By Harlan Ullman
For polar opposite reasons, two dates currently loom large in the American psyche. This July 4th marks the 236th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the war that would turn thirteen English colonies in America into the United States. September 11th, 2001 was the day al Qaeda turned four American airliners into weapons of mass destruction obliterating Wall Street’s Twin towers and a part of the Pentagon in Washington,D.C., and beginning a decade long war on terror.
Americawill celebrate many more July Fourths. But make no mistake. Future September 11th – like events with equal or greater consequences persist in a world replete with a sufficiency of potential crises and ticking geostrategic and economic time bombs. These sources of potential danger from the Euro crisis to an Arab Spring long turned into a summer of discontent; what is or will be civil war inSyria; and Iranian nuclear intentions are obvious. That said, consider three plausible scenarios that explore how serious these risks and dangers could be to international and regional stability.
Since 1949 and the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Article V has been the foundation for this military alliance. Created to deter and contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Article V declared that an attack against any member in Europe or North Americawould be considered an attack against all. Ironically, the first time Article V was invoked was on September 12th, 2001, the day after theTwinTowers came down and well over a decade after the Soviet Union had imploded.
NATO, rallied by its then Secretary General and later Lord George Robertson of the UK, had come to the aid of its North American cousin. Imagine if Churchill, Truman or Eisenhower had awakened to see the alliance at war not against an invading Soviet Army on the plains of the inter-German border but three thousand miles to the east in far away Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the reaction of George W. Bush’s administration was to thank the alliance for their support and go it alone untilWashingtonrealized that help was essential if there were any chance of prevailing in an Afghanistan that had successfully resisted all foreign intruders since the beginning of time.
Last week, Syria shot down a Turkish F-4 Phantom jet that had apparently violated Syrian air space. Turkey deployed ground forces to strengthen its border withSyria. And both sides seemed determined to keep the confrontation from expanding.
But suppose opposition forces inSyriaor Kurdish insurgents from Iraq see this stand off as an opportunity to provoke Turkey and increase the likelihood of foreign intervention through a series of attacks disguised as the Syrian Army or attributed to the Assad government. And suppose Turkey calls for an Article V guarantee from NATO? The last thing NATO wishes is to be engaged in another land war as its Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen has publicly made clear. Could then a staged military confrontation betweenTurkeyandSyriaover Article V commitments threaten NATO solidarity as much as Greek insolvency is endangering the Euro?
Second, who knows if Israel will attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. Suppose that the Israeli leadership concludes that Iranian possession of nuclear weapons is an existential threat, Then Israel has excruciating decisions to make. A unilateral attack can only delay an Iranian bomb. Therefore, it needs either American participation to ensure long-term denial or to use its nuclear weapons to gain the same effect.
The use of nuclear weapons could easily make Israel a pariah state. Of course, an existential danger could outweigh that consideration. October, just prior to the U.S. presidential elections, would seem a time for applying maximum political leverage as neither candidate would want to be seen as weak or failing to aid Israel. And Israel might find that the threat of using nuclear weapons could secure American participation through this form of political blackmail.
Last is the Afghan conflict. Pakistani sanctuaries of Taliban forces and the Haqqani network have been among the most explosive issues between NATO and theU.S. and Islamabad. The recent cross-border attacks fromAfghanistanintoPakistanhave induced Pakistani ire and demands for NATO andKabulto seal that border. The ticking time bomb is whether or not NATO determines that it has no recourse except to go after the Haqqanis and their Pakistani sanctuaries. Given excessive Pakistani negative reactions to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, if the Haqqani sanctuary is attacked, all bets are off. No one knows the consequences for civilian governments inIslamabadandKabulor for ending the Afghan conflict.
No one is predicting any of the above. Other scenarios may arise for better or for worse. Yet, conditions are ripe for some unhappy surprises.
Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business; Senior Advisor at Washington DC’s Atlantic Council.