One of the primary ways the attacks of September 11, 2001 were supposed to have changed the United States was by revealing to us our vulnerability within our own borders to terrorist attacks. But of course, we had seen many terrorist attacks before then.
We had seen them throughout American history -- shootings and hijackings and bombings. The destruction of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988 remains an open wound today. The 1995 Bojinka plot of Ramzi Yousef and his uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to blow up 12 airliners en route to the United States and possibly kill as many as 4,000 people was a contributing factor leading to a major heightening of airport security by the Clinton Administration a year later. The Oklahoma City bombing, also in 1995, is still regularly invoked as a sign of our vulnerability to domestic terrorists. Indeed, it was in 1995 that I first remember Richard Clarke, then a colleague in the Clinton Administration and a man who had been both prophetic and evangelical in his warnings of the al Qaeda threat, first describing to me what he sensed that threat to be.
Even just two years before 9/11 we went on high alert on the eve of the millennium, stopping a well-formed, multi-pronged terror threat aimed at our West Coast.
The 9/11 attacks were not even the first attack on the World Trade Center, that having taken place in 1993, also having involved Yousef, Mohammed and a half dozen or so others. In fact, several years before 9/11, I participated in a conference co-sponsored by the Naval War College that was entirely focused on terrorist threats on Wall Street. It took place on the top floor of the World Trade Center. Among those helping to support the event was Howard Lutnick, the chief executive of Cantor Fitzgerald. Many of his team from the company attended the event which considered a variety of potential ways terrorists might target the U.S. financial community including bombings using trucks or aircraft. And a few years later, some of those from Cantor Fitzgerald who attended the event would die when their offices in the World Trade Center were consumed in the attacks we have spent much of the past few weeks commemorating.
The morning of Sept. 11, I was to have met with an admiral whose office was adjacent to the wing of the building that was destroyed. But at six o'clock the night before my office received a call saying that he would have to reschedule the meeting. I was pretty put-off. For almost 15 hours.
As a consequence of the postponement of that meeting, I was in my office on the morning of Sept. 11. I was on the phone with a friend who lived in Lower Manhattan a little before 9 a.m. Suddenly, he became agitated and said, "Oh my God, oh my God." I asked what was wrong and he described for me what he had just seen, a plane flying into the north face of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He suggested that I turn on the television in my office, which I did.
Soon after, I walked into the office next door which was occupied by my business partner at the time, former U.S. National Security Advisor Tony Lake. We were joined by another colleague, former Deputy CIA Director John Gannon. It was there that we saw the second plane hit the tower. At that moment, Tony said, "Al Qaeda" softly to himself. John nodded. It was, at that point, only a well-informed guess. But again, both men had been involved for most of the past decade in a growing effort to understand and contain the threat posed by al Qaeda and other similar groups.
Al Qaeda had officially "declared war" on the United States in 1996 and that the Clinton Administration, that had been tracking Bin Laden and his associates since almost its very first days had made him a principle target of its intelligence and counter-terror efforts years before 9/11. In 1998, for example, the Central Intelligence Agency had reported that al Qaeda was planning attacks on the United States and that personnel were being trained to hijack aircraft. In August of that year, our embassies in East Africa were attacked.
We went to lunch that day at an outdoor café near our offices, joined by another colleague, Susan Rice, today the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. I remember a meandering, vaguely surreal conversation touching upon what that day's events might mean and semi-deserted streets over which periodically could be heard jet fighters rushing overhead through the bright blue skies. There was a sense that threats which had been underestimated by many in Washington might now be taken more seriously, but even then there was also a sense that we would need to be careful to succumb to the temptation to over-reaction. As John Gannon would later often say, "the terrorists are not twelve feet tall," meaning that we should not succumb to the temptation to overstate the threat from them. And yet, of course, he was at the vanguard of those who also worked tirelessly to identify and contain the very real threats that existed.
As profound and horrifying a tragedy as it was therefore, 9/11 was not new but part of a pattern, not the beginning of a threat but in fact, one of the few instances in which the threat was realized by a small hate group with limited, sporadic capability to successfully follow-through on its grandiose, malevolent plans.
Nonetheless, due to the gravity of what happened a decade ago, we have had a tendency to set aside the historical context. It helped with the healing and indeed, it seemed respectful to those who were lost to frame the attacks as though they were something new, the act of a great enemy, a piece of a much grander struggle akin to past conflicts that took a high toll. I know when I think of those that were lost, personalizing it as we all do to the stories closest to us -- the kid who grew up across the street from me who was killed in Tower Two or my tennis partner whose sister in law was a flight attendant on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon -- there is some comfort from such an approach.
But comfort aside -- and it's no small thing, comfort, in the face of such grief -- the view is wrong. 9/11 was one of the few realized plots of a small band of outcast criminals. Such plots and such groups will always exist and we are within our rights and indeed, it is our responsibility to civilization, to eradicate such groups and take all reasonable steps to minimize such threats. But it does no one any good to overstate the risks and indeed, as we have seen, it has done us great damage to do so ... even as it has done service to the goals of al Qaeda and other radical extremists.
A decade later the attack has changed us because it touched us and altered irrevocably millions of lives here and across the Middle East. But if you look at the great issues before the United States in 2011, terror is no greater a threat nor any greater an issue today than it was throughout the 1990s. It is important, but our great challenges are the reinvention of our economy, the education of our children, the protection of our environment, the rise of new great powers and a rapidly changing global order, and the implications of participating in an interconnected, risk-filled, under-regulated, untransparent global economy.
9/11 was a heartbreaking event, an important chapter, but it was neither a beginning nor an end, not redefining nor an appropriate lodestar for future policies. As a consequence, tributes having been appropriately paid, memories having been rekindled, it is time to realize that the biggest threat posed that day comes from misunderstanding it and that the best way to contain the risks posed by the men who orchestrated it is to put them and their actions in the right historical context.
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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."
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Here at Les Recontres Economiques d'Aix-en-Provence we are ostensibly discussing "The States of the World" but in reality the buzz around the event is about the global economic ugly pageant. Although much of the conversation among delegates --whether at the venerable conference sites like the law school of the Universite Paul Cezanne or the local outpost of Sciences Po -- focuses on the harrowing state of the Eurozone, one can regularly hear concern expressed for the other contestants in the current perverse competition among the world's economies.
To understand the competition, you just have to understand the old joke about the group of friends whose picnic is disturbed by a hungry grizzly bear. As the friends bolt from their campsite, one stops to put on his sneakers. The others ask what he is doing, worried that he will never be able to outrun the bear if he stops. The one in the sneakers observes as he starts sprinting away, "I don't have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun the rest of you."
So it is now with the global economic ugly pageant. While most of the major economies of the world are spluttering and the possibility of an unprecedented geoeconomic disaster remains palpably real, what money there is does have to go somewhere. That place is likely to be the least ugly of the world's economies. In other words, absent a true safe haven, capital will seek the safest haven of those available. It's one reason the dollar has done fairly well recently, for example. While the U.S. government seems to do everything in its power to screw things up economically, investors buy dollars because the managers of the world's other big currencies, the Europeans and the Japanese, are screwing things up worse.
The question now is will our "luck" remain the same going forward? How will the world's economies fare in the next round of this contest? Here's the current betting line based on my scientific eavesdropping on conversations here in Provence, appropriate discounting for self-interest and biases of the speakers and my own reading of the tea leaves that get floated as economic news in the world's newspapers. (Note: I am focusing only on national and regional economies here. Suffice it to say that almost certainly the big losers of the coming months -- whether policymakers accidentally blow up the world economy or they dodge disaster through a judicious combination of austerity and stimulus -- will be the poor. They have no voices advocating for them (as do, for example, the makers of private jets currently lobbying to keep the corporate tax breaks their purchasers receive under present U.S. law). Austerity programs will squeeze them further. Disaster will crush them. And almost certainly the biggest winners will be big corporations and the super-rich who will venue-shop and use their access to cash to buy up devalued assets including fire-sales among privatizing formerly state-owned bric a brac like roads, ports, powerplants and water rights.)
What would you do after a rough few months on campus? Roadtrip!
It works the same way for presidents. Though, instead of making the journey in Flounder's brother's Lincoln this one involves -- according to the same people who estimated 11 million people attended the Glenn Beck rally -- 3,000 people, 34 warships, Air Force One, 13 cargo aircraft, three helicopters, and the private aircraft of a coterie of fat cat hangers-on. And instead of heading to Emily Dickinson College to comfort the grieving roommate of Fawn Liebowitz (by treating her to an evening at a local roadhouse to listen to Otis Day and theKnights) this one includes stops in India, Seoul,Korea for a G20 meeting that will involve more slippery smooth talking than"Otter" Stratton could ever muster, Japan, and Indonesia.The rumor that Obama is visiting Indonesia to consider locating his presidential library there is untrue and was denied by the White House moments after Mitch McConnell started to spread it, thus ending the three hours and twenty-two minutes of civility following Tuesday's elections.
For Obama, the trip is bound to be a relief. In fact, a variety of pundits are peddling the idea that given likely gridlock, congressional investigations, and general acrimony at home, that this trip will mark the beginning of a period during which the president will focus on international issues. As the theory goes, presidents can elevate themselves on the international stage without being dragged down by the Congress. Like many such theories, of course, this is nonsense. Nothing would seal Obama's fate as a one-term president quite as fast as a refocusing away from the domestic economic issues that torment his employers, the U.S. electorate.
Furthermore, given those domestic economic problems and the problems associated with our recent overseas misadventures, the United States is going to be both considerably less forward-leaning overseas, considerably more inward-looking generally and, in all likelihood, despite the "trade" sub-theme of the upcoming trip -- which is really a form of mercantilist chest-thumping -- more protectionist going forward.
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Update, 9/12/10: In the following post due to a mistake regarding which draft I submitted to be posted, a couple of key words were dropped that have been noted by several commenters. They refer to the paragraph regarding the mosque project in Lower Manhattan. What I intended to write (and had actually written in the draft that I mistakenly did not submit) was not "It is odious..." but instead "It may seem odious to some, but if our freedoms..." I appreciate those who noted the incongruity of the remark given that I was early and strongly on the record supporting the right of those supporting the Islamic Cultural Center to build it wherever they wanted to. As should be clear to anyone who reads this blog, I find the objections and efforts to block the cultural center to be what is really odious and that is the point that I would have made here were it not for my typo. Apologies.
A week ago, Fareed Zakaria wrote a piece for Newsweek entitled "What America Has Lost." It was subtitled "It's clear we overreacted to 9/11." As is typical for Zakaria, it is exceptionally thoughtful and well-argued. Its timely focus is on the enormous costs associated with building up the massive U.S. security apparatus that targeted a terrorist threat that was and is clearly overstated. Zakaria makes reference to the landmark Washington Post "Top Secret America" series that outlined how, in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, the United States has "created or reconfigured at least 263 organizations to tackle some aspect of the war on terror. The amount of money spent on intelligence has risen by 250 percent to $75 billion (and that's the public number, which is a gross underestimate.) That's more than the rest of the world spends put together."
Even today, nine years after 9/11, it took considerable courage for Zakaria to argue that we overreacted to the horrific events of that day. Given their scope and visceral impact on every American, it seemed in the days after the blows were struck that overreaction was impossible. But in the years that followed, the feelings seem hardly to have ebbed at all, and critiques of our national reaction are, with the exception of the near consensus that invading Iraq was wrong, considered almost unpatriotic -- nearly sacrilegious, in fact.
Yet I believe that Zakaria's column understates the problem. I attribute this to its appropriately limited focus rather than any narrowness of his perspective. It was, after all, just a single column in which he focused on making an important point about America's security priorities and the opportunity costs associated with our strategic overreaction. That said, the damage done by letting emotion and adrenaline get the best of us in the months and years after the attacks extends far beyond the distortion of foreign policy priorities or the impact on the U.S. federal budget.
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Think tanks being what they are -- large meat lockers in which future government bureaucrats are stored until needed -- the reports they produce tend to be little more than exercises in reputation management. They state the obvious, then slather it in a bland, nutrient-free sauce of quasi-academic qualifications that seek to explain why they are really not saying anything new or practical. The best of them offer course corrections that are minuscule at best, and new ideas are as hard to find as honest politicians in the Karzai administration.
Which brings us to the latest such report to be issued, one that proves to be the exception to the rule. That report is "A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan" from the New America Foundation. It is one of the very few such documents that I have recently read and found myself nodding at almost every turn of the page. It is so good that it almost restores my youthful belief in the potential benefits of putting smart people around a table and letting them cogitate and argue and bullshit and grapple with tough problems. Produced by a glittering group of wonks, it contains real thoughtful insights into America's situation in Afghanistan and comes to sound, generally implementable conclusions about what the United States should do to avoid making a very bad situation even worse.
The report is well summarized in an article by Steve Clemons, one of its architects, that appears in Politico. In short, it makes the case that spending $100 billion a year to fight a war we can't win in Afghanistan is just one of several reasons that America's policies are misguided and demand immediate correction. He writes, "Though Obama is more likeable, and often more inspiring, than the fictional captain in the Melville novel, Afghanistan has now become the Moby Dick to Obama's Ahab."
The report begins by revisiting the forgotten territory of America's initial reasons to be involved in the region in the first place. It correctly notes there are only two: preventing Afghanistan from being a staging ground for further terrorist attacks against the United States, and doing what we can to reduce the threat that Pakistani weapons of mass destruction might fall into the wrong hands. It argues correctly that if we focus on these two goals, then our mission, military and diplomatic presence in the region would and should look very different.
It makes five key recommendations. The first is promoting power sharing and political inclusion in a more decentralized Afghanistan: In other words, trying to work with rather than against the historical and cultural tides in the country. Second is downsizing and ending military operations in southern Afghanistan and reducing the military presence there. Third is focusing the military's attention on Al Qaeda, which is no longer really present in Afghanistan but remains an issue in Pakistan. (Notably, the New America group suggests using the cost-savings the drawdown would produce to bolster U.S. domestic security and contain the spread of weapons of mass destruction worldwide.) Fourth is encouraging the promotion of economic development, while emphasizing that this should be an internationally rather than U.S. led effort. (Hallelujah to that.) Finally, it recommends collaborating with influential states in the region to ensure Afghanistan is not dominated by "any single power or being permanently a failed state that exports instability." The report notes that those states -- Pakistan, India, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia -- aren't the best of pals, but suggests correctly that there are ways to work with each or even small clusters of them to promote these outcomes that are, for the most part, in their interests.
Point five is a bit of a stretch. Point four is more or less boilerplate, though worthy of emphasizing. The reality is that Afghanistan will become a strongman dominated quasi-failed state, but that as long as our core goals in the region -- the two mentioned above -- are met, then we should be less concerned with whatever structure produces an outcome supportive of them.
Personally, I think the international community needs to be involved actively in ensuring that whatever successor state emerges, the rights of all Afghans -- and notably women and tribal minorities -- are respected and protected. It is also true that Pakistan is the real problem and appropriate subject of U.S. attention in this region, and that this requires forthrightly addressing what diplomatic and force structure is required to promote stability and contain threats within that country.
But this report is clear-eyed, direct, well-argued and in its tone even more than its substance sends a message that the only door we should head for in that country is the one with the exit sign over it. In Clemons article he notes that the United States spends seven times Afghanistan's own GDP on our involvement there -- an amount equal to the cost of the recent U.S. health care legislation, and one that if saved could pay down the U.S. deficit in 14 years. The recklessness and irresponsibility of such a costly involvement, given America's other urgent priorities and the true nature of the threats within Afghanistan, makes the blood boil.
It does no dishonor to our military to wish their lives and services were available for other missions. Reports like this raise the hope that opinion is shifting in ways that may lead us to just such a desirable outcome.
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Today, President Sarah Palin convened a meeting of Middle East leaders to resume the search for a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. "It has been President Palin's knowledge of the players, the issues and her exceptional diplomatic skill that has made this event possible," said Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
There is a reason you will never see the preceding paragraph written in a news report. Hint: It has nothing to do with Palin's commitment to seeking peace.
It is precisely because it is unimaginable that Sarah Palin could play the role of honest broker on the international stage on an issue such as Middle East peace that she will never be president. For better or for worse, being president of the United States requires individuals who can assume such a role. Indeed, the success or failure of many American presidents has turned on whether or not they have risen to the challenges of international statesmanship. The American people recognize this fact and with very few exceptions look for character traits in winning candidates that translate into presidents who can hold their own with top leaders on vital issues (although sadly, international experience is not one of them).
This week, with the renewal of direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, President Obama's test in this defining crucible will begin. There have been hints of his aptitude for such challenges before -- in the late night session at the global climate talks in Copenhagen, for example, during which he showed skill and drive. But there have also been warning signs, such as his comparatively weak showing when confronted with tough Chinese leaders in Beijing. Nothing he has yet done, however, will be as important as his role in these upcoming talks in revealing to observers around the globe whether he is the real thing or a pretender when it comes to being in the first ranks of world leaders for any reason other than the title he holds.
While the odds are against a breakthrough in these talks, any hope of progress is likely to be directly linked to whether President Obama becomes directly engaged, places his political capital on the line, and is willing to work the issues and the other leaders participating in the talks.
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Although it's hard to believe, there have actually been developments this week that were more difficult to understand than the finale of Lost -- which is saying something since the show was roughly as incomprehensible as a boozy 3 a.m. chat with Lindsay Lohan.
If all that's confusing to you, brace yourself -- the summer ahead may prove to be a real head spinner. And more on that note in tomorrow's offering. Stay tuned...
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Admittedly, it's only March and early March at that. Still the year has been full of surprises so far on the Washington politics and international policy beats. So, it's only fair that the surprise winners get the credit they so richly deserve. Here are ten of them, in no special order:
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So, here we are at last, the big ones, my choices for winners and losers of the decade on the global stage.
While these selections are slightly less subjective than, say, the Golden Globe nominations (which are, I believe, selected by three drunken expat Latvian critics in a bar in West Hollywood), they do represent just the views of one man. If you agree with those views, please post your congratulations below ... or go ahead and add a few other names. If you disagree, just remember, there will be other lists -- only I decide whether to include you among the global losers of tomorrow (alongside, say, the Tiger Woods of 10 years from now when he is running Tiger's "Just Do It" Mini-Golf Course in Melanoma City, Florida) or the global winners of the future (alongside, say, President Timberlake in 2030 or so).
The People of Iraq: George W. Bush was our Washington loser of the decade, but all he lost was his reputation such as it was. He's still rich and will probably never pay for a round of golf again. But somewhere between 100,000 and 800,000 Iraqis are dead as a consequence of the war, the country is shattered, its government held together with chewing gum and bailing wire and the random killing continues. Oh, and there was absolutely no justification for going in and breaking up the place from the get-go. This isn't a tragedy ... it's a crime, as I suspect international courts will conclude in the years to come.
The People of Afghanistan and Pakistan: These countries are no playgrounds, they are home to plenty of bad actors and, as Barack Obama has demonstrated, no U.S. president, regardless of party, could stay disengaged from the festering political sore on the planet that is AfPak. But while the pursuit of al Qaeda and the Taliban is justified, the wars that continue to percolate here will kill countless thousands, impoverish hundreds of thousands more and at the same time, support for terrorists and other enemies of civilization will grow. That there are no good choices here is a cliché ... that there are going to be no winners is a related tragic reality.
The British Government (Lifetime Achievement Award): Well, let's book at the worst problems the world has faced during the past decade -- Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel-Palestine...what do these diverse countries have in common? They were all cooked up or stirred up by those fertile minds at the British Foreign Office and their colleagues elsewhere up and down Whitehall, either as they were dismantling their empire or fiddling with the region after one war or another. Thanks guys for your creativity...and for the foresight you showed by actually bequeathing your handwork to yet another remnant of your empire as you shuffled off the world stage so you could focus on counterbalancing your past contributions to global culture by producing Simon Cowell and the likes of Susan Boyle.
The U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Dollar, and American Capitalism: It was a tough decade for the pillars of U.S. society. We should have seen it coming when the decade began with the Supreme Court fiddling with an election and when a central theme of the Bush years became undercutting the Constitution. Thanks to the U.S. government's similar callous disregard for the laws of economics and fiscal responsibility the dollar began a downward spiral that many experts see as a semi-permanent feature of our future.
Democracy: Oh, yes, we know that Churchill called it the "worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried"... but as my grandma would have said, "there's democracy and then there's democracy." In other words, some forms of democracy are worse than others, and among those that that have flourished during the past decade are Russia, Venezuela, Iran, Zimbabwe, and, yes folks, Honduras -- where leaders took advantage of the common misperception that voting equals democracy.
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As promised -- trumpet fanfare -- "The Winners and Losers of the Decade." Or, as I like to think of it, "The Winners and Losers of the Oughts," in deference to the zeros in each year of the decade's numbering, the zeros who were in charge and all that we ought to have done that we did not do.
George W. Bush: It almost seems too easy. But upon reflection, it's not even close. Bush wasn't just born with a silver spoon in his mouth -- he inherited America, the world's sole superpower, with a budget surplus and clear skies ahead. When we were attacked on 9/11, the immediate consequence was unprecedented support for him and for the country. And yet, almost immediately thereafter, he started on a catastrophic set of missteps and bad decisions that had alienated the world by the end of his term. George W. Bush was not just the biggest loser produced by the American political system in the past decade, he was in all likelihood one of the worst presidents in American history and he presided over what was almost certainly the worst international relations calamity since, I don't know, maybe the Alien and Sedition Acts.
How did he get there? What was the worst of all the bad choices he made? Was it invading Iraq or picking Dick Cheney to be his vice president in the first place -- or more properly, letting Dick Cheney choose himself? In the literary biz, we call that foreshadowing ... but in the history biz they will almost certainly call it the beginning of the end for a president who undercut American stature like no other, compromised our historic values and at times, seemed like he could barely speak English.
Not only does he get my nod for loser of the decade in the United States, he takes the international crown as well. All hail George W. Bush. Thanks to his bumbling in the highest office in the land, he also achieved the rarest form of comic apotheosis: He became the punch line that didn't even need a joke. Sadly, for us all, it will always hurt when we laugh.
Al Gore and the American People: There are losers and then there are those who lost. For the remainder of our lives we will always wonder what might have been. Seldom have there been forks in the road of history as clear as the 2000 U.S. presidential elections. The difference between the two candidates was as thin as the sheet of paper on which the politically stacked Supreme Court reached its compromised decision. In retrospect, it is ever more clear that the election was stolen and America, and countless victims worldwide, were sent hurtling toward a destiny that we and they did not deserve. Gore later would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his work battling climate change and has handled the defeat and its aftermath with a grace that would warrant the prize had he done nothing at all. But we cannot help but think how much more we would have done by now to combat climate change had he been in office, how much stronger our relations would be with the world, how many innocents killed by our wars in the Middle East would still be alive. It is the decade's defining political defeat.
Like many people in the foreign policy community, I've been spending an inordinate amount of time grappling with the issues associated with Afghanistan. I have been reading newspaper reports, listening to interviews and testimony, weighing the assessments of experts. It is a tiny microcosm of the process that is taking place within the highest levels of the U.S. government right now with a couple differences. First, I don't have access to classified reports (although for the most part my experience has taught me to approach these with great caution.) Second, I don't have to worry about the politics of the decision I reach -- internal or external. And third, and most importantly, my opinion really doesn't matter. I'm up here in the cheap seats -- the blogosphere being the "noisebleed section" of the political arena -- and we all know that a stadium full of people shouting their opinions just sounds like cheering or booing and isn't much more nuanced than that.
Still, as with any discussions concerning whether or not and how to conduct a war, this is a debate that has a strong sense of urgency about it. It also involves a host of really interesting questions about what our real objectives are, about whether this is a counter-insurgency or a counter-terrorism operation, about how victory can be measured, about who our real allies and enemies are, about how much cost we are willing to bear, about what the role for NATO should be, about how to deal with a corrupt, dysfunctional partner in Kabul, even about more fundamental issues such as how do we ultimately keep ourselves safe from terror, whether we can ever be successful at nation-building, and whether there is even truly a nation to build in a country like Afghanistan that is really (much as Iraq is) a confection of the minds of British imperialists that overlooks ancient tribal realities.
To those who say that the Obama administration should not be reconsidering a strategy it announced only last spring, my reaction is that's nonsense. We should constantly be reviewing our strategy based on the changing situation on the ground and the ebb and flow of other external priorities and factors. To those who say that the process has gone on too long, I also say, that's ridiculous given the human stakes involved.
But I am among the group concerned that the final decision may be tainted by factors that should not come into play when forging a strategy. One factor is campaign rhetoric: The president should not be locked into a course of action because of what he said as a candidate. Another factor is momentum: It is hard to reverse any enterprise as massive as this operation in Afghanistan. Another factor is fear of perceptions of an internal rift: I am on the record as feeling that General McChrystal went too far in publicly arguing his case and I feel the President should not be cowed into nudging the needle one jot in the direction of escalation of our involvement because he is unsettled by the political consequences of subordinates who didn't get their way. I also fear the impulse some have to seek an answer that will make everyone happy. In this case, it's just not there.
But the more I grapple with this problem in my own head, the more I feel like we are collectively falling victim to a fatal heuristic trap. After 9/11 nothing was more important that getting the terrorists that committed the act or making America safe from future attacks. This turned Bush as it would have turned any president toward Afghanistan. When he made his weird wrong turn toward Iraq, it led some among his opponents to argue even more vigorously that Afghanistan should have remained our top priority. This had two advantages: It immunized them from critiques they were "soft on terror" or "weak" and it was supported by a certain logic. Barack Obama and most Democrats were among this group.
When Obama came into office therefore, his mandate was to switch from Iraq to Afghanistan and we began to ramp up our involvement there. It became "his" war. It was the "war of necessity." The more involved we got there, the more "important" the debate about our strategy there became. The issue grew to the point that it is common to see reference to Obama's decision on whether or not to increase our troop presence there as the most important foreign policy decision he will make this year.
It might be. But that is different from saying that Afghanistan is actually important itself and different from saying it is really important to the interests of the United States. In fact, the reality is that there are few measures indeed by which it can be honestly argued that Afghanistan warrants the attention it is getting or the resources we are devoting to it.
National Security Advisor Jim Jones was quoted as saying there may be only 100 Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The terror threat has moved elsewhere. Almost every country in Afghanistan's immediate neighborhood can be argued to pose a bigger terrorist threat. It can be argued that we don't want the Taliban to come back into power in Afghanistan. First, of all, that our departure would produce their return is by no means a certainty and it is a view shared by many in Afghanistan. Next, again, they are actively sponsored by elements in Pakistan and their fate is really driven from there.
For sure the biggest security threat in the region is not Afghanistan but Pakistan, a country careening toward the possibility of being divided by civil conflict. The core of the threat is Pakistan's nuclear arsenals and anyone tells you the U.S. knows where the weapons are and is confident in their security is just outright lying to you. Pakistan is the home to terror. Pakistan is the 170 million person nation on the verge of chaos. Pakistan is the nuclear threat. Afghanistan is only relevant relative to Pakistan.
Does that make Afghanistan important? Only if we can use it as a base from which we can contain the threats posed from within Pakistan. But the reality is given the terrain in the mountains on the border, we have spent eight years proving that we can't really do that. And our friends in Kabul are running such a bogus government that it is unlikely they will prove to be a useful aid in such matters anytime in the foreseeable future. Thus, if Afghanistan is only relevant as far as it can help deal with threats in Pakistan and it can't really help very much with those, it is actually not that important.
What's the conclusion? View all our actions in Afghanistan relative to our real interests in the region, which are for the most part in Pakistan. To the extent we can position ourselves in Afghanistan in ways supporting cross-border activities into Pakistan and that gives a rapid deployment capability should the worst happen there, fine. Give them aid. Encourage them to stabilize. But recognize that we shouldn't have an extended military presence in a place that is not actually that important to us -- especially if most experts think our likelihood of success with regard to military objectives in the country is in the slim to none range.
As periodically happens in American life, we are engaged in a furious debate about the wrong issue ... and our failure to recognize this is certain to have negative implications for our ability to deal with what should be our real priorities.
While we here at FP don't recommend eating disorders as an effective weight control technique, sometimes it's hard to pass up the canapés at those fancy Washington parties -- like GQ's "50 Most Powerful People in DC" cocktail blast at 701 last night.
Of course, GQ's party had its own built-in trigger of the gag reflex for most Washingtonians: their names weren't on the list. (I talked with one of GQ's writers as she was working on the list, a conversation I enjoyed right up until the moment it was clear they didn't think I was list-worthy. As for the final product's, um, curiosities see FP's earlier take. But, Leon Panetta ahead of Hillary Clinton? Tom Donilon on the list, but his boss Jim Jones off it? Various worthy but random journalists and bloggers and not Tom Friedman or David Sanger? The Sidwell admissions director ahead of the GDS admissions director? Insiders know the truth ... even as they all hungrily pour over the list looking for their own names and those of their allies, enemies and worst of all, their friends.)
But when a glossy, man-perfume scented equivalent of a long hairy finger down your throat isn't readily available, then knowledgeable Washingtonians know there is always another place they can turn, the Capital's naturally produced form of Serum of Ipecac. Just follow the news until you develop the acute reaction to hypocrisy that is certain to launch away your own indiscretions in one or two turbulent but satisfying moments.
For example, here's a recipe for Capitulimia drawn from just what's going on around town today:
Take just one dose of insurance companies trying to suggest in print and broadcast advertisements that after years of making indefensible profits from literally killing people and destroying families with their policies (the one's they didn't actually deny to those who needed them), it is they who are actually looking out for the interests of Americans in need of health care.
Add one 30 second American Petroleum Institute commercial in which they actually argue that the pending climate bill might hurt consumers by producing more highly priced gasoline? After their record? While they should actually all be hovering in their basements waiting for the class action suit from the planet for selling a product they have known for years was destroying it?
Then sit down and take a listen to say, Rush Limbaugh complaining the media is making spurious, emotional, and uninformed attacks against him ... and that "the media" has too much power. The media? Who is he? Where does his power and obscene wealth come from? Appearances to the contrary, he is not a manatee sunning on a rock.
If that hasn't done it, listen to one-time supporters of the havoc wreaked by the Great Decider's impulsive and catastrophic policies in Iraq or his ineffective blundering in Afghanistan as they criticize President Obama for actually taking some time to work out a sensible adjustment to tackling the mind-boggling challenges posed in the AfPak region ... challenges that were altered by the recent elections embarrassment in Afghanistan.
Or listen to Republican legislators responsible for the biggest deficits in American history and the collapse of the American economy, attack President Obama for doing what had to be done to clean up their mess.
Not there yet, go to Amazon.com and pre-order not only the Sarah Palin book but the upcoming books from President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Hank Paulson, and Karl Rove. Then think about the millions that will be generated by these books. (In New York State, I seem to recall once upon a time in the days of "The Son of Sam" they passed a law blocking criminals from writing books allowing them to profit from retelling the tales of their wrong-doing. These aren't criminals, of course ... well, not all of them ... but what are we to make of millionaires who gutted the American economy making millions from telling us all how they did it?)
Still on the verge of relief but not quite cleansed? Well, pick up a paper and read about the fact that roughly $140 billion in compensation will be paid out on Wall Street this year, a record beating out the last peak year of 2007. (And while you're at it, flip back to the FT from a day or two ago and read Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein's call for more industry reform and ask yourself: was placing this oped at the time the bonuses were going to be announced just a little cynical? Do they really think we're going to fall for that kind of grade-school spinning -- even if he did make a number of good points.)
There, that ought to do it. Feeling better now? Lighter on your feet? Angry but empty? No need to thank me. Just another public service from your virtual friends here on the Internet who will always do what we can to ensure our Washington readers are ready for another day of making the rounds from the Four Seasons to the Palm to the usual receptions sponsored by the likes of the American Foot Odor Institute and the National Alliance for Getting Children to Make Their Beds. And for the rest of you outside the beltway, with America's health care system unlikely to be high functioning any time soon, it's probably a good idea to drop a few pounds and get into better shape.
And here's our hint for turning what could be an eating disorder into a sustainable diet: just keep watching those headlines -- they're the world's most effective non-addictive appetite suppressant. If you follow Washington without losing your appetite, you're not paying attention.
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
Foreign policy is a fast-paced business. Despite the fact that at least someone in the Obama Administration is actually celebrating the art of indecision, you can save the world with snap judgments if you know what you're doing. I know what I'm doing.
To demonstrate I will now solve some of the biggest foreign policy problems confronting some of the world's most important newsmakers in a matter of just a few seconds each. (I will also solve a few lower-grade domestic problems as well.) If you are an important figure on the international stage, just look for your name below. Next to it will be the advice you need in a couple of quick sentences. If you are not a world leader but know one, please feel free to forward this to them.
To Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan of the Pakistani Muslim League: If you don't like the provisions of the U.S. aid package, keep it to yourself. Your complaints are precisely how we know the deal has been constructed properly. (Hint: Turn back the Americans who are offering aid and you'll end up with those who want to make all future deliveries by drone.)
To President Barack Obama: If you think that George's war (that'd be Iraq) is likely to look better than yours (Afghanistan) in five years -- and that'd be my bet right now -- then you really do need to listen to the people calling for a change in strategy.
To Manuel Zelaya: Fair or not, your five minutes are just about up...unless you choose to start dating Kate Gosselin. (And if that is Plan B, I have to say, I'd stay locked in the basement of the Brazilian Embassy, too.)
To Kim Jong-Il: You tell Wen Jiabao you want one-on-one talks with the United States to establish peaceful ties as a prelude to returning to the nuclear arms negotiating table? No problem. Two steps: First, ask for them. Second, realize Michael Jackson wrote "The Man(iac) in the Mirror" for you. As in the "how many shrinks does it take to change a lightbulb?" joke, the punchline is that it's you who've really got to want to change.
To Silvio Berlusconi: Are you the one that's tanned now or is that just a red face? The ruling by the Italian Supreme Court stripping you of immunity from prosecution just because you are Prime Minister certainly seems likely to put a hitch in your mambo Italiano. With three trials going on that involve you or your holdings, you might want to start planning your post government career. (I know your wife has some interesting ideas for what to do with you ... or parts of you.)
To Donald Tusk: As Poland's Prime Minister dealing with a corruption scandal, you have learned some important truths: gambling always produces losers (in your case, the three ministers who have been forced out of your government for corruption) and you can't beat the house (even if you try by suggesting you'll fire the anti-corruption official who blew the whistle on your cabinet) ... especially if the house is run by the two who stole that stole the moon and you don't fit in with their plans.
To Robert Mugabe: You say you want better ties with the U.S.? Well, you're going to need a long rope... Kim Jong-Il has a better shot at restored relations with the United States ... by a lot. Frankly, so does Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Frankly, so too does Rufus T. Firefly. Dictator, purge thyself.
To David Letterman: Ok, so far there's no rumors of foreign affairs in this story. But my advice to you is: continue doing just what you're doing. The openness is working...on the ratings...and on what's left of your image. Silvio, you randy slimebag you, pay attention. Old men apparently can screw around with younger women if they are charmingly self-deprecating about it, not political leaders and not you.
To Mazen Abdul Jawad: You may have been condemned to 1,000 lashes in Saudi Arabia for discussing your (kinda gross) sex life on a tv talk show. Here in America (see above), the same thing would actually get you your own talk show. Time to consider relocating...almost anyplace else. And speaking of Saudi outrages...
To Mohammed S. Al Sabban: If, as head of the Saudi delegation to the global climate talks, you are actually as reported going around saying if measures are taken to reduce world dependency on oil that the planet should offer aid to Saudi Arabia ... then get used to the idea that you are going to replace the woman who buried her husband in a rented suit as the living embodiment of laughable chutzpah.
To David Axelrod: Stay out of camera shot in photos about major foreign policy decisions. You're the president's right hand guy. He needs you: You have the "mind-meld" thing going, offer invaluable advice and by all reports are actually a good guy. Which is why what neither the president nor you need are the uncharitable whispers that you are out-Roving Rove in terms of day-to-day influence over administration operations. (Oh and to Karl Rove, re: your WSJ article that the GOP is winning the health care debate: There's a reason you guys are out. Wrong again. See the CBO report. The Obama-Baucus bill is getting closer and closer to being a done deal.)
I've got some real serious advice for my friends in the Obama administration: act quickly or the "dithering thing" is about to become this president's "vision thing."
For those of you who are too young to remember -- and I know this blog skews toward a younger, hipper crowd than the rest of FP's more staid, respectable, and credible offerings -- the "vision thing" became the brutal short-hand describing George H.W. Bush's supposed lack of vision. It was one of those terms that was so memorable that it slipped into those every day water cooler conversations and became an unshakable part of the conventional wisdom that helped make Bush 41 a one-term president.
We've seen the phenomenon many times before. Sometimes, the phrase is self-inflicted as was "vision thing" or "I am not a crook." Sometimes it is an image: John Kerry windsurfing, Michael Dukakis with silly helmet on. And as Gerald Ford and all these others discovered, the truth is not a defense. You can be, as Ford was, the best athlete ever to be president of the United States, a football All-American, and stumble down a flight of stairs or two and you are a clumsy doofus for the rest of your life.
Sticky phrases tied to potent concepts can undo a president or public figure as much as any action they take. Whether it's a reputation for micro-management or skirt-chasing, once one of these nutshell descriptions sticks, it never goes away.
The alarms started going off in my head regarding this when I saw Tom Ricks's post on the FP site earlier this week which was headlined "The Ditherer in Chief." In it, Ricks laid out with typical economy and insight, why Obama's "dithering" on settling on a strategy in Afghanistan or really moving forward in Iraq is a kind of unsettling counterpoint to George Bush's "panic" in the wake of 9/11. Ricks, who I believe readers should take very seriously on matters such as this, said that as a result of the president's seeming lack of decisiveness on these critical issues, he (Ricks) had become, for the first time, worried about Obama's foreign policy.
Ricks concluded by saying that if he were forced to choose, he'd take dithering over panic. But it was clear, he has become a member of an ever growing group, many of whom are extremely pro-Obama Democrats, that have grown impatient with the president's handling of those aspects of his presidency that have life and death implications for U.S. troops.
I should note, I am not personally of the same view. Provided the administration reaches a decision on its going forward strategy in Afghanistan in the next several weeks as Secretary Gates indicated this weekend that it would, I welcome the systematic assessment and reassessment of our situation, the reaching out for multiple views including those of our allies (as reflected in the comments of NATO Secretary General Rasmussen yesterday), and the recognition that it is worth the delay to come to the best possible solution. We've seen where impulse and dogma-driven reflex will get us. We should welcome the impulse to interject thought into the process as we should the apparent willingness to puncture groupthink by seeking divergent perspectives.
To me the issue is whether the decision is the right one or not. Which, as readers of this blog know, in my view is a much narrower mission in Afghanistan, a focus on getting a tolerable, semi-effective government in place in Kabul, and then moving more toward a counter-terror strategy that involves fewer locally-based forces and more over-the-horizon interventions be they drones or ship-based special forces operations as recently took place in Somalia.
But as mentioned above, the facts won't matter to opponents of the president or to the average voter who has bandwidth for little more than a twitter-length description of the president, a string of bits of conventional wisdom that constitute what passes for the total persona of the commander-in-chief.
Professor Obama and community-organizer-in-chief Obama are both compelling identities to many Democrats (and in many ways welcome ones). But they simply don't cut it on pressing national security issues. The expectations of the public and the defense community which people like Tom Ricks knows so well may be conventional but they are unshakable. Leaders must lead. Decisions must be crisp. The human stakes are in fact undeniably high. Days and weeks do matter...and commanders need to show they "get it." And over all, you need to convey a sense that you have that "vision thing", a sense of where you want to go and that it doesn't take a seminar to reach every decision.
Part of the problem for Obama is that he started out headed in the wrong direction in Afghanistan and he needs to change course. There is no easy way to do it. And it may sting politically. But ultimately, courage carries a lot of weight and is one of the antidotes to the dithering argument. Another potential antidote is offering up different, better stories and images. I am not sure why the Somalia operation did not get more play. It seems to have been a great example of good leadership and the U.S. military effectively doing their very tough job. Identifying the president more closely with the successes of the military will help (assuming they are real and he is truly behind them ... "Mission Accomplished" moments are precisely the kind this president ... and all presidents ... need to avoid.) And of course, the best potential antidote is more decisiveness whenever it is responsible.
It is not too late to keep this label from sticking. But it's getting there.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
And Dick Cheney thinks he knows something about terror. Republican terror threats are for sissies. Even Tom Ridge is willing to admit ... some of the time ... that they kinda-sorta-maybe were overblown. (Ridge's now-you-see-em-now-you-don't revelations have permanently damaged him. Either he screwed up back in the day by caving to pressure to elevate the threat level or he has screwed up by misrepresenting the situation in his memoirs or he screwed up most recently by caving to pressure to back off the "explosive" admissions that he thought would sell enough books to pay for his retirement.)
But Democrats have all the luck. They didn't want a national terror threat. They don't even like talking about the "war on terror" (most of the time). But they've got a doozy brewing that makes the country's post-9/11 post traumatic stress disorder induced inclination to look for a terrorist behind every potted palm look mild by comparison.
Yesterday, I walked across the campus of Columbia University in New York and amid the light blue and white balloons and banners fluttering in welcome of new students, amid the registration tables and the orientation sign-up booths, every so often there were large Purell dispensers. No explanatory signs. No instructions, just big honking containers of disinfectant crying out to every passerby to stop and make that next handshake a safer one. The absence of signs made it all the more ominous. Signs weren't necessary as they once were along highways when people were asked to call in and report "suspicious activity."
While this threat was as hard to see as was the one that had the Bushies in a swivet, you didn't need Karl Rove's classified Ouija board to magnify this one, a microscope would do.
The other day a dean at a major DC-area academic institution indicated that he and others on his team had spent much of the summer developing the distance learning protocols they would employ if H1N1 virus required them to shut down their campus and send everyone home. At around the same time, I received an email from the college one of my daughters attends explaining just how they would tackle swine flu. Today, the city of New York, a city now reporting that perhaps 800,000 of its citizens caught the disease in the first phase of its appearance, announced a new set of guidelines for how they would handle the disease as it appeared again this flu season.
Estimates suggest that perhaps as many as 90,000 Americans could die of the disease this next time around. That may be high. Estimates of the severity of this pandemic have been inconsistent and fortunately, thus far the illness has not taken an extreme toll. But the nervousness is palpable. For example, take this CBS story of a school district in Long Island that has banned touching for the foreseeable future (of course, just after my daughters leave high school is when they decide to ban touching!)
Chest bumps. High fives. Hugs and handshakes. Glen Cove Middle School students Ali Slaughter and Hannah Seltzer say that's what friends do on the first day of school. But when students in the Nassau community return to school next week, the superintendent will be urging abstinence. Everyone from the tiniest tots to the biggest high school football players will be asked to limit skin-on-skin contact in an attempt to prevent the spread of swine flu when it re-emerges this fall.
Thus far, it seems authorities worldwide have responded swiftly to the pandemic and, even if it seems like they are over-reacting, their caution is not misplaced. Flu annually kills 250,000-500,000 people worldwide each year, 36,000 in the United States. And that's not when a particularly virulent strain comes along, such as the 1918 pandemic that killed perhaps 50-100 million people and infected perhaps 500 million.
The 9/11 attacks claimed fewer people than would die worldwide of flu on the average weekend. So, it is quite clear that the current invisible threat is a lot worse than the old invisible threat. But there is another way to look at all this. First, it casts the current health care debate in a different light. Having 50 million people who don't have health insurance (thus more reluctant to see a doctor and more inclined to seek free emergency room treatment) puts everyone else at greater risk. Having hospitals teetering near insolvency and cutting back services does likewise. When you think about the real threats to our homeland security a broken health system (especially in the context of the threats of not just epidemics but biological or WMD attacks) may be at the top of the list.
Next, if this epidemic gets as severe as some people worry, it'll very quickly overshadow Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and the financial crisis. It'll become Obama's war and, absent a crisp, orderly, sustained response, his Katrina. There's no sign that's happening yet. It may not rise to that level. The response may be excellent and it could be one of the decisive factors in the 2010 elections in either case. But for the first time in years, a nation that has come to view threat level Orange as normal has started to get edgy over something bigger. Tell me Mr. Ridge, what color should we use to indicate to everyone that the threat could be real?
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Despite a growing desire on my part to avoid the cage-match side of blogging, it is hard not to respond to Christian Brose's post "What is David Rothkopf smoking?" Brose seems to have, in President Obama's words, become all "wee-wee'd up" over my article in Sunday's Washington Post. I respond, of course, as a public service because so much of what he said provides a useful insight into how far we have come since the days of the Bush administration and how desperate Bush apologists are to find a way to suggest that their man and the policies they promoted were not actually the nadir of American foreign policy.
I should note however, that I also do this reluctantly because I think Brose is a pretty good writer and a fairly thoughtful guy. Still, when someone suggests that I have been a member of "the foreign policy hoi-polloi that went into intellectual hibernation in 2004 and only awoke this January" I figure, it's probably OK to offer a few words on behalf of my views. (Although it does explain the acorn residue I found in my cheeks.)
I will ignore for a moment the fact that Brose clearly is willing to spot the world the first term of the Bush administration as indefensible and focus on his core notion that somehow the years Condi was at State were almost indistinguishable in intent, concept and execution from what we have seen to date from the Obama team. It should be noted that coincidentally Brose was a speech-writer at State during the Bush administration.
Let's take his points one at a time:
That's the key point about these early days of this new foreign policy team. All administrations talk about partnerships and new relationships. To my mind, this one seems to believe what it is saying and is doing something about ... and at the very least is not as transparently hypocritical about such matters as was its predecessor. That in and of itself is perhaps the transformation most of the world was most hoping for.
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
In the 1950's, the British philosopher J. L. Austin came to Columbia to present a paper about the close analysis of language. He pointed out that although two negatives make a positive, nowhere is it the case that two positives make a negative. 'Yeah, yeah,' Dr. Morgenbesser said.
Austin was clearly unprepared for Morgenbesser. But he was also clearly unfamiliar with diplomacy in which the double positive can be deadly.
For example, on one level, if you are an ally like Israel, you might think that the only thing better than being visited by one senior U.S. official (say, Secretary Gates) would be another visit in the very same week from another senior official (say, National Security Advisor Jim Jones). Even better would be adding yet another bit or two of senior level attention, say that of Mideast Negotiator George Mitchell or NSC Mideast guru Dennis Ross. But four times the high-level visitors are hardly four times the fun, or to put it another way, one high level visit is an honor but four in a week is a serious sign of trouble.
While all the visits to date have produced upbeat official statements at their conclusion, behind the scenes it is clear that concerns about the Israeli stance on Iran and the Netanyahu stance on settlements has pushed this relationship to what may be one of its lowest ebbs in modern memory. As one Israeli said to me, "We spent half the Bush administration complaining our issues weren't getting any attention. Now, we're starting to look back on being neglected as the good old days..."
Also, of course, too many envoys raises another question, "if your government speaks with one voice, how come I am hearing so many voices?" This is related to another classic set of double-positives encountered in politics and diplomacy, the problem of too many chiefs. For example, having copresidents of an organization doesn't mean having twice as much leadership, it usually means half as much…or less.
Which brings us to another instance this week in which the positives have been signs of the negatives: the U.S.-China Strategic Economic Dialogue, which is cochaired on the U.S. side by both the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Treasury. As Glenn Kessler wrote in the Post today:
On Monday, about 200 senior Chinese officials traveled to Washington and heard soothing words of reassurance from U.S. officials: The dollar is still sound, your investments are safe and we are working really hard to restructure our economy.
Such is the nature of the U.S.-China relationship today. Behind all the reassuring language is a nervous sense that the fate of the world economy is increasingly dependent on the United States and China working together.
In other words, it's our turn to sing "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" which, of course, means, in the best interpretation, that our partners the Chinese are worried and at worst means, "worry!" (How things have changed since we were beating them up about their economic management.) Certainly every reassurance we offer is more a sign of an underlying concern than it is a true positive statement about the economy. Thus, the more positives, the more worries.
This, in turn, brings another Morgenbesser anecdote to mind, also recounted in his Times obit:
In the 1970's, a student of Maoist inclination asked him if he disagreed with Chairman Mao's saying that a proposition can be true or false at the same time. Dr. Morgenbesser replied, 'I do and I don't.'
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
The U.S. Congress has their knickers in a twist because apparently the C.I.A. kept from them plans associated with a program designed to kill off al Qaeda leaders. While I think the Congress is right to be disturbed by this apparent cover-up -- and they should go after whomever may have violated the law by keeping the program from them -- it seems to me we're missing the point here.
Shouldn't we be at least equally concerned that in the eight years since the 9/11 attacks, the C.I.A. couldn't get its act together sufficiently to actually deploy the program to kill the al Qaeda leaders we intended to target? If there was ever an instance where the covert use of force was utterly justified it was in hunting down and killing this enemy.
In today's New York Times story "C.I.A. Had Plan to Assassinate Al Qaeda Leaders," the reasons the program got bogged down are laid out. Bureaucratic debates about whether it would be legal to employ such methods are perhaps inevitable and frankly, I'm all for having checks in our system that actually indicate a respect for the rule of law. But let's be serious, we find it is ok to violate national sovereignty with unmanned aircraft but not with people? It's ok to use those unmanned aircraft to fire missiles at bad guys that may or may not blow up dozens of innocent by-standers but it is not ok to undertake an approach where such collateral damage is even less likely? This is through-the-looking-glass legalism, so twisted and absurd that it must be about something else.
One hopes it is not about another reason the plan was difficult which is offered in the article -- the difficulty of figuring out where to base such operations. It is easy for anyone who has been in the U.S. government to imagine such a discussion ... but I wouldn't advise it. Because it makes your head want to explode.
Which brings us to the real problem. It's reflected in the quote: "It sounds great in the movies but when you do it, it's not that easy." Clearly, the concern was that the operation would fail and in failing it would be an embarrassment. But, who said these things were supposed to be easy? They are clearly as difficult as any operations the government can undertake. But when you are confronted by an enemy who uses foreign sovereignty and the presence of innocents for cover, such initiatives are essential.
Yes, it's hard, risky and will put U.S. lives and our national reputation on the line. So too is winning a land war in Afghanistan. So too is working with a divided, complex, unreliable ally like Pakistan. So too is trying to achieve anything on the shifting sands of the Middle East.
Also very difficult and very risky is coordinating an attack on the other side of the world that involves multiple hijackings and airborne attacks on major U.S. targets. So too will be the WMD attack that will inevitably change the nature of the war on terror. In other words, this is a different kind of enemy. It doesn't help matters that the Bush administration overstated the risks from this enemy, bungled the war against them and sought to use national panic over this real risk to justify extraneous and calamitous missions. But as President Obama has been clear, that doesn't mean the threat from al Qaeda and similar groups has abated. Drones have an important role to play, especially in areas in which the risks of collateral damage are more limited. More densely populated areas provide a different kind of cover that requires a different kind of solution.
The CIA needs to report as the law requires to the Congress. But the U.S. intelligence community needs the ability to do what this program reportedly intended to do. Killing the program wasn't the right response. Redoubling efforts to make it work would have been.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Somebody needs to do a new wiring diagram for Washington. Because much has changed and much is changing about the way power and influence flow through this town and while some of it is related to having a new president in place, some of it is linked to other technological, political, and social trends. In fact, while motives and many techniques for getting things done in Washington might look very familiar to the old time fixers and back room pols, much would be as alien as a lunar landscape.
Here are just a few random observations from the past few weeks that lead me to this conclusion:
The stark reality is that there are fewer business people at senior levels of this administration that at any time in decades and the Obama team is much more plugged into other interest groups: NGOs, academics, career politicians, lawyers, regulators, etc. What's more big divisions are emerging within the business community as some old school types hold on hoping that 2010 brings a reversal of fortune for the Democrats while others are being more proactive on issues like health care, energy and climate policy, seeking a seat at the table as a sea-change comes to the public sector-private sector relationship and underlying principles in those areas.
It used to be that energy and climate policy in America (and a lot else) was heavily influenced by groups like big oil and the auto industry. Now, as one senior energy executive put it to me, "we just don't have the access we used to. The American Petroleum Institute is completely discredited in the eyes of most of the people in this administration. We can't get in to see anyone."
As for the allies in the auto industry, well, the auto industry ain't what it used to be. And what's left is more heavily dominated by union voices than ever before (when it isn't guided by the interests of the bureaucrats who are in charge of managing the political capital the president has invested in saving GM and Chrysler). The old one-two punch of two of America's most politically powerful industries is gone.
Again, this is hardly news unless you've been sleeping in a cave somewhere for the past few years. But it is really striking to me how in the recent past places like Politico, Real Clear Politics, the Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Drudge, the political blogs and even sites like this one are driving the buzz. Look at the links between what's talked about on broadcast media and where the idea started and these days, more often than not, it isn't the op-ed writers any more. It's palpable in private conversation. Want further proof? From the White House to local embassies, there is a new, concerted focus on shaping web opinion.
Most of the people in the Washington policy community don't seem to get these changes and, as a result, they are losing influence. Most think tanks have lagged in their adoption of new media and when they get on the bandwagon they are doing little more than creating web-based newsletters and channels for releasing old fashioned papers. They still view policy ideas as inert products to be released every so often and they don't recognize the on-going, dynamic, more inclusive nature of the modern policy influencing process. Compounding the challenge, some of the most influential think tanks have been decimated by losses to the administration (Brookings, CAP, CNAS) creating a paradox: at the moment of their greatest influence they are least able to take advantage of the situation. Personally, I think that any think tank that does not realize their entire model of membership, communication, collaboration, fund-raising...even their role in life...needs to change is on a trajectory to irrelevancy.
State Department types have long lamented the gradual shift of power to the NSC over the past several decades. But 24 hour news cycles have made everything political and thus relevant to the White House and it's only natural that it becomes the locus for most big decisions. But within this several-decade-long trend a new trend has emerged. Power continues to increasingly shift to the White House...but within the White House, the shift is away from the NSC per se and more toward the inner office of the president. This was a trend begun during Bush with the outsized role played by his vice president. But it has been maintained...though in a different form...in this White House with a super-engaged and confident president at the center of everything, as the main foreign policy spokesperson and with his closest personal political advisors playing an outsized role in many policy decisions. Rahm Emanuel may be the most powerful chief of staff since Sherman Adams. David Axelrod, Pete Rouse, Greg Craig, and the vice president and his staff are also very influential as are folks like Dennis McDonough and Mark Lippert more thanks to their personal relationships with the president than their official titles at the NSC.
Honestly, I think that power is generally shifting away from the diplomatic community. Ambassadors are superfluous as direct contact between higher level government officials becomes so easy and commonplace. Embassy row is a destination for cocktail parties only these days in Washington and a kind of vestigial limb reminding us of the way things worked back in our parents' day. But even within the diplomatic community, influence is shifting. The fact that the BRIC ambassadors meet once a month to coordinate policies is a sign of this shift. Ambassadors of traditional allies like those from Europe and Japan are less significant. The Chinese ambassador, because of the formalities involved in communicating with that government remains more significant. Colombia's ambassador used to be very important. No more. Mexico and Brazil are really the only two Latin ambassadors that matter any longer.
It's no small thing that we have created the world's biggest sovereign wealth fund to pull us out of the economic morass...even if it is the first such fund entirely debt-financed, and even if the stimulus money is only trickling out. (If Viagra stimulated as slowly as the government's package, Pfizer would also being administered by the White House by now.) But given this newly expanded role of the government, the people who administer these funds at cabinet agencies have become extremely powerful and on many visiting business peoples' must see lists.
These are just a few anecdotal observations. They understate the impact of new media on politics and influence in Washington. And old money politics still remains in place far more than one would have hoped. In some parts of Washington...on Capitol Hill, for example...dinosaurs and Paleolithic ways still rule. But my sense is that if you were to make a list of the 25 most truly influential people in Washington...particularly on the media and policy community side...you would see a new and surprising array of faces. A subject for another blog perhaps.
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
Last night, Conan O'Brien offered a tribute to Ed McMahon, longtime sidekick to his predecessor Johnny Carson. McMahon died yesterday and was eulogized in today's New York Times as the "top second banana." O'Brien commented on how, as a great number two guy, Ed always knew just when to step in and when to step back and leave the spotlight to the headliner. He was completely in tune with Carson and together they formed a seamless whole. Naturally, mulling this, my thoughts turned to England and the current situation in Iran.
Sidekicks have, of course, long played a central role in the history of international affairs. Adolf had Benito. Nikita had Fidel. Cheney had Bush. Today, Hugo has Evo.
Such sidekicks are employed in multiple ways. Sometimes they simply stand by the star for support, sending the message that the views the big guy expresses are more than the ideas of one nation, that they drive a movement, an alliance or an axis. Sometimes they play bad cop to the good cop. Sometimes they are the fall guys when the star can't afford to take the hit. Sometimes, they offer comic relief. Sometimes, they handle the secondary chores, like invading British Somaliland when you just don't have the time to do it yourself. And on certain occasions, sidekicks even offer benefits to one's enemies or rivals, giving them a secondary target at which to direct everything from invective to troops, depending on the circumstances.
Of course, in the international affairs business, there have been few modern stars that have shined quite so brightly for so long as the United States. As a consequence, we have over the years been joined on stage by a panoply of Ed McMahons. Sometimes they played with us only on regional stages, like Vietnam or Israel. Some have played the role well in countless circumstances, like Canada.
But there have been no sidekicks as enduring or as useful in modern international affairs as the U.K. has been to the United States. You can almost see British prime ministers sitting on the couch laughing while their respective U.S. presidents cracked wise behind the big desk. Put a plaid sports coat on Tony Blair and it's clear: He was the Ed McMahon of the Iraq War.
The trick is that as the headliner changes, so too does the role of the sidekick. Affable Ronald Reagan needed edgy Margaret Thatcher, the Joan Rivers of British politics. Bland George H.W. Bush required even blander John Major. Blair managed to adjust his role as the submissive sophisticate to suit the two bubbas with whom he worked.
The most recent twist in this enduring relationship has been playing out in Iran these past few weeks. There, with Barack Obama's United States no longer quite so hate-able as Bush's (or Carter's for that matter), and with Obama inclined to pursue a more aloof strategy, the U.K. has started playing a different part. On the one hand, it has been more out in front in its criticism of the Iranians. And on the other, the British have assumed the role of preferred Western target for the Tehran leadership. They are the substitute villain, the Rather Good Satan standing in while the Great One tries a different approach for a change.
Of course, for sidekicks as for the rest of the world, the transition from Bush to Obama has been seismic and deeply challenging. The host has somehow gone from being a somewhat less sophisticated version of Jeff Foxworthy ("you know your president is a redneck when he can be compared to a Blue Collar Comedy tour star") to being the love child of Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley.
Britain has ably stepped up, perhaps recognizing that it is in their interest and the planet's to have a headliner of the western world who neither delivers nor takes all the punch lines. So too, at least in terms of their stance on the Iran issue, have Germany and France. In fact, throughout the Obama term, the roles played by Angela Merkel (acerbic, more independent, critical of the United States on financial markets reform) and Nicolas Sarkozy (pushing for greater market reform too, but also both more visible and more visibly supportive of the U.S. than any recent French leader), have also evolved into something new. This is clearly due in large part to who they are...but it is also due to a changed dynamic on the international stage thanks to the very different nature of the role sought and played by Obama and the United States.
This effect extends further, of course. Enemies and those with competing offerings find they have to play a different role as well thanks to the arrival of Obama on the scene. Those whose shtick has been anti-American bluster find it doesn't play as well as it did back when George Bush made anti-Americanism easy. The case in point here may well be Ahmadinejad...although Hugo Chavez and others ought to pay close attention here. As in late night comedy...as in everything that happens on any stage...the play is about the relationships between the players. Change one and you fundamentally change the chemistry among all of them.
In fact, this chemistry factor may be the single greatest foreign policy change of the first half year of the Obama era. (After all, many of his policies are actually not that different from what Bush would have or did employ.) Later, of course, the president will be judged by how he manages the complex processes of global policy. But for now, for allies and enemies alike, having a new star with a very different vibe has changed the roles of all the supporting players, second bananas and rivals alike, all of whom must to some extent play off of the new guy and who have thus been changed by his arrival whether they like it or realize it or not.
It's sad to see a trusty old sideman like Ed McMahon go. But as for having a new guy with top billing on the world stage, the early results seem to suggest that may play very well indeed.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Like any new president, Barack Obama has stumbled as he grappled with the learning curve associated with the world's most demanding job. Given the range of issues with which he was confronted from his first day in office, it has only been fair that he should be not be judged too quickly and that his ideas and his team had time to take root and grow. In some areas, he has achieved notable success, such as his efforts to improve America's image in the world and his effort to move quickly to respond to the economic crisis. In others, such as the efforts to restart the auto industry or make meaningful changes in the regulation of the financial sector, the jury is out. As for real health care reform and meaningful steps to combat climate change, the key legislation is still being shaped, the key votes months away.
But as this week comes to an end, I think it is fair to say that Obama's foreign policy has suffered its first major failure, one that may haunt it for a long time to come. As those of you who have been reading this blog for the past few days know, I've been grappling with the issue of the administration's response...or lack thereof...to Iran's stolen election and the opposition's efforts to contest the results in the streets. Because I see the merits in stopping and evaluating a situation before responding. And I understand the reasons to maintain an open dialogue with the regime in Tehran.
But as each day of the week has gone by, America's silence seems less defensible. Do we really intend to engage the current regime as if nothing had happened? Do we really believe it is useful to send a message that America doesn't care any longer, won't act, won't speak out, won't penalize or criticize or seek to pressure those who compromise or crush democracy?
The administration seems to be saying that we can't afford ill will from anyone, even countries whose regimes denounce us and our allies. They seem to be worried that by supporting the opposition they will be tainted by association with us rather than empowered by it. And they seem to be saying that they can't think of any approaches better than their silence to advance our interests.
Why? Because multilateral diplomacy is so difficult? Britain, France, and Germany have all made stronger statements, we could have made one together? Why? Because the Chinas of this world would never go along with our statements because it puts them in a difficult light? The statement could have come from western powers alone. We don't need unanimity in matters like this. We need a forceful message that countries that violate the basic rights of their citizens should expect to pay a price for such behavior in the international community. Those who rise up in those countries should also know that the international community or a substantial portion of it will work tirelessly to support them to make the risks they are taking worthwhile.
We can seek engagement without checking our values at the door. Indeed, to do otherwise is to make engagement pointless. Why engage if it is not to advance our interests? How naïve it is to think that won't involve challenging, offending, even battling those with whom we are engaged. That doesn't mean our battles must be wars or produce the needless rifts of the Bush years.
But we must ask, in our silence did we send a message to Ayatollah Khamenei that might make he and his cronies feel more comfortable in using violence to suppress the pro-Democracy protestors? In our weak response to Kim Jong Il do we send a message that he may proceed with his nuclear and missile provocations effectively unchecked? In our desire to undo the damage of the Bush years by reaching out to former enemies, do we strengthen those who we should seek to weaken, tolerate the intolerable, fail to take action where action is called for?
I'm afraid the answer is yes. We are back on our heels. This does not make the world safer or conflict any less likely. Quite the contrary. Bush debased American leadership with his actions. Obama should remember that it is just as possible to do so through inaction.
There are many things this administration could have and should have said that would not undercut that which is sound in their foreign policy. They could have said… ideally in chorus with our allies… that the international community was disturbed by apparent irregularities, that any recount or investigation should be made by objective observers, that the suppression of peaceful protests would be viewed with great concern, that Iran would jeopardize its talks with the international community if it undertook violence or condoned voter fraud, that nuclear weapons agreements depend on trust and that countries that seek such trust must act accordingly, that while we seek to maintain engagement, there are limits to what we will tolerate and that we reserve all our options to advance our interests. They could have convened a meeting among like-minded countries to discuss options, sent an envoy, formally postponed further discussions of the nuclear issue until this situation was clarified. They could have raised a doubt in the minds of the leaders in Tehran about how we would react in the face of a crackdown, that there might be consequences.
If all this would make the Chinese uncomfortable because they might fear they could be accused of similar indifference to the rights of their citizens, well, that's too bad. It's a message they too need to hear. Capitulation to them on every issue simply because they are big (and yes, I am talking to you, Google management) creates terrible precedents and invites further bad acts.
Is the vision a world in which engagement becomes the ultimate objective of all foreign relations? Just as critics once rightly reminded the Bush administration that terror was not an enemy it was a tactic, so is it worth remembering that engagement is also just a tactic and not a goal in and of itself? While we should sacrifice to preserve our core values and interests, we should not sacrifice those values and interests to preserve our tactics.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
If you are looking for a unifying theme to describe the overarching policies of the Obama administration, you will find it coming from the least likely source: Hillary Clinton's State Department. I don't say the source is unlikely because HRC is doing a bad job. She's actually done very well. It's just an unlikely source because for reasons that have to be more than an accident, the department itself seems to have become the equivalent of Dick Cheney's undisclosed location. It, and particularly the Secretary, is off the radar. Everyone in DC these days is talking about how she hasn't appeared on a morning show. The Hill had a piece the other day on "The Incredible Shrinking Clintons." Richard Holbrooke has a much higher profile than his boss. Certainly, Bob Gates has had a higher profile and even the nearly invisible Jim Jones has gotten more press recently if only because of the leaked articles about some of his early (and I believe overstated) missteps.
Anyway, the theme and the metaphor that ties so much of what has been going on is "hitting the reset button," made famous when just such a button was delivered, mislabeled, by the state department to the Russians who were the first focus of what has become reset-mania. In addition to attempting to restart that relationship with our former arch-enemies, you can see evidence of the same mentality everywhere. We are attempting to hit the reset button for GM and Chrysler by pushing them through the bankruptcy process (the same one we spent tens of billions to avoid months earlier).
Today President Obama heads to the Middle East to hit the reset button on our relations with the Muslim World. Problems in Iraq and AfPak? Hit reset. Frayed alliances? Reset. Economy in the tank, Wall Street a mess? To many observers the impulse has been less toward sweeping reform and more toward getting things back to the way they were (with modest changes). In other words: reset. Demonstrating that no issue is too marginal or too antiquated for the focus on resetting, you need look only 90 miles away to Cuba. We even seem to be approaching health care by trying to hit the reset button to take the debate back to the days before the Clinton health care plan cratered and set health care reform back for more than 15 years.
Of course, the impulse to hit the reset button is pretty natural given the toxic nature of many Bush-era policies. And the reset button metaphor works for all of us in the information age and is undoubtedly better than suggesting that we cleanse ourselves of all the Bush dirt and toxins by climbing into the shower together.
But as any computer user knows, hitting reset doesn't work all the time. It's kind of magical when it does...to the extent that it seems inexplicable to most of us. But it would be a big mistake to make too much policy based on the notion that President Obama has -- to mix metaphors slightly -- the equivalent of the Fonzie touch, the ability to make a jukebox (or Bushed-up policy or relationship) work with a slap to its side. (I don't think it's mixing metaphors that much. The Fonzie touch is the '50s equivalent of the reset button.)
But here's the problem: if your computer is broken, the motherboard is fried, the demon viruses are at work on your data -- the reset button doesn't work. Same is true with broken companies, broken relationships, and broken global economies. Sometimes you may get signs that things are spluttering back to life but without real, material changes the problems will re-emerge. Sometimes you will get nothing at all.
In this respect, going to the Middle East to "restore relations with the Muslim world" sounds great in the reset context...Obama certainly achieves the main goal (and to some extent the primary deliverable) of Resetism, he demonstrates he is not George W. Bush. But it is unlikely to do much to actually fix the problem. It may help, to be sure. But many of the biggest problems that we have with regard to the Muslim world aren't actually problems we created or exacerbated. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt, the President's two regional destinations, are anything like democracies...or for that matter are they home to anything like enlightened governments. Economic mismanagement and corruption are chronic and widespread and a bigger source of regional instability than many other issues that achieve more prominence. They are home to human rights violations, abominable treatment of women and tolerance of radical factions who are as big a threat to the Arab world as they are to the U.S. or any of our allies. These places are breeding grounds for risk to our interests and even doing the right thing and underscoring that the U.S. embraces Islam and all peace-loving Muslims, doesn't get down to the hard business of resolving tensions between the Arab and Persian worlds, the Sunnis and the Shiites, radicals and moderates, reformers and authoritarian rules or Arabs and Israelis.
Further, we need to remind ourselves that we are not the primary cause of the problems we face. We may have exacerbated some. There is no defense for Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, or for the hundreds of thousands of innocents who died thanks to our invasion of Iraq. But neither is there any defense for 9/11, terrorism directed at anyone, or state-supported hate mongering. Our support for Israel may inflame the Arab world but even when we acknowledge Israeli policy failures or brutality, even when we condemn them and work against them, we are only addressing part of the problem.
As a consequence as President Obama wings off to the region, it heightens my sense that there is as at least as much reason for the leaders of the Muslim world to come to America to restore relations with us, to make amends and commit to change, as there is for the President to go there and do so. Indeed, there is much more given the level of dysfunctionality within their societies and their long record of miserable treatment of their own people.
Similarly, the reset button won't fix GM or Chrysler. Admittedly, doing what we should have done six months ago, letting the companies go into bankruptcy and be stripped down to more efficient pieces will help. But U.S. ownership certainly will not (and has not...save for all that writing of big checks.) Merging with Fiat probably won't either. I think the odds are pretty high that we will look at the U.S. monies spent on the auto industry as the most expensive golden parachute in history, designed to make the demise of failed companies as painless as possible and not really terrible effective at identifying, preserving or fostering value within either of them. There is a reset hope in all this -- strip 'em down and let them regrow like a backyard shrub-but without creativity and truly new thinking, neither of which will come from the government or the labor unions who have gained too much sway in all this given their roles in creating the problem, these efforts will likely be frustratingly costly and unsuccessful.
The list goes on. If there were core problems associated with the creation of new invisible unregulated risks in the global financial systems, even restoring growth to markets and the U.S. economy is not a fix. The risks will remain until addressed. To restore US-Russia relations really requires a fix in Russia and not here. To restore U.S.-Cuba relations to their rightful place in our foreign policy, we need to transfer it to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State responsible for the Caribbean, normalize, and start treating like we should in much the same way we handle Jamaica or Trinidad and Tobago. In short, to achieve the ambitious goals the Obama administration has set and the American people seek, we need to rethink, reinvent and remember where the real problems lie...and not just hope that the world is as easily rebooted as our PCs.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
What was most striking about Barack Obama's solid performance at the White House correspondents dinner was his bond with the audience. His jokes were pretty much par for the course, leaving you with the impression that Obama was an affable guy with a good sense of humor who didn't mind reading jokes that his staff wrote for him. There wasn't a single joke that seemed to come from him, though he did seem to particularly enjoy his shots at his team, notably those at Rahm Emanuel, Larry Summers, and Hillary Clinton. But the crowd loved him like only a parent can love its child...which is pretty much the relationship I think that was at work on Saturday night. Washington's correspondents -- and so many celebs that it's even money that next year the E! network will have a red carpet special broadcast from outside what is essentially a wonkfest -- came to admire their creation.
Obama joked about how everyone in the crowd had voted for him (except of course, those buffo comic relief characters at the Fox table). And the resulting roar of laughter was both nervous and self-congratulatory at the same time: waves of "Yes, we did!" rolling across the ballroom. And although Obama did not strike a wrong note, the closest he came was in a joke about David Axelrod in which he implied the two of them actually launched his candidacy for the presidency back in the day. Because it wasn't Axelrod who made Barack Obama, it was Aaron Sorkin.
On Friday, here on the FP site, Stephen Walt wrote a thoughtful post on whether Obama would be more like Nixon, Carter, or Clinton. He suggested Nixon might be the best model and honestly, personality and legal missteps aside, you can do much worse as a president than to emulate Nixon's broad, activist and balanced policy agenda. But whatever Obama may derive from the list posed by our Professor Walt, he owes his presidency at least in equal measure to men like Andrew Shepherd, Jed Bartlett, and David Palmer, almost certainly the three best loved presidents since JFK. (Though close behind them you would have to add James Marshall, Thomas J. Whitmore, Dave Kovic and a personal favorite of my own, Jackson Evans. Who knows, you might even throw in MacKenzie Allen and Laura Roslin, though I think they were really intended to be setting the stage for someone else to be president. You probably however, would not want to include Mays Gilliam on this list for a whole host of reasons, or, for that matter, other really bad examples like James Dale, Thomas "Tug" Benson, or, perhaps the best worst example of them all, Merkin Muffley.)
The fact that none of these people ever existed is secondary. Or maybe it's primary. Because since these presidents were all fictional they could be tailored to more closely fit our ideals (or in the case of the latter batch our fears) of what a president might be. And even though some of them may be based on historical figures (I have friends from the Clinton administration who still scrap over which character from "The West Wing" was actually based on them), it is how a historical figure like Barack Obama is based on them that might be most interesting. When Barack Obama popped in to the press room at the White House the other day, did it seem familiar to you? (See the climactic scene in which Andrew Shepherd does likewise in The American President.) A couple weeks ago, we noted how Dave Kovic as the stand-in for the fictional 46th president, Bill Mitchell, brought his cabinet together as Obama did to trim the budget. Jed Bartlett, on the West Wing, was a former professor, like Obama. David Palmer, of "24", although he went to Georgetown like Bill Clinton, had game on the basketball court like our current President. And of course, Palmer, like President Tom Beck in Deep Impact, played by Morgan Freeman, broke the color barrier long before Obama. (So did Palmer's brother Wayne, for that matter, as did Jimmy Smits character, Mathew Santos, on "The West Wing." Of course, there it gets a little complicated because West Wing's writers and producers have acknowledged that they actually based their character...an ethnic minority outsider seeking a post-partisan America...on Obama.)
Beyond the obvious similarities however, these characters all offered an idealized vision of the president that transcended the defects of the real presidents we have had most recently, offering characters that were courageous, above cheap politics, principled, and, for the most part, pretty darn liberal in their inclinations. Most influential, I think, are the creations of Sorkin, who first sketched out his fantasy White House in The American President and then added flesh to the bones when he was able to promote the White House Chief of Staff from that movie, Martin Sheen as A. J. MacInerney, to president on "West Wing." His world, his White House, and the values embodied in it have probably shaped the public view of what a president should be more than any president in recent memory. Although David Palmer in his three seasons on "24" probably comes up a close second.
Of course, all this raises a question. If we were going to pick 10 fictional presidents with character traits for Obama to emulate, who would they be? My choices:
1. Jed Bartlett, "The West Wing" (Martin Sheen)
Bartlett and Obama are pretty close to begin with. But here we start with ideals and conscience.
2. David Palmer, "24" (Dennis Haysbert)
Palmer is fortitude...although his tolerance of Canadian torture freak Jack Bauer is hard to excuse.
Shepherd may not be able to order flowers for his girlfriend, but he offers a great example how not to succumb to lowest common denominator politics in Washington.
4. The President, Fail Safe (Henry Fonda)
The President offers humility and character...in part, of course, because he once played "Young Mr. Lincoln." (Though we could do without the nuclear Armageddon part, of course.)
Dave brings common sense to the equation...and a good accountant. Also, of course, he knows how to ride a hog, which is a useful skill when it comes to managing the congress.
6. Jackson Evans, The Contender (Jeff Bridges)
In the end, Evans proves just as wily as a president needs to be. Also who is cooler than Jeff Bridges?
Well, come to think of it, Morgan Freeman is cooler than anyone. Morgan Freeman could be president of anything. Be like Morgan Freeman and you can hardly go wrong.
As kick-ass president's go, he is much more likeable and believable than Harrison Ford in Air Force One...which is saying something since Pullman is using fighter airplanes to battle space aliens with ships the size of Cleveland.
9. Monroe Cole, Welcome to Mooseport, (Gene Hackman)
He's a jerk for most of the movie, but in the end he learns how to admit his mistakes...and of course, puts love first. The admitting mistakes thing is important, and, it's hard not to like Gene Hackman.
10. Honorable Mention: James Cromwell...
Almost no president Cromwell plays is terribly likeable from Bob Fowler in The Sum of All Fears to George H.W. Bush in W. or President D. Wire Newman in "The West Wing" or Lyndon Johnson in RFK...but he brings something to the presidency Obama needs to load up on...experience. (And he was also Prince Philip and Jack Bauer's dad.)
Martin H. Simon-Pool/Getty Images
At breakfast this morning a leading Democratic policy thinker referred to President Obama's recent jaunts to Europe and the Caribbean as his "global apology tour." This was a Democratic supporter of the president talking. (And listening.) He winced while he was saying it and laughed nervously. But the message is clear: it's all well and good to make nice but these two forays into international diplomacy have to be viewed purely as scene-setters. Obama set a tone. He checked the "I'm not W" box. But the deliverables were negligible at best. Die Zeit's Josef Joffe very smartly explained this point in his weekend Wall Street Journal piece "Obama's Popularity Doesn't Mean Much Abroad." In it, Joffe wrote:
George W. Bush was heartily disliked in Europe west of Warsaw, and Mr. Obama is universally loved. But how well does that popularity translate into power? How far could President Obama push his agenda with, say, German Chancellor Angela Merkel or French President Nicolas Sarkozy? About as far as you can throw a piano."
Europe applauded while the flashbulbs popped but beyond promises of a replenishment for the IMF which may be hard to keep, the policy headlines from the trip were more about what did not happen than that which did occur either in terms of global stimulus, in terms of more effective global regulation or in terms of greater NATO support in AfPak.
The story was the same in Trinidad. Obama made a good impression. He offered a "new beginning." He deflected a few tense moments with what are becoming his signature quips (whether it be the already tired old saw that he shouldn't be blamed for things that happened when he was three months old...nowhere nearly as charming as Reagan's self-deprecating quips about being too old...or commenting on Daniel Ortega's attempt to reclaim his revolutionary youth by noting snarkily its 50 minute duration).
But on the deliverables side, he sought to create the impression of change in Cuba policy by undertaking an incremental adjustment in a policy that's a complete failure -- kind of the equivalent of proposing that his first step in addressing GMs problems would be a major rethink of cup-holder designs. And while it is undeniable that Raul Castro's response was not a complete diss (in fact, it was somewhat warmer than NATO's response to the requests for more troops or Europe's response to the request for a global stimulus) in the end all we got was slight forward progress on something where great progress is eminently achievable...and long overdue. Want to see a thoughtful suggestion for how to handle it: go read former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda's op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal on the subject. Want to see how opposition to change in Cuba has eroded? See the New York Times article on the new Bendixen study showing that two thirds of Cuban Americans welcome lifting all travel restrictions to that country and embrace the Obama thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations.
On the big issue of the moment, dealing with the global economic downturn, the Summit of the Americas delivered effectively nothing -- a negligible $100 MM microfinance program that while worthy, happens to come at a time when the effectiveness of microfinance is coming under some scrutiny. But big commitments...replenishment of the IDB's funds, for example...are still "being studied." Very little but lip service was paid to an issue that is likely to send 50 million people in the hemisphere back into absolute poverty.
And so, at the end of the day in Port of Spain, Joffe's observations hold. People may feel better about Obama than Bush but it is far from a guarantee that will translate into improved hemispheric actions in any area, even the policy priorities cited by the meeting.
The same doubts about the approach arise in the Middle East. Hint at warming up to Iran? It gets the United States a nice quote from Ahmadinejad saying "We welcome the U.S. change of policy, provided these changes are fundamental and essential." But of course, he makes that quote while making a disastrous appearance at the UN Conference on Racism in which his attacks on Israel prompted eight governments to walk out. (You have to wonder both what the UN thought it was achieving by inviting Ahmadinejad to this conference or what the eight governments that walked out thought was going to happen at the conference since it was long ago apparent to anyone with a functioning cortex that the event would be used as it was. On the other hand, I suppose, the good news is that at least we had a UN event that delivered what it promised -- they convened a conference on racism and racism is what they got.)
Wanting everyone to like us is not a policy, it's a childlike wish. Seeking improved relations and greater dialogue is undeniably in our interest, but to what end? The first date with the world is over. It has gone pretty well. Right now everything is anticipation. But anyone over 18 has lived through this phase and knows what comes next. And, look at any of the issues at these meetings where progress was not made and it becomes clear that it ain't gonna be easy. But I think the challenges go much, much deeper than that in a world in which the old policy playbooks and ideological standbys are out the window.
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President Obama is now coming to the end of the candyman phase of his presidency. That's the part where he can play to core constituencies and those whose support he would entertain with big gifts -- stimulus money, tax cuts, and promises of policy changes. It's the part where the booty of an election win is spread around -- jobs are given to loyal supporters, and foreign policy victories are scored simply by telling a once-disgruntled ally what they've long been waiting to hear.
But now starts the hard part. Now, the president must grapple with the tough part of leading -- where friends don't get what they want, where allies are pushed and prodded and threatened and punished if they don't fall into line. When force is required, and all eyes are on the United States and the policy initiatives that are under fire can no longer be blamed on the last president.
To help prepare for this period, here are 10 tough decisions that Obama will face in the very foreseeable future.
Will he soon be forced to sacrifice putting a price on carbon for political expediency? Will he actually be willing to trade cap and trade for health care as current conventional wisdom would have it...and then enter into a midterm election year when doing a cap and trade deal may be even harder? Will he be willing to use the classification of carbon as a pollutant as a regulatory bludgeon on this issue hard... and necessary... as that may be on many industries?
2. Failing economy
When the U.S. economy underperforms estimates in the next few years, will he be willing to increase taxes on middle class taxpayers... or exacerbate class tensions by continuing to place all the burden on the most affluent Americans? Where is he willing to make meaningful cuts? Defense? Entitlements?
3. Necessary roughness
He won't use force in Iran to stop proliferation; that already seems clear. But will he use it to stabilize Pakistan's nuclear arsenal should it come under siege? Or to stop massive slaughter in Central Africa? Where will he be willing to use force in a place that the U.S. is not already engaged in a conflict?
4. Walking the walk
Europeans love hearing a U.S. leader talk multilateralism, but they don't yet seem to realize that when he talks the talk, they have to walk the walk. Will he be willing to confront and pressure them to step up in a way they did not at the last NATO meeting?
5. Open trade vs. U.S. jobs
How and when will he reconcile his promises to the world to maintain open trading systems and his promises to unions to protect American jobs? Since he can't, who is he willing to anger when he backs off his competing pledges?
6. When the bailouts only go so far...
What will happen when it is clear that GM can't be saved in its present form and the resulting dislocation will knock tens of thousands of people out of work?
7. An uncooperative Israel
What happens when ultimately his desire to mediate in the Middle East and to reduce tension runs up against an ally, Israel say, who is not cooperative? Is he willing to pay the political consequences of confronting the Israeli government? What if they are in the right and Hamas or Iran is clearly the problem? Is he willing to pay the political consequences of getting tough on them?
8. China & Russia
Is the United States willing to accept growing Chinese or Russian influence in the Western Hemisphere due to their engagement and our disengagement? What happens when resource pressures force the United States to say no to big international aid programs at precisely the moment when he and his team want to give more? Is he willing to be unpopular overseas to maintain support at home?
9. Wall Street
If it is clear that Wall Street firms can't recover without paying Wall Street salaries... or that the administration can't function without actually hiring lobbyists... is he willing to back off his completely understandable but perhaps impractical populist stances on these issues, admit he was wrong and defend a course of action that is unpopular but necessary?
10. No more Mr. Popular
On what issues is he willing to actually be unpopular? Thoughts? (This is only a partial list of course, and your suggestions are welcome.) Personally, I'm willing to bet that he rises to the test and sooner than you would think.
One good sign from my perspective: the apparent decision to hire Harold and Kumar, Van Wilder and "House" star, Kal Penn, to join his public liaison team. After all, who better to get down into the weeds of an issue or to help the president achieve the high highs promised in the campaign than Kumar? Next up: Neil Patrick Harris for surgeon general (why put all that valuable Doogie Howser experience to waste?)
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Bob Gates is Tyler Hansbrough...only shorter and better at what he does than the basketball all-American. Our secretary of defense could have left his job last year and although he wouldn't have ended up in the NBA making millions as Hansbrough would've done, surely his life would have been much easier than it is today dealing with Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and managing our massive defense apparatus in a Democratic administration. Like Hansbrough, however, Gates saw a higher purpose. And while the papers today are full of paens to the North Carolina power forward for coming back for one more season all in the name of team in the wake of the Tar Heels' NCAA basketball championship last night (predicted here first...and by first, I mean before it was predicted by Barack Obama), Gates actually has the much higher, higher purpose. Furthermore, like Hansbrough, Gates proved his own value and his toughness yesterday...although the former Aggie did it by unveiling substantial military budget reprioritizations that will certainly have him facing a vastly tougher, more seasoned defense than Michigan State could manage last night. In fact, the defense Gates will have to overcome is the world's number one defense, the U.S. military-industrial complex.
Here in D.C. you can already hear the chants starting off in the distance, off in the direction of the Beltway, the habitat in which Beltway bandits live and breed, feeding off of giant defense subsidies and the rotting carcasses of public servants who have tried to stop them in the past. Hear it? Lockheed, Lockheed, F-2-2, If You Won't Fund It, Let's See What Congress Will Do!
Gates's announcement of major cuts to marquee defense projects like the F-22, the insanely expensive presidential helicopter effort, the Army's classic let's-throw-our-checkbook-at-the enemy Future Combat Systems and some of the more bloated, even-less-successful than the norm missile defense programs (and that's saying something), needs to be embraced for two reasons. One is that we can easily do without the programs and that as Gates noted:
The perennial procurement and contracting cycle, going back many decades, of adding layer and layer of cost and complexity onto fewer and fewer platforms that take longer and longer to build, must come to an end. There is broad agreement on the need for acquisition and contracting reform in the Department of Defense. There have been enough studies, enough hand-wringing, enough rhetoric. Now is the time for action."
The other reason we need to get with the spirit of what Gates is proposing is that while the U.S. Congress and the defense contractors who make them dance complain that Gates is putting their programs at risk (House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton has already said "the buck stops with Congress"...which is actually perhaps the wrongest statement uttered by a Member of Congress since either "I don't know how that money got in my freezer" or "I didn't know he was a page."), a new reality will be creeping into view. The problem, in fact, with the Gates cuts is not that they are too sweeping, it is that they are far, far too small. As I will argue at greater length in an article appearing in the May/June issue of The National Interest, the United States can no longer afford the "permanent war economy" that was first described by "Engine" Charlie Wilson in 1944. We can no longer afford to spend as much as every other country in the world added up. Given current deficits, current and future debt levels, and the looming aspiration crushing deficits associated with retirement health care, we will soon look back on the Gates proposals to swap spending here for spending there as the idle chatter of luxurious by-gone days. The cuts will have to be in the hundred billion dollar or more range and we will have to dispose of and move beyond not just old think, but traditional ways of even organizing, deploying and determining missions and strategies for our armed forces. We will have to come to recognize...and this won't be easy...that we actually make ourselves weaker with overspending, that we undercut our strength by creating high tech military programs while we let rust rot away the guts of the U.S. economy. More on this in a couple weeks, when the magazine hits the stands. For the meantime, let's give Gates and Obama credit for starting to stand up to the unbridled lunacy of the U.S. defense spending culture.
Speaking of executive branch sacrifice, one more point: What's up with the attacks on Larry Summers for making a good living the last couple years? The guy was Treasury secretary and president of Harvard for goodness sake. Where did you expect him to work, White Castle? As those who know him and love him will tell you, he probably doesn't have the interpersonal skills for that type of work. Rather, what he does have is very special knowledge, the company he worked for feels he offered (apparently very considerable) value for money, and doing the work gave him better understanding of the markets he is currently supposed to be helping to fix. What's most important, he could still be making the big bucks right now. But he has chosen to take what amounts to a 98 percent pay cut to re-enter public service, to work insane hours and to get beaten up in the press every day. Isn't that something we should be praising? Go after his policies if you want -- I have done so myself from time to time, but this is a highly ethical, principled, dedicated public servant who is actually helping the country address an unprecedented crisis. So, those of you playing up this non-story, in the words of another great public servant, Doctor Evil, "zip it."
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The most important outcomes of the G20 Summit had to do with symbolism, process, and the evolution of international ideas. The specific actions taken were less important and, as we will likely see, less significant than they could or should have been. The monies allocated to the IMF represent a good step in a healthy direction and will help the neediest nations but do not address the larger growth issues associated with the world's largest economies, the ones that created the crisis and will lead the way out. As for those economies, commitments to stimulus were soft and the follow-through on them is destined to be spotty. The regulatory steps outlined -- focusing on hedge funds, bank secrecy and executive salaries, for example -- don't cut to the core issues associated with risk-laden global derivatives markets or the other larger causes of the recent crisis and they fall far short of the global regulatory structures we will ultimately need to manage truly global markets. And it is unclear just how much of the $250 billion announced for trade finance is actually new money.
But just as it would be wrong to overstate the specific outcomes of the meeting, it would be wrong to dwell on the output of one such meeting or the fact that it did not produce every desirable change. The reality is that the meeting is meaningful on many levels. It was sufficiently productive and harmonious to suggest that the G20 may be the vehicle of choice for high-level international economic policy coordination at least for the foreseeable future -- certainly through and likely beyond the next meeting, already scheduled for the fall on the edges of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. Not only was the outcome moderately substantive but it afforded leaders like President Obama an efficient means of interacting with all his key counterparts on a wide range of issues. This de facto ratification of the idea of adding the largest emerging economies to the steering committee for the global economy is important as is the semi-official recognition that henceforth when the United States and China meet, they comprise the G2. Related to this, the acknowledgement that emerging powers require more voting authority within international institutions is a good and meaningful step and reflective of longer-term changes that indicate a shifting global balance of power.
That said, among the other symbolic outcomes of the meeting worth noting was the reassertion of America in a leadership role that was broadly accepted and indeed encouraged by other participants. Obama may not have gotten just what he wanted in terms of specifics on global stimulus and Gordon Brown may have announced the end of the "Washington Consensus," but contrast the reaction to this U.S. president to that to the last -- and contrast his tone and that of his senior aides. It was night and day and, make no mistake, the Obama era is the one shining more brightly in the eyes of the international community.
As for the evolution of ideas, the meeting further solidified the sense that hyper-capitalism and unfettered markets are things of the past. So, too, is the idea that economic problems are national problems. Brown, who has had a rough few months and for whom the event should be seen as a considerable achievement, referred to the indivisible nature of our economic interests and fates. Does this mean we should now believe that the G20 leaders are more committed to, for example, open trade than they were the last time they professed such views? Of course, not. National politics will continue to bedevil international coordination for the foreseeable future. But it does mean that meetings such as this one will be a fixture throughout that future and that, more than anything else achieved in London, is a net positive of the most profound sort.
In conclusion, it can be said that meetings like the just-concluded G20 work more on the level of metaphor or political theater than they do as functioning working sessions. And while this one may have come up slightly short or individual leaders may have gotten slightly less than they wanted on one issue or another, we shouldn't miss the really primary outcomes in terms of messages. And those are that the world sees itself very differently than it did just a year ago, that there is even among very different countries evolving agreement about what has changed and that this will have significant repercussions for many years to come.
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After all this hoopla about a transformational election, it turns out all this country needed was a good pair of glasses. The Bush administration as it turns out had a focus issue. It wasn't that they had so much trouble focusing on things, although I always thought the president had a bit of that ADHD feel to him. It was that they tended to focus on the wrong things. It was a kind of foreign policy dyslexia that caused us to misread maps and regularly miss the things that should have been our targets by quite bit, say, a country or two.
So, we went to war to stop a WMD program in Iraq and as it turned out, the program we should have been worrying about was a country away in Iran. Also, as it turns out, there was another one a country away, in Syria. We went to war in Afghanistan and it turns out the war was actually in Pakistan. In the waning months of the Bush administration, we started to worry about the situation in Mexico but as it turned out...and as in each of the cases as we should have recognized all along...the real serious problem was right here in the United States.
Say what you may about the muddled economic policies of the Obama administration, the national security team has its glasses on and the result is a president who is offering a much improved vision of what America's foreign policy priorities ought to be. Nothing illustrated this quite so well as today's presidential announcement of our new policy in "Afghanistan"-- although Hillary Clinton's acknowledgement of the drug demand factor in fueling Mexico's violence and the overall effort to wind down operations in Iraq and to initiate new diplomacy with Iran also suggest we are finally doing the obvious and attempting to deal with the real roots of the challenges we face.
What set the new Afghanistan strategy apart was that it clearly acknowledged that our real problems lie with in Pakistan and that we were dealing not so much with countries but with a wild, borderless region. The Afghan side of the strategy was focused on stabilization -- helping to substantially build Afghan army and police forces and thus their ability to manage Afghanistan's internal issues, and on deploying legions of teachers, lawyers and engineers to help them build the country. While the Pakistan side of the equation did include elements of assistance to support that country, the rational for the aid was clearly different (though this is not something the administration would ever acknowledge.) The Afghanistan money is to promote a more stable society and to make that problem go away (or at least make our exit a little easier when we ultimately pull out.) The Pakistan money -- $1.5 billion a year for 5 years -- is a bribe...or maybe a multi-stage bribe. On the one hand, it is a public display of friendship to a country whose people don't much like us and on the other it is cash for our friends in Pakistan to use (assuming they actually get their hands on it) to bid for the loyalties of other Pakistanis currently leaning toward our enemies.
Importantly, Obama was very clear that our target is still al Qaeda and he made one of his most forceful statements to date of the perceived on-going threat from that group. Beyond reiterating that we are there for the same reason we went in originally...to get the guys who did 9/11...this did two important things. First, it separated out the Taliban, consistent with the current strategy of seeking to find an in to them and peeling them off. Second, it said, the real meat of this problem is in Pakistan because the Taliban are in Pakistan.
As I have said before, I am skeptical that we can achieve much of lasting value in this part of the world as problems there are so amorphous, ingrained and have such strong regenerative features that I feel we will spend much of our effort just pushing our food around on our plates. That said, the only chance for real progress is the kind of narrowing focus, realism and intensification of pressure on the truly bad guys implied by this plan.
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I want the Obama rescue packages to work. I'm delighted the stock market loves the Toxic Asset plan. But at best it is only a (very expensive) partial solution and, as a consequence, I'm growing increasingly worried.
This latest plan, like many other components of the Obama economic program, does not represent the kind of transformation once promised or that which might seem appropriate in a crisis of this magnitude. To date, the polices of the Obama administration have not done anything to reverse or even patch over the systemic flaws that put the entire global economy in peril. Fifty trillion dollars in perceived value have been wiped off the world's books. Fifty million jobs are likely to be lost to the crisis by the end of this year alone. Fifty billion dollars was the cost of just one fraud. Washington meanwhile was too close to Wall Street in the run up to the crisis and deeply mismanaged and financially reckless itself, neither shortcoming seems to be on the list of things for which the administration is seeking a fix.
Instead, what the Obama administration has provided thus far is a team of the same guys who also have historically been close to Wall Street and who have in the past few months seemed to be pursuing a perverse form of bipartisanship that rehashes many of both the old Democratic and Republican missteps that have been so damaging in the past. The stimulus reiterated the old trickle-down absurdity that minor tax rebates and cuts could meaningfully help restart the economy -- even though such approaches often hadn't worked in the past and this was an entirely new kind of crisis. It contained some programs that could only be construed as pork and it made no provision for their efficient implementation, punting many to states and localities without the absorptive capacity to handle them. The Obama economic team produced a multi-trillion dollar budget that had many good core initiatives --needed ones in energy, health care and education -- but said "we'll figure out how to pay for them later." Where a tax was included (as others should have been), their spokespeople typically hemmed and hawed about calling it what it was...(even though the purpose and public policy benefit of a cap and trade system is actually to make dirty energy more expensive so people who are seeki ng savings become more efficient or selective about their energy sources). The administration has rolled out trillion dollar addition to the deficit after trillion dollar addition and said, "we'll get it to it later" even though it is clear the only way to fiscal health in the United States is a massive health care reform far more sweeping than what has been called for to date. The economic team presumably encouraged the Fed to print another trillion dollars despite the inflationary risk. Further, they said "we can't afford protectionism" but their actions have suggested that they are in key cases embracing union-driven, tried-and-failed policies that are in effect an effort to reverse historical progress and national commitments.
Now, with Geithner's address today, they are introducing a toxic asset disposal program that seems to be based on the belief that the best way to restart a market suffering from the disease of untrammeled, unregulated greed is to subsidize the greediest. Having stumbled already in the midst of a crisis that they have known for six months would be their number one concern -- by tacitly backing wrong-headed Bush Administration plans, by failing to limit the bonuses with which recipients of U.S. aid could award themselves, by failing to staff their key administration posts, and by producing half-baked financial fixes where real ones were required -- this new plan lets us down on several levels. First, as noted by Paul Krugman, an economist with whom I often disagree, it is essentially a rehash of the Paulson plans. Next, it seeks to free up banks to lend again by taking bad assets off their books but without doing anything to ensure that once their balance sheets are cleared up that the banks will start lending at the pace the economy needs. Banks have become very cautious and will likely move very slowly, hording cash, as a way of propping up their credit-ratings and as quickly as possible pay back the government so they can get off the dole and start earning Wall Street salaries again. In addition, many of the big institutions that have stopped lending aren't banks at all but non-bank financial providers. Further, this fix replays the bigger error of the AIG bailout...not the distraction about bonuses, but the one in which we passed tens of billions through the failed insurance giant straight through, no strings attached to big financial institutions, many foreign. Here, the United States will take away massive amounts of risk from the purchase of the so-called toxic assets enabling the banks and hedge funds who played such a big role in getting us into this mess to get a free-ride at the tax-payer's expense. If the bets win, the private investors get a big payday...and the subsidy they are receiving as incentive to buy the bad assets comes again with no strings. They feast on the upside. And while taxpayers get some of the upside, they'll be the ones who have to swallow hard on the downside.
We would very likely be better off if any insolvent banks were nationalized and the toxic assets were removed and placed in a "bad bank" where the government captured the upside for the taxpayers as well as more fully controlling the downside. In such a system, the government could ensure banks actually restored the liquidity to the markets we needed. But whether nationalization is the path or not...some kind of structured work out might also have given them a break and taxpayers more control, offering a sweet deal to hedge funds (which by the way, have no constraints on how they compensate themselves) not only feels wrong right now doesn't fully address the liquidity issue or others calling for action. We need to seriously reconsider mark-to-market rules. We need a new super-regulator domestically and new global regulatory mechanisms and, very likely, institutions. The government is not taking some of these steps because they fear they will be called socialist. But as we have seen, all markets require government intervention from time to time. The issue is not what label people apply but what kind of intervention is smartest? The transformationalists had their moment and, apparently, they have blinked, making nice with Wall Street when they should be remaking it.
Consider this final point: How can Sweden (which got the bank nationalization thing right, by the way, Tim Geithner's comments about how the United States is not Sweden aside) afford to say no to bailing out Saab, a national icon, while we can't afford the same with GM? Which country is more committed to letting the markets work in healthier ways? Which therefore might be seen as more truly capitalist? The reason they can make it happen politically is because they have a social system which ensures no Swede fears that economic upheaval will leave him or her destitute or without healthcare. Thus they can afford the creative destruction of markets, but we cannot. Their "socialism" is in this respect more capitalist than our system of bailouts for the richest and subsidies for the greediest. The United States needs new models and to be open to new ideas and we had better start thinking about looking elsewhere because to date precious few are coming from Washington.
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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.