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Economic Crisis Is Top U.S. Security Concern

Dennis Blair, the new U.S. director of national intelligence, testifies before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
(RFE/RL) -- In testimony before the U.S. Congress, Washington's new director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, has said the global economic crisis is now the top U.S. security concern, not terrorism.

Speaking to the Senate Select Commitee on Intelligence on February 12, Blair said many countries were at risk of political instability due to the severity of the global downturn, which he called the most serious in decades, "if not centuries." Some nations, like the former Soviet republics, lack the money to limit its impact, he said.

"Economic crises increase the risk of regime-threatening instability if they are prolonged for a one- or two-year period," Blair said. "And instability can loosen the fragile hold that many developing countries have on law and order, which can spill out in dangerous ways into the international community."

Already the impact of the global downturn has been severe, prompting social unrest in countries from Iceland to Bulgaria.

Nearly half of China's toy factories closed last year, sending millions of now jobless migrant workers back home. Thousands of jobs have been cut in Japan. Latvia has seen riots over government austerity plans. Iceland's government fell last month, the first to be toppled by the crisis.

'Destructive Protectionism'

Blair said the crisis could destabilize governments friendly to Washington and hamper NATO and U.S. operations in Afghanistan. It could also lead to a "wave of destructive protectionism." And criticism of the United States for causing the crisis could curb U.S. economic leadership.

"The crisis presents many challenges for the United States," he said. "We're generally held to be responsible for it."

Blair said two-thirds of the world's countries have enough financial means to soften the impact of the crisis on their citizens.

But many, he said, including much of the former Soviet Union, do not.

There is a threat to regional stability in Central Asia, he said, from problems including violent Islamic extremism and poor economic development. And he said that could threaten the security of "critical" U.S. and NATO lines of communication to Afghanistan.

Among the countries Blair mentioned:

  • Russia's challenges to U.S. interests stem more from Moscow's perceived strengths than its weaknesses. Moscow is seeking stronger ties with powers such as China, Iran, and Venezuela to increase its influence.
  • Kazakhstan, where Blair said any sustained decline in oil prices could lead to societal discontent and derail momentum for reforms.
  • Ukraine, where the financial crisis and disputes with an increasingly assertive Russia have "dramatically revealed the underlying weaknesses of the Ukrainian economy and potentially Ukraine’s stability."
  • Belarus, where Russia's efforts to control key parts of the economy could prompt Minsk to improve ties with the West. On the other hand, repression could intensify if the worsening economy prompted protests.
  • Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, heavily reliant on migrant remittances, will be "severely affected" by the crisis. The loss of such revenue could destabilize Tajikistan.
  • On Afghanistan, Blair said the Taliban is gaining ever wider control as the central government of President Hamid Karzai has become increasingly ineffective and unpopular. He said the insurgency had moved into previously peaceful areas around Kabul and elsewhere and that militants would probably "make a concerted effort to disrupt" presidential elections due this year.
  • On Iran, Blair said Tehran's aspirations for regional preeminence were a key "flashpoint" in the Middle East.

"With Iran developing a nuclear power capability and with Israel determined not to allow it," he said, "there is potential for an Iran-Israeli confrontation or crisis."

But there are also "silver linings," Blair said.

Low oil prices are putting financial constraints on Venezuela.

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad faces "less than certain prospects" for reelection in June. He also noted that Muslim opinion is increasingly turning against terrorist groups.

And while Al-Qaeda is still planning attacks against Western targets, he said, it is "less capable and effective than it was a year ago" following the killing of key leaders.