Beach Worrying

Four global crises that could ruin your August vacation.

It’s a fact: Nothing happens in August. A curtain of heat descends across the northern hemisphere. Shops close. Congress goes home. Washington brims with interns; Paris swarms with tourists. Even the Russians are out in the woods picking mushrooms.

Yes, nothing happens in August—except, as we all know, when something really terrible happens in August. World War I began in August, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait began in August, al-Qaida was preparing to bring down the World Trade Center in August. Nor is this an accident: If you want to surprise any U.S. administration, do something nasty while the president is on vacation.

August, in other words, is the time when all of us should prepare our backup plans, chart our course reversals, think through possible paradigm changes—which no one does, because they are all at Martha’s Vineyard or maybe Ocean City. So, for the interns who are manning the shop while everyone is out of town, here is a list of crises that are quietly simmering on the back burner, one (or more!) of which could bubble over this month:

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is sworn in for a second term

Iran: There are show trials going on right now in Tehran. The revolution is devouring its children: Dozens of midlevel opposition leaders, many members of the former elite, are acting out an extraordinary piece of public theater, begging forgiveness, admitting impossible crimes. A former vice president of the Islamic republic has asked a jury to give him the maximum punishment. French and British “spies” are in the dock, perhaps as a test of the West—maybe the mullahs want to gauge how we might react to another, imminent wave of arrests, this time to include top-level opposition leaders such as “failed” presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi and former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. And how will we react, exactly? Plan A was to talk to the Iranians in a reasonable tone of voice. What is Plan B?

Russia and Georgia, again: It’s been exactly a year since Russian tanks were a few hours’ striking distance from Tblisi, the Georgian capital. To mark the occasion, South Ossetian “separatists” threw grenades into both Georgian and Russian border checkpoints, while mysterious hackers, presumably Russian, temporarily shut down Twitter and Facebook all over the world to block a single Georgian blogger. Georgia and Russia are accusing each other of stoking a new conflict, which is exactly what happened before the last round of hostilities broke out. What if Russia invades again? Plan A was to “press the reset button” in the Kremlin. What is Plan B?

Afghanistan: The surge is under way, and elections are scheduled for Aug. 20. But although the Taliban melted away into the hills when new waves of U.S. troops poured into the southern provinces, they are taking their revenge in other ways, moving into the cities and into the previously peaceful North and West of the country. Some think their main goal, at the moment, is to disrupt the elections and therefore discredit whoever wins them: Stability in Afghanistan requires a legitimate government, and everybody knows it. Thus, in Kandahar, three female parliamentary candidates have been forced out of their homes; another woman’s home was burned to the ground because she dared to run for office. Insurgent attacks are increasing, not decreasing, across the country and are expected to get worse just before and just after voting day. Plan A was to rout the Taliban once and for all with a single massive troop wave, leave some kind of more or less acceptable government in place, and then go home. What is Plan B?

Iraq: I’m not going to belabor this one, since it’s been simmering on the back burner for years now, and there’s no particular reason why this August is any different. But since I’ve already ruined your day on the beach by listing all these dire scenarios, why not throw Iraq into the mix as well? After all, our current policy is to hand over power to Iraqi troops and go home. But what will we do in case of a spectacular incident—say, the bombardment of one of the remaining U.S. bases or the kidnapping of American troops? Will we retake command? Go home anyway? Has anyone thought about it? I hope so.

Or, anyway, I hope someone was thinking about it before they went on vacation. Happy August.