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ICG Risk Blog - [ Near-term global risks in the early weeks of the Obama administration ]

Near-term global risks in the early weeks of the Obama administration


This is a brief thought piece. A colleague called to ask what my near-term global risks in the early weeks of the Obama administration. My reply started with the shortest term risk that was already in countdown: 

  • An Israeli strike against Natanz, Iran before Obama took office, while Bush43 was still president.

Assuming that we get past that hurdle, my risks list adds: 

  • India-Pakistan
  • Mexico

Not on the short term risk list is the DPRK despite their public pronouncement by a uniformed military officer (a first) that they had "weaponized" (hardened and miniaturized the detonation and implosion mechanics necessary to deliver a fissile package in a conventional missile warhead) sufficient plutonium to create five packages. The DPRK will become a rising risk but at the moment I put them down to ratcheting up their 'salami negotiation' strategy of driving a wedge between ROK and the US, then seeking to arbitrage the difference. Having got all that was possible from the Bush43 administration, they are opening negotiations with the Obama administration.



Israel was both practicing and signaling its capability to attack the Natanz uranium enrichment plant in 2008:

More than 100 Israeli F-16 and F-15 fighters participated in the maneuvers, which were carried out over the eastern Mediterranean and over Greece during the first week of June [2008]... The exercise also included Israeli helicopters that could be used to rescue downed pilots. The helicopters and refueling tankers flew more than 900 miles, which is about the same distance between Israel and Iran's uranium enrichment plant at Natanz...

While timing is not clear from the unclass press, the US had denied a key Israeli request for weapons for the raid:

Israel's effort to obtain [deep-penetration bunker-busting] weapons, refueling capacity and permission to fly over Iraq for an attack on Iran grew out of its disbelief and anger at an American intelligence assessment completed in late 2007 that concluded that Iran had effectively suspended its development of nuclear weapons four years earlier.

A key window was closing:

With the incoming U.S. administration of President-elect Barack Obama pledging to pursue a policy of "tough diplomacy" with Iran, including opening the possibility of direct talks with Tehran, Israeli leaders appear to be warily bracing for the expected shift in the U.S. approach to one of Israel's most serious security concerns...


A number of Israeli officials have questioned the utility of U.S. dialogue with Iran... In particular, Israeli officials appear wary that a shift in policy toward engagement may weaken the current sanctions efforts aimed at Tehran. Israeli Foreign Minister and potential prime minister Tzipi Livni urged caution about the timing of direct talks, telling Israel Radio Nov. 6 that "premature dialogue at a time where Iran thinks that the world has given up on sanctions may be problematic," adding that such dialogue may be construed as "weakness." When asked if she supported U.S. dialogue with Iran, Livni responded, "[T]he answer is no."


In recognition that U.S. and Israeli aims regarding Iran may diverge, part of Israel's security establishment also appears to fear that a U.S.-Iranian dialogue may be successful in addressing U.S. concerns, but not those of Israel...


Former U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations John Bolton suggested in June that the "optimal window" for Israel to strike Iran would be after the U.S. elections and prior to the inauguration of the new president Jan. 20, noting particularly that "an Obama victory would rule out military action."


Israel has said that it reserves the option to take such an action. In a Nov. 18 Der Spiegel interview, Commander in Chief of the Israeli Air Force Ido Nehushtan said that the air force is "ready to do whatever is demanded of us" to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but that such an action "is a political decision."

One of the things one quickly learns about the Israelis is that they rarely ask for permission, or do so on such narrow grounds that they retain an option to ignore a 'no' answer. One the Israelis commit to a mission, the issue becomes what tools are at hand to use to achieve its aims. Denied conventional weapons in the face of an 'existential threat', the use of nuclear weapons has to enter the tool set, with all the physical and political collateral damage that implies.



Many have scoffed at our projections for the impact of Mexican violence (2006 release to clients), just as they had for the al-Qaeda precursors (1999) and LeT threats against India (2005). US response in the face of Mexican violence has now come to the public comment that the US has "completed a contingency plan for border violence, so if we did get a significant spillover, we have a surge - if I may use that word - capability to bring in not only [DHS] assets but even to work with the Defense Department" in suppressing cartel violence.


Drugs have superseded immigration and commerce to unilaterally define US-Mexico relations. In December 2008, "the U.S. Justice Department called Mexican cartels the biggest organized crime threat to the United States, saying they are increasingly pairing up with the Italian Mafia and other gangs to control distribution in American cities."


The Joint Operating Environment (JOE) 2008 raises criminal gangs to a national threat level:

A serious impediment to growth in Latin America remains the power of criminal gangs and drug cartels to corrupt, distort, and damage the region's potential. The fact that criminal organizations and cartels are capable of building dozens of disposable submarines in the jungle and then using them to smuggle cocaine, indicates the enormous economic scale of this activity. This poses a real threat to the national security interests of the Western Hemisphere. In particular, the growing assault by the drug cartels and their thugs on the Mexican government over the past several years reminds one that an unstable Mexico could represent a homeland security problem of immense proportions to the United States.

Mexico is on the verge of destabilization and ranks only below Pakistan as a failing or failed state:

In terms of worst-case scenarios for the Joint Force and indeed the world, two large and important states bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse: Pakistan and Mexico.


Some forms of collapse in Pakistan would carry with it the likelihood of a sustained violent and bloody civil and sectarian war, an even bigger haven for violent extremists, and the question of what would happen to its nuclear weapons. That "perfect storm" of uncertainty alone might require the engagement of U.S. and coalition forces into a situation of immense complexity and danger with no guarantee they could gain control of the weapons and with the real possibility that a nuclear weapon might be used.


The Mexican possibility may seem less likely, but the government, its politicians, police, and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state. Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone.

The criteria by which I separate Mexico and Pakistan is that Mexico has no nuclear weapons. Had they fissile packages in their possession, I would rank Mexico as a higher risk than Pakistan.


The US is on the edge of a Pakistan, Iraq or Lebanon on its borders. My curiosity has shifted beyond when and what level to such topics as what scale of communications intercept are the US and cartels (who can buy the best) practicing against one another and to what tactical result; what level of commando teams are already operating in-country at a recon level; and what will our response be to captured US forces by the cartels.


Think Hezbollah with billions of dollars and less scruples. Ugly.



We have covered Pakistani sponsored threats to India for some time:

The most recent attack against Mumbai show an impressive learning curve on the part of the Pakistani assault team. Again from the 2008 JOE:

Some forms of collapse in Pakistan would carry with it the likelihood of a sustained violent and bloody civil and sectarian war, an even bigger haven for violent extremists, and the question of what would happen to its nuclear weapons. That "perfect storm" of uncertainty alone might require the engagement of U.S. and coalition forces into a situation of immense complexity and danger with no guarantee they could gain control of the weapons and with the real possibility that a nuclear weapon might be used.

India cannot relent and Pakistan cannot disengage without one or the other governments falling. Ugly.


North Korea Says It Has 'Weaponized' Plutonium


New York Times

January 18, 2009


Report: Mexico at risk for 'rapid' collapse

Stars and Stripes

Mideast edition, January 15, 2009


Israel's losing media strategy

Keeping journalists out of Gaza hurts more than helps its cause.

By Jonathan Finer


LA Times

January 14, 2009


U.S. military report warns 'sudden collapse' of Mexico is possible

By Diana Washington Valdez

El Paso Times

Posted: 01/13/2009 03:49:34 PM MST


2,000 fresh troops sent to Juárez as violence continues

By Daniel Borunda

El Paso Times

Posted: 01/13/2009 11:17:46 PM MST


Pakistan acts on extremists but military support in doubt: analysts

by Masroor Gilani Masroor Gilani


Dec 12, 6:40 am ET


Obama-Calderon talks to focus on Mexican drug war

Associated Press

Posted on 01.11.09


A Gaza War Full of Traps and Trickery


New York Times

January 11, 2009


U.S. Rejected Aid for Israeli Raid on Iranian Nuclear Site


New York Times

January 11, 2009


Iran Using Fronts to Get Bomb Parts From U.S.

By Joby Warrick

Washington Post

January 11, 2009


U.S. Plans Border 'Surge' Against Any Drug Wars


New York Times

January 8, 2009


Pakistan, Mexico and U.S. nightmares

By: Bernd Debusmann

The Great Debate/Reuters

January 7, 2009


For Israel, 2006 Lessons but Old Pitfalls


New York Times

January 7, 2009


Pakistan Is Given Evidence on Attacks


January 5, 2009


India eyes 2009 with trepidation

AFP/Gulf Times

Latest Update: Monday29/12/2008 December, 2008, 12:39 AM Doha Time


India's Singh Plays Down Possibility of War With Pakistan

By Rama Lakshmi

Washington Post

December 23, 2008; 2:30 PM


Daily Describes Activities of ISI in India

Posted by Defense-Technology News at 1:42 AM

December 21, 2008


Mumbai Attacks Expose an Enemy Who Learns

Posted by Paul McLeary


12/10/2008 7:00 AM CST


Codes for Armageddon: A new president to hold nuclear launch 'football'

By David Wood

Baltimore Sun

November 30, 2008


The Football



The Joint Operating Environment (JOE)

Challenges and Implications for the Future Joint Force

United States Joint Forces Command

Center for Joint Futures (J59)

November 25, 2008


U.S. Says Exercise by Israel Seemed Directed at Iran


New York Times

June 20, 2008


Emerging Threats, Challenges, and Opportunities in the Middle East

Featuring Donald Kerr, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence

Soref Symposium 2008

Washington Institute for Near East Policy

May 29, 2008


Gordon Housworth

InfoT Public  Risk Containment and Pricing Public  Strategic Risk Public  


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