Perhaps the greatest weakness of the Obama administration is its inability to own its successes. While this is hardly a weakness that will be cited by the president's opponents in the upcoming campaign, or even one that they will acknowledge, perhaps, it will impact the outcome next November. Because the Obama track record on many fronts is much better than the administration gives itself credit for.
They could be doing much, much more to tout what is an impressive litany of successes.
While the list of those successes is long and compelling-defeating Bin Laden, getting out of Iraq, helping to oust Qaddafi, restoring our reputation internationally, resetting our international priorities to better coincide with our long term interests (the "pivot" to a focus on Asia), producing meaningful healthcare reform, producing significant financial services reforms, stopping the downward spiral in the economy and laying the foundations of recovery, etc. -- let me focus on three areas that deserve much more attention and appreciation.
The first of these is our international economic policy. I worked for President Clinton on these issues and during our tenure there was always a sense they were front and center among the administration's priorities. But during the first year's of the Obama administration, the domestic economic crisis dominated and beyond the international repercussions of the market meltdown other econ issues couldn't seem to wedge their way up to being front of mind for the president or his top advisors.
That has changed. A couple years ago the president made a bold-seemingly out of the blue-call for the U.S. to double it's exports over the next five years. With growth averaging over 16 percent a year since then, they are on the path to do so. The U.S. Export-Import Bank has broken all records in terms of financing of U.S. exports. Three trade deals got through a divided Congress-against substantial opposition from within the president's own party. The TPP process is moving forward. Trade laws are being enforced more aggressively. U.S. pressure on China regarding its currency is beginning to have an effect. U.S. active involvement in European debt discussions has been forceful and played a meaningful role in moving them forward (admittedly working against strong internal EU headwinds). The U.S. has actively begun a program to attract foreign investment in the U.S., a long-overlooked area of great importance. Exports are contributing heavily to recent growth. The president's Export Initiative is working beyond what anyone had any reason to hope was possible.
So where's the party? Why isn't the president celebrating each of these landmarks and sending his surrogates across America with this message of success? He can prove he is creating jobs and growth and making material progress at getting globalization to work for the U.S. He should be shouting it from the rooftops. (I know we would have been during the Clinton years. Indeed, we celebrated much smaller accomplishments much more aggressively.)
The next of these is our policy with regard to Iran. In recent days it has become clear that the sanctions against Iran are working vastly better than anyone should have expected. The Europeans are now tightening them further with a planned oil embargo against the Iranians -- a display of unity and shared purpose within the Atlantic Alliance that might at one time have seemed as far-fetched as the idea that sanctions could work in the first place. I know I was betting against them having real traction. Perhaps more surprisingly, the Chinese have joined in constructively. Admittedly, they're doing it to finagle lower oil prices. But whatever their motivation, this is the first major Mideast issue that has required their involvement and they have played a useful role. Further, this is no accident. All of these moves have come thanks to purposeful, tireless behind the scenes diplomacy by the United States.
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George Bernard Shaw once observed that England and America are two countries separated by a common language. But now we live in the Internet Age and English has, in way that still galls the Gaullists, become the lingua franca of e-cosmopolitans. The result is that now our language can separate Americans not just from the English but from all the world.
This is especially true when customs and culture and quirks of local context enter into matters. For example, someone outside the United States might pick up a newspaper or log on to a website to read about this week's Iowa caucuses and conclude that they were an important political event in the U.S., that the winners won or that the losers lost. After all, that's what the words on the page or on the screen seemed to say. But the reality is that to understand what's going on in U.S. politics, the international observer really needs some kind of translation device, a U.S. politics to English dictionary, that will help reveal the real meaning obscured by the words.
So let me try to help. Here are a few key translations that may be of use during the current Republican campaign. Note, there are similarly twisted definitions used by Democrats which I will get to later:
Ron Paul: This is electoral English for "none of the above." When voters cast a vote for Paul, it is less for the man (there really is a Ron Paul) or his policies (a strange brew of Austrian economics, isolationism, and a late night television ad for solid gold medallions commemorating the historic events at Area 51) than it is a protest vote against the system.
Ron Paul Supporters: These are young white guys who have never had a date who need something to occupy them until the movie of "The Hobbit" is released...or they are older libertarians who believe that the Fed is where Bilderbergers meet to devalue the dollars they need in order to buy the guns with which they intend to protect their homes from space aliens or people from New York.
Ronald Reagan: This is not a reference to the real Ronald Reagan -- an American president from a while back. Instead it refers to an imaginary, idealized vision of a conservative president developed by the right wing of the Republican Party. Reagan was hardly a true conservative, growing government enormously, creating burgeoning deficits, actively working with Democrats, depending heavily on compromises that drew him closer to a Democratic sub-group that supported him, and hardly living by anything that might be considered the "family values" touted by the religious right.
Conservative Base of the Republican Party: This is a term for the small minority of right wing Republicans who have been successful at conveying the idea that they control the Republican Party even though they have not be able to select a single genuine member of their faction as the party's candidate since 1964.
Attack Ads: These are what candidates call ads that (often accurately) recount weak parts of their records. Oddly, these are often acts of compromise that actually should be seen as the high points of their public service careers. The synonym for "attack ad" when it refers to an ad you would run against an opponent is "the truth."
Winning: This is not to be confused with the term "winning" made popular by deranged, drug-addled actor Charlie Sheen to refer to the disasters that made his career a shambles. But it does share some similarities in that it seldom actually refers to winning. Candidates who finish second or third or even fourth or fifth in primaries might be said to have "won" because...well, because they don't want to admit they have lost. Which they did. A recent great example of this kind of spin is when after the Iowa caucuses, Ron Paul observed that if you counted the two guys who finished ahead of him as one guy then he would have finished second.
Getting Tough with Iran: On a variety of policy issues what candidates say is very different from what they actually mean or intend to do. Therefore it is very important for non-native electoral English speakers to understand the real meaning of key foreign policy assertions lest they fear some of what is promised actually might happen. For example, GOP candidates, in an effort to show they are strong on defense will bend over backwards to say they will/would attack Iran to stop them from getting nuclear weapons. They are no more likely to than any American president -- which is to say, they are probably likely to support an attack on Iran by the Israelis if it needed to be made (as would the Saudis and a number of other of Iran's uncomfortable neighbors.)
Punishing China: This is another promise to be taken with a grain of salt. Mitt Romney, the almost certain GOP presidential candidate, has said he will be tough on the Chinese on trade. He won't be. His friends in business lean heavily against alienating the Chinese whose market is so attractive to them. So he'll rattle the economic saber but should he win election he will pull his punches.
Socialism: This is not a reference to the political theories of Karl Marx nor any descended from them. Rather it is a term used by Republicans to describe any government program that benefits parts of the population other than the rich or big business. It is designed to make the President of the United States seem more godless and "other" like. It implies he speaks Russian or Chinese to his children while burning American flags in secret possibly satanic rituals.
Europe: Hotbed of "socialism." A synonym for failure...despite the fact that much of northern Europe outperforms the U.S. by almost every economic and quality of life measure.
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First day back at work in the New Year. Blearily open eyes on computer screen. First story I see: Muslim Brotherhood says they won't recognize Israel. Second story: Muslim Brotherhood closer to running lower house in Egyptian parliament. Third story: Islamists form government in Morocco. Next story: Israelis, prepare for peace talks by announcing new construction beyond Green Line in Jerusalem. Next story: Iranian rattling sabers in the Gulf. Next story: Taliban setting up shop in Qatar thanks to rapprochement with government. Next story: Arab League sham intervention in Syria going nowhere fast.
Seriously. That's how 2012 started for me. So, the question is: what's a guy supposed to think? Is it that 2011 was the year of giddy -- and utterly unfounded -- optimism about the Middle East?
The only person who could possibly read all those stories and be happy is Bibi Netanyahu. With elections expected in Israel this year, nothing could do more for his election chances than to have all his worst predictions about the aftermath of Arab Spring and the increasing Iranian threat appear to be coming true. All the intolerance, abuse, violence, and exacerbation of the country's problems associated with the Israeli far right and all the missteps of the Israeli Prime Minister himself may seem small price to pay if the country feels a vice grip of insecurity tightening around it throughout the year.
That's not to say I actually think that Netanyahu's combativeness and pedantry actually helps anything. I don't. It's actually more a way of saying that as bad as I think this morning's first news dump was for me, I can't help but feel worse is in store.
Beyond the problems that seem certain to deepen between Israel and the Palestinians, within Syria, with the rise of intransigent Islamic political parties, and with Iran, we also have Iraq seemingly heading straight back to the emergency room of geopolitics and, if anything, the deal the U.S. seems likely to cut with the devils we know in Afghanistan promises even less satisfactory outcomes.
Furthermore, none of these pessimistic analyzes actually have to pan out in the long run to actually have really negative consequences. For example, one of the more positive stories of the morning was the announcement that U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta was preparing a plan to cut $450 billion in U.S. defense spending over the next decade. This is in line with the very modest 8 percent cuts the administration had planned. And it's an important step in the right direction.
Almost certainly the greatest, most damaging strategic error the U.S. has made during the past couple decades is continuing our over-the-top defense spending. We have spent at many times the level we need to protect ourselves -- indeed, we have spent at a level at which the economic damage we have done the country (both in terms of deficits created and in terms of the opportunity cost of investing in our military rather than in more productive segments of the economy) vastly outstrips any potential security benefits that may have been derived. Certainly, that's been true since the fall of the USSR. In all likelihood it was true long before that.
We could cut the budget five times the level proposed and still be outspending our nearest rival many times over. But, if the Middle East -- which I would argue is not and should not be our primary security focus -- festers and boils this year as today's headlines suggest it might, then it is easy to imagine a central debate of this year's elections in the U.S. being about whether or not we should cut defense spending at all. A President with an exemplary record in terms of combating terror and getting the U.S. out of costly conflicts will suddenly find that Republicans will be able to open a different front on the national security debate where he may appear vulnerable. They will say the world is more dangerous and this is no time to be cutting defense.
And my guess is that means that when the time comes to really cut the budget nothing like these cuts will be made...and the U.S. will continue to pose the greatest danger to itself by over-spending on wasteful, bloated, duplicative defense systems it can't and shouldn't attempt to afford. The Panetta $450 billion plan will be seen as the high bid in terms of cuts and we will negotiate downward from there. The changes will be incremental and we will continue down the path to great power decline long ago limned by Paul Kennedy.
Take that and the real threats posed by the ever changing landscape in the Middle East -- uncertainty in North Korea, the rise of ever more important security challenges in Asia, the problems in the Eurozone, and bird flu (I saw "Contagion"...I know what we're up against! I saw Gwyneth Paltrow's brain!) -- and my newest New Year's resolution is to go back to bed, pull the covers over my head and wait for 2013.
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I think I have done more lists of meaningful events in 2011 than there actually were meaningful events in 2011. In fact, I'm almost certain that was the case because as I look back on the year, I see a year in which many of the most important stories were in fact things that didn't actually happen, didn't unfold as predicted in the headlines, or were frauds. In fact, we might label 2011 "The year that never was." Which leads me to one final list for the year: the headlines that didn't pan out.
Nothing captures the zeitgeist of this year of illusions, confusions, and deceptions better than what happened on December 30, 2011, in Samoa. Which is nothing. Because, as you may have read, Samoa determined to skip ahead in time in a way that had them sidestepping this day altogether. So, for them, in their island paradise, today is the day that never was. I've had some days like that myself, but usually they were followed by a hang-over that led me to believe something had actually taken place. In Samoa, today was as invisible and ephemeral as any U.S. Congressional proposal to balance the budget...or to do anything for that matter, but I get ahead of myself.
Here are are a few other non-events for the year:
Happy New Year.
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When my mother turned 27, my father awakened her with the words, "By the time Albert Einstein was 27, he had already developed the theory of relativity. By the time T.S. Eliot was 27, he had already written ‘The Wasteland.' And by the time Joan of Arc was 27, she had already been dead 8 years." He probably also said "Happy birthday." At least, I have to assume he said something nice because they're still married 55 years and two more children later. I say more children because I was already nine months old at the time, a not inconsiderable achievement on the part of my mother that I think my father was short-sighted to overlook. After all, none of the three people he had mentioned had ever given birth, much less to me.
That said, my father's litany of over-achievers (if you can consider being burned alive for heresy an achievement...which, by the way, in my family, we would...) would have to be seriously revamped thanks to the arrival on the scene of the pleasingly plump young leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un. Kim is also 27 (or 28, depending on which government-propaganda, ministry-generated hagiography you choose to believe). But why quibble?
At whatever age he is, Kim was just named the Supreme Leader of North Korea, which is quite an accomplishment for an under-30. I mean this is a guy who looks up to Britney Spears as an older woman -- and he is already the youngest-ever human being to control his own nuclear arsenal. I hadn't even bought my first new car by that age. Can you imagine what most twenty-somethings guys would do if they had their own nuclear weapons? Certainly, they would use them to get laid (but of course, that's what most twenty-something guys would try to do if they had a new bowling ball to brag about). But Kim has turned his mind to more serious pursuits (as far as we know). For example, he has already been Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army for almost a whole week. And he seems a shoe-in to become General Secretary of the Worker's Party of Korea and chairman of the Central Military Commission. And he has been characterized as "a great person born of heaven." If that can't get him a little action, I'm not sure what can. (Of course, being the dictatorial head of a police state pretty much ensures his social calendar is as filled as he wants it to be. This is a guy who has never heard the words, "Sorry, Jong-un, but I'm washing my hair this Saturday night.")
Big things clearly await. In just over a week, he will celebrate another birthday. And with some luck (and the approval of the various clucking aunts and generals who are his would-be puppet masters), in no time at all he will be blackmailing superpowers with threats of invasion, missile launches, and deranged behavior just as his dear old Dad used to do. Of course, it does raise the question of where he is going to find one, not to mention a suitable handful, of wives who understand him both in terms of their age and their accomplishments. So far, only Lady Gaga comes to mind. But what a couple that would be. And as the head of the world's third largest army, its most repressive society, and a place known for such bad malnutrition that a generation has been raised that is inches shorter than its contemporaries in the South, he is one of the few people in the world who could rival Gaga in terms of his own following of "little monsters."
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It's the season of secular expressions of joy and wrapping paper (as my Mother likes to call it). In my house, we have put up our Chanukkah Bush and decorated it with twinkling blue and white lights, tiny dreidels, and otherwise religion-free ornaments reflecting an admittedly superficial but nonetheless upbeat desire to whoop it up along with everyone else. As is the case every year, high atop the tree we have placed a metallic green frog which symbolizes ... well, amphibians for one thing. And on our mantel we have hung our artisanal stockings, made, it seems, from bits and pieces of designer clothing, in the hopes that the Chanukkah Chicken will soon fill them with gift cards. He will do this, oddly enough, on Christmas Eve, at which time there will be much wassailing, or, as was the case last night during our tree decorating ceremonies, there will be drinking of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale while listening to the Smyths. Merry Morrissey everybody!
In this spirit of confused, non-denominational good cheer, it is appropriate that we take a moment to set aside our usual pessimism and worries and seek out that which is best and most hopeful in the world. It's out there, you know. You can see it in the eyes of young children and in the long lines of people waiting at gas station cash registers to buy their pre-Xmas Powerball tickets. But you can also find that sense of optimism in your newspapers and in your Twitter feed. This old world's not doing so badly. People live longer, eat better, are better educated, and have higher standards of living than ever before. There are no world wars. The threat of global thermonuclear catastrophe is much less than it was when I was growing up and we were all being taught how to huddle under our desks in anticipation of being incinerated. (Thanks for that, "Greatest Generation.")
Indeed, in every dark headline that normally would have you popping antacids like they were candy, there is a silver lining. In fact, there are so many ways to look at recent developments with optimism that we could fashion out of them our own Foreign Policy advent calendar: 25 stories which, when you open the little door and look inside them, contain at least one tiny, sparkling, glimmer of hope.
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Thought-free analysis is not only the specialty of the Twitterverse, it is actually practically a requirement for success there. The only thing that trumps brevity is speed and so what one tends to get around big breaking events is the pundit equivalent of a quick-draw contest in the old West -- occasions that were known primarily for their inaccuracy and casualties.
Last night, within moments of the announcement of the death of Kim Jong Il, the fastest brains in the West were firing away with clever comments about how the 2011 deaths of Kim, Qaddafi and Bin Laden reflected well on President Obama and were somehow linked. Some threw in the deposed despots of the Arab Spring for good measure. And while it certainly could be said that 2011 was not a good year for bad guys, the analogies were more or less insight-free.
Whereas President Obama deserves some measure of the credit for the death of Bin Laden and for the downfall of Qaddafi (he almost certainly does not deserve any blame for the melee that resulted in the Libyan dictator's death), the death of Kim falls into an entirely different category. Not only was his death the result of a long struggle with illness, Kim's demise marks not the end of a challenge for the U.S. president but the beginning of one. The transition that will follow, the power struggle around Kim's young untested, unready son Kim Jong-un, will create both opportunities and profound risks. With tens of thousands of U.S. troops minutes from the North Korean border, an active North Korean nuclear program, and the threat the starving Hermit Kingdom poses to South Korea, the Japan and, via proliferation, the world, what happens in North Korea remains profoundly out of proportion to the country's size, economic or military heft. (This is, perversely, one of the triumphs of the late Kim. He bankrupted his country and ruthlessly crushed its will, but he kept it relevant against all odds.)
Fortunately, President Obama has a first rate team that has been deeply involved in North Korea from the get go. There were even U.S. diplomats in North Korea as the news broke, there to negotiate an agreement to provide food to the country in exchange for nuclear arms concessions. (As I have noted before, Bill Clinton once captured the gestalt of the arrangement when he said that nuclear weapons were North Korea's only cash crop.) Hillary Clinton's close confidante, now Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, is a Korea expert who played a key role in the U.S. opening with that country in the late 1990s. The Asia team at State led by Kurt Campbell has demonstrated itself to be one of the department's best. And the military and intelligence community teams focused on the peninsula are also first rate.
That said, given the changing dynamics of our time, it is far more likely that North Korea will be contained better and nudged more certainly toward reform by its other neighbor, the People's Republic of China, than it has been in half a century of military pressure from the U.S. and the South. This in and of itself, is both a potential relief to the President (another crisis zone in which the burden will necessarily be shared among several powers) and a real challenge as it necessarily diminishes U.S. influence and will be subject to the morally neutral, ultra-self-interested diplomacy of the Chinese. My sense is that it is an area in which changes in China will drive changes in North Korea in a direction that ultimately serves the interests of the entire region and the world and that the main job of the U.S. will be to ensure that as that slow process takes place that potential interim risks are contained.
I live in Washington where lying is an art form. Actually, that suggests an artist's intent and here in D.C., lying is more reflexive, like breathing or taking cash from fat cats.
But when you live in a place like this -- if you can call it living -- where somehow we have managed to train moral mice to produce the shit of bulls, you really get an appreciation for a fine lie. Some stand out for their subtlety -- they almost feel true. (President Obama wants to get special interests out of American politics.) Some are noteworthy because of their audacity (Newt Gingrich brought down communism.) Some capture our attention because of the ability of their authors to deliver them with a straight face (Mitt Romney says he has deeply held political convictions).
But every year there are a select few lies offered here and out on the world stage that stand out. They are the big lies that have defined our times.
Let me offer a few examples from just the world of U.S. foreign policy and then, if you have more suggestions, please, send them in. Someday soon we plan to build a Museum of Lying right out on the Mall so there is finally a monument that captures the essence of this festering swamp.
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David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.