Suddenly the world is beginning to seem a much more dangerous place.
When I was growing up it was the Cold War. At school we learned to "duck and cover" in case of a nuclear attack. I remember during the Cuban missile crisis staying home and watching the television news wondering when the bombs would start to fall. Thus it was with incredible relief that I heard President Reagan announce the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. I rejoiced at the notion of a "peace dividend," that the United States would be able to spend the vast sums which had gone to the military on solving social problems like poverty and disease.
Of course, the tragic events of 9/11 ended all that. Suddenly we were at war again, not with a superpower, but with a shadowy terrorist group: al-Qaida. Within a few years we were fighting not only al-Qaida but Saddam Hussein. Our military was mired in Iraq and struggling to keep the peace in Afghanistan. But, at least, I thought, we didn't have to worry about the old Soviet threat anymore. And, it seemed for a brief moment that we didn't have to worry about small confrontations becoming all-out global nuclear war.
But in the last few days, even that small amount of security seems to be disappearing. The Soviet Union may be dead, but Russia is resurgent under Vladimir Putin. The invasion of Georgia not only threatens the security of the region, but it also holds open the possibility that the only three oil and gas pipelines that run to Europe from Central Asia not in Russian control, may soon be in Russian control. The geopolitical and economic consequences of such a change are momentous and frightening. It would give the Russians a stranglehold on all of Western Europe.
And then there is Pakistan. For years the United States has depended upon the "friendship" of Pakistan's leader Pervez Musharraf and turned its eyes away from the growing dissatisfaction of his own people with him. We can do so no longer. He has resigned, just one short step ahead of impeachment.
But who will replace him, and will his replacement continue to be an American ally in the face of growing popular anti-Americanism? And if his replacement does not follow his pro-American line, what does this mean for the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons and for the terrorist strongholds on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border?
Worst of all, I think, is our own military vulnerability. The Iraq war has sapped a great deal of strength from our military. We are short on soldiers and on equipment. The Pentagon has released information that the Army will not have enough officers, particularly majors and captains, for several years to come. How can we counter the multiplying threats from Russia, perhaps from Pakistan, and from terrorists without a military at full strength?
In the past few months campaign discussion has moved away from foreign affairs toward the domestic economic crisis. Most commentators attribute this shift to the progress American troops have made in Iraq as a result of the surge. But the last few days make it clear, I think, that we cannot assume that foreign affairs are less important. Those who are not our friends have seen our vulnerability. Russia is not going to sit back and allow us to continue to play the role of the only "superpower." Pakistan may well refuse to follow our lead in the war on terrorism now that Musharraf is gone. And what of China, after its Olympic triumph?
We have a weak economy and a strained military. We are at risk in the world. The next president and the new Congress are going to have an immense burden on their shoulders, both domestically and internationally. Over the next few months candidates must address our new vulnerable position in the world and propose ways to fix it as quickly as possible.