2013 hot-button issues: The U.S. economy and Middle East peace are most critical problems

Even in the best of times there is no shortage of problems — and few would characterize 2013 as “best of times.” So the following offers a listing of specific problems conducive to global grief.

The Fiscal Cliff/U.S. Economic Problems. Like the ghost of Christmas Future, the “fiscal cliff” haunted U.S. political commentary for months.

Rarely has so silly a sobriquet had such an over-hyped existence. Addressing it on New Year’s Day projected the legislative equivalent of college fraternity “all-nighter” frenzy. One would think significant numbers of Americans, ignorant of economics beyond balancing their checkbooks, sincerely believed failure to reduce the cliff to a molehill would plunge the USA into Stygian darkness.

However, the circumstances were more pedestrian — akin to a “dead man’s switch” — unless specific action was taken, a set of tax cuts would be eliminated and automatic spending reductions (“sequestration”) instituted. This combination of tax increases and spending cuts was created to prompt politicians to address both taxes and spending coherently and with sophisticated calculation rather than being implemented mechanically.

The ritualized holiday posturing resulted in a “kick-the-can-down-the-road” decision. Taxes rise for those earning over $400,000 but spending cuts are delayed for two months. Republicans have lost this round; they betrayed their mantra of no tax increases — and certainly none without significant spending cuts. They hope to recoup during debate over increasing the national borrowing limit, but if Republicans rolled on a domestic point, it is hard to see them willing to declare the equivalent of international bankruptcy. So Canadians need not worry; Republicans are furious but not suicidal. Lesson for Republicans? Don’t lose the 2012 election.

Syria. Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime is repeatedly characterized as verging on collapse. But it hasn’t listened to its critics and condescended to self-immolate. And the desperate intensity with which government forces fight rebels of various ilk deserves recognition if not respect. We have a long-honed tendency to support the underdog without appreciating that the underdog can be just as odious as the top dog, just momentarily the subordinate canine. Unquestionably, Assad’s government is not League of Women Voters presentable; but insurgents have also committed murderously vicious human rights violations. Their atrocities appear more limited by opportunity than by any reluctance to massacre opponents.

Consequently, the West in general and the United States/Canada in particular should sideline themselves. We don’t have a dog in the fight; we should not play global 911. Syria’s neighbors, particularly Turkey, could “regime change” in short order should they desire. If they are smart enough not to intervene directly, we should regard their reluctance as wisdom.

Iranian Nukes. Day by day we edge toward the incandescently depicted “red line” regarding Iranian nuclear weapons capability. But we don’t know where/when it is — and Tehran with deliberate duplicity offers disingenuous comment on its “peaceful” nature. The Jan. 22 Israeli election will reinforce PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s political control, giving him leeway to act against the Iranian nuclear program. Haunted by Holocaust memories and with “never again” a living coda, Israelis are unlikely to accept Iranian nukes. We must assume that sanctions won’t work (they never do) and be prepared to live with Iranian nukes or, with open eyes, accept the consequences of military action. Will we label it a war of choice or of necessity?

Israelis-Palestinians. The hoary “two scorpions locked in a bottle” analogy arises. Some of the best minds of the 20th-21st centuries have grappled with the conundrum. Essentially, both Jews and Palestinians claim that “God” gave them the land, and finding mechanisms to divide it or live in mutual tolerance escapes negotiators. Any peace — beyond pauses for reloading — recedes into the distance; it is further away than ever. There is no credible Palestinian interlocutor and no Israeli interest in concessions to Hamas terrorists.

Religious Persecution. The intensity of religious persecution is rising globally. And Christians appear to bearing the brunt of these attacks, from China through Africa. Specifically, Islam may profess to be a religion of peace; however, more often than not this “peace” is a my-way-or-the-cemetery philosophy. Throughout its traditional lands of origin particularly in the Middle East, Christians (and Jews) have been “cleansed” either by adroitly precautionary self-action or by direct threats that offer departure or death as the alternatives. The most obvious imperiled Christian communities are Egypt’s Coptic Christians, and Christians are likely victims in a post-Assad Syria. Will the West and Canada tolerate pogroms against Christians as a lamentable but tolerable accessory to ending dictatorships during the Arab Spring?

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.