The Landing Zone | 12.17.13
By Alan W. Dowd

Let’s play a game of “Guess Who?”—but on a global scale.

What country accounts for 28 percent of America’s oil imports—about double the nearest supplier? Thanks in part to rising oil revenues and sound fiscal policies, this country enjoyed a budget surplus every year between 1997 and 2008 (the onset of the Great Recession), has cut government spending and taxes, and has cut its debt in half. If you guessed oil-rich Saudi Arabia or free-market tiger Singapore, guess again. In fact, it’s America’s next-door neighbor, Canada.

Name the Middle Eastern country where, after a recent revolution, tailors started churning out American flags. Old Glory isn’t the only American export this country craves. Apple iPhones are in high demand, as are Nike sneakers, Ford Mustangs and music by Jay-Z. Among this country’s favorite TV programs—poached by satellite dishes—are “Oprah,” “Lost,” and “Friends.” What sounds like a description of Kuwait or Israel is actually a snapshot of post-Qaddafi Libya. Some 54 percent of Libyans hold a favorable view of the U.S.—higher than France, Spain, Sweden or Italy.

Name the country that condemned U.S. efforts to topple Saddam Hussein, refused to assist NATO’s efforts in Libya and went through a national debate over the ethics of killing Osama bin Laden. In fact, when a top magistrate filed a criminal complaint against this country’s head of state for “endorsing a crime” because the head of state dared to applaud the takedown of the world’s most notorious terrorist, 64 percent of this country agreed with the magistrate. Surprisingly, the country in question isn’t Russia or China, but rather NATO ally Germany.

Here’s another: What country allows its intelligence agencies to coordinate attacks on U.S. forces, provides support to groups that wage bloody attacks on its neighbors, and even bankrolls attacks on U.S. facilities? Iran? Syria? The country in question is actually America’s erstwhile ally Pakistan. After the bin Laden strike, Pakistan expelled two-thirds of the U.S. military personnel assigned to train the Pakistani army. Worse, a Pakistani court arrested the man who was instrumental in helping the CIA confirm the whereabouts of bin Laden, found him guilty of treason and sentenced him to 33 years in prison. Although that sentence has been stayed pending another trial, he remains in jail. What more can we expect from a government that either knowingly allowed bin Laden to live among its military elite, or was totally oblivious to bin Laden’s whereabouts? Adm. Mike Mullen never bought Islamabad’s explanation, concluding that “Support of terrorism is part of their national strategy.”

Turning from one failed state to another, name the country where some 70,000 people have been killed in the past seven years, in a brutal conflict pitting a weak central government against a powerful network of warlords. The victims are beheaded, shot, tortured and worse. Civil authorities regularly quit or join up with the warlords. It may sound like Yemen, Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan, but the country we’re talking about shares a border with the United States. To put Mexico’s gruesome numbers in perspective, 85,694 Iraqi civilians were killed between 2004 and 2008. That’s 17,139 per year. On an annual basis, Mexico’s total is in the 10,000 range, but it was 15,000 in 2010. The overall death toll is far higher than what prompted NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 or in Libya in 2011.

Not all the news is bad in the world, however. Almost overnight, one country recently found itself on the right side of the global oil rush, with total domestic supply growing from 8.3 million barrels per day in 2007 to 11.2 million last year, and production of crude oil, natural gas liquids and biofuels increasing by close to 3 million barrels per day—about the same as the total output of Kuwait. In fact, this country will be the world’s leading oil producer by 2017 and a net oil exporter by 2030. This is not some Middle Eastern sheikdom or emerging Eurasian petro-power. The world’s new energy superpower is none other than the United States.

In other good news, there’s a country where 75 percent of the population feels “very good or somewhat good” about how their government is doing. This country’s GDP has grown by an average of 11 percent annually since 2003. No, it’s not some Scandinavian utopia. And given those GDP numbers and government-satisfaction numbers, we know it’s not the United States. As a matter of fact, the country described here is Afghanistan.

Finally, which country initially scuttled the dubious deal between the major world powers and Iran aimed at ending Tehran’s drive for nuclear weapons? Fearing that Iran would game the international community, this country rejected what it called a “sucker’s deal” and demanded tougher measures in the final agreement—measures we can only hope will be enough to prevent Iran from crashing the nuclear club. Hint: It’s the same country that challenged the world to get serious about Iran’s outlaw nuclear program in 2009, noting that “Since 2005, Iran has violated five Security Council resolutions…An offer of dialogue was made in 2005, an offer of dialogue was made in 2006, an offer of dialogue was made in 2007, an offer of dialogue was made in 2008, and another one was made in 2009…What did the international community gain from these offers of dialogue? More enriched uranium, more centrifuges.” It’s the same country that led NATO into Libya, fought jihadists in northern Africa alone and pleaded with the international community to respond militarily to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. It may sound like the United States, but this plain-spoken, no-nonsense, go-it-alone nation is France.

We can draw a few important lessons—especially in the realm of foreign policy and national security—from these trick questions and eyebrow-raising answers.

First, the world is more complex than it appears on the surface or on the evening news. Yesterday’s enemy could be tomorrow’s ally. Yesterday’s problem could be tomorrow’s solution. Second, our predispositions, even when they are based on sound facts and information, must change as the facts and information on the ground changes. Third, what nations and governments do—what they really are—is far more important than what they say they do and what they say they are.

The Landing Zone is Dowd’s monthly column on national defense and international security featured on the American Legion's website.