The United States is never without challenges, but this season seems particularly difficult. For example, we are beset with fiscal difficulties of our own making, and intransigent officials at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue seem unconcerned about either the mess they have created or the people they purport to represent. Some idiot with a semiautomatic rifle marched through a mall in Oregon, killing and wounding shoppers at random. Michigan became the twenty-fourth state to pass a right-to-work law, further weakening the grip of unions and in the process sparking unsettling protests. For those who have had quite enough of the fiscal cliff, homicidal maniacs, and continuing criminal enterprises, there are always these stories:
Today Pyongyang launched a long-distance rocket, and we and our allies launched the obligatory complaints about it, as if they will have any effect. They haven't until now, and so there is no reason to expect any change. The United States did little to prevent North Korea's (or anyone else's) development of nuclear weapons, and is now making plenty of noise about increasingly able delivery systems that can reach the United States. We have some sanctions in place and are threatening more, but they will have no effect. China, North Korea's benefactor, may be the only actor capable of affecting policy, but at this late date even China's influence would have to take the form of military action. Even less bellicose options are unattractive to Beijing: onerous sanctions that would effectively starve North Korea into compliance would result in millions of refugees streaming into China for relief, something for which Beijing has no stomach. The only respite will be the result of the difficulty of mating a nuclear weapon to a rocket, something that will take North Korea a bit longer. In the meantime, our principal instrument of foreign policy will continue to be complaining.
Although from day to day it is difficult to tell whether Damascus or the rebels has the upper hand, most observers assume that it is only a matter of time before Assad is gone. The media and the American government have been vocal about our support of the rebels, and today the United States recognized the rebel coalition as the legitimate government of Syria, but, like other rebellions in Arab countries, we have no idea whom we are really supporting and even less of a vision of what kind of Syria will emerge after Assad will have disappeared. There was something of a scare recently when it was revealed that Assad's forces had moved chemical weapons from their usual locations, and we evidently concluded that Damascus was preparing to use nerve gas against the rebels. We warned Syria that we would make its life very difficult if it employed chemical weapons, and Syria promised that it wouldn't. But Syria already knew that we would not permit it, and there is plenty of evidence that Assad was actually only worried that the nerve gas would fall into rebel hands, something about which we are ignoring to everyone's great peril.
To some observers, Syria after Assad will look a lot like Egypt does now: lurching to the right, ideologues in the ascendancy, democrats protesting in the streets after discovering that their ideals have been hijacked by thugs, and people who thought that the inhumanity of their society was finished shocked at the realization that it was just beginning. Many were surprised when Morsi, an Islamist but no political powerhouse, seized an enormous chunk of personal power, but he is not operating alone and is surrounded by, and yields to, some distasteful characters with much more odious views than his. He relented a bit, but the immediate objective of the Muslim Brotherhood---to emplace a restrictive constitution---will be achieved no matter who objects, and seizure of larger power, by Morsi or his replacement, will occur by and by. Once the oligarchs get comfortable, expect a distressing increase in regional volatility.
We are right to pay attention to difficulties at home. There are some who argue that the fiscal cliff will be avoided, or that it won't but the disaster won't last long, or even that it isn't such a big deal in the first place. They may be right, but if they are wrong, the result of decades of complacency will be a painful mess that may take years to clean up. Our inattention, however, has not been confined to domestic issues, and the disaster that is our foreign policy is already producing a world much more perilous than any of our inept leaders thought possible.