12/15/2012 01:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Cliffs We Aren't Falling From (and One From Which We Are)

The fiscal cliff talks continue, with breathless speculation. Stop me if you've heard this before: Look for a last-minute compromise with cuts and revenues.

While much of the media continues merrily along on its latest iteration of auto-pilot, there are some real cliffs from which we have fortunately not fallen. And one big cliff from which we are all too clearly falling.

As the Obama Administration works to "re-balance" the nation's strategic focus, there are several crises which seemed to approach metaphorical cliffs all their own. (You can see an archive of my articles related to the geopolitical pivot from over-engagement with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to increased engagement with the rising Asia-Pacific region by clicking here.)

* Syria

The arc of events continues to bend toward the opposition, and the danger of chemical weapons use seems to have abated.

A few days ago on a flight to Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that the Assad regime seems to have backed away from further deployment of chemical weapons. More embattled than ever in Damascus, the regime came under heavy pressure from many sides, including its longtime Russian ally.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's suddenly scheduled meeting in Dublin with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Syria's chemical weapons did not produce public solutions. But it seems to have had an effect.

In Syria, the fighting continues with rebel forces inexorably gaining the upper hand.

The geopolitical pivot to the Asia-Pacific region has many complexities we need to learn. China marked the 75th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre this week. Beijing says 300,000 civilians and soldiers were killed in the first six weeks of the Japanese occupation which started in 1937. The Japanese Foreign Ministry concedes only that "the killing of a large number of noncombatants occurred" and says that "it is difficult to determine which the correct number is." The issue remains one of the biggest factors that divide the two nations, currently facing off in the East China Sea, to this day.

In advance of the big international conference this week in Morocco held by the Friends of Syria alliance, the Obama Administration announced that it is recognizing the newly formed Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the country.

Other European and Arab nations have already done this. The U.S. has also designated one Syrian opposition group as a jihadist terrorist outfit.

* Egypt

A new round of protests, this time against the country's first democratically elected president and his Muslim Brotherhood allies, proved tumultuous but did not tear the Arab world's biggest country, still emerging from decades of dictatorship, apart.

The level of protest against President Mohamed Morsi in advance of the December 15th national referendum on the proposed constitution proved to be, as anticipated, quite survivable.

Opposition groups in the new National Salvation Front are finding consensus difficult, crowds are growing smaller, and the Muslim Brotherhood's latest election win looks quite likely.

Morsi, who holds a doctorate in engineering from the University of Southern California and spent time teaching in the LA area and doing some work for NASA, announced in advance of the vote that he had given up the dictatorial powers he assumed right after brokering last month's Israel-Hamas ceasefire.

His opponents, spurred into action by his sweeping presidential decree, didn't give up protesting, though. Their real aim was to try to block the referendum, which they feared that they would lose.

Morsi of course just needed to hang tough till the referendum to emerge the clear winner here. His fellow Muslim Brotherhood members are joining forces with the military in a new governing coalition.

The emerging result in Egypt is probably not going to be what most of us would prefer.

We have a tendency in the West to believe that the people in revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situations will turn to secular moderates and liberals like, well, us. If you've traveled in Egypt or elsewhere in the Arab and Islamic worlds, or even follow news coverage from the region, you likely know that this is a grand fallacy. (Or not so grand at all, depending on your perspective.)

This was so evident during the Iranian protests of 2009, which grievously disappointed so many Westerners when they led to a dismantled opposition and more power for the theocrats. College students with iPods and iPads don't represent the mainstream in Egypt any more than they did in Iran.

And even though Morsi, having spent years in Los Angeles, knows the West well and has undoubtedly taken in some of our values, that's certainly not something he emphasizes in Egyptian politics. During the Innocence of Muslims video firestorm, he wasn't eager to point out that the production was simply laughable by American standards, because that would have pointed up his own history in America.

Given the realities, the Obama Administration is doing well with Egypt.

* Israel and Palestine.

While relations between Israel and Palestine are at their latest low ebb after last month's conflict between Hamas and Israel and the U.N.'s elevation of Palestine's status to that of a non-member state, things could be worse.

The ceasefire Morsi brokered, with assistance from the U.S., between Israel and Hamas over Thanksgiving continues to hold, and hold well. Given how bad things are, that's great news.

Meanwhile, Israel's election campaign in advance of the January 22nd national vote heats up, and far right Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, facing indictment for fraud, resigns. Lieberman, who lives in what many consider an illegal settlement in hotly disputed territory, has been one of the biggest champions of the settlements movement. His departure from the Israeli Cabinet may have a somewhat moderating effect on the likely next Netanyahu government.

* Climate change.

The climate, unfortunately, meets the cliff.

The latest U.N. climate summit in Doha, Qatar wrapped up last weekend with the Kyoto Protocol, which was about to expire, being extended in furtherance of a hope for new global treaty by 2015.

But the reality is that Kyoto's targets have not only not been reached, practically the opposite has occurred.

Greenhouse gas emissions, far from being cut, have hit record levels.

Developed nations have not followed through on their commitments to provide financial assistance to the developing world in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Kyoto now covers only 15% of global emissions. How is that possible? Canada, Japan, New Zealand and Russia reneged on their obligations under a second commitment period beginning in 2013.

The U.S. never ratified Kyoto. So-called "developing nations" China and India never set binding goals. So Kyoto lives on, as a sharply diminished process.

And the Arctic Sea is losing its ice cap even faster than expected, while extreme weather events are proliferating.

It looks more and more as if we have gone off the Climate Cliff. This is likely the biggest story of all.

But as I noted over three months ago in "Pay No Attention To the Elephant: The Conventions and the Climate," politicians and the news media, caught up in the political ping pong of a momentary culture, have essentially ignored it.

When the history of this time is written, many will wonder how we could have been so stupid.

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