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This Week in Review: Long-term Challenges

September 28, 2012

By Josh Alley ’15

This past week, President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly, The Economist’s Lexington Column discussed the consequences of declining civility in American politics, and scientists released figures illustrating the Arctic sea ice’s historic rate of recession. While all these issues will bear directly on the current presidential election, they are also indicative of long-term challenges that will confront the victor of our acrimonious electoral contest.

Interestingly, but rather unsurprisingly, the usual presidential ritual of meeting with a host of foreign leaders during the General Assembly has fallen to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This has earned the President some criticism, but it is clear that the opening of the General Assembly is not a priority with only 43 days left until the election.

Within the General Assembly, the President gave a speech dealing with three major foreign difficulties, all of which are concentrated within the Middle East. First, the President spoke about Christopher Stevens, the American Ambassador to Libya who was killed in the recent attack on the embassy there, in order to address the recent riots in the Middle East. While explicitly disavowing the film that started the riots, the President also espoused American ideals of tolerance and free speech, and stated he will not censor content, regardless of how despicable it may be. In this, the President’s message to the leaders gathered in New York aimed to bridge a cultural divide that spawned rumors in Egypt that the film, The Innocence of Muslims, had been aired on US state television. The President reminded his audience of the hope contained within the Arab Spring, and called for leaders everywhere to reject violence and extremism in order to build a better future.

From there, it was on to the implacable crisis in Syria, where the President clearly stated that Assad must go, and referenced a horrific new development in the conflict, the torture of children by regime forces. Having excoriated the Syrian regime, the President then explicitly stated that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable and “not a challenge that can be contained,” the implication being that the US will do whatever is necessary to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.  As such, this speech offered a clear look at the challenges posed by instability in the Middle East that the presidential victor in November will inevitably face, and also set the tone for Obama’s interactions with Tehran and Damascus during a potential second term.

Another equally significant challenge for the victor in November is emerging as scientists reported that Arctic sea ice has been melting at an unexpectedly rapid rate, outpacing all computer modeling. Scientists believe this surprise development can be traced to rapidly rising temperatures in the Arctic, which they say are almost certainly a result of greenhouse gasses. Barring any further debate on that subject, (the prospect of action on climate change with a GOP controlled House is nonexistent), several other issues await the next President. The first is the scramble for resources that have been exposed by the melt, primarily oil, gas and an array of minerals. Secondly, new shipping lanes have opened up in the Arctic, changing the face of global commerce. All of this has sparked intense territorial competition in the Arctic. The next administration will need to monitor the situation and decide what policy, if any, to pursue in the face of clear climate change.

Lastly, no matter who wins in November, the President will have to pursue all of these diverse matters on the heels of a less than civil election cycle. Lexington, The Economist’s columnist on US politics, notes that American civility and trust exist abundantly outside of the political sphere. However, he concludes that in an election where partisan attacks of dubious veracity often prevail, “this election risks leaving scars.”  I could not agree more with the columnist’s assessment, given the nature of the attacks both parties have launched. Furthermore, the inundation of the airwaves and our discourse with partisan tripe does not bode well for the health of our governing institutions, and while Americans may still be a civil lot, there comes a time when political polarization will inevitably spill over into everyday life. Whoever takes power in November will have the unenviable task of governing a politically polarized nation while tackling a host of serious issues.

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