The Obama administration has thus far been pitch perfect in its public statements regarding the unrest in Egypt. Learning from its ill-considered silence in the early days of the Iranian protests, it has offered a balanced message. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got it exactly right with "the Egyptian government has an important opportunity … to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people." And Robert Gibbs's deft "Egypt is a strong ally" sent the unmistakable message that our long-term interests lie with the Egyptian people and not with any particular individual or leadership group … while at the same time reflecting an appreciation for embattled, aging Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's past cooperation with the United States.
That said, the uprisings in Egypt also signal a new period in the administration's foreign policy that will pose conundrums that make the riddle of the Sphinx look like a snap in comparison.
The complex challenges are, of course, hinted at in the choice the United States faces with regard to the Egyptian turmoil. The student uprisings raise the prospect of a more representative government in the country … and also the possibility that the uprisings we saw in Iran and then in Tunisia that preceded the Egyptian events might signal a moment of generational transition that could remake the region's politics. But they also raise the possibility of instability and of the uprisings being co-opted either by hard-liners who use them as an excuse to clamp down or by other even more radical, fundamentalist elements who seize on the upheaval to make their own moves.
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The message was clear. President Obama wants us to win the future. But we couldn't even win the snowstorm. Even as cute news stories were explaining that WTF now was the acronym for the president's aspirational goal, it had already reclaimed its more established meaning.
In the nation's capital, 45 minute commutes took 12 hours. Power flickered off for hundreds of thousands. From Washington to Boston hundreds of flights were cancelled, schools were closed, businesses ground to a halt.
Closing the schools hurt doubly because a report that was buried in most newspapers the day after Obama's speech pointed out that U.S. students were falling further and further behind on science achievement. Astonishingly, horrifyingly, only one out of five U.S. high school seniors were proficient at science, only 1 to 2 percent qualified as advanced on a national test administered to over 300,000 students.
While the test results don't bode well for the future of the United States or for the president's grand vision of the United States as the innovation nation, they do explain why so many of this country's meteorologists failed to predict yesterday's snowstorm. And they also explain why so few of Washington's residents have enough grasp of basic physics to realize that pounding on the accelerator (or the horn) will not make their two wheel drive cars cut through the snow and ice any better.
Meanwhile, the Telegraph simultaneously carried a story of China's plans to build a city in the Pearl River Delta that will incorporate 9 existing major cities and will ultimately be home to 42 million people. 26 times greater than the size of metropolitan London, the region will be linked together over the next six years by 150 massive infrastructure projects worth over $300 billion. And I read about it on my iPad while sitting shivering in my darkened living room huddling next to the fire that was providing the only heat for my house on the edge of the capital of what once was the most powerful nation on earth.
Win the future? WTF.
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President Barack Obama delivered a peanut butter and jelly sandwich of a speech tonight. It was dependable American fare, tasty to the average palette. It had some nutritional content but not too much. It was heavy on the sugar, but that was offset with a little crunchy practicality. It was remarkably unremarkable for a nation that has reeled from terrorist attack to war to financial calamity over the past decade. But in that vein, it will probably be widely embraced as the political comfort food it was intended to be.
Tonight's State of the Union speech was Barack Obama trying to channel Ronald Reagan trying to channel the Frank Capra spirit of America when it was a black and white movie with a cheesy score.
The core theme meant to evoke that spirit was the president's repeated urging that we "win the future." While this was uplifting and positive -- and untainted by the kind of tedious partisanship that marked Republican Congressman Paul Ryan's response, full of strident accusations and uninformative debt-cutting clichés -- the president's speech was nonetheless also vaguely unsettling. Because, of course, "winning" the future implies both that life is a competition and that consequently there must be both other parties who seek to defeat us and who we must defeat.
As such, while the president made reference to Gaby Giffords "empty chair," there was clearly an even more important absent player looming over the event: China. This was perhaps the first State of the Union that was as much about them as it was about us. While it was on the surface an optimistic speech, "winning the future" nonetheless offered both a goal and a threat, an aspiration and an enemy.
Post-speech reaction: Just like Beaver Cleaver's mom used to make
President Obama is absolutely right to focus on innovation and competitiveness in his State of the Union. The United States' strength and stability depend on it, and they are both areas in which the government has a vital role to play -- as history has shown with every expansionary leap in U.S. history from the railroads to the Internet.
But there is one trap associated with this approach that the president and the country need to beware. It is the widely subscribed to notion ... often cited by politicians and op-ed writers ... that somehow there is something special, some gene in American DNA, that makes us uniquely capable when it comes to innovation. This idea is offered up like it is our ace-in-the-hole, our economic Get Out of Jail Free Card. Once we tap into this unique dimension of the U.S. character those Chinese and other Asian robots won't be able to hold a candle to us. They lack our creativity. They lack the United States system's special innovation ecology -- built around ideas like the degree to which we welcome failure and let the resulting Schumpeterian winds fill our sails propelling us onward to our next great triumph.
Now, there is certainly some truth that other societies are less welcoming to the errors which often are part of the innovative process (some have, for example, inadequate bankruptcy laws, others risk-averse cultures). And there is also truth to the idea that some societies promote conformity in creativity-suppressing ways. And of course there is considerable truth to the fact that America has been the home of some great innovation and remarkable stories of entrepreneurship that have made us a world leading economy for decades. But the reality is that the idea that the United States has somehow cornered the market on innovation is an overblown myth.
Take the most important inventions in history. Naturally many of them actually were created in other hotbeds of innovation that existed long before the United States -- whether it is the Chinese invention of gun powder or paper, or the Arabic invention of algebra or the printing press, progress somehow muddled through without the United States. If you take more modern innovations however, it is not exactly as though the United States has dominated when it came to the big ones.
Given the events of the past week, it seems appropriate to devote some time to assessing the China-U.S. summit this week. It would be fascinating to explore why it turned out that in the end, the story was not so much how President Obama did, but rather was how President Hu did and how in noticeable strides he has helped elevate China's international game during his tenure in office. This recent meeting was in some respect the culmination of that fitful but striking process.
But it has been a long week. And if one focuses on the serious too long one misses the important … or, more to the point, the unintentionally hilarious. For example, it might not seem even remotely amusing that the U.S. federal government late this week rounded up 127 suspected mobsters. After all, it suggested that the mafia had not in fact gone the way of the Great Auk (extinct since 1844) -- an event which dates either to effective use of RICO statutes by prosecutors beginning in the early 1980s or to the June 10, 2007, airing of the last episode of The Sopranos.
That last episode was so bad, that ending was so ill-conceived and self-indulgent, that it had the effect of completing The Sopranos' ultimate mission in its last years, which was to make mob life seem so petty and boring that we lost interest. But now here comes this week's roundup, and suddenly the life is back. All you had to do was read through the list of names of the guys that got rounded up: Joseph "Jojo" Corozzo, Anthony "Big Tony" Moscatiello, Richard "Nerves" Fusco, Luigi "Baby Shanks" Manochchio, "Vinny Carwash," "Tony Bagels," "Johnny Pizza," "Lumpy," "The Bull," and "Meatball."
Maybe there is a lesson in this. Maybe if we want to recapture America's interest (and the world's) in foreign policy, maybe all it will take is coming up with colorful nicknames for world leaders. Nicknames that, like those of leading mobsters, tell you all you need to know in a word or two and would make any dull story on policy machinations that much more lively.
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We are two years into the Obama administration and judging by the president's progress to date, assessments being made on this the second anniversary of his time in office are likely to be viewed not as midterm grades but as his first quarter report card. With an increasingly confident, experienced president at the helm of a country that seems to be gradually creeping toward economic recovery and with a divided opposition in search of a leader, Obama's re-election prospects are looking better and better.
Still, the reality is that any assessment of the president's progress to date must be taken with several large pillars of salt. First, as I have noted before, the first two years of any presidency are learning curve years and seldom contain either the highlights of a presidency or even a very clear signal as to its ultimate character. Second, almost inevitably political and policy types overstate the influence of the president on the great issues of the day or even on those factors that weigh in his or her re-election. As is the case with most presidents, Obama's future will most likely be dictated by exogenous developments over which he has only fairly limited influence -- global economic trends, unanticipated actions of third parties at home and abroad, public moods that impact how presidential actions are interpreted and credit and blame allocated, etc.
Nonetheless, given that today is the second anniversary of the president's inauguration, it is a natural time to take stock and offer some quick evaluations of how he and his team are doing on foreign policy issues.
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The agenda for the state visit was dominated by trade and economic issues. The world was recovering from a recent global economic crash. There was a certain tension because the visitor had strong autocratic tendencies and according to some, imperial ambitions. He had also regularly made statements that could be interpreted as hostile to U.S. and Western influences in his country. The U.S. president, who had once enjoyed enormous popularity, was mired in the difficulties of working with a fractious Congress and poisonous political divides across the country. His main job was nation building at home but he increasingly found he had to take time to address international concerns. In the end, the best outcome the visit could produce was some limited progress on trade deals, allowing the visitor more access to a U.S. market that was vital to his country's growth.
While it sounds familiar, that is the story of the first visit of a foreign head of state to the United States. It took place in 1874. The visitor was King David Kalakaua of Hawaii. The U.S. president was Ulysses S. Grant. The signing of the trade deal -- which focused primarily on agricultural commodities -- was considered a big triumph back home in Hawaii although ultimately the king was better known for his energetic world travels, for the decline in the power of the Hawaiian monarchy that took place during his reign, that he was Hawaii's last king and for the fact that during his reign he oversaw the revivals of hula dancing and surfing.
Thus the echoes with the visit of China's president Hu Jintao to the United States this week are only distant ones. Nonetheless, there is something in this visit that compels a look backward to that first state visit of a foreign leader to Washington. Because this is the first time in the comparatively short history of such visits that any visiting leader has been seen by a substantial number of Americans as representing a rising power that might soon eclipse the United States.
Even during the visits of Soviet leaders who were seen to be at the helm of the world's other superpower, there was always a perception among Americans that we were the ones with history on our side and also that should it come to conflict that either we would win or that both sides would lose. Further they were never seen as a real economic rival. But look at recent polling data. A Pew Study released last week showed that almost half of all Americans see China as already being the world's leading economic power while fewer than a third of Americans see the United States in that role. An Allstate/Heartland survey last month showed the same thing and also suggested that at least as many Americans feel China will be the leader in 20 years as believe the United States will rebound.
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It is clear that the memo that went out to the media from Echo Chamber Central Command this morning was "the visit of President Hu to Washington will be presented in terms of China's growing threat."
In paper after paper headlines blared and reporting backed up the message. Some of the stories focused on the nature of the economic threat. Notable among these were the Financial Times's front page piece on how China's influence was being enhanced by dramatic increases in its lending to the developing world -- lending that now surpassed that of the World Bank. Inside the FT there was more including a well-researched and compelling piece by Geoff Dyer, David Pilling and my long-ago colleague from Institutional Investor Magazine, Henny Sender called "A strategy to straddle the planet." The thrust of the piece was also that China is using its trade flows to build links and leverage worldwide in an effort to shape the rules and set the priorities for the international economy. There was also an excellent accompanying piece on the potency and problems associated with China's almost $3 trillion in hard currency reserves. The Washington Post had an in-depth look at the frustrating times that Wisconsin's Manitowoc Company was having in its dealings in China… echoing a piece in the New York Times about the uncomfortable deals trading technology for market access that General Electric has embarked on. In both cases the point was: while China is an appealing market, the Chinese are hard to deal with and seem likely to pose long-term threats as an economic rival.
On the security threat posed by China, we had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal called "The New Era of U.S. China Rivalry" by Princeton professor Aaron Friedberg. The conclusion of the article: "Hu Jintao's visit may mark the end of an era of relatively smooth relations between the U.S. and China." The lead editorial in the Journal: "Dealing With an Assertive China." In the Times, Helene Cooper had a good piece (and not just because it quoted me) on the tougher posture adopted by the Obama administration called "For Chinese President's Visit, U.S. to Take a Bolder Tack" and another lead editorial which echoed that of the Journal in concluding, "State dinners and 21-gun salutes are ephemeral. What will earn China respect as a major power is if it behaves responsibly. That must be Mr. Obama's fundamental message."
The guts of the piece included statements like "(China's) overconfidence is clear. It has been aggressively pressing its claims to disputed islands in the East and South China Seas. The military's rising influence is troubling." And in the next paragraph: "For a country that claims to be a global power, it is still shirking its responsibilities. … For a major player, it can also be remarkably petulant."
It may seem unremarkable to Mr. Hu's delegation that the Journal and the Times are so aligned in their views. Americans who know them often to be polar opposites know better. (The Washington Post also had its lead editorial in roughly the same place:
China's would-be reformers face an ugly contrary current, seemingly centered in the military, that has been pushing a belligerent foreign policy, including toward the United States… Mr. Hu's visit offers the opportunity for the United States to make clear that a liberalizing China will be far more welcome as it rises as a world power than one that continues to deny its citizens freedom and the rule of law."
While normally such a convergence of views in the press should be a warning sign, this is one of those rare cases in which even the experts believe what they are reading. Oh sure, there are debates about the tone with which one should address the threat (there is still a school-marmish quality to some of the pieces advocating that the United States lecture the Chinese) or whether or not the United States is in a position to do that any longer (Francis Fukuyama's piece in the FT suggests we've lost ground). But in my conversations with diplomats from around the region during the past couple of weeks, there has been a recurring theme that China is engaged in a sweeping, systematic effort to extend its influence and flex its muscles.
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Of all the triumphs of Barack Obama's remarkable career, there is no doubt in my mind that the one he would have been happiest to forego is that which took place in Tucson on Wednesday.
In fact, it is precisely because you could see how affected he was by the tragedy, by each of the individual losses, that his speech was so effective. He was human. Broken hearted by Christina Green, elated by the progress of Gaby Giffords, moved by the heroism of so many, he reflected the feelings of a nation. He was immeasurably helped in this by the warm, sensitive, and strong presence of his wife. And he elevated every listener with his admonition to aspire to outcomes from this event that were worthy of its victims.
It was a singular moment and one in which he fully accepted, met, and exceeded the responsibilities of the high office he holds. And if he could wipe it all away by undoing what happened in Tucson on Saturday in front of that Safeway, surely he would have.
Over the next weeks and days, he will likely see his political stock rise to its highest levels since just after taking office. But it is certain this is not the way he wants to triumph, not as mourner-in-chief or even as MSNBC inelegantly but fairly framed it as "inspirer-in-chief."
Nonetheless there are other reasons quite apart from Tucson that make this the most successful week of his presidency. Reasons that build on the momentum of the past month but that go beyond it, that are attributable to conscious and smart decisions made and actions taken by him and his team. They are:
Rediscovery of the Better Obama
For many who were moved by candidate Obama and by the newly inaugurated President Obama, Tucson was a powerful reminder of what they saw in him. Or rather, it was a reminder of how he made them feel. The arc of his first two years in office follows the gradual deadening of those feelings as aspirations faded and the reality of governing and compromise set in. But my sense is that it was not Tucson that was the turning point in restoring those old feelings but rather it was part of a longer term trend following the midterm election. Obama the underdog and Obama the champion of the underdog or the wounded are very appealing. Obama the cerebral, Obama the arrogant, and Obama the calculatingly pragmatic are not.
When he was at the helm of a big but conflicted -- and periodically not terribly competent -- Democratic apparatus that dominated Washington, he was diminished by its dysfunction and he seemed to lose his voice. He is a better advocacy lawyer than he is a law professor or deal lawyer. At least, we like that version better. So the Republican's victory in November may well have been just what the doctor ordered. That on Tuesday he also showed real feeling also helped ... but he has been on the rebound for a couple months now. It's more than just this one event.
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You can tell a lot about a major summit between world leaders by what happens in the weeks leading up to it. That's when staff scurry around trying to nail down "deliverables" -- agreements that might be signed, initialed, announced, dusted off, and signed again, that sort of thing -- and fine tune the optics of the upcoming meeting. Tensions are typically defused in advance. Good news is often played up to produce a positive mood.
That's just what has been happening in the run up to the visit of China's President Hu Jintao to Washington. The Chinese foreign minister blew through town last week, meeting with the likes of Hillary Clinton and Tom Donilon and allowing both sides to test out their language about how important the relationship is while also testing thrusts and parries on currency policy. Our North Korea envoy Stephen Bosworth went to Beijing to seek progress on cooperatively managing the vexing Mr. Kim. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates is in China right now seeking (unsuccessfully thus far) to reboot military cooperation that broke down in the wake of last year's decision to sell more arms to the Taiwanese.
At the same time, as is also typical with such a visit, we have members of Congress like Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) flexing their muscles and warning that China had better adopt "fairer" currency policies or else. And sometimes we have seen other actions designed to send messages to the rest of the world to place the upcoming meeting in context -- or at least international actions that cast an important light on the upcoming meeting whether intentionally or otherwise.
Read these tea leaves and you can tell a lot about the largely formal high-level summit to come. In fact, these pre-summit periods are actually where the real work usually gets done with the most important summits typically being so carefully orchestrated that it's almost impossible for anything to actually spontaneously occur out of them.
So, what have we learned? Here are a few highlights:
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From its start, I have viewed the Iran sanctions regime the Obama administration has helped devise with great skepticism. However, if recent reports are to be believed, the sanctions may someday be seen in retrospect as a vital element of an effective strategy to curtail the Iranian nuclear program. In fact, the possibility is beginning to emerge that they could be seen as part of what may someday be seen as one of the signal triumphs of Obama-Clinton foreign policy.
My initial concerns about the sanctions program were several. First, it was my sense that such sanctions programs tend not to be terribly effective where authoritarian regimes are concerned. Next, sanctions tend not to be effective if they do not are not supported globally by all the economies interacting with the country facing sanctions. Third, in the case of these sanctions, the Russians and the Chinese carved out elements that protected important components of their own trade with Iran. Fourth, my sense is that the Iranians are engaged in a cat and mouse game with the international community in which they make a few seemingly constructive moves, even appear to make concessions, and then continue on with their nuclear development work behind the scenes.
My sense was also that international diplomatic and economic pressure would simply not be enough to really impede their program -- especially if the threat of the use of force to punish them if they did not back down was not credible. And the message from the administration was not tough enough on that last point.
However, when last week, the departing boss of Israel's intelligence service, Meir Dagan, stated that in his view the Iranian program had in fact been set back to the point that it would not be able to develop nuclear weapons until 2015 at the earliest, it suggested that whatever was being done was working. No one, for obvious reasons, takes the Iranian threat more seriously than the Israelis (although WikiLeaks confirmed for all how worried the Iranians make all their neighbors). If they who had been saying two years ago that the Iranian threat would reach a critical level within a matter of a year or so were now saying it has been pushed out several years, it was more than just an interesting sound bite.
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This week, President Obama dug deep into the pool of 100 people who are considered for every senior Democratic position in Washington and came up with a couple of very good choices for top White House jobs. While those of you who follow these things might wonder if, in a country of 300 million people, there might be a few fresh names who could produce a little fresher thinking, keep it to yourself.
That's not the way things work here in Washington -- the only city in the world in which someone like George W. Bush could have been described as an outsider upon assuming an office his father had held 8 years earlier.
In the rest of the world familiarity breeds contempt. In Washington, like in some towns in the Ozarks, familiarity just breeds.
That said, there's something to be said for hiring people in top jobs who actually know what they are doing. Bill Daley, the new White House chief of staff, understands how Washington works as well as anyone. What's more, as Washington insiders go, he has a pretty rare skill set: he is actually able to speak several important languages. He is fluent in politics, business, and media and he is conversant in both D.C. and local dialects.
He has demonstrated over the past two decades great organizational skills and real perseverance. He was the quarterback who made the NAFTA war room whirr and produced one of Clinton's most important early victories. He was a Commerce secretary who did not produce a lot of headlines but who did generate trust and good will from the business community. He was one of the people Al Gore came out of his 2000 campaign feeling best about, an absolutely essential player who performed the toughest tasks while generating real loyalty among those close to him. And he was a successful business person who the moment he entered the White House increased the administration's understanding of the part of the economy that actually creates jobs many times over. While some liberal groups may decry his ties to Wall Street or his life in corporate suites, they are missing the point. There can be no successful progressive agenda that doesn't figure out how to collaborate successfully with the people actually driving U.S. growth.
There has been some minor lefty hubbub over the fact that Gene Sperling, the incoming head of the National Economic Council, once did some work for Goldman Sachs. It is revealing that those who seek to complain about this are overlooking that it was work on a project to help promote educational empowerment for some of the world's neediest. And, of course, in a job like the one Sperling is assuming, having a few contacts outside the world of inside-the-beltway wonks is actually a very good thing.
Gene has been one of the best of those wonks for a long time. He is exceptionally intelligent, extraordinarily hard-working, politically gifted and he has a truly good heart. Both he and Daley are among the "good guys", the folks in that tiny D.C. talent pool who you want to see at the top because not only do they know how to use power but they are likely to use it well.
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The Washington Post characterized Robert Gates's announcement that the Pentagon will have to cut an additional $78 billion out of its budget over the next five years as a surprise. While the timing of the announcement might be described in those terms, the fact that the cuts are necessary was not. The military is clearly about to enter a new era, one that is very different in profound ways from the recent past.
As Gates characterized it, "what had been a culture of endless money … will become a culture of savings and restraint." But that description really only scrapes the surface of what is happening. Since December 1941, the U.S. defense establishment has pretty much had carte blanche when it has come to spending for two reasons. First, there was always a great overarching threat -- first World War II, then the Cold War -- and then later it was the threats associated with the "War on Terror." Periodically conflicts like those in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan would provide further justification for spending. And all along the U.S. economy was bustling forward, growing, creating jobs, enabling the check-writing to go on. The period between the fall of the USSR and 9/11 was an anomaly, but even during this time, there was the conflict in Bosnia, the need to keep a lid on Iraq, the slow receding of Cold War concerns, and the booming economy combining with Democratic unease about seeming soft on defense to keep the spigots open.
But now, the situation is different. For the first time in U.S. history, we haven't created a net new job in a decade. 132 million Americans were employed in 2000. 130 million are employed now. There has never been a decade like that in U.S. history. Further, wages have also suffered an unprecedented drop, the national debt has just topped $14 trillion, cities and states are teetering at the edge of the financial abyss, we have seen the market pull the rug out from under fiscally irresponsible allies in Europe, and as a result our appetite for spending has changed dramatically.
At the same time, we are leaving Iraq, and soon, with some luck and a little common sense, we will actually begin to leave Afghanistan. (I note that Democratic Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey of California just called Afghanistan a "national embarrassment," describing it as "an epic failure" and a "moral blight." While this is certain to stir up the dittoheads and jingoists, she not only has it about right, but I suspect her view will become mainstream much sooner than even many critics think is possible.)
We are also recalibrating our sense of the terrorist threat. That is not to say there is a sense it is smaller. Rather what is receding is the hysteria that prevailed in U.S. security-policy circles and in the public at large for the decade after the attacks on Wall Street and the Pentagon.
While we almost certainly underestimate some of the rising threats in the world -- from those associated with a revitalizing Chinese military and a more adventurous and not entirely constructive Chinese foreign policy to those associated with resource conflicts and new areas of regional instability from Central Asia to Africa -- they have not risen to the level of urgency to drive new spending.
And so America is, rightly, responsibly, entering this new Age of Limitations by setting priorities and cutting back.
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We're on the brink of a fascinating experiment. One of the most sweeping changes of top White House personnel in history is about to take place. Within just a couple of weeks from now, the president will have replaced his chief of staff (twice), two deputy chiefs of staff, his national security advisor, his top economic advisor, his top political advisor, and his spokesperson.
This would be extraordinary in any organization. But the Obama White House has been famous since its cast and crew were first assembled for being driven by a core team around the president. Characterized variously as a bubble around the president, an inner circle, and a cabal, one of the most common complaints heard from those inside the administration is that the team around the president has been impenetrable .
They have in the eyes of cabinet secretaries and senior departmental officials co-opted traditional cabinet prerogatives. Even to some working at high levels in the White House, they have been less the gatekeepers all presidents demand and more like the trolls living under the bridge by which the Oval Office was accessed -- difficult to deal with and hard to pass by.
And now, of the innermost circle, three members are gone or going -- Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, and Robert Gibbs. Rumor has it that possible incoming chief of staff may seek to alter the role of the last remaining member of the Four Horsemen of the Obamalypse, Valerie Jarrett.
So, given the role these folks have played and the sweeping changes that are taking place, one might expect a massive change in the way the administration operates. Unless…
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Every school child knows that the U.S. government has three branches: the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial. And, as recent international test results have demonstrated, every school child is wrong.
Because there is a fourth branch of government that operates alongside the other three and plays a central and increasingly active role in the system of checks and balances the founders designed to keep any one group from getting too much power.
This fourth branch however, has been gaining power in ways that the forefathers never imagined -- largely because they didn't conceive of it in their political calculus. You see they were focused on mechanisms that were created to reflect the will of the people and to advance their interests. This mechanism was created independently and serves only a comparative handful of individuals.
But make no mistake, it is as essential a player as the Supreme Court, either house of Congress or the White House. And when those players stumble or fail to provide leadership, this fourth branch quickly and decisively fills the void. Indeed, it has special powers that trump presidential vetoes, filibusters, judicial reversals, and all the other tools given government officials. It advises and in the end, it provides the necessary consents. It deliberates and decides and reserves the right to change its mind. It is not only where the buck stops, it is where it starts and where it goes round and round till it comes out here.
It's the markets and if you merely take the time to look over the news of this week and last you can see it flexing its muscles and sending a message that it is prepared not only to contradict governments and institutions, it is, if necessary prepared to topple them.
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WikiLeaks provides few revelations but many resonant reminders. The reminders put into language stark enough to reawaken the senses information that we long ago knew but had repressed. For example, take today's multiple reminders that so-called "friendly" governments in the Persian Gulf remain cash machines for the worst people on earth, terrorist groups dedicated to the slaughter of innocents.
"More needs to be done since Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaida, the Taliban, LeT and other terrorist groups," declared a document that went out a year ago under Hillary Clinton's signature, "Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide."
Other cables describe how the group responsible for the Mumbai bombings, Lashkar-e-Taiba, raise cash through Saudi front businesses, and how the Taliban and their allies work through networks in the United Arab Emirates. They report fitful progress in reducing these cash flows, the use of religious pilgrimages as cover for illicit cash transfers from the Gulf to militants and the quiet if pointed methods the United States uses to press our so-called friends for assistance.
Here we are coming up on a decade since 9/11, two years since Mumbai, bogged down in horrifyingly costly conflicts against these terrorists and the stark, perverse reality remains that the countries of the Gulf are getting rich selling us oil and then passing part of the proceeds on to bands of murderers who have sworn to attack us and our allies. They are worse than drug dealers who kill only through the deadly addiction they promote. These terror bankers and their fat, arrogant, callous royal protectors have for years placed us in double jeopardy by both promoting a different kind of dangerous addiction and then using the proceeds from that to fund efforts to kill us.
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In a weekend photo op with his ally and the bane of his existence, Hamid Karzai, Barack Obama joked to reporters that every so often he gets something right. (Obama, that is. There is widespread agreement that recently Karzai almost never gets anything right.)
After a NATO summit that went about as well as could be expected, however, you could understand why the president felt buoyed enough to joke about his own fallibility.
Still, the problem with judging performance based on discrete events is that you can make progress on a plan and then discover later that the plan itself was ill conceived to begin with. This seems to be the way Obama and Co. are headed on Afghanistan, on the Israel-Palestine talks, and on Iran. They are taking credit for apparent steps forward ... and in the context of the execution of their plans, they deserve it. But the trajectories they are on in all three cases are likely to produce long-term results that are disappointing at best and that could ultimately be viewed as fairly disastrous.
This not only illustrates the problem of doing foreign policy analysis as it is done on cable TV -- news cycle by news cycle -- but it also illustrates one of the problems associated with recently fairly commonplace wonkish analyses that overvalue good policy processes. Good processes that produce lousy policies are actually not so good.
That said, one of the best tests of a good process is whether it recognizes when a mistake is being made and is able to make a mid-course correction. (The mistakes in question include prolonging the agony in Afghanistan when the cost of staying doesn't reconcile with the relative gains, getting bogged down in the distraction of the settlements debate with the Israelis, and letting short-term negotiating gains with Iran or North Korea distract from the damage done by their long-term commitments to building their own nuclear capabilities.)
When mid-course corrections involve stepping back from high-profile policies, of course, it often takes leadership from above to allow the worker-bees in the process the cover to make necessary adjustments.
In this respect, I now write words that I never thought I would write: Perhaps Barack Obama ought to consider taking a page out of the book of Pope Benedict.
Benedict began his tenure with a series of statements, actions and inactions that deeply damaged the stature of the Vatican. But to his credit, the conservative prelate has shown, at age 83, an apparent willingness to listen and adjust, even if only modestly.
Initially, the adjustments came as he moved the church forward in terms of coming to grips with the dark stain of abuses by Catholic priests. There is a long way to go but no one who is fair minded can deny that after a period of infuriating tone-deafness on this issue, Benedict, has during the past year turned a corner on this issue.
Now, this past weekend, he seems to be beginning a similar turn on the question of condom use, suggesting that there are actually circumstances (as in the case of male prostitutes) where using condoms may be seen as a moral positive and thus acceptable. It was a small step and he must go a long way to undo the damage caused by preaching against the use of condoms even among those with HIV. But it was a significant enough break with past policy that it immediately and predictably caused some in the Vatican hierarchy to try to walk it back as not being official church doctrine. Nonetheless, even Vatican spokespeople acknowledged the shift with one quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying, "Benedict XVI has courageously given us an important contribution, clarifying and deepening a long-debated question. It's an original contribution."
For a man whose job it is to preserve ancient doctrines and whose temperament seems to be that of a strict traditionalist, the Pope's relative flexibility is a welcome development for a church that must adapt to remain relevant and overcome recent setbacks. It is also an excellent example to leaders everywhere that frequently progress comes not from trying to maintain a veneer of infallibility but from accepting it as a human and thus inevitable aspect of their characters ... even when doctrine, position, or the warm buzz of sycophants suggest such self-awareness isn't necessary. Great leaders aren't infallible. They are the ones who best learn from and take swift and appropriate steps to correct their mistakes.
Yesterday, two unrelated stories showed yet again that in Washington, the best way to shout is to whisper.
As revealed in today's Huffington Post, (Do websites have "daily editions"? Does time even exist on the Internet?) George Soros spoke behind closed doors yesterday to the Democracy Alliance, a group of progressive donors, and apparently had a public fit of buyer's remorse over the important role he played helping to bankroll the candidacy of Barack Obama.
"We have just lost this election, we need to draw a line," The HuffPost story quoted Soros, citing folks in attendance. "And if this president can't do what we need, it is time to start looking somewhere else."
While a Soros spokesperson contacted for the story said the financier was not in fact suggesting a primary challenge to Obama, that was probably little consolation to the White House. Because in the White House they know that Soros has been going around Washington recently and expressing his disappointment in Obama in his typical sharp and unvarnished style. He has even gone so far as to say to folks something to the effect of: "If I had wanted to elect a traditional, mainstream Democrat, I could easily have supported Hillary Clinton," and then going on to add that he actually had great admiration for the work that Clinton was doing in the State Department. In other words, the man who helped galvanize the fund-raising opposition to her was having doubts.
The Democracy Alliance meeting was off the record. Conducting an off the record meeting is one of the surest ways of making sure that what is said is immediately leaked to the press and spread through the grapevine that supplies sustenance to all forms of Washington flora and fauna.
There is really only one way of ensuring that something spreads more rapidly to the news media and that is saying it is to be kept secret and then providing it to someone on Capitol Hill. Yesterday, Hillary Clinton discovered this as her team provided lawmakers with a first look PowerPoint of State's long-in-the-works Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR). The document was marked NODIS which of course may look like an acronym for "No Distribution" but actually means "Please forward immediately to Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post." Or at least that's what it seems to mean because within a couple of hours of the Powerpoint hitting the Hill it showed up on the Post's website with a brief summary by Kessler.
The Kessler summary and subsequent reviews of the document, including that by FP's Josh Rogin, focused on the box-shifting nature of the document and the who-get-what division of assets and responsibilities between the State Department and USAID. There are a couple of more things about the document that are also worth noting, however.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
After a brief stop at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit that will almost certainly be the anticlimax of a 10-day swing through Asia, President Barack Obama will briefly return to Washington to pick up a new change of socks before heading off to Europe. From unsatisfying discussions about the world economy he will move on to unsatisfying discussions about Afghanistan. From difficulties with the new powers of Asia he will move on to difficulties with the old powers of Europe. And through all this he must be thinking, "The heck with the birthers debating where I was born -- if this keeps up, I have to wonder, where am I going to live once I leave this job?"
Admittedly, many of the challenges he faces are not of his own making. He did not send the world economy into a tailspin, gut the U.S. manufacturing sector, recalibrate global labor markets, or introduce the first U.S. troops into Afghanistan. And on this trip to Asia and next week's to Europe he has taken many substantial steps to address these problems and to restore the United States' international footing. From a successful mission to India, the innovative and smart (if largely symbolic) move to endorse India for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, a sensitively handled journey to an Indonesia where he spent time as a boy, and an effort to embrace the new world economic order by continuing to support the empowerment of the G-20, many of his efforts deserve praise.
Having said that, as is often the case with this administration, Obama giveth and Obama taketh away.
The frustrations and missteps of this trip, especially those encountered in Seoul, could have been easily avoided. First, the United States could be somewhat less disingenuous about our economic policies. I am a supporter and admirer of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner in most things, but his line that "We will never seek to weaken our currency as a tool to gain competitive advantage or grow the economy…" has to go down as the howler of the month, and may qualify for howler of the year honors next month. In the wake of QE2 and longer-term easing, money-pumping policies -- which are clearly designed to offset what are seen as unfair Chinese currency practices -- the United States is guilty of promoting precisely the race to the bottom that earned such broad condemnation from Europeans, Asians, and other emerging powers in Seoul.
The failure of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement talks is also due to American misplays. Long ago in this space I warned about the mistake of giving too much authority to the office of Senator Max Baucus (D-Mont.) in appointing senior officials at the office of the U.S. Trade Representative. This week, Baucus' influence apparently triggered the breakdown of the Seoul talks. Sources suggest that the Montana senator pushed for greater beef market access beyond what the Koreans had repeatedly said were their limits. The result: A deal the president promised would be done this week floundered -- and its prospects do not look good.
Should the White House, then, have been as surprised and disgruntled as it was this morning by the two column New York Times lead headline "Obama's Economic View Rejected on the World Stage"? Heck no. Them's the facts. What's more, like the election results, perhaps it was a message the team needed to see written out in bold dark type.
Obama embarked on this trip with a message from the American people: They were frustrated with the state of the U.S. economy, and something had to change in the way Washington was dealing with it. As it happens, that is the same message he got from the G-20 leaders in Seoul. While he was away there were two events that may present him with an opportunity to gain ground with both of his stakeholder constituencies, the voters who elected him and the creditors to whom the United States owes so much money. One was that by some sort of alchemy (which is to say the ability of Democrats to do basic arithmetic), the administration realized they would have to accept a deal to extend all the Bush tax cuts, probably for a couple of years. They leaked their inclination in this regard without clearly confirming it. The second was the leaking of the co-chairman's bullet-point summary of the Deficit Commission report. Whatever the problems with their recommendations, they represent the first recent, high-level effort to deal seriously with this problem on both the revenue and the cost side of the ledger.
My sense is that there is a potentially transformational deal here for the president: Agree to an extension of the Bush tax cuts for two years, if Congress agrees to an up or down vote on the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform report -- provided it receives support from at least 14 members of the deficit commission. Link dealing with the poor economy to a commitment to getting our house in order -- as our creditors, allies, and most sensible citizens and neighbors are pleading with us to do. (If it is not "fast track" for the deficit report, perhaps it could be a commitment to linking a deficit reduction plan to the first budget of the new congress.)
The president has three big game changers that could restore his standing at home or abroad. One is a spontaneous recovery of the U.S. economy. Another is catching Osama bin Laden. Neither of these is likely, nor are they things that he has much control over. The last would be establishing himself as a president with the courage to manage us through first a market crisis and then a deficit crisis, who could do so in the face of criticism from both parties and who could engineer support from both parties. It is not that much more likely than the first two "brass ring" events, but it is the one outcome over which he has the most potential control.
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The United States seem to be swimming in economic initiatives that are going to go nowhere. But are we really surprised? After all, as in the case of U.S. efforts with regard to Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Israel and the Palestinians, we also seem to be swimming in foreign-policy initiatives that are very unlikely to produce much (positive) change to the status quo.
But seriously, if the United States is going to devote our efforts to empty symbolism and hollow gestures, couldn't we focus on some that were leavened by a little nobility, creativity or boldness? If we are going to float proposals that are doomed to failure or ineffectiveness, couldn't we float better proposals?
Let's take the four big economic initiatives making headlines this week.
The Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement
We were greeted this morning with the unsurprising news that the efforts by U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and his Korean counterparts to hammer out a new and improved version of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade deal had foundered on beef and automobile issues. I lead with this news because it is one of those rare proposals that actually have the opportunity to fail twice -- in addition to this week's setback, it could also fail in the negotiating phase. That's not very likely (the White House promises a deal "within weeks"). But even if the deal is reached, the likelihood that a free trade deal is going to make it through the U.S. Congress any time soon seems slim.
conventional wisdom has it that Republicans are warmer to free trade than
Democrats, the reality is that centrists are warmer to trade. The real
opposition lies in the growing right and left wings in each party.
A story in today's New
York Times highlighted a Pew poll that 44 percent of Americans feel free trade deals have
been bad for the country, while only 35 percent feel they have been beneficial.
While some deals are viewed more favorably, others -- like deals with China or
Korea, countries viewed with more unease -- are not. The article also notes
that, "Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who were aligned with
the Tea Party movement had a particularly negative view of the impact of free
trade agreements." In the last election cycle something like 4 out of 10 voters
identified themselves with the Tea Party or Tea Party candidates -- a group
that now has 110 members of Congress.
With the Blue Dogs slaughtered in the last election, the power in Democratic caucus has also shifted solidly to the left; between that fact and the growing importance of unions as 2012 nears, the idea that a trade deal might get approved anytime soon should provoke some skepticism.
South Korean Presidential House via Getty Images
In a move that was either just ill-considered -- or worse, too carefully calculated -- President Barack Obama's administration waited until he got to the other side of the world to let slip that they were officially punting on their self-imposed exit timetable for Afghanistan. Has any major U.S. foreign policy initiative involved so much careful White House deliberation, debate, and then apparently never ending reconsideration and recalibration? What's more you would think that with all that rumination and revision sooner or later we would get to a better policy but in this case, the quicksand does its thing and the struggling victim does his.
So now, thanks to statements made by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen in Asia, the United States fully expects to be staying in Afghanistan through 2014. And that means, despite the volatility and confusion that seems to reign supreme on this strange little planet, we actually know a few things with great certainty about the next four years.
For example, we know that terrorist threats to the United States will continue to grow in places like Yemen, the Maghreb, the Horn of Africa, Pakistan, and from within the United States and Europe… and we will continue to be spending billions of dollars and losing too many precious lives every month, working toward what will certainly be a frustrating and unsatisfactory conclusion of at least a decade and a half of U.S. fighting and dying in Afghanistan.
We know that due to huge stresses on our budget we will consider defense cuts, entitlement cuts, a shift in the retirement age, and probably a value-added tax… and we will continue to be spending billions of dollars and too many precious lives every month, working toward what will certainly be a frustrating and unsatisfactory conclusion of what will be at least a decade and a half of U.S. fighting and dying in Afghanistan.
Oli Scarff/Getty Images
In a single, unexpected stroke President Barack Obama may have made his trip to India one of the most important of his presidency. By announcing his support for Indian permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council, Obama advanced a number of important goals.
First, he went a long way toward establishing a truly special relationship between the world's largest democracy and the United States. He embraced an issue that was important to Indians and, despite the certainty of Pakistan's public unhappiness with the decision and China's less public but nonetheless undoubted discomfort with it, he showed courage and vision in doing so.
Second, he found an issue that could measure up to or even trump the Bush administration's nuclear deal with India, thus ensuring a strong sense of momentum in a relationship that must move forward if both countries are to rise to the challenges of the new century.
Third, he underscored that his administration was serious about turning rhetoric about rethinking multilateralism, and working with a new set of powers, into action. While working within the framework of the G-20 was a step in that direction, that process actually began two years ago under the Bush administration. Adjustments made in the structure of international financial institutions were another positive step, but frankly were rather underwhelming, leaving behind serious representational imbalances.
Admittedly, what the president said in his speech to the Indian Parliament -- "in the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed U.N. Security Council that includes India as a permanent member" -- is rather open-ended. Especially when taken in the context of, for example, the extended period of unproductive support we have offered for Japanese permanent membership. Still, the president's statement implied that without permanent membership for India on the Security Council, the United Nations would not be seen as "effective, credible and legitimate." That is not just true (which it is) or an important point from India's perspective (which it also is), but it has major implications for other countries that have a legitimate claim to a similar role.
These other countries, as noted in a quick but insightful commentary from Stewart Patrick at the Council on Foreign Relations, would certainly also include Brazil and Germany. This would make the first tier of new candidates a class of what Patrick calls "four great democracies." Others will cavil and some will argue their merits. But what Obama has done with this statement is to move U.N. reform forward in an important way.
Now, of course, the real work needs to be done. The United States should, at the earliest possible moment, begin a renewed push for translating these words into actions. This will take diplomatic deftness and will require a willingness to begin a process of major-power horse-trading that could well have repercussions across the entire international system. Ideally, the United States will undertake this with a clear vision of how it would like to see the system remade, and with an express willingness to alter, and in some cases diminish, the role of the great post-World War II powers. This is not only the path to a more just and effective system, it is also the path to a system offering fairer burden sharing, a point which may make these changes easier to sell both in Washington and among a group of cash-strapped Atlantic allies. The view should be holistic and represent a sense of where existing institutions need to be strengthened or revamped, and where new institutions need to be cultivated. Virtually no major international institution should be exempted from such a reassessment. The United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the regional development banks, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization, etc., must be reviewed during this process.
Though it is also true that everything cannot happen at once, Obama boldly and appropriately found an issue that could be a lynchpin of such a process of reform. What will make today's remarks a true watershed -- and thus make the current trip a true success -- is if they lead to tangible progress soon, a worthy goal for the remainder of Obama's term.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
In the story of the dilemma of Buridan's Ass, the poor tormented beast, placed between two equidistant and equally appetizing haystacks, starves to death. In a twist on this ancient paradox, American voters, placed between two equally unappetizing political alternatives, have over the past few election cycles scurried from one to the other in a constant state of revulsion and perpetual buyer's remorse.
There is a paradox within this second paradox. It is a play on the old observation of my former boss Henry Kissinger that the reason academic infighting is so fierce is because the stakes are so low: The reason political infighting is so fierce now is because the difference between the opposing haystacks, er, parties is so small.
Think about it: Bill Clinton's big twist that made "new Democrats" different from the old version was that he tacked right, embracing many of the free-market, anti-crime, stronger defense policies of Reagan-Bush Republicans. It is hard to remember but George W. Bush, all those many years ago, ran saying he had a track record of working across the aisle and the main contrast he offered from Clinton was less about policy than that he would restore the honor of the office. Oh sure, the rhetoric is shaped and twisted to appeal to the base in each party, but the mainstream policies of both parties shared many similarities. And then came Barack Obama and the promise of change. From their approach to dealing with the economic crisis to most foreign policy decisions (including, I would argue, Iraq, where Bush would probably be doing much of what Obama is), the new administration has turned out to be much more like the old than many might have expected. Indeed, many in the world hoping for a big change have been shocked to discover, once again, that for the most part U.S. presidents act alike.
There are subtle differences, of course. For example, in recent years, a branch of the Democratic Party has been anti-trade. Of course, so has a branch of the Republican Party. (Far left and far right meet on the far side…) But in a twist appropriate to the preceding assertions, despite the fact that unions -- key parts of the Democratic base -- oppose free trade deals, Obama's rhetoric and behavior in India is an indication that he is stepping right in where Clinton left off -- becoming a good old-fashioned mainstream U.S. mercantilist. He now believes, as we used to say back in the Clinton administration, exports equal jobs. Since jobs are the metric by which voters will determine his score and fate as president, he is becoming a trade promoter.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
What would you do after a rough few months on campus? Roadtrip!
It works the same way for presidents. Though, instead of making the journey in Flounder's brother's Lincoln this one involves -- according to the same people who estimated 11 million people attended the Glenn Beck rally -- 3,000 people, 34 warships, Air Force One, 13 cargo aircraft, three helicopters, and the private aircraft of a coterie of fat cat hangers-on. And instead of heading to Emily Dickinson College to comfort the grieving roommate of Fawn Liebowitz (by treating her to an evening at a local roadhouse to listen to Otis Day and theKnights) this one includes stops in India, Seoul,Korea for a G20 meeting that will involve more slippery smooth talking than"Otter" Stratton could ever muster, Japan, and Indonesia.The rumor that Obama is visiting Indonesia to consider locating his presidential library there is untrue and was denied by the White House moments after Mitch McConnell started to spread it, thus ending the three hours and twenty-two minutes of civility following Tuesday's elections.
For Obama, the trip is bound to be a relief. In fact, a variety of pundits are peddling the idea that given likely gridlock, congressional investigations, and general acrimony at home, that this trip will mark the beginning of a period during which the president will focus on international issues. As the theory goes, presidents can elevate themselves on the international stage without being dragged down by the Congress. Like many such theories, of course, this is nonsense. Nothing would seal Obama's fate as a one-term president quite as fast as a refocusing away from the domestic economic issues that torment his employers, the U.S. electorate.
Furthermore, given those domestic economic problems and the problems associated with our recent overseas misadventures, the United States is going to be both considerably less forward-leaning overseas, considerably more inward-looking generally and, in all likelihood, despite the "trade" sub-theme of the upcoming trip -- which is really a form of mercantilist chest-thumping -- more protectionist going forward.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
I've been on a bit of an odyssey the past few weeks, traveling to Abu Dhabi, Dubai, London, Paris, Washington, New York, Cleveland, Columbus, Juno Beach, Florida, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and now Chicago. I've seen up close a country reinventing itself for the new global economy (not the United States, the UAE). I've seen governments tackling tough fiscal problems with real political courage (not the United States, the British and the French). I've seen protests in the streets of people outraged at having to cope with a new economic reality (not the United States, the French, but America's day is coming). I've seen a capital city obsessed with its own jobs lose touch with a country worried about theirs. (That would be the United States.)
I was in Cleveland when President Barack Obama spoke to a half empty arena (and where he was overshadowed by Ohio's number one narcissist, LeBron James, playing his first game in a Miami Heat uniform). I was in countless board rooms and conferences in which the amount of anger directed at the White House makes last night's election results look obvious and inevitable.
In fact, one of the few unifying factors through all the stops on this trip, regardless of local politics, was the level of disappointment in Obama. Sometimes it was laced with anger. Sometimes it was expressed with simple regret for hopes that people now worried had been misplaced. But almost everywhere it was stoked by a sense that the president at this point in time didn't get it.
When I first joined the Council on Foreign Relations, I was in my mid-30s and knew nothing and no one. The reason I was fortunate enough to get into the organization was the sponsorship of some very kind folks who had more faith in me than was warranted. Notable among these was the late Bill Colby, the former CIA director, who was the guy who encouraged me to try to join in the first place, offered great counsel and support and to whom I will always be grateful.
He was the first but not the last of an exceptional group of very well established foreign policy community leaders who made it a practice to reach out to and be supportive of younger people who they thought showed some promise. Another of those gracious and encouraging individuals died yesterday. That, of course, was Ted Sorensen. I will never forget the several times that he took the time to sit down and talk with me, to give advice, to share stories.
Of course, as someone who was seven years old when Kennedy was assassinated, the tales of his administration were as remote and legendary to me as the Camelot that gave them their name. But Sorensen was accessible, kind, and wise. He joked easily and was always encouraging. The fact that once upon a time, he offered vital counsel to a president at a fateful moment in our country's history or that many of the words best associated with that president originated in Sorensen's brain seemed a bit dizzying to a young wannabe like me and, yet, listening to him, completely plausible.
Later in life, I would learn that many men and women who are especially accomplished achieve a certain kind of calm -- almost preternatural in nature -- that comes from something gained in the course of their experiences. It's not so much self-confidence or self-satisfaction as it is simply having risen to great challenges and knowing it -- not intellectually but viscerally. It expresses itself as grace.
Sorensen will be missed for these reasons by many as much as he will be by the public at large for his service and the memories he helped create. It is a particular irony that the loss of this man, who put the promise of an entire generation into words, comes at a time when the latest in a long line of presidents to be inspired by his efforts seems to have lost his voice. But perhaps in contemplating the loss of Ted Sorensen in conjunction with the losses he will suffer at the polls on Tuesday, President Obama might be reminded that inspiration is not only possible amidst dark moments, it is especially essential. To my mind John F. Kennedy was a bit of a mixed bag as president. But he made an extraordinary contribution, capturing -- in collaboration with Sorensen -- the American spirit and reframing it in terms that would motivate a new generation. It is an example Obama must emulate or he will be passed over by yet another rising generation in dire need of getting back in touch with America's promise. As Sorensen would have advised and as his work underscored, that message of inspiration cannot pander but rather must force listeners to look inward -- as suggested by the single most indelible phrase that Sorensen via Kennedy left to history: Ask not what their country can do for them but what they can do for their country.
With the U.S. mid-term elections still a week away, the media is glutted with polls and prognostications. Cable news has offered up a menu of non-stop pundit stew, bubbling with hyperbole and featuring hard-to-digest floating bits of bias spiced with speculation and guess work.
For this reason, lest you collapse of intellectual starvation in the interim, it is up to us to offer something like a fact, something solid which, as it happens, is also something of an antidote to the hand-waving and hand-wringing of most pre-election "coverage."
Take to heart the near-hysteria of the newspapers or the TV reports and you would think the United States was on the verge of a political cataclysm, a transformational event that will change all our lives and the very nature of American politics. In this respect, the coming election is seen as something akin to the recent transformational events that we have seen associated with the economic crisis, subsequent Wall Street reform, and health care reform. In each case, our world would never be the same.
And in each case and in this case the opposite is true. Not only is the world the same, it is in several key respects samer. (Yes, I said "samer." It's my blog and I'll make up the words around here if I want to.) Some of the traits we most expected to change have become more entrenched, even more impervious to reform.
Banks are back to sub-prime lending, some even more actively than before. Other banks -- especially those in Europe and China -- are still underestimating and under-reporting their financial weakness. New economic bubbles are percolating up throughout the emerging world. The U.S. is facing another predictable financial crisis -- two actually, one having to do with a trillion dollars in underfunded public pension liabilities, and the other having to do with the current or looming insolvency of a large number of cities, counties and states -- with the same inaction as before. Not only are most derivatives traded in the world still beyond regulation, they connect to the huge and hugely volatile world forex markets in ways that should have us all more nervous than we were before. Wall Street reforms passed by Congress not only failed to address many core problems they still are a long way from having much effect on the problems they did manage to zero in on, because we are a long way from implementing many reform provisions, legal challenges will block many and delay others, and underfunding will make enforcement impossible on others.
A similar story is the case with health care reform which, while addressing a few of the gross flaws in the health care system, has left the grossest flaws unaddressed -- and getting worse. What was underfunded is becoming even more so with every passing day, and that underfunding remains the single greatest threat to the United States' economic and thus strategic health… exactly as it was prior to all the health care hubbub in Washington, in the media, and in the small minds of those whose ideologies have no room for the solutions we so urgently need.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
They say politics makes strange bedfellows. That's a polite way of saying that if you want to make it in Washington, you don't always get to choose who is screwing you.
Take the case of Tom Donilon, President Barack Obama's choice to replace Gen. Jim Jones as national security advisor. Today it was announced that replacing Donilon as deputy national security advisor will be longtime Obama national security confidante, Denis McDonough. This was how most insiders expected things to play out. No national security official has been closer to the president longer than the intensely loyal McDonough.
Indeed, that was one of the biggest problems Jim Jones faced. McDonough was clearly a member of Obama's inner circle when the national security advisor was not. McDonough often second-guessed and even on a couple occasions publicly undercut Jones in front of other staff and in at least one instance in front of a reporter. He was seen as a kind of shadow national security advisor. In fact, he was also seen as operating very comfortably from the shadows, serving as the political Paulie Walnuts of the National Security Council (NSC), sending midnight emails, denying access and otherwise bullying reporters who dared to stray from the prescribed spin on countless stories.
Frankly, in Washington, a place where politics famously ain't beanbag, having a loyal, tough, and no-nonsense aide like that is useful. But if that aide's presence effectively blows up the management structure of the national security apparatus, it's a bit of a problem.
Fortunately for Donilon, he built his own close relationship with the president and he is likely to be considerably more empowered than Jones was. Unfortunately for him, McDonough will always be closer and now he will be Donilon's deputy -- thanks, presumably, to a deal that Donilon must have accepted but that no matter how enthusiastically he embraced publicly, he must privately have had some real doubts about.
Having learned from the experiences of the first two years, perhaps both Donilon and McDonough will manage a more disciplined relationship than that which undercut NSC effectiveness under Jones. But insiders are highly skeptical that McDonough will ever fall into line with the hierarchy or even that Obama really cares whether he does or not. Furthermore, there are already reports that the Donilon-McDonough relationship while functional has gone through frosty patches and that the level of mutual trust is not fantastically high.
Given all this, perhaps Donilon would be well advised not to have McDonough walking behind him down any of those long White House staircases because many feel that the man who was Obama's top campaign national security aide won't be fully satisfied until he is his top national security aide in the White House.
All that of course is speculation, gossip and fairly typical for any White House. What is a bigger immediate challenge is this: Whatever the reasons for Jones' struggles as national security advisor, he and the president always had Donilon to do the vitally important work of making the NSC deputies' process run smoothly. The deputies' process is where the real policy heavy lifting gets done and even critics of the Donilon choice to be national security advisor acknowledge that he managed that process with great dexterity, a view that is echoed by virtually all the deputies with whom he worked.
Donilon's biggest problem is that he has no Donilon. McDonough lacks the bureaucratic sophistication built up over the years by Donilon including the knowledge of the various key cabinet departments (Donilon was Warren Christopher's right hand guy at State, after all). Most importantly, it seems highly unlikely that the combative McDonough will be seen by anyone as an honest broker -- the impartial manager of an inclusive policy process. Indeed, McDonough is being asked to play against his real strengths in much the same way that Rahm Emanuel was as White House chief of staff. There's a reason Paulie Walnuts never made it to the top job, struggling with the transition from capo to underboss. The Peter Principle works in the swamplands of Washington just like it does in the swamplands of North Jersey.
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Today's main inside-the-beltway story comes to me via the on-line edition of the Deccan Chronicle, the English-language newspaper serving southern India's Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu states. To give you the flavor of the kind of stories that they are reading this morning in southern India, the site features articles about India's planned mission to Mars in 2030, the latest in a seemingly never-ending string of political scandals, floods in Vietnam, a wonderfully wry blog comparing Indian and Chilean disaster-response, and a piece on President Barack Obama's decision to avoid a visit to India's Golden temple due to fears that if he were to do so and wear as is customary a head scarf that it would make him look like a "closet Muslim."
Accompanying the Obama Golden Temple story are two other sidebars picked up from the U.S. media. The first is entitled, "Obama, the vibrator is here!" It begins, "U.S.-based news and gossip website Gawker.com doesn't seem to like Obama too much because they are offering an Obamarator (a vibrator which looks like the president) as a prize for a reader who uses his imagination and sends in a really erotic story featuring the president." While I'm not sure I agree with the Chronicle's interpretation -- I think you could just as easily conclude that the folks at Gawker may like the president a lot, maybe even too much -- it's good to know that thanks to the Internet the people of Karnataka are getting their full portion of Obama-shaped vibrator stories to go with their morning bowls of idli.
The other story that is accompanying the "closet Muslim" piece is picked up from Women's Wear Daily. It's called "Obamas are indifferent hosts" and begins like this:
Socialites in Washington, D.C. are very annoyed with their president and first lady. They accuse President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle of cold shouldering them at parties.
The magazine Women's Wear Daily has done a story on how the Obamas unlike the Clintons, Bushs and even Reagans refuse to stand in a formal receiving line and receive guests at the White House. At White House events as well as other dos, they always stand cordoned off behind velvet ropes and just smile, wave and acknowledge the minions from afar.
The story -- which doesn't really sympathize with the "poor socialites" who are not feeling the love from their first couple -- ends with the line "Who would have thought a day would come when they would miss former President George W. Bush!" I'm not sure whether the "they" refers to the socialites or all Americans, but I have to admit the story resonated with me even more strongly this, the second time I have seen it this week.
The image of the Obamas cordoned off from their own receptions has stuck with me because it offers such a potent illustration of one of the core problems the president is having at the moment. It is not a matter of policy. Nor is it even, as some of the president's advisors would have you believe, a matter of nasty partisan attacks funded by secret SLORC donations to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It is that the president who rose to his current high office because he had a story that warmed our hearts and an undeniable charisma, is losing the most important battle any politician can face at the moment -- the battle of likeability.
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
This is a critical moment for the United States's most fraught diplomatic challenge.
Pakistani officials arrive in Washington this week for meetings designed to shore up a relationship that is both vital and exceedingly dangerous for both regimes. The Pakistani delegation will nominally be led by the country's foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi. But the real focus will be the man who many feel is so powerful that the fact he is not yet president reflects only a personal choice on his part. As Pakistan's top military officer, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani might as well be known as General Plan B. If the current government stumbles, if unrest spreads, U.S. officials are fully counting on him to step in and put a lid on the problem.
The conversations this week will be publicly focused on gestures of support for the Pakistanis from the U.S. government, from beefing up civilian and military aid to generating public statements of common purpose. But behind the scenes there will be palpable tension. The United States is dissatisfied -- the feeling being that Pakistan is not doing everything it can to assist in tracking down extremist groups living within their borders.
That discomfort undoubtedly is not eased by the exclusive report in Britain's Guardian today that is entitled, "Pakistan intelligence services 'aided Mumbai terror attacks.'" The story describes a 109-page Indian government report based on the interrogation of David Headley; the Pakistani-American arrested in relation to the Mumbai attacks. "Under questioning," writes Jason Burke, "Headley described dozens of meetings between officers of the main Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, and senior militants from the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) group responsible for the Mumbai attacks."
While the perspectives provided by Headley offer just one view and include a number of statements suggesting that senior ISI officials may not have been plugged into the entire Mumbai plan, they corroborate much of what has long been suspected about ties between the ISI and extremist groups. Further, they tell an unsettlingly logical story of how the Mumbai attacks were undertaken as part of a deliberate strategy by the historically more regionally-focused Lashkar-e-Taiba to remain relevant in a world in which competing terrorist groups were attracting members seeking the grander mission of jihad against the West.
It is a nauseating image: officials of a government nominally allied to the United States working with terrorists to plan a murderous attack on innocents as a marketing ploy on behalf of their stone cold terrorists of choice. Nauseating, but despite Pakistani denials that it is baseless, with the unmistakable ring of truth.
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.