Oct 20, 2023 - Politics & Policy
Column / Behind the Curtain

Behind the Curtain: Rattled U.S. government fears wars could spread

Illustration of a hand pulling back a blue curtain with a recurring Axios logo across it

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

This is a new column by Axios CEO Jim VandeHei and co-founder Mike Allen, based on regular conversations with White House and congressional leaders, CEOs, and top technologists.

Never before have we talked to so many top government officials who, in private, are so worried about so many overseas conflicts at once.

Why it matters: We don't like to sound dire. But to sound a siren of clinical, clear-eyed realism: U.S. officials say this confluence of crises poses epic concern and historic danger.

Behind the scenes: Officials tell us that inside the White House, this was the heaviest, most chilling week since President Biden took office just over 1,000 days ago.

  • Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates — who ran the Pentagon under presidents of both parties, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — tells us America is facing the most crises since World War II ended 78 years ago.
  • He explains the White House's system overload like this: "There's this gigantic funnel that sits over the table in the Situation Room. And all the problems in the world end up coming through that funnel to the same eight or 10 people. There's a limit to the bandwidth those eight or 10 people can have."

Not one of the crises can be solved and checked off. All five could spiral into something much bigger:

1. Israel's response to the Hamas terrorist attack, and growing fear of a spreading war that reaches to Iran and beyond. Officials point to the protests, threats and deadly, anti-American warnings of Arab nations after they thought — incorrectly — Israel struck a hospital in Gaza, killing hundreds. This is a preview of what they fully expect will be a worldwide response to the expected Israeli invasion of Gaza.

2. Vladimir Putin meeting in China this week with Xi Jinping to further strengthen their anti-America alliance. In a new Foreign Affairs article that top officials are sharing, Gates argues that both leaders believe America and other big democracies "are past their prime and have entered an irreversible decline." Putin and Xi sniff weakness and are activating on many fronts, top administration officials tell us.

  • This Reuters headline says it all: "Russia says it is coordinating Middle East policy with China."

3. A malicious Iran. It's unclear how involved Iran was in orchestrating or assisting the Hamas terrorist attack — but officials seem certain there are ties. More worrisome: U.S. officials fear Hezbollah — a much bigger terrorist group than Hamas, funded by Iran — will strike the moment Israel gets stuck in Gaza.

  • Biden said Thursday night in his Oval Office address: "Iran is supporting Russia in Ukraine, and it's supporting Hamas and other terrorist groups in the region."

4. Then there's the unhinged leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, and his frequent testing of long-range, nuclear-capable missiles. As Gates points out, the combined nuclear arsenal of Russia, China, Iran and North Korea "could within a few years be nearly double the size of" America's.

5. A new weapon is being deployed in all these conflicts: a massive spread of doctored or wholly fake videos to manipulate what people see and think in real time. The architects of these new technologies, in background conversations with us after demonstrating new capabilities soon to be released, say even the sharpest eyes looking for fake videos will have an impossible time detecting what's real. (We'll have a column coming soon to Go Deeper on this topic).

  • Fake video, on top of bots (fake people) and fake written content, is being used aggressively by all anti-American actors, intelligence officials say. Some experts estimate that more than 90% of content on the internet will soon be fake or manipulated.

What scares officials is how all five threats could fuse into one.

  • The State Department on Thursday issued a rare "Worldwide Caution," warning U.S. travelers abroad of "increased tensions in various locations around the world" that raise "the potential for terrorist attacks, demonstrations or violent actions against U.S. citizens and interests."

These simultaneous threats are hitting at the very moment the American political system seems — and sometimes is — literally broken.

  • It's not just that Republicans don't have a House speaker and can't seem to elect one, or that we might shut down the government in the middle of this mess, or that we're hurtling toward another toxic presidential election in which big chunks of both parties want different candidates.
  • Former top intelligence officials tell us domestic unrest is one of their biggest fears — whether it's triggered by court rulings against former President Trump or protests over war in the Middle East. Biden allies frame these flare-ups as a reminder that global chaos requires calm and experience. "With age comes wisdom," Ron Klain, Biden's first chief of staff, told us.

But there has been a total collapse of people's trust in the opposing party, the media, what they see or share on social platforms, and even the top-secret intelligence the government relies on to measure these threats.

  • This, as much as the five individual threats above, is what worries officials. They know things could get worse — fast — and require tough actions — fast. And no one knows whether Congress or the public could unite in an emergency.
  • Editor's note: Adds exact language of Gates' nuclear outlook.

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