While every country, surely ours, struggles to manage a pandemic, there is mischief everywhere. The United States today is ripe for an attack, be it garden variety terrorism, like the attack in France last weekend, regional warfare, or cyberthreats. The government simply does not have enough brain cells in leadership positions to prevent or deter it.
The leaders of most federal departments are “acting” and not confirmed by the Senate. A purge at the highest levels of our intelligence community has been underway. Dismissals of the inspector general of the intelligence community, acting director of national intelligence, and acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, all extremely experienced, send an unmistakable message that others could be next. While the coronavirus takes up most of our bandwidth right now, here are my top 10 threats to American security that could turn into our next crisis.
First, Afghanistan may now be on the brink of a Taliban takeover. President Ashraf Ghani and rival Abdullah Abdullah continue to feud about who won the recent election. There is no team to negotiate the American brokered “peace deal” with the Taliban, which has conducted over 300 attacks in the last two weeks despite a looming wave of new coronavirus infections. Nearly two decades of progress for women and competent government, won with blood and treasure from the International Security Assistance Force, is at risk and American citizens are vulnerable.
Second, North Korea continues to test and perfect its short range ballistic missiles. The country tested four in recent weeks, dozens last year, along with a new submarine launched medium range ballistic missile that may have nuclear capability. All these missiles and the “new strategic weapon” that leader Kim Jong Un has warned about set North Korea in a position to hold its neighbors hostage and make demands on us.
Third, the United States faces the risk of a direct military confrontation with Iran or its proxies. Despite the oil glut and our stringent economic sanctions, the regime survives and its centrifuges spin. The International Atomic Energy Agency says the country has more than 1,000 kilograms of low enriched uranium, triple its stockpile from last fall, and breakout time could be less than six months. We have little leverage after pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal. Meanwhile, President Trump claims that “Iran or its proxies” have been planning a large scale “sneak attack” and the United States would retaliate by moving “up the food chain.”
Fourth, an oil price war is underway. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo reportedly called Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman on the eve of the recent Group of 20 summit, which Saudi Arabia chaired, to request that he “reassure global energy and financial markets.” Despite the call by President Trump, the oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia rages. This will take a huge toll on countries dependent on oil that are breeding grounds for terrorism and threaten American interests.
Fifth, there is instability in Europe. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the relationship between Europe and the United States are a bedrock of American security, with Europe the coanchor of the world order built decades ago. Aside from Brexit, the coronavirus has laid bare the inability of the continent to plan together and take coordinated action. Leadership is also a problem. Fortunately, the multitalented Christine Lagarde is at the helm of the European Central Bank, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel is on her way out of power, and French President Emmanuel Macron does not command similar respect. This could mean the dissolution of a major system for the United States and a critical regional ally.
Sixth, tariffs continue to affect the global economy. Implementation of the “phase one” trade deal with China, including $200 billion more in goods and services that Beijing promised to buy, is lagging due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, other tariffs already in place are weakening American access to markets and making certain imports even more costly.
Seventh, autocrats around the world are on the rise. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin, who secured his power by amending the constitution, is using a 170,000 camera facial recognition system, internet surveillance, and geolocation to clamp down on those who violate quarantine during the pandemic. In Hungary, the parliament voted to allow Prime Minister Viktor Orban to rule by decree without a time limit. In countries such as Thailand and the Philippines, leaders are claiming wide ranging authority to censor the news and crack down on popular dissent. These unchecked powers increase their ability to challenge the United States.
Eighth, there is threat of terrorism in the Sahel. The West African region, notably where Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso meet, marks an overlooked hotbed of terrorism. Violence has increased fivefold in the last year alone, as branches of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State operate with impunity there and could launch attacks into Europe and the United States.
Ninth, there could be a possible Palestinian uprising. Discontinuance of American aid along with the coronavirus have created greater instability in the West Bank and Gaza. A large protest could undermine Jordan, our truest Arab friend in the region, as well as Israel, our only democratic ally in the region. Israel has struggled for more than a year now to assemble a government after three stalemated parliamentary elections.
Finally, we are at risk of violent domestic extremism here at home in the United States. Gun sales are skyrocketing. Guns, along with trucks and knives, as we saw in France, are easy weapons of choice for those with clean records who then become radicalized on the internet.
So bad actors around the world are not biding their time while the United States confronts what the surgeon general deems another “Pearl Harbor moment.” They are taking advantage of this crisis. We pay a high price for purging and downgrading our intelligence community. The United States will recover from the coronavirus, but we may enter a new world bereft of the tools to assess, prevent, and deter other monster threats.
Jane Harman is the president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She served in Congress as a Democratic representative from California and was ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.