As US President Donald Trump threatens to declare a state of emergency to counter a manufactured security crisis on the southern border, it’s worth looking at the real security challenges facing the country in 2019.
List after published list of such security threats, as compiled by think tanks, the departments of State, Homeland Security and the US intelligence community, fail to mention the press of immigrants on the southern border as one of those dangers. That’s because it isn’t.
Yes, border security is an issue, but it could be addressed in bipartisan fashion if the president hadn’t made “build the wall” his never-ending campaign slogan. However, the border presents no urgent national security crisis; the White House can’t cite one instance of a known terrorist crossing from Mexico, and many illicit drug shipments are smuggled in via sea, airports -- or by mail from China.
Here are five points that most threat lists see as the top national security challenges in the new year. And I’ll add a sixth point on what I see posing the gravest danger of all.
1. The risk of a highly disruptive cyberattack on US critical infrastructure and networks tops most lists. This was the top-ranked threat for 2019, according to a massive survey of security experts by the Council on Foreign Relations.
It also topped the US intelligence agency’s 2018 worldwide threat assessment, which warned: “The potential for surprise in the cyber realm will increase in the next year and beyond as billions more digital devices are connected -- with relatively little built-in security -- and both nation states and malign actors become more emboldened.” It said the greatest danger was posed by Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, whose hackers have already threatened crucial US systems from elections to the Pentagon to our electrical grid.
2. The chance of a military clash with China over islands in the South China Sea is rising. As the White House has focused on a trade war with Beijing, the Chinese have been illegally fortifying islands and atolls in the sea that give it control over one of the world’s most crucial international waterways. US and Chinese ships came close in 2018 to clashing in these waters; it may already be too late to compel China to observe international laws on freedom of navigation or keep Xi Jinping’s promise not to militarize the sea.
3. The United States may get drawn into new Mideast conflicts because of a rash Trump withdrawal from Syria. Trump’s sudden decision to retreat -- which provoked Secretary of Defense James Mattis to resign -- will unleash many new Mideast demons. The Islamic State jihadist group may revive in a new form. And the American retreat will help Iran expand its hold inside Syria. That, in turn, could increase chances of a proxy war between Iran and Israel, which fears having Iranian-backed forces on its border. Such a war would likely drag America in.
4. We could see another Russian land grab in Ukraine, along with further Russian political meddling in and cyberattacks on NATO countries. Vladimir Putin will continue his efforts to weaken and divide the West and undercut US global interests, encouraged by Trump’s refusal to rebuff him. Putin’s goal is to splinter America’s strongest military alliance and help bring down the European Union. Trump doesn’t seem to mind.
5. The return of hostilities with North Korea is growing more plausible. Trump legitimized Kim Jong-un globally at the Singapore summit, but Kim has yet to make a real move toward denuclearization. Now the president is planning a second summit with Kim, who has made clear he wants major concessions up front, while giving little or nothing in return. Trump may be gulled -- in which case Kim will keep his nukes. Or the president may be embarrassed by his summitry failures into returning to bellicosity, taking us back to square one with Pyongyang.
6. Trump’s style of leadership exacerbates each of these five threats. His belief in his negotiating brilliance with autocrats has blinded him to the degree that Putin, Xi and Kim have taken advantage of his naivete.
That gullibility was painfully evident in the decision to quit Syria, where he swallowed false pledges by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to take over the fight against the Islamic State group. In reality, the Turks only want to fight our Kurdish allies, who helped defeat IS.
Trump’s mistakes in dealing with China and North Korea will lead him toward one of two unpalatable positions: Either pretend that he’s “won” and label loser deals with Kim or Xi as a “victory” or admit his negotiations have failed, which may lead to military clashes with Pyongyang or Beijing. Lost as an option is the kind of strong, well-informed, strategic bargaining that could produce results.
And, of course, Trump’s bromance with Putin seems to fuel the president’s refusal to muster a strong, coordinated White House response to Russian cyber espionage. That refusal also hinders our response to cyberattacks from elsewhere.
So while the president threatens to use emergency powers to fight a fake border crisis, he is facilitating the real crises that could whack us in 2019. That is the news that Americans need to grasp.Trudy Rubin
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. -- Ed.(The Philadelphia Inquirer/Tribune Content Agency)