When I was a kid, there was an advertising campaign for an insurance company that typically involved someone walking along, minding their own business when, unbeknownst to them, something awful was about to happen. A piano, for example, was about to be dropped out a window onto them. The clueless protagonist would then turn to his friend who noticed the impending calamity and respond to an implied question, "My insurance company? New England Life, of course. Why?"
I look at the current economic situation and feel a kind of déjà vu that takes me back to those ads. The president of the United States is walking down a street, surrounded by his inner circle, discussing whether or not to offer a minor jobs bump or an insignificant deficit patch while overhead that piano is bearing down on its mark.
Frankly, were the president actively debating big fixes for America's job crisis, its growth crisis, or its deficit crisis, he still might be blindsided by the next big disaster as it is likely to be none of those things.
Over in Europe they are cooking up a global financial crisis that is likely to hit harder in the near term than any of the longer term structural issues being debated in Washington. It might be not months but weeks or days away. Today's Constitutional Court decision in Germany requiring that future bailouts get parliamentary approval is but the latest worrisome sign. Neither the major structural changes required to get the EU's fiscal house in order nor the major safety net the international community should be providing seem imminent or even likely. The consequence is the growing possibility of a market meltdown that takes down a number of big European financial institutions, the American investors heavily tied up in them, financial houses around the world with hidden counterparty exposure and world stock markets.
Roger L. Wollenberg-Pool/Getty Images
As this week's commemorations of the attacks that took place on Sept. 11, 2001 continue, it is appropriate that the country pause to remember those who were lost and injured in the attacks and our response to them as well as those who distinguished themselves seeking to protect America and the values we hold dear.
The wounds of that day and the scars they have left on our society are such that they are certain to be felt by most of us who were alive that day for the rest of our lives.
That said, it does not diminish -- indeed, it enhances -- those moments of remembrance if we take the time to acknowledge and consider those who have been the innocent victims of America's grotesque, unjustifiable overreaction to those attacks.
The numbers vary, but it is certain that well over 100,000 and perhaps as many as a million innocent Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis have been killed as a result of America's efforts to seek revenge for our losses. That means, even the lowest estimates of collateral damage associated with our invasion of Iraq alone from groups like the Associated Press, the Iraq Family Health Survey, or the Iraq Body Count Project, suggest that between 30 and 50 times as many Iraqis died as a result of our invasion as died in 9/11 attacks -- which, of course, had no relationship whatsoever to the country in which they lived. Higher estimates, like those of the Lancet or the Opinion Research Business Survey, suggest totals 200 to 300 times higher. In Afghanistan too, civilians paid for our military intervention with their lives in multiples of our 9/11 losses.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
If mathematics is the universal language, here are a few numbers that should communicate volumes to all:
That's the approximate number of employees in the CIA's Counterterrorism Center. And according to the Washington Post's lead story today, that means more people are now doing counter-terror work for our Central Intelligence Agency than there are as members of al Qaeda. How's that for a tenth anniversary message about America's response to the 9/11 attacks? Personally, I think it is just great and an appropriate use of U.S. national security resources, these couple of thousand of people will do vastly more to contain the terror threat than most of the hundreds of thousands we deployed in old-style land ground wars in the Middle East.
As it happens, 2000 is also the estimated number of militants and civilians killed by U.S. drone attacks. The use of drones along with the application of intelligence assets above are among the ways America is better learning how to contain the terror threat. Of course, the civilian death toll, the violation of the air space of sovereign nations and the moral implications of rich nations being able to wage war against poor ones without putting the lives of their own people at risk are all questions hanging in the air like the drone that circled above Osama bin Laden's residence in the hours before he died.
That, of course, is the current jobless rate in the United State, an ominous figure as we enter this Labor Day weekend. But much worse are numbers like...
16.7 and 16.4
Those respectively are the official numbers regarding unemployed blacks and unemployed young people in America. In cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee, old hubs of the industrial Midwest, the official numbers are above 25 percent. And of course, being official numbers, we know they are wrong. They don't include those who have stopped looking for jobs and dropped out of the labor force altogether. They don't include the under-employed. The real numbers are much higher. In fact they are so much higher that they are not actually numbers any more. They are a social crisis, a breakdown that is tearing apart the fabric of America, crushing hopes and inviting backlash of a type we haven't seen in decades. Which leads us to...
Which is the gut-wrenchingly high ... appalling ... failure-of-our-system type .... percentage of black young people who were out of work in August. And all these unemployment numbers lead us in turn to...
0 and 0
Which is both the number of net new jobs created in August ... and also happens to be Barack Obama's percentage chances of re-election if these job numbers do not improve measurably over the next 12 months. Having said that, it's always good to have a Plan B in mind. Which explains, I suppose, why White House chief of staff Bill Daley reportedly arranged a below-the-radar retreat in June for his senior team at Fort McNair with historian Michael Beschloss as a guest speaker to help answer the one question on everyone's mind: "How does a U.S. President win re-election with the country suffering unacceptably high rates of unemployment?"
51 and counting
That's number of months since George W. Bush's EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said that existing Federal smog standards "do not adequately protect the public." It's "and counting" because today President Obama put a stop -- until at least after the 2012 elections -- to the EPA's plan to issue new ozone standards despite the fact that his own EPA team had been working on them intensively for over two years now. The EPA has said (in each of the past four years) that a new smog standard would provide between $13 billion and $100 billion in health benefits at a cost of $19 billion to $90 billion. Further, the pushback leaves the U.S. again lagging on a global environmental regulatory issue -- ozone -- gaining in importance almost everywhere else. It is also a sign that the President (see the above numbers) is starting to see everything to through the lens of the above job numbers (and his poll numbers that are directly linked to them.) For their part, Republicans on the Hill and corporate voices up and down K Street that have been hammering home the point about potential job losses associated with the possible new regulations were heard cheering. Congressman Fred Upton, the House's energy honcho calling it a "welcome breakthrough."
We are not living at a moment of particularly glittering leadership on the international stage. Mediocrity, timidity, and poor performance are found from continent to continent. Even setting aside those leaders of the developing world who face the special challenges associated with poverty, failed or struggling states and related social and political tensions, we find the world's larger and more prosperous countries rudderless and with plenty of room for improvement at the top.
There is a leadership void at a moment when strength, vision, and executive deftness could not be needed more.
But among the lackluster crop at the helm of the world's major economies -- the G20 countries for example -- there are several classes of mediocrities. There are the leaders of promise for whom we still may have high hopes but who have yet to find their footing on a regular basis. The best example here is Barack Obama. There are leaders who are too new in their jobs to judge, such as Japan's brand new Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Brazil's Dilma Rousseff. There are the mixed bags who have had flashes of strength but who have revealed themselves as too flawed in character or ideology to be likely to ever ultimately ascend to a higher level -- France's Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain's David Cameron are good examples here. Angela Merkel might also be seen to be in this group, compromised by her indecisiveness. There are even those who have done well by many important measures but who have been compromised by lingering problems at home or who have not assumed a highly effective leadership role on the international stage. Manmohan Singh, among the most distinguished of the bunch, might fall into this category. Hu Jintao's China has performed well ... but no man whose government must resort to oppression and censorship, that still gives in to police state impulses, can be considered a first class leader.
There are also those who are just mediocre, not great, or worse. You can fill in the names. You can designate who might fall into each category or make up other categories of short-comings and reasons for frustrations with their performance. But I suspect very few people will step up with a vigorous defense for any of the current class of top dogs.
And then, among this group there are those at the bottom of the barrel: The ones who have actively been bad for their countries or their regions or the world at large (which is not to say the shortcomings of even the better leaders have not produced bad consequences for some on the planet). For my money Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah certainly falls in this group, an autocrat who has exploited his people, resisted needed reforms, presided over the systematic mistreatment of women, and offered wink and a nod (and more direct) support for dangerous extremists. It is still not clear to what degree Dmitri Medvedev is his own man, but certainly the Russian government has been no champion of democracy or due process.
Now Silvio Berlusconi has not sought to crush the people of Italy to his will nor has he, despite an impressive rap sheet, underwritten terrorists. That said, he has, over the years really made a good case that among the world's most important leaders he is perhaps the biggest embarrassment to his country.
It is not enough that the business empire he built has been demonstrated to have engaged in a wide range of unsavory practices. It is not enough that he has been at the center of a steady string of sleazy scandals. It is not enough that he has regularly made public statements that were racist, undiplomatic or just plain inappropriate to the office with which he has been entrusted. It is not even enough that he has run Italy into the ground, to the brink of an economic calamity that literally threatens not just the futures of his people but the fate of the Eurozone and indeed, of the entire international economy. (Although, you'll have to admit, all that constitutes a pretty compelling case for including him at or near the bottom of our list.)
But now comes word of Berlusconi being overheard during a conversation which was taped by police involved in a blackmail investigation. That investigation, into one Giampaolo Tarantini, a man who has said he supplied 30 women for some of the Prime Minister's famous parties, is focused on payments he reportedly received from the Prime Minister. While the arrest of Tarantini and his wife in one of Rome's poshest neighborhoods was dramatic enough, it turns out that in the course of the investigation the Prime Minister, was taped venting his frustration over his perceived mistreatment by the country that enabled him to become a billionaire and the head of its government.
According to press reports, Berlusconi was overheard to say in mid-July, "They can say about me that I screw. It's the only thing they can say about me. Is that clear? They can put listening devices where they like. They can tap my telephone calls. I don't give a fuck. I ... In a few months, I'm getting out to mind my own fucking business, from somewhere else, and so I'm leaving this shitty country of which I am sickened."
Imagine how long a president of the United States would last in office after referring to the U.S. as a "shitty country." Of course, it's hard to imagine how a leader with Berlusconi's personal and professional track record could remain in office long in most countries. But, all that aside, the comments add yet another crowning turd on top of the steaming pile of Italy's Prime Minister's political career. And they make us wonder: Could it be, that among the current class of compromised, faltering, average, unproven, undistinguished and sometimes much worse leaders of the planet's major powers, Berlusconi is actually the least of them?
If you're like many people in the White House, you cringe every time you hear the term "leading from behind." It's become one of the slams du jour here in Washington. But, you have to admit, at least it implied there was some leading happening somewhere.
Watching the clown college that is modern Washington during yesterday's speech scheduling follies, it is clear our glittering prizes are leading us nowhere fast. That's bad for the economy. Bad for the American people. Bad for the world. But having said that, given the visionless self-absorption these folks are currently displaying, I'm not sure we would want to follow even if they knew where to go.
The spat over scheduling the President's address next week was a combination of politics as usual, shoddy planning, pettiness and slapstick comedy. Frankly, I'm not sure Speaker Boehner did his party any favors by booting the President to next Thursday. If he had let him go as scheduled, the Republican debaters who would have followed him on the air could then have torn his speech apart before a national audience thereby upstaging him and giving their alternative views greater visibility at the same time. That said, isn't it time we had a moratorium on tearing ideas and opponents apart for a while. Isn't this one of those "we're all in this together moments?" Maybe we ought to just listen to each other for a while ... and if the pols don't come up with any good ideas, then maybe we should listen to see if someone else does.
For that reason, I am really looking forward to the Republican debate, Governor Romney's scheduled economic speech, the President's jobs speech, and the newly scheduled jobs speech from Speaker Boehner in the hopes that a few ideas may emerge that are of material significance to the economy. But I will admit I am skeptical.
Every sign is that -- as was the case for Herman's Hermits with regard to Mrs. Brown's lovely daughter -- the second verse will be the same as the first (as will be, I fear, all subsequent verses). We'll get tired rhetoric and demagoguery flavored with idea-bits, school-uniform sized initiatives that are almost always less than meets the eye.
The Republicans at the debate will call for cutting the deficit without raising revenues or really scrutinizing defense spending. And the President will offer an array of earnest, modest ideas that may, based on current rumors, produce a million new, primarily short-term jobs. He probably won't make any bold new revenue proposals or for that matter any bold proposals of any sort. He certainly won't volunteer needed cuts to entitlement programs. We'll get a too small infrastructure initiative, too little stimulus, too many compromises. We'll welcome his seriousness and to the extent Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and other individual Republican candidates also provide concrete, job-creating ideas that will be more than welcome, it will be essential to having any kind of constructive public policy dialogue in the next few months.
I worry this will be the case in part because I am getting the impression that some of the President's advisors are recommending he only make proposals that can actually pass. This in turn leads to a lot of folks around the President negotiating with themselves before they even start discussions with the opposition. This dilutes everything.
It's how we are likely to end up with a million dollar patch for a 25 million job hole. And since Hill Republicans will clearly oppose much of it from, the pre-digested compromises will only succeed in producing in smaller failures rather than the larger variety.
As Eugene Robinson wisely noted in the Washington Post earlier this week, the President needs to recognize this, make the best case he can for the big ideas we need to the Congress and then, if they drop the ball as they very well might, then he should plan on taking his ideas not just to the dysfunctional Congress but to the American people. He and those around him should believe in his ability as a leader. He should be out there pushing for a really big infrastructure program, a major investment in American competitiveness through committing to building the next generation smart highway system, smart energy grids, advanced air traffic control network, the underpinnings for our IT future. He should be talking only in terms of programs that created multiple millions of jobs while enhancing productivity and helping to attract new investment. If it means a payroll tax holiday and a repatriation of earnings plan that works, he should go for it. If it means major regulatory reform to accelerate projects waylaid by sluggish approval processes, he should make it happen. But please, frame it in a vision, paint a picture of what America can do to lead again in the world.
He should plan on spending the next 12 months out on the road selling his big ideas directly to the American people so the next election is a ratification of his vision and a mandate for his action. It is literally the only path out of this mess.
We have to recognize that will take a year. Will markets tolerate it? Of course, they will. Especially if they see some kind of real big thinking going on. Especially if real progress seems possible in the foreseeable future. And I continue to hope that President Obama's likely opponent will be Mitt Romney or some other responsible actor and that the ensuing debate might actually be considerably more rational and thoughtful than the food fight that seems to be taking place up and down Pennsylvania Avenue these days.
Finally, to those of you who say Obama is too measured or Romney, for example, is too bland, it's worth remembering that the modern president who may have done the most creating the infrastructure we have today, laying the foundation for modern American competitiveness, was also accused of both traits. His name was Dwight Eisenhower and it is only half a century later that people truly began to appreciate the consequences of what he accomplished with America's highway system, air traffic system, aerospace industry, even some of the foundations of our venture capital system. He wasn't a career politician. He wasn't a charismatic speaker. He was just serious and dogged and experienced. He was also, of course, the one thing that seems in shortest supply these days. He was unquestionably and down to the marrow of his bone a leader.
And if they don't make them like that any more we are all in deep, deep trouble.
There is a myth that Mitt Romney is somehow a weak candidate, can't get his tone right, will fold under pressure from the rabid right and the posturing of cardboard panderers like Rick Perry. But watch his progress, his steady, measured campaign, his ability to raise money, and note that while the press spins up the buzz-worthy stories of the day, he soldiers on in a way that has essentially guaranteed that the Republican presidential contest will be "Mitt Romney vs. someone else."
That may have the far right licking its chops, but trust me, in the White House Romney's measured march forward is a source of unease. What they fear -- even taking fully into account Romney's sometimes robotic (but improving) delivery and his coolness (one wag I know framed the contest between him and Barack Obama as "the refrigerator versus the icebox") -- is his solid professionalism.
You could see that professionalism at work in Romney's address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention. And since we spent a little time yesterday breaking down the remarks of Governor Perry, it is only fair that we perform the same public service with regard to the speech of Mitt Romney. The White House should be doing the same thing. Because Romney's speech was both a template for his campaign and a clear sign of what a formidable opponent he may be. He gets it. And pair him with a candidate who plugs him in to the right and a key state -- Marco Rubio, perhaps -- and this man could make 2012 much more difficult for Obama than all the hyperventilating Perry promoters might suggest.
Here are the words of Romney and what they really mean:
OK, so this is just scare tactics and pandering. It's contemptible and simple-minded, and the evocation of the communist threat is downright quaint. But the bad news for all of you out there in foreign-policy land is that scare tactics and pandering work.
The worse news for all of you out there in foreign-policy land is that foreign policy is going to have precious little to do with next year's election, barring some unforeseen development (which is certainly possible). That makes this second excerpt the money paragraph of the speech -- literally and figuratively. That the great national security issue of our time is the great economic security issue of our time is the central issue of this election. The economy is busted. He who seems most likely to be able to fix it wins. Romney describes the problem effectively here, and that half-million-dollar albatross he notes is hanging around every American household's metaphorical neck is a persuasively heavy number that's getting heavier all the time.
Ramrod straight and offering up cringe-worthy physical and verbal salutes to his hosts at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, Republican presidential front-runner Governor Rick Perry yesterday offered a glimpse into what his foreign policy might look like were he to eventually become America's commander in chief.
Normally, such a speech would be an important event. It would be studied by voters and foreign leaders alike, each searching for clues about where the world's most powerful nation might be heading. But in that respect, this speech was superfluous. From its very first stiff, nuance-lite, detail-free bursts of formulaic jingoism it triggered something back in our lizard brains, releasing whatever combination of neural chemicals it is that produces dread-filled déjà vu. Sweet Josephine, says your autonomic nervous system, I've seen this movie before! The Texas Chain Saw Foreign Policy! In fact, I just saw it and have been drinking heavily ever since trying to forget. I know what happens when you elect a Texas governor who thinks borrowed, not-fully-understood opinions and strong words make up for a nearly complete lack of foreign-policy experience.
However, for those of you who like to assess such performances at more than a reflexive level, let's dig deeper. To do so we will have to first translate his remarks from Texan into English. Then, based on what we find we can determine whether this latest candidate is, like his predecessor from the Lone Star State, all hat and no cattle when it comes to foreign policy.
Let's take a few key phrases:
While these subtexts and echoes of the Bush years may give you the willies, there is one set of people who love them. That's the boys and girls in the White House. They love the ascendancy of Rick Perry more than they love lemonade on a hot summer afternoon. Because they know how to run against the Bush record. They know that the one candidate guaranteed to be weaker than this president is his predecessor. As one canny former White House official (yes, a Democrat, I'll admit it) said to me, "All they have to do with Perry is dust off those old 2008 Obama campaign posters and replace the word "HOPE" with "FEAR." They know they can go after Perry for producing "fear you can believe in."
Sept. 11, 2001 marked the beginning of a decade in which the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy was "the war on terror." As we approach Sept. 11, 2011, it is clear that America's foreign policy priorities have changed.
Not only has the United States achieved our principle goal of decapitating al Qaeda and degrading its capabilities, we have hardened our assets, enhanced our intelligence capabilities, developed better networks of international cooperation and, above all, recognized that there are other issues of far greater importance to our national interests that should take precedence. Even the term "war on terror" has thankfully fallen into disuse, a sign that while combatting threats from extremists remains an important element of our national security mission, we no longer seek to equate tactical responses to isolated threats with past conflicts in which our strategic interests were at stake. Instead, we are now appropriately addressing such broader strategic questions such as the rise of new powers like China, India, and Brazil, collaborating to manage the global economy, and containing important regional threats that include but are far from limited to the risks associated with terror.
Nowhere is this shift more striking than in the Greater Middle East, the source of not only the 9/11 attacks but of many of the most serious terror threats of recent memory. Recent events in Libya only underscore that America's number one issue in the region is now supporting the transition of a large number of important regional governments from autocracy to more inclusive forms of government and from top-down, crony states to more open, opportunity-rich economies. In the Middle East we have gone from the war on terror to a new campaign focused not on destruction but on building, not on sidestepping our ideals in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo but on promoting them consistent with the spirit of places like Tahrir Square.
In Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan, while the individual situations are different as is our involvement, our missions are consistent and mutually reinforcing. In the near future, it is to be hoped that similar missions will exist in Syria and in Palestine. Related reforms in countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and even Jordan -- no one like the other, but all sharing a need to evolve to reflect new economic, political, social, and technological realities -- are also likely to grow ever more important to our overall goals in the Middle East.
Of course, the initiatives we support -- those that enfranchise citizens and create opportunities for self-sufficiency and advancement -- are also far more effective tools to combat the spread of terror than have been many of our military and political initiatives of the recent past. That's not to say that there is not an important dimension to that on-going fight that will require swift, decisive use of force -- sometimes even unilateral use of force. But among the best elements of this new approach in the region is that it can only be done through effective multilateral cooperation in conjunction with a broad array of other supporters and international institutions.
Anniversaries like 9/11 are important because they help us remember. But they are also important because they provide needed punctuation marks, allowing us to bring to an end dark chapters like the "war on terror."
CARL DE SOUZA/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.