As the November elections approach, one question jumps to mind: Why does anyone want to be president? Taking the rudder of the United States has never been anything but an enormous challenge. The difficulties confronting the winner of the next election will prove no exception.
I’m not referring to the state of American politics and the way the two parties have suddenly decided they cannot work together, or about the giant economic dilemmas that loom in the American horizon. I’m simply looking at the warning signs rising from the other side of the Atlantic — I’ll leave the Pacific for another day. It’s enough to take your breath away.
Consider, for a small sample, what has transpired in the world in just the last few days. In the course of a single week, the European Union, America’s principal global ally, inched closer to the edge of economic disaster. We know Greece is standing at the brink of the precipice and has already seen many rocks slide out from under its feet. But Greece is a small country. The really frightening troubles are becoming visible in Spain, where banks are groaning under a mountain of bad real estate debt. This is not the result of too much government generosity. It’s the product of an economic collapse that sucked the air out of the real estate property market.
If Spain falls, Europe may not be able to avert disaster. America will not be able to build a sea wall tall enough to keep out the tsunami.
But Europe is hardly the only danger ahead. Egypt, the most populous country in the Middle East, recently held its first free presidential election — and produced a most disappointing result. Instead of choosing one of the relatively moderate candidates, voters chose the two extremes. The top two vote-getters will face off in a run-off next month, and the outcome of that election is sure to give heartburn to whoever lives in the White House in the coming years.
The next president of Egypt will be either Mohammed Morsi, a hardline leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, or Ahmed Shafiq, a former general who served as Mubarak’s last prime minister.
Whether Morsi or Shafiq wins, the future for Egypt looks like a confrontation waiting to happen between the military and the Brotherhood. Nobody, by the way, seems to be standing for the liberal principles that guided the young, secular activists of Tahrir Square.
Egypt could become the first post-Arab Spring country whose government is completely dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, or it could erupt into Muslims versus military clashes, or it could end up with a military takeover. The way ahead looks as clear as a sand storm. And we’re talking about the Middle East, the most unstable region of the world even before the new wave of revolutions started last year, and lest we forget, the source and transit point of much of the world’s economic lifeblood, oil.
As Egyptians voted a few days ago, western powers met with representatives of Iran, hoping for progress in efforts to stop the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. The meeting in Baghdad achieved nothing, except an agreement to meet again next month in June. Every few weeks we hear more evidence from U.N. nuclear inspectors, who say Iran is enriching uranium to higher levels and appears to be preparing to “militarize” its nuclear operations.
The president’s briefing on Iran was probably interrupted by news from Syria, where the regime is intensifying its slaughter of anti-dictatorship protests. Now an Iranian general has let it slip that Iranian Revolutionary Guards are helping forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad put down the rebellion.
Pressure is growing for intervention in Syria, but Russia, in particular, has given Assad cover. Syria is becoming a proxy for the battle between Iran and its Arab, Sunni, and western adversaries.
Regardless of what unfolds in Europe, and how the American economy fares in the coming months, the danger from the continuing crises in the Middle East will occupy the days of the man who wins in November. And it is sure to occupy some of his nights, as well, with a few 3 a.m. emergency calls sure to wake him up.
With the world changing at such a dangerous pace, it would be nice if he could count on a Congress and an opposition party with a strong sense of loyalty, and on an economy strong enough to provide more freedom of action. Yet it’s all but certain that those luxuries, available to some of his predecessors, will remain absent for the winner of the next election.