In fact, let's face it: Iraq remains a cauldron where tensions simmer, ready to be brought to boil very quickly. The vital issue of politically reconciling Iraq's Sunni and Shiite Arabs has seen no real progress for months. Unless progress is forthcoming, and soon, Iraq's politics are going to remain fragmented, become even more tense, and the writ of the current government of Nuri al-Maliki government will be limited to Baghdad and parts of Iraq's largely Shiite south - and even there, the Shiite-fundamentalist Sadrists and their allies are going to have a major say. The northern Kurdish region of Iraq is, for all real intents and purposes, independent of the Baghdad government's control, but also able to imperil that same government because of the still unsettled issue of whether the ethnically divided tinderbox city of Kirkuk is to be included in the Kurdish zone. Meanwhile,
- Israel and Hamas are in a very tentative cease-fire that may literally go up in smoke at any time;
- Iran may be on the verge of becoming a nuclear power, with consequences that may be potentially de-stabilizing for the entire Middle East (and beyond);
- the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan is swirling the bowl;
- Turkey seems to be steadily losing its bid to gain acceptance within the EU and the broader European community, struggling to remain a strictly secularist democracy even as much of its middle class embraces Islamic values ever more closely;
- Russia, having steamrolled Georgia (and US policy in the process), is reasserting its prerogatives in eastern Europe, where the Ukraine and Poland now sense themselves very much in harm's way;
- western Europe's access to Russia's all-important natural gas hangs in the balance;
- the US economy limps along, significantly at the mercy of oil prices that can be radically affected by any or all of the above.
Both presidential candidates must be able to address themselves to all of these issues as they press on with their campaigns. One of them is going to need to face all of these issues from day one in the White House, and he will have to do so with one hand tied behind his back because his predecessor overstretched the US military, overplayed the US's diplomatic hand, and underestimated the consequences that his recklessly unilateralist agenda would have on the US's prestige across the planet.