As was explained in part one of this post, following what is said or written about American politics is often difficult for Americans who are actually used to all the dissembling, spinning, deliberate misconstruing, hyperbole and other nonsense that is to spin facts and lies into glittering campaign finery.
But if you are not from the U.S., it's next two impossible to know what's important or what's not. Given the central role America still plays in the world -- G-zeroists notwithstanding -- cutting through the headlines and the soundbites to get to the core truths about what's happening in the world's highest-priced democracy is essential.
That's why I've tried to pick out a few terms and explain what each party means by them. Earlier this week, I visited the Republican lexicon. Today, we'll take a look at a handful of key illustrations of the quirks and curiosities that comprise the Dem dialect, with a special focus on a few that pertain to foreign policy.
The 1 Percent -- This is a perjorative term of art for every rich, spoiled, corrupt, indolent, exploitative millionaire in America who is not a donor to the Obama reelection effort or the Democratic National Committee. Donors are referred to as hard-working, job-creating illustrations of the enduring power of the American dream. (Also understood to refer to those who should be shouldering burden for balancing U.S. budget by paying "their fair share" of taxes.)
The 99 Percent -- This refers to the disenfranchised, struggling victims of Wall Street and corporatist exploitation. All these people deserve tax cuts, to be funded by the 1 percent. The fact that there is no way to address the deficit without a bigger burden falling on most of the members of the 99 percent, too, is just not something that should be discussed in public until we are in the midst of robust recovery lest the truth and arithmetic derail everything.
Bush Tax Cuts -- Source of all problems in the U.S. economy, even though President Obama celebrated extending them as a canny political victory in the middle of his first term. (Also known as the biggest political issue of December 2012.)
Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security -- The Holy Trinity of American politics. They are sacrosanct and must never be touched -- even if major surgery is the only way to actually save their lives.
Financial Services Reform -- A political mirage allowing the president to seemingly take a tough stand against the 1 percent while not alienating too much the fat cats who are needed to pump money into Dem coffers. Advocate it, sign it, but don't really overdo the enforcement side of it.
Campaign Finance Reform -- Something that is absolutely essential for restoring democracy in America, and which should be implemented just as soon as every currently serving Dem leaves office.
The President's Healthcare Victory -- Shhhh. Please don't mention this. Despite the fact that it actually benefitted millions, it is the Voldemort of Dem politics, "the policy whose name must not be spoken."
Romneycare -- Shhh. Please don't mention this either. Because as Dems, we'll be forced to admit we kinda like it.
The Unemployment Rate -- The president's true running mate (sorry, Joe.) If it dips to around 8 percent or below, the president wins re-election. Interesting fact: the president has almost no ability to impact this outcome and bares only a very limited responsibility for fluctuations in U.S. employment one way or another.
Europe -- Dem heaven. An ability to balance the love of good cuisine with the love for a well-constructed government bureaucracy. Topless beaches. The fact that the eurocrisis probably will have more to do with whether Obama wins reelection than anything he or anyone in the U.S. might do compromises this love affair somewhat.
China -- Growing up, most Dem policy wonks wanted to be European, today they want to be Chinese. And we hate them for that.
India -- China with democracy … really fractious democracy at that, and crazy, over-the-top, outspoken media chaos. A fast growing developing country with an important strategic role and a historical past that gave us Ben Kingsley. In other words, for visionary Dem foreign policy types, even better than Europe or China. The ultimate destination/partner for the Dem wonkocracy.
The Middle East -- Er, nice to know ya, time to go, "yay, democracy," "boo, Iran," "love ya, Israel" ... we're out of here.
"Barack Obama has a good working relationship with Bibi Netanyahu" -- Ha.
"It would be wrong to politicize the successful results of the Bin Laden raid" -- Let's play up this big success at every opportunity that arises. Wanna bet the story of the Navy SEAL who pulled the trigger leaks closer to election day? Best illustration of Dem cojones since Madeleine Albright first raised the possibility they might exist.
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The Obama administration is in the midst of doing something rather extraordinary. While most of the U.S. government and frankly, most major governments worldwide, are mired in a swamp of political paralysis, victims of their own inaction, the president and his national security team are engineering a profound, forward-looking, and rather remarkable change.
It is addressed directly in National Security Advisor Tom Donilon's column in today's Financial Times entitled "America is back in the Pacific and will uphold the rules." It has been manifested in the president's recent trip to Asia and it will be further underscored through Secretary of State Clinton's historic trip to Myanmar later this week.
Superficially, this shift can be and might be perceived to be what Clinton has called "the pivot" from the Middle East to Asia as the principal focus for U.S. foreign policy. But as Donilon's brief article effectively communicates, this shift is far more sweeping and important than has been fully appreciated.
In the beginning of the article, he writes that presidents must struggle to avoid become so caught up in crisis management that they lose sight of the country's strategic goals. Listing the astonishing array of crises President Obama has faced, Donilon then notes that he has nonetheless managed to pursue "a rebalancing of our foreign policy priorities -- and renewed our long-standing alliances, including NATO -- to ensure that our focus and our resources match our nation's most important strategic interests." Asia, he asserts, has become "the centerpiece" of this strategy.
As the article goes on it reveals dimensions of this pivot that have gotten less attention than the simple but nonetheless refreshing restatement of the Obama administration's recognition that -- to oversimplify for contrast's sake -- China is more important to America than Iraq. Because while Donilon writes of regional security agreements and the decision by the administration to embark on a "more broadly distributed, more flexible and more sustainable" defense strategy in the Pacific Basin, what is striking about the article is how often the words it uses and the subjects it references are economic in nature.
Donilon speaks of our priorities in the region as tying to "security, prosperity and human dignity." He defines security needs in terms of concerns about commerce and navigation. He talks about alliances as being "the foundation for the region's prosperity." And he makes a core point of saying that "As part of an open international economic order, nations must play by the same rules, including trade that is free and fair, level playing fields on which businesses can compete, intellectual property that is protected everywhere and market-driven currencies."
Establishing, observing and enforcing international rules are another core theme of the piece and of the statements that Obama, Clinton, Donilon, and others have regularly been underscoring.
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The Republican national security debate made me feel young again. First, there was the audience at Constitution Hall, typically diverse -- old white guys, fat old white guys, really old white guys, prematurely aging middle-aged white guys, and a few understandably unhappy looking women. But more importantly, there was the conversation. It reeked of 2004. All of a sudden I was 48 again.
But moving past that harsh personal reality ... the Republican candidates apparently think that playing the "War on Terror" card is the way into voters' hearts. They promoted torture. They embraced racially profiling Muslims. They feared the spread of terrorists across the Americas. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, they were all about terror. The urgency seemed just as palpable and vaguely crazed as it was back in the day. Amazingly ... stunningly ... the message from most of the Republican candidates, led by front-runners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, reflected the first-hints of nostalgia for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
Perhaps that was because some of the most prominent old white men in the audience were actually behind the Bush administration's policies of invasion and violation of basic human rights. There was Paul Wolfowitz. There was David Addington. And then there was Ed Meese. Somewhere out there was John Birch.
Interestingly, in this context, the two standout performers in the debate were Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul. Both were willing to step away from the retro-masses of the Republican Party and talk about today's economic concerns and challenge the over-reach and failed policies of the past decade. Paul, of course, once again embracing an end to the war on drugs (about which he is also right, as it happens), is too far out there to win. But Huntsman had a bit of a breakthrough. He is being strategic. He is focused on New Hampshire as the joke on Saturday Night Live had it. And performances like tonight's could very well give him a shot there ... at least more of a chance than he has appeared to have thus far.
Of course, Mitt Romney ... and his deep, unwavering love for spending every possible penny on defense ... remains the most likely candidate. That said, as a very shrewd observer of these things emailed me during the debate, Romney is the Al Gore of the Republican Party. Seems good on paper ... and made of cardboard. Hard to love. Newt Gingrich may have done well, but he is a dog whistle only Republicans can hear. The press loves him because he abuses them and he seems like a more intelligent breed of bad candidate than Cain or Perry.
Big losers tonight were viewers who did not get to hear anyone really address the big issues of our time -- from the uprising in Tahrir Square that was strangely all but ignored to the crisis in the Eurozone to the rise of China and the BRICS. And CNN was also a loser for its hokey staging, game show style opening, and the flaccid if competent moderation that let the conversation remain moored in the past.
Strangely, the big winners were not actually in the room. Barack Obama was one. He won both because he looks so good next to these guys and because they showed him great deference in the degree to which they generally tip-toed around his real accomplishments. But even his triumph was transcended by the night's biggest winner: Bibi Netanyahu. Somehow, he managed to get two of the candidates -- Romney and Santorum -- to publicly state their first trip as president would be to Israel. And Gingrich offered to work with Israel on a conventional invasion of Iran. And these were just a couple of the highlights. Bibi and his diplomatic team have masterfully played the perceived ambivalence of the Obama administration into a competition among Republicans to demonstrate who loves Israel the most. Which was yet another thing that made me feel young again ... like back in the good old days when support for Israel was much more reflexive and, frankly, much easier.
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America's special relationship with the United Kingdom began at conception. We were born as a nation of British stock and despite periodic tensions and the occasional war, we have built and deepened the relationship until it has become one of the closest on the planet. But being a special relationship and being especially important are two different things and it may be that another special relationship is brewing that in the 21st century could transcend that with Britain.
That said, Brits can take comfort. This newly ascendant relationship remains within the extended family of their former colonies.
Currently, President Obama is on his first official visit to Australia. So far, during his stay, he has sent several clear messages that America's almost always warm relationship with our cousins down under is getting warmer and is being seen by this White House as strategically more important than ever. His interactions with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard have been characterized as especially warm. He has described America's shifting focus to the Asia-Pacific region that is increasingly be presented as the centerpiece of this administration's foreign policy. And, backing up his assertion that the region is "of huge strategic importance to us", the President and Gillard have announced a new defense deal that will establish a U.S. military presence in Darwin and will deepen and enhance cooperation between the two nations' air forces.
There is no coyness about why a United States that is pulling back from other deployments around the world is establishing this new relationship. While Obama has said that the presence is not intended to contain China, there is no question that it is intended to both counterbalance what is seen as China's growing military clout and in particular to assure the ability to control key regional sea lanes. One of Obama's security deputies asserted that the deal was struck in direct "response to demand" from China's neighbors.
Britain's importance to the United States through most of the last century was due in large part to her strategic location off the coast of Europe, the area of America's principal economic and political interests. That Britain, though a fading empire, was still one of the world's most powerful nations and one that was deeply tied to America in almost every conceivable way, added to the "specialness" of the relationship.
While Australia is not as closely integrated with the U.S. economy as Britain nor is it as militarily powerful -- spending less than half of what Britain does on defense -- it does have a few things going for it. Much as Britain was the most natural ally in the European region, so too is Australia the most natural in the Asia-Pacific region. Its location -- near to Asia but separated by the sea -- offers a similar set of strategic advantages. It has cultivated close regional relationships and can be an effective interlocutor -- in some ways more effective than outlier Britain can be in the context of modern Europe (whatever that is). Moreover, with China and the rest of Asia on the rise, Australia is only likely to grow in significance and potential value as an ally.
What Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are doing in Asia is as clear as it is deft. They are making China the centerpiece of their efforts, engaging deeply across a wide range of issues. They challenge where they feel they should. They cooperate wherever they can. And thus they are managing to deepen what is clearly the most important bilateral relationship on the planet. Meanwhile, through efforts like that in Australia, they are strengthening the U.S. position throughout Asia -- from the Koreas to Japan, across ASEAN, and on to India and the sub-continent. In all this, the old ties of empire give special place and ease of dealing to relations with the Australians, the Indians, and the Singaporeans. It is hard to see how these relationships will not continue to grow in significance during the decades ahead -- perhaps to a time when the relationship between two or more of England's stroppier colonies end up being more important than those any of them share with the "mother country."
(By the way, as a closing footnote, it should be noted that Secretary Clinton, who has played a central and effective role in these efforts working closely with the NSC team and a Department of Defense for whom this shift in focus has long been a top priority, is currently enjoying yet another affirmation of her special role in the cabinet having just won the top ranking among all senior members of the Obama team in the Partnership for Public Service's rating of leadership performance.)
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Watching this weekend's Republican presidential debate on U.S. foreign policy, you might be forgiven if you thought it shed absolutely no light on U.S. foreign policy. After all, by definition ... and by God's good graces ... the views expressed represented those of people who will have precious little influence over America's international course. Only one of these people can be the Republican nominee. And, in part thanks to performances like what we saw on Saturday, even that individual is very likely not going to ever be president of the United States.
As a consequence the vapidity of Herman Cain is irrelevant. The pro-torture stance of the wing-nuts in the group is irrelevant. The ridiculous zero-based foreign aid formula suggested by Rick Perry is irrelevant. Even the pontificating of Republican non-Romney of the Month, Newt Gingrich is irrelevant. Because these weren't foreign policy ideas or positions. They were desperate cries for attention.
Sadly, also irrelevant will be thoughtful views offered by Jon Huntsman, who clearly distinguished himself as the most capable, thoughtful, experienced, and credible of the crew.
This means that the 30 minutes of the debate that CBS chose not to air will have a virtually identical impact to the 60 minutes of Obama-bashing, fear-mongering, and peacocking that actually were broadcast.
It is possible that some of the views that were offered by likely nominee Mitt Romney could be consequential. This would not seem to be good for U.S.-China relations except that there is virtually zero possibility that President Mitt Romney -- who would essentially be the hand-picked candidate of the business community and the major party presidential candidate with the closest ties to America's economic establishment in modern memory -- would actually follow through on his anti-Beijing saber-rattling once in office. Further, some of his statements were essentially meaningless to begin with -- like his assertion that a vote for him was the only way to avert Iran getting the bomb, not being backed by facts or even being remotely credible given how key what happens between now and when the next president takes office will be.
But more important still is that Romney isn't going to be the next President either. In all likelihood that will be Barack Obama. Here are 10 reasons why:
Obama is the incumbent. That matters. And he has become increasingly confident in using the bully pulpit to his advantage, at appearing presidential. The crucial issue is going to be economics.
Despite Europe's economic mess, a number of other factors suggest that the U.S. economy may begin to tick upward more during the next year. Other parts of the world are likely to be growing from the emerging markets to, in a modest way, Japan. More importantly, the likelihood that the U.S. unemployment rate declines the better part of a point to something closer to 8 percent is pretty good. That ought to be enough to make the case he avoided the abyss and turned things around in much the same way that Ronald Reagan did in 1984.
Like Reagan, Obama is liked and seen as trying hard to do the right thing. That, plus some signs of progress goes a long way with the American people.
Furthermore, none of these candidates are a Ronald Reagan. Moreover, none of them are even a George W. Bush, which is saying something. Mitt Romney is the whitest white man in America. He will look more like the establishment than Obama in an anti-establishment year. He will not get any journalistic good bounces because frankly it is hard to spin a narrative about the guy that will grab anyone's heartstrings. Want evidence, look at how desperately half the Republican party is at looking for alternatives.
That search for alternatives could lead to a third party candidate. If it's Ron Paul it will eat into Romney's base. It is highly unlikely the left will pose a similar challenge to Obama. As for the possibility of a centrist third party candidate, appealing as it may be, it will be less so to many if it appears that candidate can't win and will only increase the likelihood that Mitt Romney will be elected on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ticket.
While external events in the world -- like the Iranian detonation of a nuclear device or a terror attack -- could hurt Obama, in all likelihood, given his growing comfort with foreign-policy and the tendency of the American people to rally around the president in times of crisis, it would be a mistake to count on such a development being more likely to help the Republican candidate.
The reality is that while foreign policy won't be central to the election, Obama has already succeeded in doing something remarkable: Taking it off the table. He is hard to criticize given his record with bin Laden, Al Awlaki, Qaddafi, meeting his promise in Iraq, starting to get out of Afghanistan, and restoring America's international reputation.
We haven't gotten to the one-on-one segment of the campaign yet. Whoever is the Republican candidate has to run against the very disciplined, intelligent, well-prepared, charismatic president. Which of those folks you saw Saturday night can hold their own versus Obama?
The Republican Party on the Hill, via the Tea Party and via its more extreme elements has adopted a bunch of policies that are astonishingly out of touch with the moment. They should be doing great given the economic problems. But they are not only seen as obstructionist on the Hill but they are seen as advocates of millionaires they don't want taxed and opposed to fairness in sharing the burden for the sacrifices fixing the economy will require.
By extension the leading voices for the Republican Party are folks like those on the stage ... and John Boehner and Eric Cantor and Mitch McConnell. Really? That's going to grab America in the current environment?
The electoral map says it will be close. But already Republican overreaching has pushed Ohio back toward Obama. The Republican hope re: Florida, Marco Rubio has suffered some self-inflicted wounds. Virginia gets bluer by the day. It's close ... but it's trending toward the President.
And so, while making predictions a year out is a sucker's game, for those of you who watched the Saturday debate and were disheartened there is at least all the above to suggest that none of it mattered that much anyway. As of right now the favorite to be the next president of the U.S. has to be the current president of the U.S.
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It is currently conventional wisdom in Washington that the president will have a difficult time advancing any major new policy initiatives between now and the election. It would be a mistake for the president and unfortunate for the country were that to prove to be an accurate forecast.
Fortunately, nothing is more suspect than Washington's conventional wisdom. Further, it is fully in the president's power to challenge the low expectations of political professionals and average citizens everywhere by building his campaign around not only a rehash of what he has accomplished and a wish list of things for the future, but by enlivening it with meaningful, major new efforts that he is undertaking immediately due to the urgency of the challenges the United States faces.
One area in which such an effort is not just needed but is effectively several generations overdue is energy policy. To date, the administration's efforts in the area of energy have concentrated on greening the U.S. energy mix and the jobs that green energy might bring. While worthy, the efforts have been bogged down and undercut for a variety of reasons: ranging from the tactical decision to put health care ahead of energy among policy priorities, the inflated and dubious nature of many green job provisions, the success of climate skeptics in impeding the cap-and-trade debate, and the recent kerfuffle over Solyndra (and, by extension, government energy loan programs, alternative energy programs in general, and the whole idea of "picking winners" associated with some elements of green energy policy).
The Energy Department even initiated a worthy Quadrennial Technology Review that mimicked the Quadrennial Defense Review, Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, and the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review processes at Defense, Homeland Security, and State respectively. But it was not a broad-gauge energy policy and the United States has been in need of such a policy for decades. There have been abortive efforts in that direction but they have been compromised or stopped short of becoming a regular element of U.S. government policy making.
One reason for the problem is that despite the fact that the Department of Energy was created to help ensure the creation of such policies during the 1970s, it is simply incapable of overseeing the development of the kind of comprehensive policy that is needed. Unlike defense policy or diplomacy policy, critical components of a true energy policy are managed not in one agency but across the entirety of the U.S. government. It is a domestic and an international issue, a security and an economic issue, a regulatory, financial, diplomatic, and environmental issue.
Furthermore, for better or for worse, energy issues have tended to become too politicized by different special interests. Recognizing the need for a "whole of government" approach to the issue, the Bush administration put Vice President Dick Cheney in charge of its effort in this direction. But because of his perceived closeness to certain segments of the energy community (which is far more diverse than typically understood), the process was sidetracked. Similarly, Obama's efforts to date have been impeded because, as one senior official said to me, they have been "too tied up in the climate issue."
But of course, the reason an energy policy is so essential is because real energy policy is not just about green jobs, it is about every single job in the United States. Every business depends on access to energy. So do individual citizens and the economy as a whole. Energy, the largest industrial sector in the world, touches every other sector in profound ways. Interruptions in supply, spikes in prices, changes in regulation, shifts in demand, and innovations in technology have ripple effects that go from border to border, from the top to the bottom of the economy.
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As I have noted in the past, the secret to success in any job is picking the right predecessor. In that respect, Barack Obama did brilliantly. Outperforming George W. Bush on foreign-policy, to say the least, was hardly the greatest challenge confronting Obama when he took office.
Indeed, much of Obama's foreign policy has consisted of undoing the damage that Bush did or alternatively, unwinding bad policy choices in favor of better ones. That's not to say there are not some similarities between their policies but rather there are nonetheless a number of important Obama policies were reactions to or corrections for those of Bush.
Leaving Iraq, refocusing on AfPak, preparing to leave Afghanistan, restoring relations with our European allies, refocusing our priorities away from the War on Terror, pursuing a more targeted, lower risk, higher return policy of going after high end terrorists, shifting from unilateralism to multilateralism in instances like Libya, rebalancing to make Asia the top U.S. foreign-policy priority ... all these speak to the benefit of not behaving like the Bush administration. (Again, I know the Bush administration was planning on leaving Iraq, too. But that happened to be an instance of the Bush administration seeking to distance themselves from, well, themselves.)
To achieve these goals has required more than just changing the guy in the Oval Office or the folks around him. It has required more than just taking old Bush policy papers, reading their conclusions and doing something different. It has involved a degree of disciplined policy formation and program management that actually, deliberately began by taking a page or two out of the Bush handbook ... not the George W. Bush handbook, however, but that created by his father and his national security team, led by General Brent Scowcroft.
Current National Security Advisor Tom Donilon explicitly acknowledges that the Scowcroft model and structure was a source of much of the initial organization of the Obama team, with the NSC staff organization, principals' meetings, deputies' meetings and working group meetings following George H.W. Bush era precedents.
But even a proven structure won't work if the President and his team do not have the discipline to work within it. The George W. Bush process did not; the President enabled the creation of back channels that were taken advantage of by both the Vice President and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and the result -- even in the eyes of top Bush officials -- was muddled and sometimes profoundly flawed execution.
Barack Obama however, made up for his lack of prior foreign policy experience, by both picking very experienced advisors and then by insisting upon a rigorous process. Daily national security staff meetings, regular meetings focusing on major strategic issues, over 200 principals meetings to date, over 700 deputies meetings, close coordination -- especially since the arrival of Donilon as National Security Advisor -- among the cabinet principals (weekly meetings between Donilon and the Secretaries of State and Defense), all have contributed to this. So too has an equally disciplined regular evaluation of progress, the self-grading by the President and his team of their own conduct of foreign policy that makes clear how they want to adapt and alter their priorities and international efforts. Decisions are made promptly, cabinet members know that Donilon has the ear of the President and can get responses in real time, and even with the usual issues of competing and bruised egos associated with every NSC, the Obama team has developed a comparatively high functioning relationship -- among the best since the Scowcroft era.
Today, even as they are enjoying recent successes including those associated with the unlamented ends of Bin Laden, Al Awlaki and Qaddafi, the Obama NSC team is working to identify next generation issues and to better address difficult problems -- like Iran -- where they clearly feel they can do better going forward.
Having said all that, they do face one problem that all administrations must grapple with after several years in office. That is that going forward they are their own predecessor. In other words, they are no longer in the undoing or post-Bush phase of their presidency. From now on in most cases they will be seen as their authors of their own circumstances. While the world is sure to throw them curveballs, they own the headlines for the remainder of their tenure in office.
The challenge is further complicated by the fact that withdrawing from Iraq or Afghanistan or conducting military strikes against terrorists are the comparatively easy parts of their agenda. The next set of challenges they face -- in post-revolutionary Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, in post-withdrawal Iraq and Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Syria, with the Israelis and the Palestinians, with regard to Europe's financial crisis, and in terms of American influence in Asia or on important transnational issues -- will all require that the United States replicate the key elements of the approaches that have brought success to the administration in Libya and hunting terrorists. In other words, they must set disciplined, narrow, achievable goals that can be achieved largely through a very limited U.S. outlay of resources that is complemented with the contributions and active participation of international allies. Tough as mastering that formula has been in Libya or Afghanistan, it is going to be even tougher when it comes to providing the aid needed to foster growth and solidify constructive changes in the wake of the Arab Spring or pressuring Iran or piecing together initiatives to stave off international economic calamity.
In other words, while the president and his team deserve great credit for their achievements to date, they will almost certainly find that it is easier to launch an "Obama doctrine" than to live with one -- especially if the U.S. Congress insists on the kind of reckless cuts to U.S. aid budgets that the leaders of the opposition party are promoting. (Why is it that those who are the most eager to go to war are often the ones who lack the necessary fortitude or vision to win the peace?)
The good news is that after Tom Donilon's promising first full year as National Security Advisor, the President has a national security process that is effective, orderly and has produced material successes. The bad news is that foreign policy is the ultimate "what have you done for me lately?" business.
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For Barack Obama and his national security team, the simultaneous fall of Sirte and the death of Muammar al-Qaddafi provide an important punctuation mark in their successful initiative to support Libyan rebels and bring an end to an odious dictatorship.
The political benefits that accrue to the president at home will be modest. Domestic issues command the attention of American voters. What's more, the president's Republican opponents don't want to talk foreign-policy very much. And with good reason. The president's record is for the most part too good to take issue with.
The president came into office promising to get the United States out of a disliked war in Iraq and has kept the promise. He came in promising to shift the focus to Afghanistan and finishing the business of decapitating al Qaeda. He did both. Bin Laden is dead. And we are committed to coming home from Afghanistan, too. While the administration's response to the first stirrings of rebellion in the Middle East -- in Iran -- was muddled and late, the overall approach has been constructive and the Libya chapter will stand out as a gamble that worked. Restoring relations with our European allies, engineering the "pivot" in priorities to Asia cited by Secretary of State Clinton, and the recognition of the growing importance of dealing with emerging powers are all additional positive developments that are a credit to the president and his team.
But more important than any political benefits that accrue to the president as a result of this successful outcome to the Libya effort is that it brings into focus an important shift in U.S. national security strategy, a doctrine that stands alongside Clinton's "pivot" as one of the signature contributions of Obama and his security policymakers. Indeed, although I am reluctant to throw around the term "doctrine" because it has become devalued through overuse, I believe it puts into focus what can and should be identified as the Obama Doctrine.
This doctrine stands in contrast to the famous doctrine named for General Colin Powell. Powell's approach turns on the idea that prior to military action being taken by the United States, we must first exhaust all other means of advancing our national interest and then when we engage that we use every available means to achieve clearly defined goals and thus be able to execute a reasonable exit strategy. This approach was, more than anything else, a reaction to the problems the U.S. encountered in Vietnam and the "every available means" or "overwhelming force" element was clearly a manifestation of a deep pockets view of U.S. resources that now seems like the quaint echo of a bygone time.
The Obama Doctrine, while also grounded in the idea that we must exhaust every other means of advancing our national interest, is responding to the lessons of a different unpopular war, in this case, Iraq. It is a reaction against the use of "overwhelming force" to achieve rather narrow (not to mention dubious) goals. It is an antidote to "shock and awe," "three trillion dollar wars" and unilateral conventional invasions if they can possibly be avoided.
Whereas the Bush administration engaged in an open checkbook approach to a global "war on terror" (a perversion of the Powell doctrine that was especially uncomfortable for Powell himself to watch unfold), Obama's approach -- in fighting terror, getting Bin Laden, assisting with the ouster of Qaddafi, and elsewhere -- has been not only to cast aside the term "war on terror" but also the strategies and tactics of massive ground war.
Obama & Co. embrace the orthoscopic alternative to the open heart surgery favored by the Bush team. The Obama Doctrine prioritizes the use of intelligence, unmanned aircraft, special forces, and the leverage of teaming with others to achieve very narrowly defined but critical goals. That word leverage is the key. It is about using technological superiority, effective intelligence, surprise, and smart collaboration to make the most of limited resources and do so in a way that minimizes risks to both personnel and to America's international standing and our bank account.
"Leading from behind" is an important element of this doctrine. It is no insult to lead but let others feel they too are architects of a plan, to lead without making others feel you are bullying, to lead but do so in a way in which risks and other burdens are shared. Libya is a test case for this approach. It too started ugly and there are many lessons to be learned by NATO and the United States about how to do this better. Our communications around the time of undertaking the involvement were also handled in a ham-fisted manner. No matter. Most of that will be forgotten now. Outcomes matter most and the outcome here has been low-cost and high-reward.
More importantly, perhaps, it solidifies an Obama approach to meeting international threats that seems better suited to America's current capabilities, comparative advantages, political mood and the preferences of our allies everywhere than prior approaches which were created in and tailored to far different times.
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If you have been wondering where America's Commerce Secretary was, I have finally found the answer. Hillary Clinton ate him.
The evidence for this assertion is that once again Hillary Clinton has demonstrated just the kind of leadership and insight into international economic policies that one might hope for from a Commerce Secretary if Congress actually thought the position important enough to confirm one.
Of course, I am kidding. About Hillary Clinton eating the Commerce Secretary. Not about anyone thinking the job was important enough to fill. Clearly, the Republicans in Congress don't seem to think that confirming a business leader like John Bryson to add needed heft and his considerable and useful experience to the President's team is a good idea in the middle of the kind of economic crisis we are currently enduring.
No, I make the comment about Clinton because once again she has stepped up and shown herself to be both an innovative Secretary of State and President Obama's most valuable cabinet member. For the second week in a row she is devoting her Friday to demonstrating how central she sees economic work to be to the job of the State Department and the international standing of the United States. Last week, the interaction turned on a meeting with the President's job council at which the focus was how to help America grow through international economic engagement, such as the smart initiative led by her Under Secretary Bob Hormats to promote more foreign investment in the United States. (It's what I call the OPM Stimulus...in which OPM stands for "other people's money.")
Today, Clinton spoke at the Economic Club of New York, delivering a speech entitled "Economic Statecraft for a New Era." The speech is part of a series of four she is delivering on key themes of this key dimension of the administration's foreign policy agenda. As she noted in the speech, according to a pre-delivery draft I reviewed:
...Economic forces are transforming foreign policy realities around the globe. We have seen governments toppled by economic crisis. Revolutions born in a Tunisian marketplace have swept across an entire region. Europe faces its strongest test in a generation, thanks to recession and debt. And everywhere I travel, I see countries gaining influence not because of the size of their armies, but because of the growth of their economies.
She then went on to say,
Simply put, America's economic strength and our global leadership are a package deal. A strong American economy has long been a quiet pillar of our power in the world. It gives us the leverage we need to exert influence and advance our interests. It gives other countries confidence in our leadership and a greater stake in a deeper partnership with us. And over time, it underwrites all the elements of "smart power": robust diplomacy and development and the strongest military the world has ever seen.
The speech turned on four key points -- that the administration is "updating foreign policy priorities to include economics every step of the way", that the State Department is "honing" its "ability to find and execute economic solutions to strategic challenges" (from energy to supporting democracy in the Middle East), that the Obama team is "modernizing our agenda on trade, investment and commercial diplomacy to deliver jobs and growth", and that they are focusing on the challenge of growing wealth being wielded by state controlled funds and companies.
That a Secretary of State asserts an economic agenda is not news. Clinton's predecessors have regularly done so and the reality of course is that economics has always played a big role in foreign policy from wars fought over oil to the centrality of revitalizing economies to enhance security as during the Marshall Plan. That a leading figure in a government whose fate depends on job creation and restarting growth would raise such an issue is also not that shocking. What makes this speech different is that Clinton is not just talking the talk she is walking the walk, restructuring State to enhance its economic resources significantly, placing economic issues more central to our policies in places like the Middle East where promoting reforms that create opportunity is seen as a better alternative than say, invasion, when it comes to enhancing stability, mobilizing her team and embassies around the world on these issues and simply by actually credibly engaging with the business community in a way that has eluded many of her predecessors.
Like her excellent Hong Kong speech regarding the administration's "pivot" toward Asia-another element of foreign policy with important economic consequences and in which economics is among the most vital levers -- the New York Economic Club leader provides among the very best examples of the Obama Administration taking its international economic policies and putting them in a coherent framework. Take Clinton's good work in this regard, the recent trade deals and Tim Geithner's excellent and, one might add, courageous engagement with the Europeans in the recent crisis, and you have the most impressive sustained international economic initiative the U.S. has mounted in years.
And early in this administration it was hardly a foregone conclusion there was ever going to be such an initiative. I recall eating a soggy tuna fish on whole wheat toast sandwich in the White House mess with a former senior Obama official who said, "this administration isn't like we were back in the Clinton administration. Back then, international economics was one of our central priorities. Today, it seldom comes up except in terms of financial markets." That was in the wake of the 2008-2009 crisis and the focus on stimulus and health care had put domestic issues center stage. Inevitably however, what has happened is that the administration has come to realize that there are no such thing as domestic economic issues that don't have important international components -- nor are there security interests worldwide without economic components.
The Clinton speech therefore is not only a sign of a successful Secretary of State continuing to work to reinvent the department she leads -- to "think different" in the words of Steve Jobs which she quoted in today's remarks -- it is also the sign of an administration maturing and developing better priorities and vital competencies where they are needed. (Although it still might help to have a Secretary of Commerce. I'm just sayin'...)
In fact, the Clinton speech has to be seen as a big success except for one egregious error. Seeking to describe the changes she seeks within State, Clinton asserted, "We need to be a Department where more people can read both Foreign Affairs and a Bloomberg Terminal." I get the bit about a Bloomberg Terminal. But I think she misspoke. A really forward-thinking State Department should probably be turning to a different foreign policy-focused media organization, don't you think?
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images
While Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Captain Louis Renault issued an official statement saying that his government is "shocked, shocked" at allegations that they were behind an assassination plot to kill Saudi Arabia's Ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir, the incident raises many important questions.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
We can't blame the moral failures of today on someone else.
It's not Bush this time. It's not a prior generation betraying a trust. It's not another country failing to live to the standards of civilization. We're not even able to defend ourselves by saying we were ignorant of what was happening or by feigning that we were looking the other way.
This time, it's us. American liberals have the reins of U.S. foreign policy right now and we are embracing a course in which we are the ones who condone torture, turn our back on genocide, sidestep the rule of law. We operate Guantanamo and defend using extreme measures with terrorists. We ignore national sovereignty. We acknowledge the deaths of thousands upon thousands at the hands of weak, brutal regimes and we say, "not our problem" or "to intervene would be too hard." Then we go off and weep and some other movie of the Holocaust and walk out wondering how any generation could allow such a thing to happen. But we are demonstrating that evil exists in the world not because of the occasional rise of satanic bad men but because of the enduring willingness of average people tolerate what should be intolerable -- apathy has killed more people than Osama or Saddam ever did.
(And before all the "yes, buts...": It is too easy to say Obama is not "really" a liberal. He is in fact, the distilled essence of the liberal ideal in America over the past couple decades, the product of liberal movements, the liberal establishment, an espouser of liberal ideals, the most open and clearly liberal political candidate to be elected to high office in the United States since the middle of the last century -- more so than self-described "centrists" like Clinton, Carter or Kennedy. He may have checked his liberal ideals at the door of the White House situation room, but that's not a counter-argument, that's the point.)
All of us who embrace in any way any part of the idea of liberalism need to own up to the current situation, to remember our past righteous condemnations of others and to ask how we got here. We need to examine why we apply our values so sporadically -- if any beliefs that are so haphazard and so selectively applied can be called a values system at all.
Look at the story running in today's New York Times and elsewhere on the new U.N. report on torture in Afghanistan. Based on hundreds of interviews, the conclusion is that America's Afghan allies regularly employ torture against prisoners linked to that country's insurgency. According to the Times "It paints a devastating picture of abuse, citing evidence of ‘systematic torture' during interrogations by Afghan intelligence police officials even as American and other Western backers provide training and pay for nearly the entire budget of the Afghan ministries running the detention centers." It would be preposterous to suggest the United States, bankrolling these operations, did not know what was going on. It is clear that despite our vast military presence in Afghanistan, we did nothing to stop it. It is also, as it happens, illegal for the United States to provide aid to police organizations embracing torture but that little issue seems to have been set aside. That these governments we support also abuse their female citizens or institutionalize intolerance only compounds the wrong.
Or, alternatively, look at the discussions surrounding the decision by this administration to authorize the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen. CNN reported yesterday that U.S. may release its memo authorizing the decision to kill the terrorist leader. The objective is to demonstrate the legal basis for the attack which also killed another U.S. citizen. While Awlaki richly deserved to die, the question as to whether U.S. officials have the right to summarily order such an attack raises important ethical questions about the nature and conduct of modern warfare and the decision processes by which public officials arrogate onto themselves roles traditionally left to judges and juries.
Another dimension of the ethical issues raised in the Awlaki attack has to do with the broader question of drone warfare. Scott Shane's "Coming Soon: The Drone Arms Race" in the Sunday Times raised the specter of this issue growing and, as I have argued before, before it does, we ought to be having a vigorous discussion about why it is we think having the technology to violate the sovereignty of other nations with impunity grants us the right to do so. The implication of Shane's piece, of course, is that sooner rather than later, the shoe is going to be on the other foot. We will be targeted. Our officials may be cited as direct threats to some other nation ... perhaps even reasonably cited as such. And then what?
Further, as important as are the issues raised in such stories, equally important are the issues raised by the instances where there are few if any stories at all. We don't hear much about Guantanamo any more. We don't debate much those wars and social catastrophes in which we don't intervene despite the huge human costs. We are essentially silent about the moral consequences of postponing discussion on tolerating an economic system that promotes inequality, puts the weakest at risk due to the greed of the most powerful or threatens the planet's environment.
Some might call the approach America today embraces as realism. Others might say it is justified by circumstances. Both may be true and the tough hard realities of the world may be what directs all American presidents into the mainstream of compromise and pragmatism. But what it is also is frequently morally indifferent and occasionally indefensible.
We have to acknowledge that we have become that which we condemned. We have demonstrated through our actions that we too feel morality is just for speeches and or to be used as a cudgel with which to attack the opposition. And we have to ask, can there be such a thing a liberal U.S. foreign policy or is our national character so corrupted by a sense of self-righteous exceptionalism that there is no place in our policies for solid values consistently applied?
In his heyday, during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama had that magic trait that sets great politicians apart and assures their success. He was the rare leader upon whom people could project their hopes. Different audiences would look at him and see in him the promise of the often very different futures to which they aspired.
Today, he is suffering from a shortcoming that mirrors his earlier strength. Today, diverse audiences look at him and see in him the source of their frustrations. He is becoming a magnet for blame.
Part of this is due to the natural transition that occurs as one progresses from being a little known rising star who has not yet held executive offices to being the guy in charge, the one who assumes and is assigned responsibility for all manner of events -- including many imposed by him by circumstances beyond his control.
Part of this however, is something he and those close to him have brought upon themselves. During the past several weeks, in conversation after conversation with former avid supporters who are now alienated or doubting, I have heard the same thing. Almost always the word I hear is "disappointment." Many of Obama's original and most natural backers feel let down and some feel betrayed. They feel that they were set up by his rhetoric and then let down by his inability or unwillingness or lack of concern with following through on it.
To them, to the world, Barack Obama is a P.T. -- he's a policy-tease. In situation after situation, he raised expectations with great speeches or big promises and then in each he and those around him did not follow up actively, negotiated away the heart of what was promised, went beyond compromise and straight to capitulation. Or, in some instances, they simply dithered and failed to lead. But in each case, the impact on supporters was acute -- they felt drawn in, they started to hope again, their blood was flowing, they were ready for that transformational moment.
He seduced and then he did not come through.
It happened on health care. It happened on jobs. It happened with the Cairo Speech promising a transformed and active U.S. role in the Middle East. It happened with the Prague speech promising an active effort to zero out nuclear weapons. It happened with the Simpson-Bowles Commission. It happened with the promise of green jobs and a commitment to a new energy policy.
Is some of it due to Republican obstructionism? The vagaries of the Middle East? The trickiness of arms issues? Certainly. But when the pattern is so clear, so often repeated, when it so regularly involves passivity or leaving the initiative to others or the White House negotiating big ideas away with itself before even encountered an opponent, at some point one has to say it is something more. It can hardly be called a character of leadership but to many of those who worked on his campaign, who rooted for him most enthusiastically, who donated money in 2008 but who won't do it again this time around, it certainly does seem to reveal the president's character as a leader.
Might this change? Might he someday be seen as having struggled to a slow start due to the extraordinary array of economic, social and security challenges with which he was confronted? Perhaps. But the problem with being a tease is that you often permanently alienate those most drawn to you in the first place. And that reality is going to create a fundamental and not fully recognized challenge for the president in the campaign ahead.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
New York at U.N. General Assembly meeting time operates with the kind of fevered intensity of a B movie with just about as much artificial drama. Layers upon layers of security guards and police and blockades and magnetometers stir up congestion and resentment and tension even before you enter the rooms full of government officials and the coteries of aides who follow them around like the cloud of dust at Pigpen's feet.
This year, of course, the central drama centered on the Palestinian bid for statehood and how, if at all, it could be managed so it was not a huge setback to Israel and a huge embarrassment to the United States. In the hotel in which I am staying, some of the principals in this drama were camped out buzzing about the latest rumors and fretting that events were spinning out of their control.
Thus far the drama is unresolved. President Obama gave a speech that managed to thread the needle offering a string of formulations designed to resonate well in Israeli ears, Palestinian ears, and, most importantly, in the ears of those (comparatively few) American voters who really cared enough to be following this particular episode of the Real Diplomats of New York City. The Palestinians appeared unmoved. The Israelis seemed pleased. Obama went on to his next event, at the Clinton Global Initiative.
Yet for all the familiarity of the arguments that both separate and bind together the Israelis and the Palestinians, there was something different about the feel of this particular minuet.
The Palestinians had clearly taken the initiative and set the statehood vote drama in motion. The Israelis, knocked back on their heels at first by the Palestinian move, regrouped and launched a political offensive in the United States (as well as around the world) to seek support. As the New York Times reported yesterday in its on target story "Netanyahu's Ties to G.O.P. Grow Stronger", the Israelis deftly reached out to key U.S. Republicans to win support and succeeded in generating enough that the President felt the pressure. If he did not line up with Israel in the clearest possible way, he might well lose a key part of his base in swing states like New York or Florida. At the same time, Europeans and major emerging powers all staked out their positions, most in direct or indirect opposition to the United States and the Israelis.
America, once the orchestrator of Middle East peace talks, always until now a prime driver behind the scenes, had assumed a new, much more reactive role. While the Obama team worked furiously behind the scenes, at every turn, it was responding to someone else's moves. It's own initiatives largely seemed to fall flat or come a little late.
The Obama Administration has been dramatically more engaged in the peace process than was the first term Bush Administration. So this may be part of a longer term trend. But in any event, America now seems to be a less influential actor than it has been for most of the modern history of the Arab-Israeli relationship.
That doesn't mean President Obama's remarks struck a wrong note or that U.S. diplomats don't have an important role to play in this process as it moves forward. It is just that amid the frenzy of this U.N. General Assembly week, one gets the impression that much of the most important work is getting done in rooms where the Americans are not present.
Aaron Showalter-Pool/Getty Images
If mathematics is the universal language, here are a few numbers that should communicate volumes to all:
That's the approximate number of employees in the CIA's Counterterrorism Center. And according to the Washington Post's lead story today, that means more people are now doing counter-terror work for our Central Intelligence Agency than there are as members of al Qaeda. How's that for a tenth anniversary message about America's response to the 9/11 attacks? Personally, I think it is just great and an appropriate use of U.S. national security resources, these couple of thousand of people will do vastly more to contain the terror threat than most of the hundreds of thousands we deployed in old-style land ground wars in the Middle East.
As it happens, 2000 is also the estimated number of militants and civilians killed by U.S. drone attacks. The use of drones along with the application of intelligence assets above are among the ways America is better learning how to contain the terror threat. Of course, the civilian death toll, the violation of the air space of sovereign nations and the moral implications of rich nations being able to wage war against poor ones without putting the lives of their own people at risk are all questions hanging in the air like the drone that circled above Osama bin Laden's residence in the hours before he died.
That, of course, is the current jobless rate in the United State, an ominous figure as we enter this Labor Day weekend. But much worse are numbers like...
16.7 and 16.4
Those respectively are the official numbers regarding unemployed blacks and unemployed young people in America. In cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee, old hubs of the industrial Midwest, the official numbers are above 25 percent. And of course, being official numbers, we know they are wrong. They don't include those who have stopped looking for jobs and dropped out of the labor force altogether. They don't include the under-employed. The real numbers are much higher. In fact they are so much higher that they are not actually numbers any more. They are a social crisis, a breakdown that is tearing apart the fabric of America, crushing hopes and inviting backlash of a type we haven't seen in decades. Which leads us to...
Which is the gut-wrenchingly high ... appalling ... failure-of-our-system type .... percentage of black young people who were out of work in August. And all these unemployment numbers lead us in turn to...
0 and 0
Which is both the number of net new jobs created in August ... and also happens to be Barack Obama's percentage chances of re-election if these job numbers do not improve measurably over the next 12 months. Having said that, it's always good to have a Plan B in mind. Which explains, I suppose, why White House chief of staff Bill Daley reportedly arranged a below-the-radar retreat in June for his senior team at Fort McNair with historian Michael Beschloss as a guest speaker to help answer the one question on everyone's mind: "How does a U.S. President win re-election with the country suffering unacceptably high rates of unemployment?"
51 and counting
That's number of months since George W. Bush's EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said that existing Federal smog standards "do not adequately protect the public." It's "and counting" because today President Obama put a stop -- until at least after the 2012 elections -- to the EPA's plan to issue new ozone standards despite the fact that his own EPA team had been working on them intensively for over two years now. The EPA has said (in each of the past four years) that a new smog standard would provide between $13 billion and $100 billion in health benefits at a cost of $19 billion to $90 billion. Further, the pushback leaves the U.S. again lagging on a global environmental regulatory issue -- ozone -- gaining in importance almost everywhere else. It is also a sign that the President (see the above numbers) is starting to see everything to through the lens of the above job numbers (and his poll numbers that are directly linked to them.) For their part, Republicans on the Hill and corporate voices up and down K Street that have been hammering home the point about potential job losses associated with the possible new regulations were heard cheering. Congressman Fred Upton, the House's energy honcho calling it a "welcome breakthrough."
If you're like many people in the White House, you cringe every time you hear the term "leading from behind." It's become one of the slams du jour here in Washington. But, you have to admit, at least it implied there was some leading happening somewhere.
Watching the clown college that is modern Washington during yesterday's speech scheduling follies, it is clear our glittering prizes are leading us nowhere fast. That's bad for the economy. Bad for the American people. Bad for the world. But having said that, given the visionless self-absorption these folks are currently displaying, I'm not sure we would want to follow even if they knew where to go.
The spat over scheduling the President's address next week was a combination of politics as usual, shoddy planning, pettiness and slapstick comedy. Frankly, I'm not sure Speaker Boehner did his party any favors by booting the President to next Thursday. If he had let him go as scheduled, the Republican debaters who would have followed him on the air could then have torn his speech apart before a national audience thereby upstaging him and giving their alternative views greater visibility at the same time. That said, isn't it time we had a moratorium on tearing ideas and opponents apart for a while. Isn't this one of those "we're all in this together moments?" Maybe we ought to just listen to each other for a while ... and if the pols don't come up with any good ideas, then maybe we should listen to see if someone else does.
For that reason, I am really looking forward to the Republican debate, Governor Romney's scheduled economic speech, the President's jobs speech, and the newly scheduled jobs speech from Speaker Boehner in the hopes that a few ideas may emerge that are of material significance to the economy. But I will admit I am skeptical.
Every sign is that -- as was the case for Herman's Hermits with regard to Mrs. Brown's lovely daughter -- the second verse will be the same as the first (as will be, I fear, all subsequent verses). We'll get tired rhetoric and demagoguery flavored with idea-bits, school-uniform sized initiatives that are almost always less than meets the eye.
The Republicans at the debate will call for cutting the deficit without raising revenues or really scrutinizing defense spending. And the President will offer an array of earnest, modest ideas that may, based on current rumors, produce a million new, primarily short-term jobs. He probably won't make any bold new revenue proposals or for that matter any bold proposals of any sort. He certainly won't volunteer needed cuts to entitlement programs. We'll get a too small infrastructure initiative, too little stimulus, too many compromises. We'll welcome his seriousness and to the extent Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and other individual Republican candidates also provide concrete, job-creating ideas that will be more than welcome, it will be essential to having any kind of constructive public policy dialogue in the next few months.
I worry this will be the case in part because I am getting the impression that some of the President's advisors are recommending he only make proposals that can actually pass. This in turn leads to a lot of folks around the President negotiating with themselves before they even start discussions with the opposition. This dilutes everything.
It's how we are likely to end up with a million dollar patch for a 25 million job hole. And since Hill Republicans will clearly oppose much of it from, the pre-digested compromises will only succeed in producing in smaller failures rather than the larger variety.
As Eugene Robinson wisely noted in the Washington Post earlier this week, the President needs to recognize this, make the best case he can for the big ideas we need to the Congress and then, if they drop the ball as they very well might, then he should plan on taking his ideas not just to the dysfunctional Congress but to the American people. He and those around him should believe in his ability as a leader. He should be out there pushing for a really big infrastructure program, a major investment in American competitiveness through committing to building the next generation smart highway system, smart energy grids, advanced air traffic control network, the underpinnings for our IT future. He should be talking only in terms of programs that created multiple millions of jobs while enhancing productivity and helping to attract new investment. If it means a payroll tax holiday and a repatriation of earnings plan that works, he should go for it. If it means major regulatory reform to accelerate projects waylaid by sluggish approval processes, he should make it happen. But please, frame it in a vision, paint a picture of what America can do to lead again in the world.
He should plan on spending the next 12 months out on the road selling his big ideas directly to the American people so the next election is a ratification of his vision and a mandate for his action. It is literally the only path out of this mess.
We have to recognize that will take a year. Will markets tolerate it? Of course, they will. Especially if they see some kind of real big thinking going on. Especially if real progress seems possible in the foreseeable future. And I continue to hope that President Obama's likely opponent will be Mitt Romney or some other responsible actor and that the ensuing debate might actually be considerably more rational and thoughtful than the food fight that seems to be taking place up and down Pennsylvania Avenue these days.
Finally, to those of you who say Obama is too measured or Romney, for example, is too bland, it's worth remembering that the modern president who may have done the most creating the infrastructure we have today, laying the foundation for modern American competitiveness, was also accused of both traits. His name was Dwight Eisenhower and it is only half a century later that people truly began to appreciate the consequences of what he accomplished with America's highway system, air traffic system, aerospace industry, even some of the foundations of our venture capital system. He wasn't a career politician. He wasn't a charismatic speaker. He was just serious and dogged and experienced. He was also, of course, the one thing that seems in shortest supply these days. He was unquestionably and down to the marrow of his bone a leader.
And if they don't make them like that any more we are all in deep, deep trouble.
The world is ending! We're back! The end is nigh! Hallelujah, we're saved! Pawlenty! Bachman! Perry! Oh my God, maybe the end really is nigh! No, Ryan Mallett and Tim Tebow looked good and the heat wave in DC has broken, maybe a better autumn is ahead.
Suffice it to say, it's been a rough week. And amid the wreckage and rivers of bile, adrenaline, and tears that have flowed this week, a few stories have slipped through the cracks, a few perfectly bloggable topics have gone uncommented upon. And it's Friday and we can't let the week go by without offering a few quick takes on at least four of those bits and pieces:
Earlier today I received the following email from an admirer:
You are a disgusting pig. I pray to God that you get brain cancer."
This was noteworthy on several levels. First, I don't even know the person who sent this. Typically, I need to know someone for a while before they reach that kind of conclusion. Second, the recent economic shocks have not, as one might have hoped, sent a message to America that we are all in this together and it is time for a new civility in public discourse. Third, for sure I will never use my cell phone again without a hands free device.
My fan was responding to a quotation attributed to me that appeared in the New York Times. The article, by the dependably insightful Helene Cooper, was entitled "A Test for Obama's View of a One-Term Presidency." It was an otherwise excellent piece which addressed Obama's stated desire to be a good one-term president rather than a mediocre two-term president. Its point was that the current challenges faced by the United States may force him to choose between these two options because of the fearsome demands running for re-election is likely to make on his time and thus his ability to effectively lead the country through and out of the current, enduring, complex economic crisis.
Personally, as I have stated before, even the president's most ardent supporters have to acknowledge the realities of a modern presidential campaign: He must work tirelessly to raise perhaps $1 billion and then spend essentially a year fending off attacks and implementing a complex, demanding strategy likely to be so taxing that it will be very, very difficult for him. Oh yeah and he also needs to give the rescue of the U.S. economy the attention it warrants. I'm a supporter of the president and I think he is a considerably better choice to hold the office than anyone who is a declared Republican candidate for president or who has been mentioned as a potential such candidate. In some extreme cases, the Republican candidates would have me shopping for real estate in New Zealand.
That said, the Times article due to the limits of space involved truncated one of my views in a way that I believe triggered the brain cancer greeting I received this morning. The story said:
Mr. Obama, Mr. Rothkopf argues, has to focus in the next 18 months on getting the economy back on track for the long haul, even if that means pushing for politically unpalatable budget cuts, including real - but hugely unpopular - reductions in Social Security, other entitlement programs and the military."
While everything in this statement is true with respect to my views, it is distorted because it refers to only part of what I said when I was interviewed. The question posed to me was, to paraphrase, "How does the president get a meaningful deal done and what would the deal look like?"
My response was that in order to address our twin crises--- unemployment and the deficit -- he would have to seek to produce significant, job-creating stimulus and in exchange for that, which will be resisted by the Republicans, do a serious budget deal. That serious deal in turn would have to involve painful concessions on entitlements by the president and the Democrats in order to win Republican concessions on increasing revenues and producing meaningful defense cuts. While such an approach sounds implausible, it is also the only way for America to get back on our feet.
Reasonable observers -- and even angry, frustrated, hurlers of invective at strangers -- will have to admit that regarding all the elements of such a grand bargain there are ways to approach the problem that could appeal to both sides, to reason and stay within the rules of arithmetic (the real kind you learned in elementary school, not the Washington variety). So, for example, you could produce a stimulus that made sense to fiscal conservatives by embracing and building up ideas like an infrastructure bank that would use limited federal funds leveraged up by major private investment to provide the urgently need renovation America's transportation and IT networks require. It's an idea that is supported by both the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and by Sens. John Kerry and Kay Bailey Hutchison. You could also move investment spending onto a capital budget thus forcing the Congress to treat money that is likely to bring a return differently from that which is going straight out the window … as companies already do.
On the budget deal, any superficial consideration of our debt problems has to acknowledge that the current structure of our entitlement programs is unsustainable. Further, proposals like raising the retirement age or reducing benefits for rich people who don't need them or creating more competition and fairer pricing, make sense in any case. Personally, just so you know where I am coming from, I believe the only way we will get there is some kind of new, national single-payer plan that encourages competition … see, for example, how they handle this in Switzerland. But since that's not going to happen soon, we should consider some of these other basic steps. And one reason we need to is in order to pry loose more revenue. We're going to have to accept a value-added tax (VAT) and/or a carbon tax very soon. We can trade some of those revenues for tax reform that the Republicans want, especially for a corporate tax code simplification that will help attract needed foreign investment to the United States. Should the Bush tax cuts be allowed to expire? Of course. Urgently. It was a mistake to extend them. It was a mistake to implement them in the first place. And America needs to get over the idea that we need to spend more than every other country in the world on defense added up in order to be secure. Want a place to start there? Let's get the heck out of Afghanistan and Iraq ASAP.
The point is, my quote in the Times offered only a shard of my views, and one that might understandably offend when taken out of context. That said, when put into context, I am sure there is something in my views to offend everyone. Going forward we need to look for that. If everyone is howling, then we are probably doing something right.
Ramin Talaie/Getty Images
Think regulatory oversight of credit rating agencies is going to increase in the months ahead? Think Washington is going to put Standard and Poor's through the ringer as a consequence of its downgrade decision? It is as certain as the fact that in lieu of vision, courage, and action, the political swamp rats of D.C. will play the blame game while trying desperately to change the subject from the current crisis.
Think the decision of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to stay on through the election will fill the markets with confidence? Geithner is earnest, incredibly hardworking, and intelligent, but he has been snake-bitten from the start and the president is misreading the mood of the markets and voting public if he thinks that what this situation calls for is "staying the course." That's a mistake that's been made before … and it would be a stark irony if in his efforts to avoid being a one-term president like Jimmy Carter, President Obama instead became one like George H.W. Bush.
Think the intervention of the European Central Bank to prop up the debt of Italy and Spain is going to restore investor confidence in the eurozone, or is its action more like that of a drowsy emergency room doctor in the middle of a long shift waking just long enough to place a few Band-Aids on the gunshot wounds of several recently admitted critical-care patients?
Think the fact that the U.S. Congress being in recess at a time of great risk to the nation is a big story … or is it a bigger story that most Americans think that is a net positive, given how unlikely it is that the petulant children of the U.S. Congress would be likely to get anything positive done were they actually in their offices working?
Think that with the great economies of the world circling the drain that profound security and humanitarian concerns will fester and worsen -- from famine in East Africa to Iran's nuclear program to the mess in Afghanistan that took such a tragic toll this weekend (undoubtedly thanks to the support the Taliban receives from elements in the government of Pakistan)?
Moments like this will get you thinking. Unfortunately, most of the thoughts that are likely to cross your mind are unsettling ones. In many ways this moment is more complex and daunting than the crisis in 2008 and 2009. Because back then there was a pervasive sense that we would and should do anything in our power to avoid a global economic meltdown. Not that we actually did do what should have been done. But at least we felt like everyone was pulling in the same direction.
Now, not only is Europe as riven with political divisions as is the United States, but there is a widespread belief that certain types of actions are off the table either because we tried them and they didn't seem to work the last time around or because they seem to be politically not viable. I would argue, however, that while this may be the conventional wisdom, we all need to work to undo it at the earliest possible moment.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
Happy birthday, Mr. President.
Admittedly, there has not been a lot to celebrate lately.
With market losses in this slide now exceeding the 10 percent level, so-called correction territory (London's FTSE is down over 11 percent since April), weak employment numbers in the United States, troubling global economic indicators wherever you look, the Arab Spring stalling, the Libya intervention in slow motion, AfPak a source of deep worry and frustration, China rising, global warming, Justin Bieber, the bad reviews received by Cowboys & Aliens, it might well be, Mr. President, that you feel like there is very little to celebrate.
Well, not only do I think you've got a wide range of accomplishments that deserve celebration, but I think it is high time that those of us who actually believe government can do some good start making our case as actively as are those who are simultaneously talking it down and taking it down. That's why every week until I run out, I'm going to try to focus on at least one significant area of accomplishment, a success story.
This week, the gift wrapping around the success story is that which comes hard to some of us up here in the blogosphere's peanut gallery: an admission that I was wrong. Now readers of this blog will be the first to note that I'm wrong all the time. But in this instance, I am even willing to acknowledge it.
When you announced your National Export Initiative, I thought it was just a rehash of the National Export Strategy we did back in the Clinton days. What's more, since I thought the administration did very little on trade policy in its first year or two, I felt that the announcement, made in your 2010 State of the Union, was little more than a rhetorical device, that there was not meat on its bones nor was there likely to be any.
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Enough is enough. After remaining divided on this issue for too long, it is time to take a stand regardless of the political consequences.
It is time to join with those who have already had the courage to weather the inevitable criticism from a biased, bought, and paid for press corps that is part of the greater problem we face.
It is time to end the double standard that for far too long has guided and distorted America's policies in the Middle East.
You all know the story: For decades, special interest-driven ties have enabled a small lobby in Washington to embrace policies that have cost America dearly and today, increasingly put our national security and national prestige at risk. We have for too long supported Middle Eastern political leaders who themselves represent comparatively small populations with dubious historical claims on the land they control and extreme religious agendas. These so-called allies have not only implemented unfair policies that have earned criticism around the world, they have actually implemented apartheid-like segregation of the people they govern. Minority interlopers have unjustly appropriated power, held it by force, and often brutally oppressed majorities that deserve better.
While this is our policy for a subset of the Middle East, for others in the region we are much less accommodating. We are constantly haranguing them, criticizing, demanding that they achieve an ever-higher standard of behavior … even though their historical claims on the region are every bit as great as those we coddle, even though in many ways they have served America more reliably than those we prop up with our military aid, even though they are in many ways the source of the region's vitality and have the clearest vision as to how it might break out of the economic and political crises that torment it.
The cost of this double standard is painfully apparent today. Just look at the headlines. In Syria, all America can do is make earnest but impotent shows of solidarity with opposition leaders and search for new adjectives to add to our denunciations of the illegitimate Assad regime. But because of our double standard, because of the fact that we dare not call out the Arab nations we have supported for so long at such a high cost, because we can't count on them as our allies to do the right thing and add pressure on Assad to go, we are forced to treat this grave humanitarian crisis as though it were happening on the moon, far from any real ability of us to influence it.
Yes, the Syria crisis does, as is often noted, illustrate the greatest of the many follies associated with the frustrating saga of Western intervention in Libya. That is, of course, that by intervening in Libya ineffectively, we have now made it impossible for anyone to believe we will intervene anywhere else, even when, as in Syria's case, more credible threats of punishing Assad would have been helpful arrows to have in our quiver.
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While President Obama's comments on the debt ceiling standoff on Friday morning were pretty much a non-event, there was one thing he said that was so dead on target it is likely to live on. When -- and I don't think it's "if" -- the U.S. gets downgraded, it will not be because the United States does not have the ability to meet our obligations it will be because the U.S. does not have a AAA political system.
While the president meant this as a commentary on the current situation, the more disturbing element of the comment is that the flaws to which he was referring to are likely to endure and exacerbate the economic problems already burdening the nation. It would be a mistake to think that those flaws are simply a matter of the misguided views of one party or another or even the extremism of one wing or both.
The system is fundamentally structurally damaged. While we would benefit from having a third party, plans to introduce a third party candidate for president ignore the fact that our more urgent need for a third party is in the Congress. Further, adding parties won't address the money cancer that has corrupted the system and which is getting worse with each passing election's growing demands for more and more cash.
In addition, the structural problems are more deeply ingrained in the processes that drive the political system, such as having an upper house of Congress that requires supermajority votes to get almost anything done and yet also allows individual senators to hold up nominations for critical offices indefinitely without rationale. Budget problems are associated with Byzantine collection of appropriating and authorizing committees and made worse by the self-interested behavior of chairs and ranking members who see the gavel as an ATM card that enables them to fund campaigns and stay in power.
No, as President Obama rightly observes, when the downgrade comes it is likely to be less due to the size or cost of our government than it is its shape, structure and the personalities of those who are mismanaging it. But we shouldn't let ourselves off the hook so easily. Those personalities serve at the behest of the American people and to the extent those people do not demand productivity and reason from their representatives then ultimately the downgrade is a verdict about the judgment of the U.S. electorate.
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It's a comedy. It's a tragedy. No one is sure who deserves top billing. There's a massive debate over what would constitute a happy ending. The frenzy over the edition of Cirque du So Lame headlining in Washington has turned everyone into a theater critic. Jackie Calmes, writing in the New York Times, sent the White House into a tizzy, for example, with her assertion that President Obama has in fact become a supernumerary in the current drama.
Personally, I think the whole thing was scripted not by Boehner nor Reid nor Norquist nor even by the elusive Master Teabagger writing from his secret retreat somewhere near Black Helicopter, Montana, but by Eugene Ionesco, writing in Paris in the late 1950s. Back then, the play was called "Rhinoceros" and with it Ionesco helped introduce the public at large to the theater of the absurd in much the same way the denizens of the swamplands of the Potomac are doing for America and the world today.
In the original version of the play, a town is gradually destroyed as each of its citizens, save one independent minded fellow with a healthy appreciation for wine and conversation, is transformed into a rhinoceros. Ionesco captured the thrust of what he was getting at in an interview for Le Monde in January of 1960 when he said:
I have been very much struck by what one might call the current of opinion, by its rapid evolution, its power of contagion, which is that of a real epidemic. People allow themselves suddenly to be invaded by a new religion, a doctrine, a fanaticism. ... At such moments we witness a veritable mental mutation. I don't know if you have noticed it, but when people no longer share your opinions, when you can no longer make yourself understood by them, one has the impression of being confronted with monsters-rhinos, for example. They have that mixture of candour and ferocity. They would kill you with the best of consciences."
That was all half a century ago and in France both of which would in other moments make it all seem wildly alien to most Americans. But despite Ionesco's own observation that "you can only predict things after they have happened" he would see much that is painfully familiar in Washington today. Lines from "Rhinoceros" ring as true in 2011 as they did 51 years ago (when the play was seen as an allegory about the rise of extremist movements like Nazism).
"There are many sides to reality," he wrote as if prescribing the game plane adopted by many players in the current battle over the role and size of American government, "Choose the one that's best for you." Surely, this approach, used by everyone in this town in which the most dangerous entitlement program is the one that leaves everyone believing they are entitled to their own facts, is taking the theory of relativity to new depths, previously unimagined by science.
Or, as the United States hurtles toward outcomes that were once unimaginable -- like debt downgrades and withering gridlock in what was once the world's most outstanding set of government institutions -- Ionesco offers the following dry acceptance of what follows when the absurd becomes the commonplace: "I can easily picture the worst, because the worst can easily happen."
In Washington today, the rhinoceroses are winning. Our extremists are not murderers like the jihadists we are at war with or Anders Breivik, but they are nonetheless at work on America's political system in a way that follows the pattern about which Ionesco warned. They promote a doctrine that is a kind of solvent for facts-breaking them down and distorting them until they become unrecognizable. They argue in the true absurdist tradition that somehow they offer a superior form of mathematics that involves only subtraction. They deny history-whether it is the compromises of Reagan, the big-government spending of every recent Republican president, the debt-ceiling extensions of the past, or the culpability of failed Republican tax cuts and spending n unnecessary wars for creating the problem we face. They view reason and compromise as weakness. And they claim they are helping those who they are irreparably hurting.
Magnificently ... from an absurdist perspective...they are combining inexperience, ignorance, intolerance and intransigence into a formula by which they are setting the rules for America. They recognize that, as military strategist Ed Luttwak once observed to me, "In most wars, it's the dirtiest fighter...or the craziest...who sets the rules of the game." Regardless of the final outcome of the debt ceiling drama, a few things are emerging as new realities in Rhino DC:
It was all put into perfect perspective for me in a conversation with one of the most experienced diplomats currently resident in Washington who, after expressing deep concern over the current follies on the Hill, recounted a cartoon that had recently run an international newspaper which showed Hamid Karzai and another leader from the region reading headlines from Washington and wondering aloud whether America was ready for democracy. Or, as Ionesco, observes in "Rhinoceros", "Lunacy is lunacy and that's all there is to it."
Alex Wong/Getty Images
In this moment of national confusion and public despair with officials in Washington, variations on the following cry have often been heard, "Somewhere in the world there must be an American political leader with a vision of tomorrow, a focus on what is really important and an ability to translate rhetoric into success."
I'm pleased to report that there is. If it has escaped your attention it's because that politician has been on the other side of the world the past couple of weeks advancing American interests and the policies of the president with meaningful results and exceptional skill.
That politician is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is just completing an around-the-world mission that has taken her from the economic frontlines of the eurozone crisis to the markets of tomorrow in Asia. The trip, obscured in the noise around the debt ceiling debate, has been a real triumph for the Obama administration and has revealed that many of its policies over the past two years are now bearing significant fruit. It has also revealed the State Department's deftness and bench-depth in dealing with an Asia agenda that is vastly more important in every respect than virtually anything that has been discussed inside the beltway for months.
Given that most trips by senior officials, even secretaries of state, are more often than not a series of pro forma efforts in diplomatic box-checking, the scope and results of the Clinton trip are worth noting. In Greece, she conveyed at a critical moment, America's unequivocal support for that country's economic recovery plan. When visiting Pakistan, the site of America's most difficult relationship, her performance was even hailed in the local press. The Pakistan Observer carried an article stating, "Drum roll for Hillary because she has hit a home run." Her India visit was also widely hailed producing progress on a number of fronts from counterterror cooperation to opening up investment flows between the two countries. More importantly, it also continued the important work that will be a central legacy of her efforts at State which is the elevation of the U.S.-India relationship to being a centerpiece of America's 21st century foreign policy.
The focus on the U.S.-India relationship is, as the trip also revealed, part of an even broader reorientation of U.S. foreign policy under President Obama. This administration was the first in U.S. history to enter office acknowledging that China was America's most important international counterpart -- one that was both vital partner and challenging rival. But, rather than simply acknowledging this fact and focusing on that relationship, Obama, Clinton and their Asia team have systematically worked to establish a foundation for managing that relationship. What is more their choice was not kow-towing or bluster nor was it the blunt instrument of containment. Rather than have chosen what might be called broad engagement, deepening not only the relationship with Beijing and with potential counter-weights like India, but also systematically and often invisibly working to strengthen ties with many of the smaller countries in Asia.
The approach was clearly illustrated during several other stops on Clinton's trip. In Hong Kong on July 25, she delivered an address to the American Chamber of Commerce which was not only a model for a sweeping, specific, thoughtfully-argued policy address, but which revealed a clear vision for the future of America's relationship with China and the rest of the region. It did not hesitate to press the Chinese to abandon unfair economic practices and to embrace the openness healthy markets demand. It was effectively built around the enumeration of four core principles: markets be open, free, transparent, and fair. But it also underscored the mutual dependence at the center of the relationship and outlined a systematic strategy for how to build upon it. It did not stop there, however. It addressed as effectively as anything I have heard the nature of the current debt-ceiling debate in an effort-successful to date at ensuring continuing Asian market confidence. And it emphasized the importance the United States places on deepening ties elsewhere in Asia, from the Korea-U.S. trade agreement the administration is pushing hard to win passage of to links to ASEAN's rising economies. The full text of the speech is worth a read and appears here.
Prior to the visit to Hong Kong, Clinton attended the ASEAN Regional Forum in Bali, Indonesia, and actively engaged with not only many of the region's leaders but made real substantive progress on issues from re-opening conversations with North Korea to managing a constructive multi-national approach to addressing tensions in the South China Sea. These meetings were also a chance to advance the systematic strengthening of relations with all the region's players, including many that have often been overlooked by the United States. This process has over the past two years included both establishment of formal policy dialogues with many countries in the region and also work on issues from reform in Myanmar to those associated with the Mekong River delta area that have been an important part of the Obama team's Asia strategy.
Regional diplomats not only give Clinton high marks for her efforts and in particular for this trip, but they also cite her top lieutenants including Under Secretary of State Robert Hormats and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell. One of Washington's most respected senior diplomats specifically cited to me the contributions of Campbell in helping Clinton shape the regional strategy, in managing complex core relationships with China, Japan and Korea but recognizing the importance of other players as well. "He is the most effective assistant secretary of state for East Asia in modern memory," said the official. "No one else even comes close and I have high regard for many of them."
MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images
For the first time since records have been kept, Washington's heat index today rose above its bullshit index. Which is saying something given the levels of swirling crap that have that have been emitted during the debt-ceiling debate. It's piling up like snow banks on the street corners. And none of it is made any easier to bear by a heat index that is supposed to hit 116 degrees today. In a city full of gas bags and hot heads, that's just plain dangerous.
Both the heat and the headlines have the same effect on average citizens. They make us cranky. Personally, I feel the strong urge to punch someone right in the snout right now. I'd prefer it were one of the goons who has seen fit to criticize President Obama and Speaker Boehner for actually trying to break the irrational debt debate impasse and get something done. But frankly, it could be anyone. I'd pop the slender loris featured on the Washington Post's iPad app yesterday if it crawled over to me right now … and frankly, I have a kind of soft spot in my heart for lorises, slender and otherwise.
So, instead, I will vent my blogger's spleen. I will do this by answering for each of you the following question: Who were the world's biggest assholes this week? Surely this will prove a healthy distraction from the muffled sounds of passersby being swallowed up by the bubbling pavement beneath my window.
Such a big world, so many choices, where to begin? Well, let's start with a definition. Asshole may be an intemperate term but it is not an imprecise one (and if it is one that offends you I strongly suggest that you stop reading three sentences ago … and please don't bother to write that FP should not use such language. I agree. The editors agree. But it's hot. So go jump in a lake. And I'm perfectly happy to spend my whole evening deleting your prissy criticisms from the comments below.) Anyway, the point is that the word refers not to purely evil people but to jerks, irritating people who combine their bad behavior with a certain offensive ridiculousness.
So who are the world's top ten this week? (And please note we are not including lifetime achievers who already have had their jerseys retired such as Hamid Karzai, Eric Cantor, or those wonderful folks at Focus on the Family.)
10. Prince Andrew
Blue bloods always have an edge in competitions like this, pampered, in-bred fossils of obsolescent and offensive social systems that they are. And few royal families have produced so many memorable jerks as the House of Windsor, including first-ballot member of the first class of the Asshole Hall of Fame, Prince Philip. But the upper-class twit never falls far from the royal family tree and Andrew wins mention this week for having to resign his post as ambassador for British trade because of his long string of bad judgments, questionable actions and bone-headed misdeeds including, notably and unsurprisingly, his befriending of convicted sex offender.
9. Chris Brown
Beating up women was not enough for this narcissistic so-called musician. This week, reliable sources like TMZ reported that Brown was that special kind of over-achiever who is able to irritate and infuriate on many levels at once. He did so by revealing himself to his neighbors in LA as That Guy in the apartment building who reportedly has blaringly loud parties at all hours, carves his initials in the elevator, runs his racing dogs up and down the hallways and leaves his ridiculous male-enhancement-mobiles in handicapped parking spaces. And then, after the stories broke, he complained he was being picked on. Poor Chris. Guy may pack a punch (on a date) but can't stand being the punch line he has become. Being bitch-slapped by karma's no fun, is it?
8. Tim Pawlenty
Bland, nice guy Tim would seem like the last fellow to end up on a list like this but when he was the first to take the bait and question whether Michele Bachmann's migraines would make her unfit for the presidency, he jumped way up toward the front of the line. Sexist much? Seriously, whoever leaked the story to the right-wing rag that first ran it deserves the spot even more than Pawlenty, but frankly, the former Minnesota governor needs the break. This is the highest he has placed on any list or poll in months.
7. Employees of the Korean Central News Agency
After threatening that North Korea would launch a "merciless retaliatory sacred war" against the United States, the spin doctors of the hermit kingdom continued their tradition of hyperbolic overstatement that has made depictions of the country like that in Team America: World Police seem like a Frontline documentary. In its priceless article "Reading Between North Korea's Lines," the New York Times details how the robot-trolls of this small apparatus of Kim Jong-Il's state machine regularly pump out the greatest howlers of the world's almost always howling diplomatic communiqués. From attacks on their neighbors to the south as "half-baked, extra-large Philistines" to referring to Hillary Clinton as "the little schoolgirl" these folks at least deserve credit for making propaganda laughable again.
6. Allen West
Speaking of half-baked name-callers, Florida Republican Congressman Allen West rocketed into the news this week the only way he could: By lashing out against fellow Congressperson and DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz with a slimy viciousness that set a new low even for the United States Congress. Calling her "the most vile, unprofessional and despicable member" of the House, West not only won a few more seconds of fame than his otherwise completely undistinguished career warranted but no doubt shall also receive sanctions from the Congress for his behavior. Way to go after a colleague, Allen. Who's your campaign manager, Chris Brown?
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Last night I attended a dinner of old Washington hands. Some had served in high government offices, some were lobbyists, some were think tankers, some were still running for office, others were active in campaigns of one sort or another. These were seasoned players who had seen it all … and there was fear and outrage in their eyes.
They felt the leaders of both parties had lost any sense of accountability. They were appalled by the degree to which, at a moment of national crisis, twisted notions of ideological purity and cynical politics had obliterated any focus on solving the problems at hand, on public service. Whether or not the country averts fiscal default, that we had come to this point was a sign to all that a leadership default had already taken place.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Image
For years the hackneyed joke about Brazil was that it was the country of tomorrow and always would be. But almost a decade ago, in the wake of the reforms of the Cardoso administration, and then thanks to the remarkable presidential tenure of Luiz Inacio "Lula" Da Silva and the industry and enterprise of the Brazilian people, the joke was overtaken by events. As investors, CEOs, journalists and most of the world's leading powers have recognized, Brazil has arrived.
While U.S. leaders like Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama have acknowledged the change, many in the U.S. policy community remained holdouts or skeptics. Yes, Brazil was on the rise they said, but they always found a way to qualify their views, to establish one criteria or another that Brazil would have to meet before it was finally seen as a "first-class power." While Asia specialists embraced the rise of China and India and quickly began to remake policy based on changing power relationships, Latin specialists clung to the past, to old formulations and prejudices.
In the eyes of these living museum pieces of Washington's small, inbred Latin American affairs community, Brazil might be the country of tomorrow, it might even be the country of later on today, but we would be sticking with the policies of yesterday until further notice.
Today, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) has issued a new task force report on U.S.-Brazil relations that goes a long way toward breaking with the past by recommending the U.S. move toward a new policy stance with regard to Brazil. The central point of the report is that Brazil must be liberated from the Latin policy barrio and viewed as one of the most important global powers of today and of the century ahead.
The Greek parliament's austerity vote accomplished one thing. It advanced the possibility of a deal that will pump enough cash in the direction of Athens for the country to pay off its creditors. Here's what it will not do:
It also won't reduce Europe's vulnerability to upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa, address the problems caused by growing dependence on Russian gas that is the direct implication of Germany's decision to shut down its nuclear power generating capacity, address the deep flaws in its common foreign policy mechanisms that have been revealed by the seemingly endless war of "days not weeks or months" in Libya, or somehow address Europe's inability to produce decent pop music.
In short, yesterday's Greek vote may have soothed markets temporarily ... but it is nothing more than the latest effort to treat the symptoms of Europe's ills while steadfastly ignoring the underlying disease.
President Obama announced Wednesday that 33,000 American soldiers would be coming home from Afghanistan by next summer. The address was carefully calibrated. There was something in it for left and right, hawks and doves. Accordingly, in the wake of the speech, everyone grumbled. John Boehner asserted that Congress would hold the president accountable if progress were reversed because we were pulling out too precipitously. Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz complained the draw down was not fast enough. Vali Nasr, formerly an aide to Richard Holbrooke at the State Department, doubted whether real progress could be made on security issues at any speed and wished there were more focus on diplomatic solutions.
While my own preference would be for a faster exit than described, the specific number chosen will, in the long run be forgotten by history. It is only an indication of a temporary, transitional condition. Instead, we should look to the bigger implications of the speech -- its larger messages.
First, more important than the specific number the president chose is the trend it reflects, the bigger policy decision that has been taken. The die is cast. The troops are coming home. America's longest war will come to an end soon. The president ratcheted up the forces, they are at peak strength now, and that will soon start to change. A decade of major wars is coming to a close.
This is tied to the Obama's second major point: America's attention must now turn to nation-building at home. The president seemed at greater ease with the message he was delivering in this section of his speech; it seemed to flow more naturally than the justifications concerning troop strengths. It was clear he understands that our most crucial national security concerns lie within our own borders -- not threats from fundamentalists... but from lousy economic fundamentals.
This point is even more important than the first, as it is indicative of a crucial fact: America's foreign policy from this day forward is more likely to be driven the consequences of the economic crises of the past several years than it is by those associated with 9/11.
Finally, there was one more major message in Obama's speech that was highlighted to me in a conversation with a senior White House official shortly after it concluded. The president, he observed, was keeping his word. As he had done with Iraq, as he had done with regard to shifting our security focus in the region to Afghanistan and Pakistan, as he had done with regard to his promise to do whatever needed to be done to get Osama bin Laden, Barack Obama was sending a message to allies and enemies alike: He keeps his word. He does what he says he is going to do.
The president rightly recognizes that America's influence around the world depends more on his credibility than it does the precise number of troops we have deployed anywhere. That credibility has been under siege for years. It was not helped by the misrepresentations of the George W. Bush years or the failures of our economic system during the recent crisis.
And while "Goldilocks solutions" like a troop withdrawal that is not too high or too low tend to leave major segments of the population disgruntled, nothing does the kind of damage that lies and deception do. The wars that are now ending in the Middle East were started by lies and prolonged by misstatements. They are now being ended by a guy who was elected to bring them to conclusion.
Try as the president's opponents in next year's elections might to quibble with his tactics, they will find that this last point -- in conjunction with the shifting priorities reflected in the other aspects of last night's speech -- may prove to be this president's most formidable advantage.
Imagine: a president who actually does what he said he was going to do. It's the kind of thing that makes withdrawals, like those announced Wednesday night, a sign of strength.
On Friday, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote an article in the Washington Post titled, "Why Europe No Longer Matters." Today, Monday, the headline in the Wall Street Journal was "Europe Wrangles Over Greece," the top two headlines in the Financial Times were "Medvedev rules out poll tussle with Putin" and "Greek PM's plea for unity to tackle crisis," the top headline in the Washington Post was a story about NATO entitled "Misfire in Libya kills civilians" and the lead story in the New York Times was entitled "Companies Push for a Tax Break on Foreign Cash" which dealt with a key challenge in the age of global companies.
Haass, one of the canniest and most thoughtful U.S. foreign policy analysts around, was responding to Secretary of Defense Bob Gates's valedictory jabs at Europe concerning pulling their weight within NATO. The point of the Haass article was that Gates's comments were not just a coda on his time in office, but the end of a "time-honored tradition" which involves Americans tweaking our allies for shirking their global responsibilities. The piece made all the usual points: Europe's influence beyond its borders will decline, Asia is rising, the threats NATO was established to address have vanished to be replaced by new ones it is not very well-suited to meeting, etc.
The problem with the piece is that while Haass is right in terms of each of these points, I think he comes to the wrong conclusion.
The headlines in this morning's papers attest to the fact that Europe still very much matters today. In a tightly integrated global economy, Europe's economic fate impacts ours dramatically. An economic meltdown there around Greece or Spain could easily create a global economic crisis and send the United States into a precipitous and uncomfortable double dip.
David Ramos/Getty Images
It was just a lie.
For all the many good and earnest efforts of the Obama administration in its two-and-a-half years in office, there is one area in which the president has not only let the country down, he has embarrassed himself and his party.
He vowed to keep the corrupting influence of money and special interests out of politics. He campaigned on the idea. When he took office, he made a great show of banning lobbyists from appointed offices. It was a silly idea. Many of the most qualified people available for government jobs had to register as lobbyists. What's more, the people that hired the lobbyists, were not precluded from the jobs even though they were actually the ones directing lobbying efforts and footing the bill for them. Further, the approach rewarded people who probably should have registered as lobbyists but didn't. Finally, lawyers who represented and advised clients and industries were not precluded or bankers that financed them were not barred although they were every bit as compromised by association with special interests as were the people performing the narrowly defined functions that fell under the lobbying rubric. Overall, the approach did not work out very well and gradually the administration has let former lobbyists start to slip through the cracks.
Worse, the president has let monied interests infect his administration in an even more insidious way. First, having raised more money than any presidential candidate in history, he played a role in actually enhancing what was already the most corrupting influence in American politics -- the dependence of office holders on the rich. While the president often spoke of the small dollar donations to his campaign, you don't raise three quarters of a billion dollars without large aggregations of bigger checks.
Those checks, by definition can only come from the affluent. What's more, because campaign finance laws limit the amount individuals or families can donate, the big amounts must come from "bundlers" who work to get clusters of givers together and can deliver money in big chunks to the campaign. Naturally, those bundlers often turn to networks of colleagues at work or individuals they meet in the course of their business lives or who live in their affluent neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, these people represent only a thin slice of America's population and often they represent heavy concentrations of people from individual companies or industries.
No candidate in American history ever raised more money from Wall Street and we have seen where that got us -- toothless financial reforms, practically no prosecutions, programs that enabled Wall Street to recover while Main Street continued to suffer and, two years after a financial crisis in which America was threatened by institutions that were too big to fail, more too big to fail institutions than ever before.
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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.