01.23.116:52 PM ET

8 Nightmares in 2011: U.S. Economy, Olbermann, More

Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq fall apart; the U.S. economy sinks back into recession; Keith Olbermann gets into politics—Leslie H. Gelb on the disasters that beckon at home and abroad this year, plus a few bright spots.

Disasters have been brewing for years all over the world, and this might well be the year where some or many just erupt. The bad signs far outweigh the good ones. Too many problems have gone unattended and unfixed for too long, and one just gets the sense of things preparing to pop. It won’t be as bad as say, 1939 with nations on the edge of World War II. But it could be worse than 1968, when the Vietnam War was reaching a crescendo and America appeared to be coming apart at the seams. Here are some of the sprouts to watch.

1. The U.S. Economy Fails to Improve

An American economy will look bright for six months only to start tanking or leveling off again. There is almost $1 trillion in stimulus spending that came on the eve of Christmas (extending unemployment benefits and tax breaks) to keep the economy looking brighter for a while. But now the congressional mania to cut, cut, cut will dominate. Worst of all, Congress, mainly the Republican-controlled House, won’t pass President Obama’s request for “investment” spending on transportation, public schools, and energy innovation. America’s future will be flushed down the drain of indiscriminate debt reduction. The real horror here is that so much else depends on an improving U.S. economy.

2. Hosni Mubarak Is Threatened in Egypt

Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, America’s good friend and key to Mideast peace, could be toppled in a wave of public discontent with his regime’s corruption and inefficiency. The likeliest beneficiaries would be the Muslim Brotherhood and even more extremist Muslim organizations. They are the only ones organized enough to capitalize on the regime’s collapse and ensuing chaos. All those neocons and liberals who have been clamoring for “democracy” in the Muslim world had better think again.

3. Mexico’s Chaos Deepens

Mexico could fall into further turmoil and control by drug dealers, thus compelling Washington to make much greater commitments to “ the Mexican problem”. Americans have been underplaying this one for decades, especially given the immigration and drug issues plus mutual trade and investment. The one good result of this would be that Americans finally realize that Mexico is far more important to their national security than Afghanistan.

4. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq Fall Apart

Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq will begin to implode, confronting Mr. Obama with the deadly choice: cut losses or drown. Pakistan is on the edge now with its civilian government having little support because of its inefficiencies and corruption. Its army keeps things together somewhat, and while it hasn’t been honest or helpful to the United States, it’s the last “best” hope. The increasingly capable armed forces in Afghanistan, along with tribal leaders, may be the only refuges for a failing political order. Even as U.S. armed forces do their job well, the Afghan civilian side will fall apart. As for Iraq, it will continue to be on the edge of disaster. If the Shiite-led government doesn’t make stable deals with Sunnis and Kurds, it will be all too easy to tip into civil war.

5. European, Japanese Economies Stay Flat

Europe and Japan will continue to stagnate because they desperately need to increase their exports and can’t do it with China alone. They need an expanding American economy for a full recovery, and they won’t get it. And as their economies remain flat (except for Germany’s), that hurts America in turn because they still are by far the major buyers of American exports.

6. California, Other States Declare Bankruptcy

California, Illinois, Texas, and some other states may have to declare virtual or real bankruptcy. They can’t begin to reduce spending by anywhere near enough to cut their gigantic debts, and they certainly aren’t going to raise taxes. Recipients of public pensions will be the first and biggest losers. States and cities will have to continue slashing slots for teachers, police and fire workers, the very people who keep society going. The deterioration in public services will be fast and painful.

7. Keith Olbermann Gets Into Politics

Keith Olbermann will form an anti-Tea Party equipped with nuclear weapons. The ATP will threaten to nuke the TP, totally unaware that the TP also possesses nukes set to launch on warning. A standoff will follow, with both sides agreeing to sit next to each other during the president’s State of the Union address. (Then they will launch guerrilla war.)

8. The Yankees Miss the Playoffs

The New York Yankees will not even make the playoffs, let alone win the American League pennant or the World Series. This is terrible, especially for people like me who watch 100 games a year and like Yankee fans generally can’t bear to see the Yankees lose, ever. Money ain’t what it used to be.

Not everything will be bad in the world. Here are some of the potential bright spots:

1. The Koreas Avoid War

There will be no war on the Korean Peninsula. After coming to sword’s point in 2010, the crazy Commies in Pyongyang will appear more reasonable to South Korea. North Koreans will express a strong desire “to talk,” and their leaders will spend more time doing two things: intriguing for the succession of power and watching Western porn (no kidding).

2. Israel and the United States Don’t Attack Iran

Some may feel the absence of war here is a bad thing, that it means only that Iran will persist in its march toward nuclear weapons. But we have to take what we can get this year—and some will hope that we can go to war against Iran in a Republican administration.

3. Russian Officials Go to Jail

Russian leaders, having run out of innocent people to imprison, will begin jailing each other. This will allow the Russians to resume their long, long march toward democracy.

4. Peace Means More Family Time

With the absence of new wars, I will have more time to devote to my five young grandsons, one of whom looks to me like a future Marine.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.