There are events that are so great that they define an era. Sometimes, the events are associated with transformational trends -- like the Industrial Revolution or the Information Age. Sometimes they are linked to great individuals -- as in the Napoleonic or Victorian periods. And sometimes they are linked to a pivotal action or occurrence that captured the spirit of the adjacent years -- Woodstock or Watergate, for example.
The most recent such epoch ended yesterday.
Forever we will look back on this moment in time and we will define it in terms of the event that above all others embodied and communicated our own zeitgeist. I speak of course, of the marriage of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, which tragically and unexpectedly ended yesterday.
Why, dear God, did you deprive us of this and leave us with Hamid Karzai? Why did you take away this manifestation of what is purest and best about humanity and leave us with the festering problems of the Arab-Palestinian divide?
Of course, we can only for so long rail against providence like King Lear on the heath. Ultimately, life is about learning to come to terms with loss and about appreciating what is elevating and ennobling as best we can even if it must -- heart-breakingly -- be in retrospect.
And we did have our time with them, with our two shining examples. The 72 days of marriage don't seem like much, but take them and the months since Kim and Kris first looked beneath each other's strangely furry eyebrows into each other's eyes and saw that something special that cynics might call sponsorship dollars but we know in our hearts must have been true love and you have an entire year -- not just of good ratings, but of transformational changes in the world.
In the Era of Kim and Kris...
...Osama bin Laden was spotted and killed.
...Anwar al Awlaki met a similar fate.
...The Arab Spring kindled and freedom swept through the Middle East bringing down autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
...The Tea Party rose.
...Michele Bachmann rose and fell.
...Rick Perry rose and fell.
...Herman Cain rose and is falling.
...Mitt Romney remained the whitest white man in America.
...The Eurozone teetered on the brink.
...Wall Street was occupied ... as were 900 other cities.
...Steve Jobs died and the St. Louis Cardinals proved that reincarnation is possible.
Think of it, in that short time, ancient civilizations in Europe and the Middle East were shaken to their foundations. Capitalism went deeper into crisis and revolution brewed around the world. The earth shifted on its very axis.
And in that time, this simple beautiful act, this daring leap into love, elevated and distracted us and allowed us to cling to hope. Because if these two virtual strangers with no education and almost no talent other than ambition itself could will themselves into a marriage that made them millions -- even if it did last no longer than the Tweets by which they announced each of their carefully calculated mood-swings and spats -- then maybe riches were not just for Wall Street geniuses who went to Harvard, maybe TV shows were not just for the beautiful or the gifted, maybe marriage was not just for those who found real love. Maybe sub-average, sub-interesting, sub-useful people could fake their way through this mess just like the big time financial fraudsters and get loads of good gifts, press coverage, and big fat checks for their efforts.
No, this marriage may not have lasted long but that doesn't mean we won't always have its memory to remind us of precisely what kind of world we lived in back then in, well, you know ... last week.
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Please don't tell anyone. I'm not a spoilsport. I don't want to ruin anyone's weekend.
I know we are all celebrating. The European Union has a deal! This could be the biggest month in almost 80 years at the New York Stock Exchange. The U.S. economy grew at a sizzling 2.5 percent last quarter. Pop a cork! Time to order your Maserati from the same place the broke Italian government seems to be buying theirs.
Happy Days are....
Ok, enough snark. Our little secret is that there is actually not much to celebrate in all this. Yes, the European Union struck a deal to deal with some of its immediate problems. Of course, when you look at the deal, you see that there are plenty of loose ends. And that the deal doesn't address the fundamental structural problems the EU face. And that the deal doesn't address the impact austerity programs and tightening capital flows will have on countries like Spain and Italy ... or what they may mean for their debt problems and how it may make future problems more likely. Nor does the deal reduce many of the fault lines in the foundations of European banking ... under-reported risk, faux-stress tests, debts soon to go bad. Nor does it address the problems in global derivative markets that have existed since well before the crisis of 2008-2009 and about which serious measures have yet to be taken.
While the deal does have the advantage of finally getting the banks to recognize they have to pay a price for their lending recklessness ... for being the pushers that helped get these crack-addict countries hooked on easy debt and look-the-other-way terms, it simply is the latest last-ditch halfway measure to be cooked up by the financial wizards of Europe. Remember when some among their numbers they were called the Gnomes of Zurich? Garden gnomes would do a better job.
As for the good month on the stock market, we all know better than reading too much into that, don't we? Don't we? There are schools of fish that are more rational than the stock market. Further, while they look all beady-eyed and serious, Wall Street players are as deeply biased toward childish optimism as they are toward over-reaching greed. We all need regular reminding of this. That's why I keep on my desk, as I have said before, a little cartoon given to me by a very smart Wall Street guy that shows Peter Pan flying out the window with Wendy and her brothers and Peter says "We're going someplace where everything is wonderful and nothing has anything to do with reality" and the littlest boy whispers to his brother, "You mean we're going to Wall Street?"
Finally as for that caffeine jolt of 2.5 percent growth last quarter let's remember the following: First, we have a recent track record of over-estimating our quarterly growth and then adjusting the numbers downward when no one is looking. Second, I was just kidding about that being a caffeine jolt. It will have precisely the same stimulative effect on job-creation as the average episode of "Two and a Half Men" will have on your cerebral cortex. It's a big dubious nothing burger ... or to be fair, a not-so-much burger ... like one of those black bean things you get a health food restaurant, you know, the kind that looks and tastes as if its last owner was a dyspeptic cat.
Which is not to say that you shouldn't enjoy the little economic sugar rush if you want. Go for it. There's no reason to dwell on the fact that on other fronts, the economy is sclerotic, leaders in Europe, the United States, and Japan don't know how to play well together, the banking system is still the same old casino full of hucksters, egomaniacs and some folks who just plain belong in the slammer. Why ruin your weekend thinking about how we still aren't dealing meaningfully with the big problems on the either side of the Atlantic? Or in Japan. Or in the emerging world.
Go on folks, let a smile be your umbrella. You know just how dry that will keep you, right?
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It is currently conventional wisdom in Washington that the president will have a difficult time advancing any major new policy initiatives between now and the election. It would be a mistake for the president and unfortunate for the country were that to prove to be an accurate forecast.
Fortunately, nothing is more suspect than Washington's conventional wisdom. Further, it is fully in the president's power to challenge the low expectations of political professionals and average citizens everywhere by building his campaign around not only a rehash of what he has accomplished and a wish list of things for the future, but by enlivening it with meaningful, major new efforts that he is undertaking immediately due to the urgency of the challenges the United States faces.
One area in which such an effort is not just needed but is effectively several generations overdue is energy policy. To date, the administration's efforts in the area of energy have concentrated on greening the U.S. energy mix and the jobs that green energy might bring. While worthy, the efforts have been bogged down and undercut for a variety of reasons: ranging from the tactical decision to put health care ahead of energy among policy priorities, the inflated and dubious nature of many green job provisions, the success of climate skeptics in impeding the cap-and-trade debate, and the recent kerfuffle over Solyndra (and, by extension, government energy loan programs, alternative energy programs in general, and the whole idea of "picking winners" associated with some elements of green energy policy).
The Energy Department even initiated a worthy Quadrennial Technology Review that mimicked the Quadrennial Defense Review, Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, and the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review processes at Defense, Homeland Security, and State respectively. But it was not a broad-gauge energy policy and the United States has been in need of such a policy for decades. There have been abortive efforts in that direction but they have been compromised or stopped short of becoming a regular element of U.S. government policy making.
One reason for the problem is that despite the fact that the Department of Energy was created to help ensure the creation of such policies during the 1970s, it is simply incapable of overseeing the development of the kind of comprehensive policy that is needed. Unlike defense policy or diplomacy policy, critical components of a true energy policy are managed not in one agency but across the entirety of the U.S. government. It is a domestic and an international issue, a security and an economic issue, a regulatory, financial, diplomatic, and environmental issue.
Furthermore, for better or for worse, energy issues have tended to become too politicized by different special interests. Recognizing the need for a "whole of government" approach to the issue, the Bush administration put Vice President Dick Cheney in charge of its effort in this direction. But because of his perceived closeness to certain segments of the energy community (which is far more diverse than typically understood), the process was sidetracked. Similarly, Obama's efforts to date have been impeded because, as one senior official said to me, they have been "too tied up in the climate issue."
But of course, the reason an energy policy is so essential is because real energy policy is not just about green jobs, it is about every single job in the United States. Every business depends on access to energy. So do individual citizens and the economy as a whole. Energy, the largest industrial sector in the world, touches every other sector in profound ways. Interruptions in supply, spikes in prices, changes in regulation, shifts in demand, and innovations in technology have ripple effects that go from border to border, from the top to the bottom of the economy.
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As I have noted in the past, the secret to success in any job is picking the right predecessor. In that respect, Barack Obama did brilliantly. Outperforming George W. Bush on foreign-policy, to say the least, was hardly the greatest challenge confronting Obama when he took office.
Indeed, much of Obama's foreign policy has consisted of undoing the damage that Bush did or alternatively, unwinding bad policy choices in favor of better ones. That's not to say there are not some similarities between their policies but rather there are nonetheless a number of important Obama policies were reactions to or corrections for those of Bush.
Leaving Iraq, refocusing on AfPak, preparing to leave Afghanistan, restoring relations with our European allies, refocusing our priorities away from the War on Terror, pursuing a more targeted, lower risk, higher return policy of going after high end terrorists, shifting from unilateralism to multilateralism in instances like Libya, rebalancing to make Asia the top U.S. foreign-policy priority ... all these speak to the benefit of not behaving like the Bush administration. (Again, I know the Bush administration was planning on leaving Iraq, too. But that happened to be an instance of the Bush administration seeking to distance themselves from, well, themselves.)
To achieve these goals has required more than just changing the guy in the Oval Office or the folks around him. It has required more than just taking old Bush policy papers, reading their conclusions and doing something different. It has involved a degree of disciplined policy formation and program management that actually, deliberately began by taking a page or two out of the Bush handbook ... not the George W. Bush handbook, however, but that created by his father and his national security team, led by General Brent Scowcroft.
Current National Security Advisor Tom Donilon explicitly acknowledges that the Scowcroft model and structure was a source of much of the initial organization of the Obama team, with the NSC staff organization, principals' meetings, deputies' meetings and working group meetings following George H.W. Bush era precedents.
But even a proven structure won't work if the President and his team do not have the discipline to work within it. The George W. Bush process did not; the President enabled the creation of back channels that were taken advantage of by both the Vice President and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and the result -- even in the eyes of top Bush officials -- was muddled and sometimes profoundly flawed execution.
Barack Obama however, made up for his lack of prior foreign policy experience, by both picking very experienced advisors and then by insisting upon a rigorous process. Daily national security staff meetings, regular meetings focusing on major strategic issues, over 200 principals meetings to date, over 700 deputies meetings, close coordination -- especially since the arrival of Donilon as National Security Advisor -- among the cabinet principals (weekly meetings between Donilon and the Secretaries of State and Defense), all have contributed to this. So too has an equally disciplined regular evaluation of progress, the self-grading by the President and his team of their own conduct of foreign policy that makes clear how they want to adapt and alter their priorities and international efforts. Decisions are made promptly, cabinet members know that Donilon has the ear of the President and can get responses in real time, and even with the usual issues of competing and bruised egos associated with every NSC, the Obama team has developed a comparatively high functioning relationship -- among the best since the Scowcroft era.
Today, even as they are enjoying recent successes including those associated with the unlamented ends of Bin Laden, Al Awlaki and Qaddafi, the Obama NSC team is working to identify next generation issues and to better address difficult problems -- like Iran -- where they clearly feel they can do better going forward.
Having said all that, they do face one problem that all administrations must grapple with after several years in office. That is that going forward they are their own predecessor. In other words, they are no longer in the undoing or post-Bush phase of their presidency. From now on in most cases they will be seen as their authors of their own circumstances. While the world is sure to throw them curveballs, they own the headlines for the remainder of their tenure in office.
The challenge is further complicated by the fact that withdrawing from Iraq or Afghanistan or conducting military strikes against terrorists are the comparatively easy parts of their agenda. The next set of challenges they face -- in post-revolutionary Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, in post-withdrawal Iraq and Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Syria, with the Israelis and the Palestinians, with regard to Europe's financial crisis, and in terms of American influence in Asia or on important transnational issues -- will all require that the United States replicate the key elements of the approaches that have brought success to the administration in Libya and hunting terrorists. In other words, they must set disciplined, narrow, achievable goals that can be achieved largely through a very limited U.S. outlay of resources that is complemented with the contributions and active participation of international allies. Tough as mastering that formula has been in Libya or Afghanistan, it is going to be even tougher when it comes to providing the aid needed to foster growth and solidify constructive changes in the wake of the Arab Spring or pressuring Iran or piecing together initiatives to stave off international economic calamity.
In other words, while the president and his team deserve great credit for their achievements to date, they will almost certainly find that it is easier to launch an "Obama doctrine" than to live with one -- especially if the U.S. Congress insists on the kind of reckless cuts to U.S. aid budgets that the leaders of the opposition party are promoting. (Why is it that those who are the most eager to go to war are often the ones who lack the necessary fortitude or vision to win the peace?)
The good news is that after Tom Donilon's promising first full year as National Security Advisor, the President has a national security process that is effective, orderly and has produced material successes. The bad news is that foreign policy is the ultimate "what have you done for me lately?" business.
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I'll spare you the back story, but first thing this morning, in an effort to denigrate New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, one of my colleagues offered up the observation that not only was Brady overrated but that so too was his wife, Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen. Apparently, in the eyes of my colleague (which clearly require medical attention), Bundchen looked quite average without her makeup on. Pressed on this subject, he went further, asserting that the women he runs with are much better looking and that he simply wouldn't be interested in Bundchen.
While I know I run the risk of devastating Ms. Bundchen by posting this story, within minutes after the discussion, it crossed my mind again when I read this weekend's sttement by Afghan President Hamid Karzai that, "God forbid, if ever there is a war between Pakistan and America, Afghanistan will side with Pakistan."
Whew, I'm glad that's settled. My sense is that the prospect of having to contend with the opposition of an opponent of the strategic vision, credibility, and power of Karzai will have roughly the same effect on the United States that the prospect of doing without my colleague will have on Gisele Bundchen. These are both people who are clearly delusional about the impact their derision may have on their intended targets.
The biggest difference of course, is that whereas Gisele Bundchen will never feel the sting of being dissed by my friend because he is utterly invisible to her (with or without his makeup) the United States has once again gotten loud and clear the message from Karzai. He is working hard to win a place among the worst allies America has ever chosen, which is really saying something considering the rogue's gallery of losers and bad guys that the United States has thrown in with -- a list that includes Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, the Shah of Iran, and Josef Stalin. Tellingly, also vying for a spot on that list are at least some members of the Pakistani government with whom Karzai is vowing to work.
Naturally, all this once again sends the message loud and clear that Karzai is part of the problem, not part of the solution in Afghanistan. More importantly, it also reinforces the urgency with which the U.S. approach its principle task in Afghanistan which is folding up its tents, shutting down its bank accounts and getting the heck out of Dodge. If we happen to shut down all forms of financial and other support for Karzai's security first, well, all the better. Once upon a time, he was a necessary evil. Now, having declared himself an enemy of the United States and having demonstrated a marked incapability of ruling within any standards of efficiency, morality or even decency, it's time to cease any pretense of supporting this stooge and simply do what we can to build ties elsewhere in the leadership of this fragmented, tribal society so that once we are out, we have good contacts, useful intelligence, and conduits with whom we can work going forward.
We can then return to paying precisely as much attention to Karzai as he deserves ... which happens to be identical to the amount my buddy is likely to be receiving from Gisele Bundchen or anyone in her aesthetic zip code at any time in the near future.
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The video images of Muammar al-Qaddafi's last moments are chilling, hard to shake from the mind many hours after they were first seen. In them, the battered husk of an old man is effectively torn at by a howling mob. The history of the victim, the memory of his many victims, seems remote, abstract. The hoots and cries and shouts of "Allahu akbar" are so frenzied that despite the images on the screen it's hard to think that men were involved in the incident. It's purely animal and the gore and jostled camera angles and the gunfire all are just sub-motifs, part of a moment so fraught with emotion and adrenaline that reason and compassion seemed as doomed as the helpless fallen autocrat at the center.
No one laments Qaddafi's fall. But witnessing the carnage and fury of that street scene yesterday, it is hard not to harbor serious fears or doubts about what might come next. Surely many revolutions have involved similar scenes and our uplifting histories of the events have only managed to survive in their cleansed form due to the lack of cellphone video from the scene of their liberating mayhem. But while passion is essential to power crowds to confront risk and demand seemingly impossible change, it can be dangerous when it comes to the next stages of political transformation, for those do require precisely the cooler, more humane qualities so absent yesterday.
For these reasons, the cautious views expressed by some analysts in the wake of yesterday's events, views that warned that it was premature to call the Libya initiative of NATO and the Obama administration (as well as Libya's rebels) a success, are suffused with considerable wisdom even if some, coming from opponents of President Obama, seemed more oriented toward raining on his parade than actually sensibly setting expectations. Surely, it is not premature to suggest that since it was in U.S. and Western interests to remove Qaddafi, end his dictatorship, and give the people of Libya a chance at democracy and all those things have happened, that thus far operations have achieved their goals, done so at a low cost and done so in a way that was at least, more or less, consistent with the values of the international community.
That said, the international community, having helped ensure that needed changes did take place in Libya, now has a responsibility to both support and, yes, try to influence the changes taking place in that country so that the regime and institutions that emerge from this revolution are representative of the interests of Libya's people and act in a way that is consistent with international law. To the extent that new leaders are not hostile to and may actually be supportive of the interests of the views of those countries that assisted with the liberation, naturally those countries will be happier with the outcome and, like any actors in any such situation, they have a perfect right to do what they can to foster such support.
Staying constructively and influentially engaged in Libya will be as big a challenge for NATO and the Obama administration as putting together the military efforts of the past few months has been. Coordinated efforts and fair burden sharing will be equally important. Fortunately, Libya has oil reserves that should make its recovery to a large degree self-funding but the nations that fielded military assets will almost undoubtedly have to offer up packages of technical and financial assistance going forward to ensure that the right kind of return on their investments to date.
The challenge of dealing with what comes next -- of winning the peace -- is not limited, of course to Libya. Certainly, sluggish and murky change in Egypt has left many wondering if that country is not reverting to its old, military-dominated ways and great work must be done, vigilance and pressure and support maintained to ensure both that the democratic spirit of Tahrir Square is maintained and that the outcomes of democratic processes result in strengthened, enduring freedoms and institutionalized tolerance.
And now, today, we have news of effectively all of America's troops leaving Iraq by the end of this year. To those of us who have felt that the invasion of Iraq was one of the great ghastly errors of U.S. foreign-policy and an abuse of international law, there is a welcome dimension to this development. But we must recognize that in part this final withdrawal reflects a diplomatic failure to get the Iraqis to offer legal conditions conducive to maintaining a small but meaningful presence in that country after the majority of the drawdown was completed. The 150 troops left behind to manage arms sales and related issues are a negligible contingent. Our military influence in that country is coming to an end except to the extent that we determine to supply arms and training and funds to the Iraqis or to the extent we intend to direct resources outside that country back at it.
Which raises the question of what comes next in Iraq. While getting out is worth celebrating, being out creates conditions that we may ultimately deeply lament. Should Iranian influence grow, should violence return, should Iraq once again fester and demand a strongman who is odious to us, we could very easily find this country being a source of tension and unease in the region and all the vast investment we have poured into it being seen as wasted. While this is not a reason to reverse the drawdown, it does create an imperative akin to that in Libya and Egypt...and akin to that which we will soon face in Afghanistan.
We must find a way to work with our allies as effectively and forcefully in peacekeeping and rebuilding situations as we have gradually found for military interventions. While we must be prudent about what we invest in such processes both in terms of economic and political capital, we also have to realize that walking away is the surest way to take qualified, short-term successes and turn them into failures and perhaps even greater problems in the future. We don't have the out of underwater mortgage holders in the United States of simply exiting and leaving our keys on the front hall table. For both Republicans and Democrats, a shared sense of our national interests and responsibilities demands that we find a way to effectively stay engaged. Lead from behind, be multilateral, focus on providing the things we can best provide, keep our goals limited ... in short use all our emerging principles for engaging in conflicts ... in this new post-conflict world. But it is important that we see that these are not ends in Libya or in Iraq, they are merely the beginning of new and in many ways equally challenging chapters for our engagement in the region.
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For Barack Obama and his national security team, the simultaneous fall of Sirte and the death of Muammar al-Qaddafi provide an important punctuation mark in their successful initiative to support Libyan rebels and bring an end to an odious dictatorship.
The political benefits that accrue to the president at home will be modest. Domestic issues command the attention of American voters. What's more, the president's Republican opponents don't want to talk foreign-policy very much. And with good reason. The president's record is for the most part too good to take issue with.
The president came into office promising to get the United States out of a disliked war in Iraq and has kept the promise. He came in promising to shift the focus to Afghanistan and finishing the business of decapitating al Qaeda. He did both. Bin Laden is dead. And we are committed to coming home from Afghanistan, too. While the administration's response to the first stirrings of rebellion in the Middle East -- in Iran -- was muddled and late, the overall approach has been constructive and the Libya chapter will stand out as a gamble that worked. Restoring relations with our European allies, engineering the "pivot" in priorities to Asia cited by Secretary of State Clinton, and the recognition of the growing importance of dealing with emerging powers are all additional positive developments that are a credit to the president and his team.
But more important than any political benefits that accrue to the president as a result of this successful outcome to the Libya effort is that it brings into focus an important shift in U.S. national security strategy, a doctrine that stands alongside Clinton's "pivot" as one of the signature contributions of Obama and his security policymakers. Indeed, although I am reluctant to throw around the term "doctrine" because it has become devalued through overuse, I believe it puts into focus what can and should be identified as the Obama Doctrine.
This doctrine stands in contrast to the famous doctrine named for General Colin Powell. Powell's approach turns on the idea that prior to military action being taken by the United States, we must first exhaust all other means of advancing our national interest and then when we engage that we use every available means to achieve clearly defined goals and thus be able to execute a reasonable exit strategy. This approach was, more than anything else, a reaction to the problems the U.S. encountered in Vietnam and the "every available means" or "overwhelming force" element was clearly a manifestation of a deep pockets view of U.S. resources that now seems like the quaint echo of a bygone time.
The Obama Doctrine, while also grounded in the idea that we must exhaust every other means of advancing our national interest, is responding to the lessons of a different unpopular war, in this case, Iraq. It is a reaction against the use of "overwhelming force" to achieve rather narrow (not to mention dubious) goals. It is an antidote to "shock and awe," "three trillion dollar wars" and unilateral conventional invasions if they can possibly be avoided.
Whereas the Bush administration engaged in an open checkbook approach to a global "war on terror" (a perversion of the Powell doctrine that was especially uncomfortable for Powell himself to watch unfold), Obama's approach -- in fighting terror, getting Bin Laden, assisting with the ouster of Qaddafi, and elsewhere -- has been not only to cast aside the term "war on terror" but also the strategies and tactics of massive ground war.
Obama & Co. embrace the orthoscopic alternative to the open heart surgery favored by the Bush team. The Obama Doctrine prioritizes the use of intelligence, unmanned aircraft, special forces, and the leverage of teaming with others to achieve very narrowly defined but critical goals. That word leverage is the key. It is about using technological superiority, effective intelligence, surprise, and smart collaboration to make the most of limited resources and do so in a way that minimizes risks to both personnel and to America's international standing and our bank account.
"Leading from behind" is an important element of this doctrine. It is no insult to lead but let others feel they too are architects of a plan, to lead without making others feel you are bullying, to lead but do so in a way in which risks and other burdens are shared. Libya is a test case for this approach. It too started ugly and there are many lessons to be learned by NATO and the United States about how to do this better. Our communications around the time of undertaking the involvement were also handled in a ham-fisted manner. No matter. Most of that will be forgotten now. Outcomes matter most and the outcome here has been low-cost and high-reward.
More importantly, perhaps, it solidifies an Obama approach to meeting international threats that seems better suited to America's current capabilities, comparative advantages, political mood and the preferences of our allies everywhere than prior approaches which were created in and tailored to far different times.
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As it turns out, my mother was wrong. Or was it Madison Avenue? (I always get the two confused.) You can get too much of a good thing.
Case in point: the Republican presidential debates. Admittedly, there is something oddly compelling about them. It's kind of like watching the middle-aged country club dining room version of the food fight from "Animal House." (Romney=Neidermeyer, Perry=Blutarski, Bachman=Mandy Pepperidge) But they're on more frequently than most infomercials and they contain even less intellectual substance.
Every so often however, I give in to temptation and tune in for a fix of comic mayhem. Last night, I settled in to watch the exchange regarding foreign-policy. I can't quite decide whether it was more embarrassing or frightening. The panderdates were crawling all over one another to declare their fierce opposition to foreign aid and their love for defense spending. Even Ron Paul, who as best as I can tell is for shrinking the entire government down until it can be run out of an abandoned Fotomat booth in a parking lot somewhere near Galveston, Texas and who thinks foreign aid carries the ebola virus, found the tiptoeing around the Pentagon pocketbook to be intellectually dishonest.
Here are the facts: We spend less than 1 percent of the federal budget on foreign aid. We spend roughly $50 billion a year on the entire State Department and the foreign aid budget. We spend about 11 times that on the Defense Department plus another three or so times that on "overseas contingency operations" like fighting wars and firing drones into various compounds and convoys and that sort of thing. (Let's not count the Veterans Administration or the Department of Homeland Security or the intelligence community in these budgets though they certainly might be thought of as part of our broader national security establishment.) As it happens we spend a smaller percentage of our GDP on aid than almost any developed country and we spend roughly 10 times on defense what the next biggest spender, China, pays out to defend itself. (Go get a pencil and figure how that works out in terms of per capita defense spending. It won't take you long.)
Cutting foreign aid drastically diminishes our influence. It also sends the message, articulated last night by the most "reasonable" Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, that we have made the decision as a society that the richest nation on earth doesn't feel any responsibility to help other countries with their humanitarian needs. For a bunch of candidates who seem hell-bent on proving their essential Christian-ness, that's a heck of a message for the richest family in town to be sending to those that are in need ... especially when it is the one clear way to support those who support our interests and expand good will toward America while supporting the stabilization of troubled regions. Whatever happened to those "what would Jesus do" wristbands? I'm certainly no expert but I'll tell you one thing, Jesus would not be cutting U.S. foreign aid.
As for cutting defense spending, where do you think Jesus would come out on that one ... especially if they taught any arithmetic in the Nazareth public school system of the Galileean Unified School District. Might he suggest that spending say, only eight times more than our next biggest rival was sufficient to maintain the peace and that we could use the extra $140 or so billion that saved us per year ... $1.5 trillion over a decade, to meet the budget cutting goals of the Supercommittee in one fell swoop? Might he note that there is no way to make the big cuts we need by chopping away at comparatively small programs? Or that somehow cutting the programs that help the rest of the world versus those that are designed to blow it up might send the wrong message?
Heck, it doesn't take being the Prince of Peace or a guy with a knack for stretching a budget (see the whole fishes and loaves thing) to recognize that this approach of eviscerating U.S. smart power while blindly protecting the brute sort is kind of dumb not to mention dangerous.
There is no path to American recovery that does not involve very significant defense spending cuts. Just like there is no path to recovery that does not involve rationalization of entitlement spending. And just as there is no way to where we need to be that doesn't require new sources of revenue. You've got to do all three. And while last night's food fight did indeed have all the low comic appeal of "Animal House" while bearing an uncanny resemblance, as "Morning Joe" noted, to a showdown among the Real Housewives of New York, it skirted reality like Lindsay Lohan dodging community service on her way to another night clubbing. But it did so by offering approaches that were grossly irresponsible and, on their face, should have disqualified each and every one espousing them from occupying any office with responsibility for America's economic or physical security.
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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.