: For some time I have been wondering how is it possible that neither Al Qaeda nor ISIS have managed to inflict a serious terror event on the US. Given the vast resources that they now control and their deep hate and need to be relevant, why have they not done anything of substance? I understand that the FBI and other agencies are doing a phenomenal job, but they cannot keep getting it right all the time. It is quite possible that a major terror attack or a series of medium size events in rapid succession will happen between now and the elections on US soil. That, too, will of course change the electorate calculations.

The damage that the Obama administration inflicted on the US standing in the world and on the cause of freedom and peace for the world at large is already huge, basically incalculable and lasting. Whether or not any of the usual nefarious players will try to achieve more and, thus, cause this issue to be propelled to top of mind again before the elections or not is not clear.