Having watched all the debates and seen all these people running for president, I can’t suppress the thought: Why would anyone want this job now? Do you people realize what’s going on out there? Barack Obama’s hair hasn’t gone early gray for nothing. I mean, Air Force One is great and all, but it now comes with Afghanistan, the Islamic State and the Republican Freedom Caucus – not to mention a lot of people, places and things all coming unstuck at once.
Consider the scariest news article this year. On Friday, The Washington Post reported that “the Justice Department has charged a hacker in Malaysia with stealing the personal data of U.S. service members and passing it to the Islamic State terrorist group, which urged supporters online to attack them.” The article explained that in June Ardit Ferizi, the leader of a group of ethnic Albanian hackers from Kosovo who call themselves Kosova Hackers Security, “hacked into a server used by a U.S. online retail company” and “obtained data on about 100,000 people.”
Ferizi, it said, “is accused of passing the data to Islamic State member Junaid Hussain, a British citizen who in August posted links on Twitter to the names, email addresses, passwords, locations and phone numbers of 1,351 U.S. military and other government personnel. He included a warning that Islamic State ‘soldiers … will strike at your necks in your own lands!’” FBI agents tracked Ferizi “to a computer with an Internet address in Malaysia,” where he was arrested. Meanwhile, Hussain was killed by a U.S. drone in Syria.
Wow: An Albanian hacker in Malaysia collaborating with an ISIS jihadi on Twitter to intimidate U.S soldiers online – before we killed the jihadi with a drone!
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Welcome to the future of warfare: superpowers versus superempowered angry men – and a tag-team of cybercriminals and cyberterrorists. They’re all a byproduct of a profound technology-driven inflection point that will greet the next president and will make the current debates look laughably obsolete in four years.
I was born into the Cold War era. It was a dangerous time with two nuclear-armed superpowers each holding a gun to the other’s head, and the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” kept both in check. But we now know that the dictators that both America and Russia propped up in the Middle East and Africa suppressed volcanic sectarian conflicts.
The first decades of the post-Cold War era were also a time of relative stability. Dictators in Eastern Europe and Latin America gave way to democratically elected governments and free markets. Boris Yeltsin of Russia never challenged NATO expansion, and the Internet and global supply chains drove profitability up and the cost of labor and goods down. Interest rates were low, and although the income of men without college degrees declined, it was masked by rising home prices, subprime mortgages, easy credit, falling taxes and women joining the workforce, so many household incomes continued to rise.
“Up until the year 2000, over 95 percent of the next generation were better off than the previous generation,” said Richard Dobbs, a director of the McKinsey Global Institute. Therefore, even though the rich were getting even richer than those down the income ladder “it did not lead to political unrest because the middle was moving ahead, too” and were sure to be richer than their parents.
But, in the last decade, we entered the post-post-Cold War era. The combination of technological, economic and climate pressures is literally blowing the lid off nation-states in the Middle East and Africa, unleashing sectarian conflicts that no dictator can suppress. Bad guys are getting superempowered and “mutually assured destruction” to ISIS is not a deterrent but an invitation to heaven. Robots are milking cows and IBM’s Watson computer can beat you at “Jeopardy!” and your doctor at radiology, so every decent job requires more technical and social skills – and continuous learning. In the West, a smaller number of young people, with billions in college tuition debts, will have to pay the Medicare and Social Security for the baby boomers now retiring, who will be living longer.
“Suddenly,” argues Dobbs, “the number of people who don’t believe they will be better off than their parents goes from zero to 25 percent or more.”
When you are advancing, you buy the system; you don’t care who’s a billionaire, because your life is improving. But when you stop advancing, added Dobbs, you can “lose faith in the system – whether that be globalization, free trade, offshoring, immigration, traditional Republicans or traditional Democrats. Because in one way or another they can be perceived as not working for you.”
And that is why Donald Trump is resonating in America, Marine Le Pen in France, the ISIS caliph in the Arab world, and Vladimir Putin in Russia. They all promise to bring back the certainties and prosperity of the Cold War or post-Cold War eras – by sacking the traditional elites who got us here and by building walls against change and against the superempowered angry men. They are all false prophets, but the storm they promise to hold back is very real.