David Rothkopf

How do you say I told you so in Mayan?

First day back at work in the New Year. Blearily open eyes on computer screen.  First story I see: Muslim Brotherhood says they won’t recognize Israel. Second story: Muslim Brotherhood closer to running lower house in Egyptian parliament. Third story: Islamists form government in Morocco. Next story: Israelis, prepare for peace talks by announcing new ...

OHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Image
OHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Image

First day back at work in the New Year. Blearily open eyes on computer screen.  First story I see: Muslim Brotherhood says they won’t recognize Israel. Second story: Muslim Brotherhood closer to running lower house in Egyptian parliament. Third story: Islamists form government in Morocco. Next story: Israelis, prepare for peace talks by announcing new construction beyond Green Line in Jerusalem. Next story: Iranian rattling sabers in the Gulf. Next story: Taliban setting up shop in Qatar thanks to rapprochement with government. Next story: Arab League sham intervention in Syria going nowhere fast. 

Seriously. That’s how 2012 started for me. So, the question is: what’s a guy supposed to think? Is it that 2011 was the year of giddy — and utterly unfounded — optimism about the Middle East? 

The only person who could possibly read all those stories and be happy is Bibi Netanyahu.  With elections expected in Israel this year, nothing could do more for his election chances than to have all his worst predictions about the aftermath of Arab Spring and the increasing Iranian threat appear to be coming true. All the intolerance, abuse, violence, and exacerbation of the country’s problems associated with the Israeli far right and all the missteps of the Israeli Prime Minister himself may seem small price to pay if the country feels a vice grip of insecurity tightening around it throughout the year. 

That’s not to say I actually think that Netanyahu’s combativeness and pedantry actually helps anything. I don’t. It’s actually more a way of saying that as bad as I think this morning’s first news dump was for me, I can’t help but feel worse is in store.

Beyond the problems that seem certain to deepen between Israel and the Palestinians, within Syria, with the rise of intransigent Islamic political parties, and with Iran, we also have Iraq seemingly heading straight back to the emergency room of geopolitics and, if anything, the deal the U.S. seems likely to cut with the devils we know in Afghanistan promises even less satisfactory outcomes. 

Furthermore, none of these pessimistic analyzes actually have to pan out in the long run to actually have really negative consequences. For example, one of the more positive stories of the morning was the announcement that U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta was preparing a plan to cut $450 billion in U.S. defense spending over the next decade. This is in line with the very modest 8 percent cuts the administration had planned. And it’s an important step in the right direction.

Almost certainly the greatest, most damaging strategic error the U.S. has made during the past couple decades is continuing our over-the-top defense spending. We have spent at many times the level we need to protect ourselves — indeed, we have spent at a level at which the economic damage we have done the country (both in terms of deficits created and in terms of the opportunity cost of investing in our military rather than in more productive segments of the economy) vastly outstrips any potential security benefits that may have been derived.  Certainly, that’s been true since the fall of the USSR. In all likelihood it was true long before that.

We could cut the budget five times the level proposed and still be outspending our nearest rival many times over. But, if the Middle East — which I would argue is not and should not be our primary security focus — festers and boils this year as today’s headlines suggest it might, then it is easy to imagine a central debate of this year’s elections in the U.S. being about whether or not we should cut defense spending at all. A President with an exemplary record in terms of combating terror and getting the U.S. out of costly conflicts will suddenly find that Republicans will be able to open a different front on the national security debate where he may appear vulnerable. They will say the world is more dangerous and this is no time to be cutting defense. 

And my guess is that means that when the time comes to really cut the budget nothing like these cuts will be made…and the U.S. will continue to pose the greatest danger to itself by over-spending on wasteful, bloated, duplicative defense systems it can’t and shouldn’t attempt to afford. The Panetta $450 billion plan will be seen as the high bid in terms of cuts and we will negotiate downward from there. The changes will be incremental and we will continue down the path to great power decline long ago limned by Paul Kennedy.

Take that and the real threats posed by the ever changing landscape in the Middle East — uncertainty in North Korea, the rise of ever more important security challenges in Asia, the problems in the Eurozone, and bird flu (I saw "Contagion"…I know what we’re up against!  I saw Gwyneth Paltrow’s brain!) — and my newest New Year’s resolution is to go back to bed, pull the covers over my head and wait for 2013.

First day back at work in the New Year. Blearily open eyes on computer screen.  First story I see: Muslim Brotherhood says they won’t recognize Israel. Second story: Muslim Brotherhood closer to running lower house in Egyptian parliament. Third story: Islamists form government in Morocco. Next story: Israelis, prepare for peace talks by announcing new construction beyond Green Line in Jerusalem. Next story: Iranian rattling sabers in the Gulf. Next story: Taliban setting up shop in Qatar thanks to rapprochement with government. Next story: Arab League sham intervention in Syria going nowhere fast. 

Seriously. That’s how 2012 started for me. So, the question is: what’s a guy supposed to think? Is it that 2011 was the year of giddy — and utterly unfounded — optimism about the Middle East? 

The only person who could possibly read all those stories and be happy is Bibi Netanyahu.  With elections expected in Israel this year, nothing could do more for his election chances than to have all his worst predictions about the aftermath of Arab Spring and the increasing Iranian threat appear to be coming true. All the intolerance, abuse, violence, and exacerbation of the country’s problems associated with the Israeli far right and all the missteps of the Israeli Prime Minister himself may seem small price to pay if the country feels a vice grip of insecurity tightening around it throughout the year. 

That’s not to say I actually think that Netanyahu’s combativeness and pedantry actually helps anything. I don’t. It’s actually more a way of saying that as bad as I think this morning’s first news dump was for me, I can’t help but feel worse is in store.

Beyond the problems that seem certain to deepen between Israel and the Palestinians, within Syria, with the rise of intransigent Islamic political parties, and with Iran, we also have Iraq seemingly heading straight back to the emergency room of geopolitics and, if anything, the deal the U.S. seems likely to cut with the devils we know in Afghanistan promises even less satisfactory outcomes. 

Furthermore, none of these pessimistic analyzes actually have to pan out in the long run to actually have really negative consequences. For example, one of the more positive stories of the morning was the announcement that U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta was preparing a plan to cut $450 billion in U.S. defense spending over the next decade. This is in line with the very modest 8 percent cuts the administration had planned. And it’s an important step in the right direction.

Almost certainly the greatest, most damaging strategic error the U.S. has made during the past couple decades is continuing our over-the-top defense spending. We have spent at many times the level we need to protect ourselves — indeed, we have spent at a level at which the economic damage we have done the country (both in terms of deficits created and in terms of the opportunity cost of investing in our military rather than in more productive segments of the economy) vastly outstrips any potential security benefits that may have been derived.  Certainly, that’s been true since the fall of the USSR. In all likelihood it was true long before that.

We could cut the budget five times the level proposed and still be outspending our nearest rival many times over. But, if the Middle East — which I would argue is not and should not be our primary security focus — festers and boils this year as today’s headlines suggest it might, then it is easy to imagine a central debate of this year’s elections in the U.S. being about whether or not we should cut defense spending at all. A President with an exemplary record in terms of combating terror and getting the U.S. out of costly conflicts will suddenly find that Republicans will be able to open a different front on the national security debate where he may appear vulnerable. They will say the world is more dangerous and this is no time to be cutting defense. 

And my guess is that means that when the time comes to really cut the budget nothing like these cuts will be made…and the U.S. will continue to pose the greatest danger to itself by over-spending on wasteful, bloated, duplicative defense systems it can’t and shouldn’t attempt to afford. The Panetta $450 billion plan will be seen as the high bid in terms of cuts and we will negotiate downward from there. The changes will be incremental and we will continue down the path to great power decline long ago limned by Paul Kennedy.

Take that and the real threats posed by the ever changing landscape in the Middle East — uncertainty in North Korea, the rise of ever more important security challenges in Asia, the problems in the Eurozone, and bird flu (I saw "Contagion"…I know what we’re up against!  I saw Gwyneth Paltrow’s brain!) — and my newest New Year’s resolution is to go back to bed, pull the covers over my head and wait for 2013.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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