Is it safe to come out now?
I have just climbed out from under my steel-reinforced desk to see how Washington withstood the Great Quake of 2011. Having surveyed the wreckage, I'm tempted to crawl right back.
It was horrifying. Not the earthquake. That was, for those of you who missed it, much like several bad Indian meals I have had. A few seconds of rumbling. Momentary concern something messier might happen. And then nothing followed by a vague lingering sense that it could start all over again.
No, what was horrifying was watching a national capital that has spent the past decade "hardening" its assets against a potential terrorist attack mark the approaching 10th anniversary of 9/11 with hysteria, incompetence, and lunacy.
Following the first signs of the quake, which were akin to having an upstairs neighbor moving around a living room sofa, and a bit of swaying, which was akin to what you might feel after a shot or two of tequila, I slowly got up from my desk to joke with my colleagues about it. Claire, my equally stalwart next-door neighbor, did likewise. But when we strolled down the hall to find our associates we discovered a ghost town. Indeed, within seconds, the entire building had apparently evacuated. Washington has not moved so quickly since the last time Congress declared a recess and the members had to rush to catch the flights to their junkets.
Also within seconds, the Twitterverse was quivering like much of the Eastern seaboard had done only moments before. 140-character survival stories commanded the imagination of America's Eastern elites. That said, it was also impossible to make a phone call. Cell service effectively stopped. So too did work in Washington as folks milled around in the street congratulating themselves on their courage in the face of a catastrophe of the type imminently called for by the Aztec calendar. Work for many was then canceled. People headed home to recover from their 20-second brushes with oblivion. The problem was they headed home all at once. Gridlock stopped traffic throughout D.C.'s downtown area. And we were all left trapped on side streets of the city glaring at each other and wondering what would have happened had something more significant than a gentle 20-second massage actually occurred?
Speaking of massages, the Washington Monument apparently could barely handle its half a minute or so of being the world's largest vibrator. Cracks appeared and tourists were today turned away while its structural integrity could be assessed. Cracks also appeared in the National Cathedral and in several of Washington's schools. Notably, given all of this, cracks had to be appearing in the expensive facade of preparedness that had supposedly been put into place in the wake of attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
Californians, who consider a 5.8-magnitude quake barely enough to toss their arugula and goat-cheese salads, scoffed. Haitians and the Japanese no doubt shook their heads. But you have to wonder how aspiring terrorists viewed the whole nonsense. There were probably scores of them in and around D.C. watching, twittering each other and immediately thereafter downgrading their orders for munitions. Who needs bombs when the capital city of the most powerful nation on Earth is already, as my dear Dad would say, "more skittish than a menstruating fawn"?
The city with the highest bullshit tolerance in the world apparently is not so good with real stress. My lunch appointment today, 24 hours after the non-catastrophe, was canceled "because of the earthquake." I'd take it personally if I didn't have so much evidence that this is a city with the intestinal fortitude of an inch worm … or me after one of those rogue Indian meals.
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Just as the on-the-ground story of the Arab Spring will begin and end with economic rather than security issues so too will the story of American and European involvement in the region.
The high price of food and basic commodities, the lack of jobs for aspirant workers, and the corruption of the cronygarchies that have run countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria are the drivers behind the revolutions that have dominated the headlines this year. Addressing those concerns, creating opportunities and generating hope for the previously disenfranchised or economically frustrated will be the job that determines whether or not the new governments in rebellion-rocked countries will succeed. In short, these are uprisings that will be won and lost by economists and business people rather than generals.
At the same time, while the seemingly impending victory of rebel forces in Tripoli has quite predictably triggered a new spate of discussions concerning President Obama's "leading from behind" strategy, it is important to note that strategy is shaped less by the president's worldview or that of his national security advisors than it is by the practical constraints imposed by America's fragile and spluttering economy. Some of it, to be sure, is due to the political and military as well as the economic burdens associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan-Pakistan. But the bigger issue, the reason "leading from behind" may be seen as a not terribly positive euphemism for a long-term shift away from the hyper-power unilateralism of the Bush years, is that we simply can't afford to be that country any more.
Not only is America broke but leaders in both parties have finally come to recognize that the gravest threats to U.S. national security are domestic and are associated with our inability to get our economy moving, get our people to work and get our finances in order. Throughout history generals have learned that armies actually travel not on their stomachs but on their wallets. A cash-strapped U.S. is one that will necessarily have to lead in a different way that depends more on effective collaboration and burden sharing with other like-minded powers than did the triumphalist, exceptionalist, plutopower of the "end of history" years.
That's why, despite the television networks focus these past few days on shots of foreign correspondents standing in front of the smoldering hulks of blown up vehicles in Libya, the real story-behind-the-story of importance is the economy. What will Ben Bernanke say in Jackson Hole? How will the markets react? And perhaps more significantly, will Barack Obama or Mitt Romney offer any meaningful ideas about how to get the economy on its feet and Americans back to work in the jobs speeches both have announced for the beginning of September?
Obama's speech will find be a chance for him to offer the principled, visionary, big ideas that have been absent amid the recent bickering in Washington. What about infrastructure? What about the stimulus we need? What about attracting investment, accelerating regulatory approvals for new projects, creating incentives for businesses to spend their cash hordes here in the U.S. while employing U.S. workers?
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Libya is not an important country. It's important to its people and in its region. It's a symbol and it's an indicator. But in a geopolitical sense, it belongs to that list of places like North Korea, Cuba, and Afghanistan that only have gained attention over the years as the platforms of dangerous men. Libya without Qaddafi is unlikely to make headlines for long … unless, yet again, an extremist or an extremist group uses it as a vehicle for their own warped ambitions.
We should not, therefore, be unhappy should Libya ultimately fade from the radar. That would be an encouraging sign. And there are many truly important issues to which we ought to devote our attentions. But we can't allow ourselves to believe that what is happening in Tripoli is the endgame in that country or allow ourselves the luxury of letting our attention drift away as soon as the celebrations stop.
To understand why, we need only ask what lessons this recent chapter in Libya's history holds, what conclusions we may draw, and what implications it may have for the world at large.
First, the greatest immediate benefit from the fall of the Qaddafi regime will be the departure of Qaddafi himself, a fundamentally evil man who has been responsible for much suffering, both for his own people and for the victims of the terrorism he supported. Sealing his fate once and for all, securing his inability to again influence world, regional, or national affairs, is a necessary precondition to regarding this chapter as having come to a satisfactory conclusion.
Second, as the situations in Egypt and Tunisia remind us, we should resist the impulse to become too intoxicated with the natural high afforded by the celebrations that come with the end of brutal, autocratic regimes. Just as it has taken longer than many would have liked to bring down Qaddafi, it will be many months or years before we know the character of the regime that will succeed him, and a happy ending to this story is far from being assured.
Third, as a consequence, we must hope that the patience and perspective shown by the international coalition that has supported the efforts of the Libyan rebels is maintained. Just as President Obama, NATO, and regional leaders who have helped orchestrate the campaign that is now culminating in Tripoli deserve credit for methodically pursuing their goals, we must hope that they will be willing to work to ensure that the legitimate advocates of democracy, pluralism, and tolerance among the leaders of the opposition successful take control of the new regime and that they receive what technical support they need. Libya, as the source of 2 percent of the world's oil, can fund its own recovery if allowed to reintegrate with the global economy. By the same token, the international coalition must remain vigilant that extremists are not able to hijack or pervert the outcome of this revolution.
Fourth, we must hope that this triumph, should it be consolidated, reinvigorates the world's best hopes for this Arab Spring that has continued on into an Arab Summer in which the promise of positive change endures. That means a redoubled international effort to ensure the Assad regime in Syria is also consigned to the dustbin of history in which we find the Egyptian, Tunisian, and, we trust, the Libyan dictators of the past several decades. It also, just as importantly, means that the international community should provide significant but appropriately conditional support for new governments should they promote open societies. Political success stories in these changing societies will be impossible without concurrent economic successes, the creation of opportunity for the young and those who have been victimized by greedy, corrupt systems that have seen leaders and cronies exploit their people for years.
Fifth, the willingness of the Obama administration to step back and let France and Britain lead the initiative in Libya has been a sign of the strength and wisdom of the U.S. president rather than of weakness. America's response to the first phases of this crisis was sloppy, and the Obama team's messages were conflicting to the point of incoherence for weeks. But, Obama has successfully balanced a recognition of the limitations of U.S. military resources and of American political will to get deeply involved in another Middle East war with a desire to remain relevant. He chose -- boldly, given the American bias toward control -- to actually try to find another path, a multilateral, cooperative approach in which the U.S. could influence outcomes, support our interests, but allow others to play a more central role. In so doing, he presaged what must be a new approach by the United States in world affairs. It was not perfect, not neat, but then again, inventing new approaches seldom is those things.
America is entering a new era in its foreign policy. It will be marked not by the end of U.S. leadership but by a change in U.S. leadership. This will naturally require others to step up, and that in turn will demand real changes not only within national foreign policies but also within institutional structures like those of NATO and the EU that are not yet robust enough for the new roles they must play, not strong enough to swiftly produce coherent policies or decisive collective action. The actions of the Sarkozy and Cameron governments in this instance have been especially helpful -- if not without complications and missteps -- in moving the Western alliance in that direction.
For the foreseeable future, a primary focus of that evolving alliance and a changing, more constrained, more multilateralist America will be the Middle East, still roiling as it is, still dangerous with calcified, out-of-touch governments, ancient hatreds, and bad actors. As the reflections on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union remind us, revolutions start fast but take decades to reveal their true character.
It is far too early to know whether the events of this year in Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli, or Damascus and Hama will be seen as an opening to a period of sweeping, constructive changes in the region or whether it will leave us and more importantly the people of these countries frustrated. While the major changes to take place are the responsibility of those people, we must understand that it can't happen without the effective ongoing involvement of the world's leading countries. And that's the fascinating, challenging question that underlies all of what is happening and will happen: How can a changing Western alliance work with a changing regional power structure to produce the enduring political and economic changes the people of the Middle East crave and deserve?
Where is Rick Perry when you need him? Just when I thought it was safe to embrace science, comes a news story in The Guardian entitled "Aliens may destroy humanity to protect other civilizations, say scientists." The subhead adds, "Rising greenhouse emissions could tip off aliens that we are a rapidly expanding threat."
Holy shit. I thought it was bad enough that the ice was melting off Antarctica so fast that golf resort developers are already drawing up blueprints and plans for holding the McMurdo Sound Open in 2020 or so.
Now, we now only have to fear rising sea-levels that will displace millions, submerge Wall Street (yet again), and wipe out most of Florida (ever cloud has its silver lining ... even if it is a cloud of ozone), but if the flood waters don't get us, E.T. will!
That's really too much.
Given the news, I hardly blame the president for spending a little time with his family on Martha's Vineyard. We need to be with our loved ones. And besides, Martha's Vineyard will be gone soon one way or another.
If only I had the absolutely disregard for science of a man like Rick Perry. After all, this is a presidential candidate who not only rejects the proven science that demonstrates the human contribution to global warming, he boasts that in Texas they teach both evolution and creationism. He is practically running on the same anti-science platform that was embraced by the Papacy around the time of Galileo. And if only I could bring myself to buy into his nonsense, then perhaps I wouldn't have to worry about both global warming and being obliterated by a little green man with a ray-gun.
According to the Guardian:
The authors warn that extraterrestrials may be wary of civilisations that expand very rapidly, as these may be prone to destroy other life as they grow, just as humans have pushed species to extinction on Earth. In the most extreme scenario, aliens might choose to destroy humanity to protect other civilisations.
"A preemptive strike would be particularly likely in the early phases of our expansion because a civilisation may become increasingly difficult to destroy as it continues to expand. Humanity may just now be entering the period in which its rapid civilisational expansion could be detected by an ETI because our expansion is changing the composition of the Earth's atmosphere, via greenhouse gas emissions," the report states.
A pre-emptive strike? Gak! But wait! There is a bit of good news in this. While the Rick Perrys of this world don't believe in actual science based on millennia of data and sophisticated analysis in hundreds of laboratories worldwide, they do have a proven track record of accepting as gospel, so to speak, impossible to prove stories about invisible creatures in outer space. So while the data about climate change may not persuade them to work to change our destructive behavior, perhaps speculative scenarios about how greenhouse gases may trigger an alien Armageddon might just get them to take the problem seriously. Even if those scenarios were actually dreamed up by scientists...
I suppose you can never be too late doing the right thing, but today's call by the Obama administration for Bashar al Assad to step down comes pretty close. Further, the sanctions announced by the administration in conjunction with the call are pretty limp and will likely have very limited impact on the Syrian government.
The whole thing is an effort in empty symbolism, welcome but still frustrating.
It is interesting to contrast it with the actions of the Turkish government. Once again they are trying, as they did last year around the Iranian nuclear issue, to play a leading role in helping to resolve an international issue. Once again, they have been accused of bungling the effort, of playing into the hands of a wily neighbor, and of punching above their weight. That said, their recent assertion that if Assad does not cease his atrocities that they would reserve the right to undertake to stop them via the full range of possibilities at their disposal was resonant. It not only reminded that a belated threat from a comparatively weak neighbor that might actually be followed through with in some way was potentially more resonant than a formal but toothless announcement from the world's most powerful nation.
In fact, Turkey's more activist foreign policy is, despite the criticism and grumbling of some in the international community, having the effect of transforming that country's role on the world stage in the most important way in decades. The country, which since the fall of the Ottoman Empire has been little more than a pawn, a bargaining chip or a second division player in international affairs, is increasingly forcing those around it to see it as having a potentially meaningful role to play -- whether with regard to Iraq, where its relationship with the Kurds is of central importance, or Iran or Syria or Lebanon or with Israel, with whom it is once again engaged in a complex stage of its on-going like-hate relationship.
It used to be that being the most powerful person in the world was something people took seriously. Genghis Khan actually strapped his testicles up into his body cavity so as not to injure them on long campaigns across the steppes of Asia. Charlemagne battled his way across Italy and Spain and conquered the Saxons. Franklin Roosevelt somehow managed to save the planet while managing an alliance with wily, egotistical and generally difficult partners like Stalin and Churchill.t
So why is that it appears today that no one really even wants the job any more. At a moment when we could really use some potent leadership, potential candidates for the job are wilting under the pressure, ignoring the responsibilities that go with it or just not taking it seriously.
For most of the past century, the title of most powerful man in the world has gone to the president of the United States automatically. This has always been a bit of a fiction. The president does command a mighty military and presides over a great nation with a powerful economy but the job was designed with built-in checks on its power, the military is not much of a source of power if it is used in such a way that we are unable to achieve our goals and it drains our resources, and despite much of what you read in the paper, the president has precious little control over the U.S. economy. Presidents can lead and harness American resources and thus be the most powerful people in the world, but in fact, they seldom have done so.
Certainly, however, today Barack Obama must contend with all the above and the fact that the country he leads is broke, its military over-stretched, public appetite for active international engagement is at a low and the government atop which he sits is dysfunctional to the point of paralysis. At the same time other powers are rising -- both public and private -- who are eating into U.S. influence. And on top of all that the president has himself been hesitant to lead, to lay out principles and successfully fight for them.
His current schedule of a bus tour through Iowa followed by a vacation in Martha's Vineyard at a time of national duress is another sign of retreat from the mantle of leadership -- even if promises are being made that bold new policy initiatives are just around the corner.
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The world is ending! We're back! The end is nigh! Hallelujah, we're saved! Pawlenty! Bachman! Perry! Oh my God, maybe the end really is nigh! No, Ryan Mallett and Tim Tebow looked good and the heat wave in DC has broken, maybe a better autumn is ahead.
Suffice it to say, it's been a rough week. And amid the wreckage and rivers of bile, adrenaline, and tears that have flowed this week, a few stories have slipped through the cracks, a few perfectly bloggable topics have gone uncommented upon. And it's Friday and we can't let the week go by without offering a few quick takes on at least four of those bits and pieces:
This week's reports that 20 percent of the U.S. Congress will be visiting Israel this month are stunning. Eighty-one members of Congress -- two thirds of them Republicans, 47 of them freshmen -- apparently think it is more important to be visiting Israel than it is to be at home dealing with the worst economic crisis in modern memory. America's economy is in flames and these guys are taking lobbyist-funded trips to what, watch Israelis take to the streets to protest the high-cost of living in that country?
This Jewish, Israel-supporting, foreign policy specialist says, "It's time to come home, ladies and gentlemen." While such visits are important and there is certainly a place for them in the lives of American legislators, now is not the time.
Indeed, I continue to be stupefied that in the midst of market turmoil that is directly associated with political dysfunction in Washington that no one who works in a leadership role in this city has the conscience or the awareness to recognize that this is not an August in which a recess should be taken. These folks should be back at their desks and hard at work. The president ought to take to his podium and demand they return. He ought to say he is going to provide one big new idea a day for helping to get the economy back on its feet until the Congress finally starts to take yes for an answer.
The political objectives behind these Israel trips are clear and they reveal the opportunity costs to the American people associated with campaign season. Every moment spent jumping through a hoop for a potential group of supporters is a moment spent failing to address one of the many urgent issues confronting the United States.
When will these pretenders grow up or make way for serious, committed adults who have the appetite and the spine to grapple with our current challenges? When will American voters demand better, or at least start paying attention?
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
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.