Axios: Rattled U.S. government fears wars could spread

11:27 30.10.2023 •

US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meet about the situation in Israel with members of Biden's Cabinet and national security team in the White House Situation Room on Oct 10, 2023
Photo: The White House

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. The U.S. is deploying two aircraft carriers to the region. A U.S. Navy destroyer shot down missiles from Yemen that appeared headed toward Israel. U.S. troops were fired by drones in Syria and Iraq.
  2. Vladimir Putin meeting in China with Xi Jinping to further strengthen their anti-America alliance.
  3. 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.
  4. Then there's the unhinged leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, and his frequent testing of long-range, nuclear-capable missiles.
  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…

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

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

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.

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.


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