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Tough week in Congress: debt ceiling, infrastructure bills, Afghanistan hearing

By
Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan on Tuesday on Capitol Hill. Pool Photo by Patrick Semansky/UPI
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan on Tuesday on Capitol Hill. Pool Photo by Patrick Semansky/UPI | License Photo

Members of Congress are describing this week as one from hell.

The debt ceiling crisis that can shut government down; two very contentious infrastructure bills; and hearings on the Afghanistan withdrawal debacle and charges that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley exceeded his authority are among the reasons for this prediction.

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Add the continuing controversies over COVID-19 inoculations and wearing of masks, along with further redundant audits of the 2020 election to discredit President Joe Biden's conclusive victory, members of Congress have a point.

Alternatively, given the increasingly polarized and highly partisan nature of American politics after Sept. 11, this week could be observed as business as usual. And if the politics become too vituperative and nasty, a week from hell could easily become "hell week" in the sense that college fraternities and SEAL training use it for administering harsh and highly unpleasant initiations. Either way, it is hard to see the republic emerging any stronger afterward.

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It is unchallengeable that the United States needs major infrastructure programs to repair, replace and build what is needed to keep the nation secure, safe, prosperous and competitive in the 21st century. Likewise, police and immigration reform are gaping wounds that will not be closed. Failure to lift the debt ceiling is a ticking financial improvised explosive device.

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And the opportunity to crucify the administration over the Afghan retreat and Milley for alleged wrongdoings is too great for Republicans to miss. Under different circumstances, Democrats do the same such as in Robert Mueller's investigation over the Donald Trump campaign's relationship with Moscow.

One can easily imagine how Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jingping are viewing this spectacle and will use it to reassert the continuing decline and dissolution of the USA. Allies will not be heartened either.

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Indeed, the virtual no-notice termination of Australia's $60 billion submarine contract with France will reverberate far beyond President Emmanuel Macron's presidential palace in Paris. Its replacement is with a so far diaphanous three-party agreement among Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States called AUKUS that sounds more like a harsh bird call than a plan for acquiring a dozen nuclear submarines.

And it remains questionable if Australia will ever build any of these submarines, given the complexity, toxicity, demanding and costly safety requirements necessitated by nuclear power.

If Putin and Xi (and their advisers) were clever, this treasure trove of damning reality could be a propaganda coup more potent than the four impeachments of American presidents and the "big lie" over the 2020 election that Trump continues to claim he won.

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About Afghanistan, Putin will use this catastrophic exit to show the United States cannot be trusted, echoing the abandonment of South Vietnam. While Putin has used assassinations of traitors and spies abroad authorized by Russian law, the death by U.S. drone attack of an Afghan aid worker and the ongoing investigation will not be ignored. Putin will no doubt see the submarine deal as a means of drawing closer to Paris and Macron, recalling that France at one time sold two large Mistral class amphibious warships to Russia, although that deal was terminated after the Crimean intervention in 2014. Does this offer another opportunity for Putin, much as Turkey bought the S-400 Russian air defense missile system?

The default of China's Evergrande real estate conglomerate can be obscured by U.S. failure to prevent a government shutdown, as well as paralysis over passage of infrastructure bills. Even the AUKUS submarine deal, if Beijing takes the long view, can be exploited and ridiculed. The rationale for the warships is to protect the sea lanes from the obvious Chinese threat, which also is Australia's largest trading partner. How does that circular logic make sense?

China can also challenge Australia on the grounds that it lacks the technical competence to manage nuclear power safely. China no doubt will assert that Australia is using this program as cover for developing nuclear weapons that a majority of its citizens strongly oppose possessing. And China can use this deal as a rationale for increasing, or threatening to increase, its own military in response.

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For more than domestic reasons, this could be a hell week, which our main competitors will happily use to exploit with copious social media and regurgitating propaganda on the failure of the United States and its democratic system to govern in contrast to their own. The Biden administration has enough problems. But it cannot ignore this obvious assault.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.'s Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of the upcoming book, "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large."

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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