A Good Month for Bad News

August 11th, 2009

It’s a fact: Nothing happens in August. A curtain of heat descends across the Northern Hemisphere. Shops close. Congress goes home. Washington fills up with interns, Paris swarms with tourists. Even the Russians are out in the woods, picking mushrooms.

Yes, nothing happens in August — except, as we all know, when something really terrible happens in August. World War I began in August, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait began in August, al-Qaeda was preparing to bring down the World Trade Center in August. Nor is this an accident: If you want to surprise any American administration, do something nasty while the president is on vacation.

August, in other words, is the time when all of us should prepare our backup plans, chart our reversals of course, think through possible paradigm changes — which no one does, because they are all at Martha’s Vineyard or at least Ocean City. So for the interns who are manning the shop while everyone is out of town, here is a list of crises that are simmering on the back burner, one (or more!) of which could bubble over this month:

 Iran. There are show trials going on right now in Tehran. The revolution is devouring its children.   Dozens of mid-level opposition leaders, many of them members of the former elite, are acting out an extraordinary piece of public theater, begging forgiveness and admitting impossible crimes. A former vice president of the Islamic Republic has asked a jury to give him the maximum punishment. French and British “spies” are in the dock as well, perhaps as a “test” of the West: Maybe the mullahs want to gauge how we might react to another, imminent wave of arrests, this time to include top-level opposition leaders such as Mir Hossein Mousavi, the “failed” presidential candidate, and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president. And how will we react, exactly? Plan A was to talk to the Iranians in a reasonable tone of voice. What is Plan B?

 

Russia and Georgia, again. It’s been a year since Russian tanks crossed Georgia’s borders and traveled within a few hours’ striking distance of the capital, Tbilisi. To mark the anniversary, South Ossetian “separatists” threw grenades into both Georgian and Russian border checkpoints while mysterious hackers, presumably Russian, temporarily shut down Twitter and Facebook all over the world, apparently in an effort to block a single Georgian blogger. Both Georgia and Russia are accusing one another of stoking a new conflict, which is exactly what happened before the last round of hostilities broke out. What if Russia invades again? Plan A was to press the “reset button” in relations with the Kremlin. What is Plan B?

 Afghanistan. The surge is underway, and elections are scheduled for Aug. 20. Although the Taliban melted away into the hills when new waves of American troops poured into the southern provinces, they are taking their revenge in other ways, moving into the cities now as well as the previously peaceful north and western parts of the country. Some think the Taliban’s main goal, at the moment, is to disrupt the elections and therefore discredit whoever wins: Stability in Afghanistan requires a legitimate government, and everybody knows it. In Kandahar, three female parliamentary candidates have been forced out of their homes; another woman’s home was burned down because she dared to run for office. Insurgent attacks are increasing, not decreasing, nationwide and are expected to get worse just before and just after the voting. Plan A was to rout the Taliban, once and for all, with a single, massive infusion of troops, leave some kind of more or less acceptable government in place — and then go home. What is Plan B?

 – Iraq. I’m not going to belabor this one, since it’s been simmering on the back burner for years, and there’s no particular reason this August is any different from those past. But since I’ve already ruined your day on the beach by listing all of these dire scenarios, why not throw Iraq in the mix? After all, our current policy is to hand over power to Iraqi troops and go home. But what will we do in the event of a spectacular incident — say, the bombardment of one of the remaining American bases, or the kidnapping of American troops? Will we retake command? Go home anyway? Has anyone thought about it? I hope so.

At least, I hope someone was thinking about it before they went on vacation. Happy August.