There seems to be a general consensus that the world is in lousy shape. There is also a pretty widespread belief that the U.S. is a mess. Also that Washington is a cesspool of corruption and incompetence. In fact, there is a prevailing view that times are pretty dire here in America. The president and the Republican candidates speak ominously of the threats we face and speak wistfully of the past or inspiringly of better tomorrows. It's no wonder that Midnight in Paris was one of the past year's signature films. Everyone is suffering from golden age-ism, yearning for anything but what we've got.
But what if the premise is wrong? What if these are actually the best of times? What if we are living in the best moment in U.S. history and we are not even enjoying it?
One of the few certain facts I have learned since I left the fine public schools of Union County, New Jersey is that into every life come good developments and bad developments, but that we seldom know the difference while they are unfolding. It is only years later that we can tell whether it was a good thing or a bad thing to get or lose a job or a date or make a move to a new city.
I wonder if it goes further and we just don't know a good thing when we see it.
For example, I got an email today from a friend who lamented the state of Washington (not the one with Walla Walla in it, but the condition of our federal government). She earnestly offered up the conventional wisdom that things have never been worse. But read any history of Washington and there was just as much bickering and conniving and in-fighting and stupidity and sometimes there was much more. From the innuendo-driven personal scandal swirling around Alexander Hamilton to cane fights on the floor of the House in the 19th Century to machine politicians cutting sweet deals while ignoring the deplorable state of civil rights in America during the 20th, there has always been plenty to complain about. People wax on about the comity of the good old days, but for all the comity the good old days were periods in which women, blacks, Jews, Hispanics, and other minorities weren't given a seat at the table and during which powerful pols managed to coax reporters into looking the other way over scotch and soda at a Georgetown cocktail party.
Or look at U.S. history. Sure, we're going through a tough economic time now. The downturn is the worst since the Depression. But the Great Recession was not a depression, and it was a recession starting from a much much higher standard of living then in the 1930s, and people today live longer, healthier, happier lives with shorter work weeks, more conveniences, and more information at their fingertips than ever before. And then there's the history itself. This may well be the least precarious moment in U.S. history. The first decades of our existence were the fragile stuff of a start-up and there was no certainty we could make it. We were at war with Britain again within three decades or so of the revolution. The first half of the 19th Century the country was increasingly torn apart over slavery culminating in the bloodiest war the world had ever seen as we tried to work out the issues of what kind of a union if any we wanted to be. The years after the Civil War saw further wars with the people from whom we stole the continent, the rise of rapacious megacompanies, and the birth of the KKK and a new racial divide in the South. Think we're facing a tough economic transition? At the end of the 19th Century the vast majority of folks in the U.S. worked in agriculture. We had to change-over our entire economy to manufacturing, and in the 20th century, the percentages of agricultural jobs actually flipped in the course of 100 years.
Then came the rest of the 20th Century, marked by two world wars and then the Cold War's threat of oblivion. And then after that came the recklessness and risks associated with the delusion that we were the world's hyperpower, the one country that had to be active everywhere and could impose its will anywhere.
But that's passed. We're still the richest and most powerful nation on earth and we will be for the foreseeable future. No other nation comes close to matching our military or economic might. But there are no existential threats out there on the horizon. We are no longer tilting at the windmill of a global terror threat that actually turned out to be much less than we spun it up to be. We are resetting our priorities in a sensible, more inward-looking way. We are pulling in our oars a bit to restore things at home. We're debating how to do that but there is very little debate that it ought to be done. We're working better with others, more cognizant that we need multilateral solutions and thus better international relationships in order to succeed. The biggest rising power is also hugely dependant on its trade with us and does not pose any direct threat to us for many years to come. There are problems out there but they are nothing compared to the wars or threats of the past. We have challenges at home, but for most of our history we have faced much greater risks, much more precarious times. And then there's the Voltaire-ian icing on the cake: it could be that this is the best of all possible times and we might as well appreciate it for what it has to offer.
I suppose by the time Monday rolls around I may have a different view. (In fact, I'm sure of it.) But it's the weekend and you might as well roll this one around in your head for a while and have a good time.
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 bad news about the U.S. Congress is that nothing is what they do best. The good is that most important thing they can do in the year ahead is nothing.
Now, this is not me channeling my inner Rick Perry. I don't think that government ought to be irrelevant. Rather, this is a simple statement of fact. While this Congress has demonstrated itself to be grid-locked, brain-locked, inept, and hopelessly corrupt, it may be more than just the Congress that an ill-informed, apathetic, impulse-driven American electorate deserves. It may actually be the Congress we need.
Because right now the single best way for the U.S. Congress to fix the deficit debacle that it created is to continue to behave in the partisan, ideological, childish, and irresponsible fashion that has become their hallmark. If they do, they will do more to cut the deficit than any number of over-hyped, under-performing committees could even dream of.
By remaining frozen as they have been in the headlights of the oncoming 18-wheeler of euro-style economic calamity that is bearing down on America, this group of empty suits may actually not only miraculously avoid becoming historical road-kill, they may actually end up in the Do Nothing Hall of Fame.
How? It's simple. By failing to address the deficit in the supercommittee, our current Congressional "leadership" has effectively ensured that the single most important item on the legislative and national agenda for 2012 is the expiration of the Bush tax cuts at the end of this year. And the very best way for America to cut its deficit and bring its house back in order after the wanton profligacy of the past decade is to simply let those cuts expire. Which will happen if this Congress plays to type and does the nada it does so well.
There is no single budget factor that can make as big a difference as simply letting these ill-conceived cuts lapse. Projections by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget show that over the next forty years, no single factor will contribute more to our growing deficit. According to the Congressional Budget Office, letting the tax cuts lapse would immediately restore $380 billion dollars a year in revenue and would, therefore, cut the deficit by $3.8 trillion dollars over the next decade, fully 50 percent more than the $2.4 trillion in total deficit reduction that was the goal of the debt limit deal.
Letting them lapse would also not have an unduly burdensome impact on American voters, simply restoring tax rates to where they were a decade ago. Further, as the dismal economic performance of the decade since the cuts were introduced shows, they actually have not had the stimulative effects they were touted as offering.
In fact, if you look at the huge and ever-growing cost to the United States of the cuts, it is very clear that they and not the 9/11 attacks were the most destructive event to hit the country in 2001. Compound them with the costs of our two misguided wars in the Middle East and you have destruction to America's financial condition, economic prospects, role in the world and national strength that no terror group or competing national power has been able to achieve in America's modern history.
The question of course, is this Congress up to the task at hand. Will they fight and bicker and then ultimately end up so divided that they do not pass an extension. As that great Washington oracle the Magic 8 Ball used to say, "Signs point to yes."
After all, this Congress -- in the midst of a great economic crisis -- has not managed to meet its fundamental obligations to pass a budget in 19 months. The Senate has not actually passed a budget in regular order in over 90 months. (The last time a Congress submitting all its spending bills by the mandated October 1 deadline was 1998.) A big job creation bill? No. An up or down vote on Simpson-Bowles? Nope. A major infrastructure initiative? Not. Something to deal with the mortgage crisis that started all this in some meaningful way? Get real. Something minor but promising? Wishful thinking.
That's why this year could be this Congress' most productive ever. Because not only could they undo one of the greatest mistakes of America's recent past by continuing their game of statues, they could add to the victory by letting the automatic cuts that should be triggered by the supercommittee's failure stand. Of course, these fraudsters have learned well from their sponsors on Wall Street and they never actually believed in that "fail-safe" mechanism anyway, figuring they would undo it later. But what if they can't even do that. More savings. And for those who argue the U.S. defense department can't afford $600 billion in cuts...and with all due respect to Leon Panetta who is a great public servant and will be a terrific Secretary of Defense...nonsense. That's a 10 percent cut which would still leave us spending more on defense than virtually every other country in the world added up...and something like 10 times more than any of our nearest rivals. Somehow I think we can handle it. Somehow I think we must.
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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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Perhaps by the time you read this, the asteroid named 2005 YU 55 will have sped past the earth, missing the top of your head by like 200,000 miles, which is nothing in astronomical terms. In fact, given that most items in space are light years apart, the near rendezvous with the 1,300 foot wide chunk of rock and ice is essentially the same thing as a direct hit.
Yet, because astronomers have told us not to worry, I haven't noticed long lines of cars heading out of the city and up toward higher ground. I don't recall reading about a run on hard hats or Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck heading into outer space to save us. There's been no panic. Even though a slight miscalculation on the part of the astronomers who track space rocks could have left us vulnerable to a devastating direct hit. This rock the size of skyscraper would obliterate a city if such a collision were to take place, even one of considerable size that has -- cockroach like -- resisted many other attempts by nature to dispose of it, like Los Angeles.
But despite the fact that many of them grew up lonely in musty-smelling rooms chock-full of collectible action-figures from Battlestar Gallactica and large wall calendars counting down the days before the next Comic Con, we take the reassuring words we have heard from our astronomers to heart. (Haven't we seen the movies, folks? Don't we realize that all abuse these nerds must have suffered in high school scarred them and left them with plenty of motive to drop a decimal place or two, move to a shack in the Rockies and watch the unhappy ending while snuggly tucked under their Luke Skywalker sheets?)
Jay Melosh, who I am hoping is actually a perfectly normal guy who played baseball and has gone on dates, is one of those "experts" upon whom we are relying. He is, according to the Los Angeles Times, a specialist in "impact cratering." What motivates a guy to choose such a life's work? It's probably better that we don't ask. Because we want him to be right. We need him to be right. After all, he is one of those whose words we find comforting enough to allow us to go about our business while 2005 YU55 hurtles straight at us. "This one," Melosh said, "would be a city-buster, but would not wipe out civilization."
What a relief. It would only destroy everything in a 60-mile wide radius if it hit land or create a monster tidal wave 200 feet high if it fell into the sea.
But we take him at his word because he's an expert. (Admittedly one who is far from both big cities and tidal-wave vulnerable shorelines.) Experts like him are telling us not to worry. And once again, trusting souls that we are, we are buying it.
We just have to hope that these experts are better than the experts who told us that deregulating international financial markets or allowing banks to cook up all sorts of derivative markets without any adult supervision would make us all safer. We have to hope that they are smarter than the experts that told us that bankers could be trusted to "self-regulate." We have to trust that they know more than the geniuses who got paid tens of millions to watch after other peoples money and who assured them the best place for it was with Bernie Madoff or in MF Global Holdings.
We have to trust that they are more attuned to reality than those who even now still suggest that once-in-a-hundred-year financial catastrophes occur every 100 years even though we could well be on the verge of our second such event in 3 years any minute now.
No, surely these underpaid socially-ostracized geeks whose word we are taking at face-value about the future of civilization must be better than all those Armani-suited, Harvard-educated millionaires who collect supermodels like the rest of us collect lint in our navels. Or the highly touted geniuses who regulate financial markets or the glamorous billionaire publishing magnate politicians who tell us not to worry they will return Italy to its former glory. Or the air traffic controllers who manage to keep the near-misses to a bare minimum. Or the highly-trained NFL or FIFA referees who never get one wrong. Or the doctors who never make a wrong diagnosis.
No, these are experts. We have nothing to worry about. Having said that, I have two final points for you. One, the next time you see a nerdy little kid who has taught himself elfin and can recite verbatim all the dialogue from the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, hug him. He needs love. He needs to feel like he and the rest of civilization have at least something in common. And while you're at it, buy him an extra battery or two for his calculator. And two, having thought about how well the best experts are doing for us protecting us from global financial calamity and ensuring safe outcomes in other expert-dependent government systems from healthcare to transportation, I'm writing this from a secure corner of my basement. While wearing a snorkel.
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?
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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.
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While America sleeps, I awake early this morning on the banks of the Isis River, here in Oxford, England. Outside my window are the dreaming spires of the university has been here for the last 12 centuries or so dominated, from where I sit, by the weatherworn dome of the Radcliffe Camera. The Rad Cam, as it is known, is a massive, round library built by John Radcliffe, physician to William & Mary, and a man known as much for his fondness for good drink as he was for his medical accomplishments.
Another thing for which old Radcliffe was known was his apparent allergy to reading which led him to actually keep an alarmingly small library for a doctor thus creating some considerable amusement among his friends and colleagues when he endowed the library that ultimately became the russet-colored landmark I can see outside my window at the moment.
This phenomenon of making a bold gesture in the opposite direction of your fundamental impulses is known in the psychological line as reaction formation. It is what causes people who hate to fly to get their pilot's licenses and people with a fear of big cats to become lion tamers. It may also be to the old "there's no zealot like a convert" phenomenon or the fact that many people who were once fat become the most intolerant sort of fattists.
I can check at least two of those boxes and, although I haven't piloted a plane for years, I still have more than the usual intolerance for fatsos. This is due to the fact that up until two years ago I weighed 75 pounds more than I do today and if I didn't allow myself the privilege of being critical of those who are unable to push away from the table at the proper moment, than I fear I will be sucked back into the gravitational pull of my old midsection -- which, as it happens, bore a remarkable resemblance to Radcliffe's monument to himself over there in the shadows of the Bodleian. (In terms of roundness and prominence ... not orangeness.)
As a consequence of this particular one of my many defects ... and six years spent on the advisory board of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health ... I am acutely aware of the threat posed to America's health, finances, and general appearance by the obesity epidemic that has swept the country. Today the obesity rate in the United States is ten times that what it is in say, Japan. Fully a third of Americans are obesity and the costs to the country of caring for these self-indulgent loads is breaking us as surely as would giving them all piggy-back rides. In fact, that's what we are doing ... because they will require more doctor's care, medication, time in hospital, treatment for diabetes, for heart disease, cancer and countless other maladies brought on by over-eating ... we're all going forced to carry them on our fiscal backs for the next few decades.
For this reason, it was with great admiration and delight that I read of Europe's latest innovation that America should immediately and unhesitatingly adopt. As usual, it comes from the smarter half of Europe (the cooler, northern portions) which, while not necessarily the half where I would prefer to spend my summer vacations, does regularly come up with good ideas that are worth adopting (the Magna Carta, the location of the ignition on the Saab, many kinds of herring, that kind of thing). In this case, it is the Danes who have made the latest breakthrough. It is described in an article in the Guardian entitled "Body blow for butter-loving Danes as fat tax kicks in."
As of today, "Danes who go shopping today will pay an extra 25p on a pack of butter and 8 p on a packet of crisps, as the new tax on foods which contain more than 2.3% saturated fats comes into effect. Everything from milk to oils, meats and pre-cooked foods such as pizzas will be targeted. The additional revenue raised will fund obesity fighting measures." Apparently ... and without a hint of irony ... the country that led the way on this was Hungary, land of my grandmother's matzoh balls, which "recently imposed a tax on all foods with unhealthy levels of sugar, salt and carbohydrates, as well as goods with high levels of caffeine."
This resonates here in Britain, which is the tubbiest country in Europe with, according to estimates cited in the article, 70 percent of the country destined to be obese or overweight by mid-century, which does not bode well in the looks department for a country that is already known for bad teeth and fly-away hair. And it should resonate in America, land of the Fat Burger and KFC's double down sandwich consisting of two pieces of fried chicken on either side of a bacon cheeseburger.
We love you Chris Christie. We feel your pain. And we have to help you. The United States needs new taxes like it needs about an hour a day in the gym. This is a place to start. It is good public health policy. It is good fiscal policy. And it resonates with the words of one of England's great thinkers, worth recalling as I look out over dawn at the world's greatest university. It was Kate Moss, I believe who said, "nothing tastes as good as being thin feels."
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It has been a while since the world has had a really James Bond-worthy villain. But thanks to his announcement this weekend that he intends to publicly reassert his control over Russia, all Vladimir Putin needs at this point is a purring white cat in his lap and we will all know where 007's next assignment will take him.
Of course, Putin's decision to once again become Russia's president after four years in the less powerful role of prime minister should hardly come as a shock to anyone. That he is likely to swap jobs with current President Dmitry Medvedev only confirms suspicions experts have harbored about Medvedev since he assumed office -- that he was less a genuine political leader and more like one of those inflatable dummies people buy to ride next to them in their cars so they can drive in HOV lanes.
That may be a disappointment given Medvedev's occasional displays of independence that gave rise to the hope that perhaps he might be a counterweight to the oversize influence of Putin in Russian politics. It certainly seemed to be to Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who boldly did what has become an anachronism in Moscow politics and took a dissenting stand by saying he would not serve in the new government, which is slated to take office after "elections" in March. But it seems unlikely that many other notable voices will join those of Mr. Kudrin in protesting Putin's decision to hammer a stake through the hearts of those who still felt democracy had a chance in Russia.
For the United States and the West, the situation presents a problem. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously offered up that reset button in the early days of Barack Obama's administration, she certainly did not expect that when hitting it Putin would reset the relationship back to its Cold War depths. And while we are nowhere near there yet, trashing any remaining illusions of political reform certainly does not improve matters. In fact, given Russia's adventurism with its near neighbors, its regular embrace of international stances in opposition to those of the U.S., and its saber-rattling and strengthening of its military capabilities, it doesn't take someone with the acuity of M to recognize that this is potentially going to be a much more problematic relationship for the United States going forward.
Given Russia's nuclear arsenal, 11 time-zone dimensions, and enormous natural resources (that have resulted in increasing European dependence on Russian energy), it is not a stretch to see Putin solidifying his role as the first really big-league bad guy of the new century, a corrupt, scheming, megalomaniacal, major-power leader to force the demented heads of rogue states and terrorists living in Pakistani suburbs into the background of our geopolitical imaginations. That Putin's eccentricities -- his fondness for going shirtless, ideally while killing large animals with his bare hands -- are so colorful will only serve to make it easier for screenwriters and Tom Clancy to turn him into a full blown on-screen baddy.
In fact, there is only one really major problem that Putin poses for those who see his becoming the Goldfinger of the 21st century as the natural next step for him after coming out of the closet this weekend as Russia's near-dictator. And that is that by far the best actor to play him on-screen is … Daniel Craig.
Then again, there's a twist neither Ian Fleming nor Cubby Broccoli could have imagined. Just the shot of life the old franchise needs. The best Bond ever vs. his greatest adversary, both played by the same guy. Sounds pretty compelling … though it is unlikely to be sufficient to distract us from the really dark doings at the Kremlin and their ominous real life implications.
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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.
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One of the best reasons to recognize Palestine as an independent state is that it is an independent state. It has an independent government, its own institutions, a flag, a diplomatic corps, a people that seek and deserve independence and its own borders. Some of those borders are disputed but that's the case with many other states around the world.
This could be the reason that 126 U.N. member states already grant formal diplomatic recognition to the Palestinian state. Or to put it another way, this could be why fully three-quarters of the world's countries, according to an analysis by the Britains's Guardian newspaper, have concluded that Palestine has enough of the attributes of a state to be treated like one.
It is certainly no small obstacle that the Palestinian's immediate neighbor with whom it shares most of those disputed borders, Israel, does not yet recognize it as a state. Having said that, Israel itself has managed to function pretty well for the past six or so decades and still today only 105 countries acknowledge its statehood.
This is not to minimize the very real and vitally important issues associated with reaching agreements between the Israelis and Palestinians to assure their successful co-existence. Direct negotiations are the only way to achieve this. It is however, to say that on the one hand, the Palestinian statehood debate in the United Nations is a superfluous sideshow and on the other that opposing statehood should not have been made such a big deal by the United States and Israel because they appear deeply out-of-touch with reality.
Wouldn't it have been much easier and smarter for the Israelis and the U.S. to embrace rather than fighting the obvious and to attempt to use that stance to advance negotiations rather than, as they have, take a strong stand against and indisputable reality and thus appear out of touch and on the wrong side of history while doing absolutely nothing to advance their own position or standing? Hasn't this been especially damaging for the Israelis since in so doing, they have given the Palestinians greater leverage in the equation?
For President Obama, the position with regard to Palestinian statehood also undercuts the efforts of his administration to date to move the United States away from the tired old formulations of the past that have clearly not worked. From his Cairo speech onward there was a sense he could find a different approach, reposition the United States in a way that was both still supportive of Israel and that recognized both the shifts on the ground in the Middle East and America's evolving interests in the region. But that sense is now gone or unrecognizably muddled by this stance on this fake issue.
Once again, the transformational Obama has been sold out by the political Obama. The fact that the President is unlikely to receive credit for his stance with Jewish voters might be seen as a bitter irony associated with the calculated shift. But it's not. It's a recognition that Jewish voters ... like healthcare reform advocates and those hoping for a break from Washington business as usual and those seeking true financial services reform and those seeking economic policies that can produce growth for all segments of American society ... are not suckers. They recognize when they are being played and pandered to and they distrust leaders whose most dependable trait is their willingness to shift their positions to suit their momentary political needs.
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I think I am pregnant. It's not that I am putting on weight. It's the morning sickness.
Every day this week I have awakened and within minutes have been overwhelmed by nausea. Of course, I'm a bit past my prime child-bearing years. So, it might be something else. I'm pretty sure it's not something I ate. But it may well be things that I have read.
In fact, now that I think about it, what with being a middle-aged male and all, that's probably it. I'm suffering from news poisoning.
Daily newspapers ought to come with a warning label these days. "The Surgeon General has determined that reading the following newspaper could cause loss of appetite, mood swings, uncontrollable weeping, suicidal tendencies, rage, dizziness, chain-smoking, alcoholism, agoraphobia, uncontrollable nostalgia, and a strong impulse to live on a desert island."
Every day the relentless drumbeat of negative stories has seemed to grow more insistent, ominous, louder. Economic bad news in the United States, Europe, Japan, and the emerging world. Continuing instability in the Middle East. Violence in Syria. Qaddafi at large. Al Qaeda in Nigeria. Pipeline explosions in Kenya. Starvation. Disappearing ice caps. Futility in Afghanistan. Political dysfunction.
What's more, each day there are a handful of stories or opinion pieces that are so odious that they seem to challenge every bile duct in my body to act up and start my internal organs to churn.
For example, at the start of the week, in the New York Times, there was that op-ed by Turki al-Faisal titled "Veto a State, Lose an Ally." In it, the author, one of Saudi Arabia's most influential foreign-policy voices, demanded that the United States support Palestine's bid for statehood or else. Or else what? "If it does not," he wrote, "American influence will decline further, Israeli security will be undermined and Iran will be empowered, increasing the chances of another war in the region. Moreover, Saudi Arabia would no longer be able to cooperate with America in the same way it historically has."
Gak. Blerg. There is so much in that to offend the digestion of even those, like myself, with both a strong constitution and a predisposition to support the establishment of an independent Palestinian state at the earliest reasonable moment. First, there is the snide assertion that U.S. "influence will decline further." In other words, you guys in America are already on the ropes; we know it and we will try to play it to our advantage. Next, there is the feigned concern for Israeli security. Then, there is the notion that somehow Iran will be empowered more by resisting the Palestinian state than by further elevating and empowering its clients like Hamas.
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President Obama's jobs speech was only a start and a late one at that. But let's not quibble. At its core, the most important address the president has delivered in months was heartily encouraging.
First and foremost, the president, for whom aloofness and diffidence seemingly come almost reflexively, was clearly engaged. More than that, he was passionate. More than that, he himself promised that the speech was only the beginning, that he was going to take his message to every corner of the country.
An energized and articulate president will take to the bully pulpit and seek to actually lead the people. He will not cede the debate about the role and size of government to those who perversely think the only way you can get government to help more is by having it do less. He will underscore where government can help and go to the people who need the assistance and ask them to do their part to be heard, to let Washington know that in a time of crisis like this they want and indeed expect an activist government.
Further, the president is suggesting he will no longer be a passive player in the economic debate. No more rope-a-dope. He has put together a package that while much too small was bigger than expected. He has done it with an eye toward balance and reason that should win bi-partisan support for some of its elements. And he has pledged to push for it until it or something like it gets passed.
While vague, it contained useful elements. The tax cuts, the elements most likely to pass, will be welcomed by workers and small business owners. The infrastructure bank is an important idea that we can only hope actually grows between the time the president submits his formal recommendations and the Congress offers a bill to sign. It too has bi-partisan support and should pass. It's only the tip of the iceberg, of course. The United States should be investing vastly more in infrastructure ... not just to get out of this crisis but to restore our competitiveness. We should be talking ultimately about hundreds of billions on that alone. More. A new national commitment to having the world's best roads, airports, ports, bridges, IT and energy infrastructure, a program of redevelopment that should last a decade or more.
Should the trade deals pass? Of course. They are mostly symbolic but symbols are important too. The president should submit the deals to the Hill as soon as he can.
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You have to give George W. Bush and Dick Cheney credit. While the two wars they unleashed on the Middle East have not brought stability to either Iraq or Afghanistan, they have managed to pacify one group of extremists. Last night's Republican Party presidential debate was notable for the fact that a decade after 9/11, the would be successors to the Bush-Cheney legacy seemed to have very little appetite for the kind of military adventurism for which their party had become known during the first years of this century.
In fact, the rest of the world should sit up and take notice that on the eve of an anniversary that still resonates deeply with all Americans and with U.S. troops still on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the "war on terror" was one recent Republican favorite that effectively did not show up at the Reagan Library for last night's gabfest. Neither did "with us or against us" unilateralism or even much militaristic jingoism -- except when the conversation turned to the needs for "boots on the ground" to keep Mexicans out of the United States.
Jon Huntsman, who effectively committed political suicide by being thoughtful, intelligent, adult, and constructive throughout the debate, made a reference to America's "shattered innocence" in the wake of 9/11 (quite a concept after two centuries that included slavery, the genocidal slaughter of native Americans, a civil war that was the bloodiest the world had ever seen until that moment, two world wars, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Japanese internment camps, the Ku Klux Klan, the Oklahoma City bombings, and countless other events of similar character). He also rather boldly spoke common sense when he said it was time the U.S. was out of Afghanistan. And there were other murmurs on similar subjects from sideshow characters like Ron Paul and Rick Santorum who collectively have less chance of ending up the Republican nominee than did the event's moderators.
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When I was a kid, there was an advertising campaign for an insurance company that typically involved someone walking along, minding their own business when, unbeknownst to them, something awful was about to happen. A piano, for example, was about to be dropped out a window onto them. The clueless protagonist would then turn to his friend who noticed the impending calamity and respond to an implied question, "My insurance company? New England Life, of course. Why?"
I look at the current economic situation and feel a kind of déjà vu that takes me back to those ads. The president of the United States is walking down a street, surrounded by his inner circle, discussing whether or not to offer a minor jobs bump or an insignificant deficit patch while overhead that piano is bearing down on its mark.
Frankly, were the president actively debating big fixes for America's job crisis, its growth crisis, or its deficit crisis, he still might be blindsided by the next big disaster as it is likely to be none of those things.
Over in Europe they are cooking up a global financial crisis that is likely to hit harder in the near term than any of the longer term structural issues being debated in Washington. It might be not months but weeks or days away. Today's Constitutional Court decision in Germany requiring that future bailouts get parliamentary approval is but the latest worrisome sign. Neither the major structural changes required to get the EU's fiscal house in order nor the major safety net the international community should be providing seem imminent or even likely. The consequence is the growing possibility of a market meltdown that takes down a number of big European financial institutions, the American investors heavily tied up in them, financial houses around the world with hidden counterparty exposure and world stock markets.
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We are not living at a moment of particularly glittering leadership on the international stage. Mediocrity, timidity, and poor performance are found from continent to continent. Even setting aside those leaders of the developing world who face the special challenges associated with poverty, failed or struggling states and related social and political tensions, we find the world's larger and more prosperous countries rudderless and with plenty of room for improvement at the top.
There is a leadership void at a moment when strength, vision, and executive deftness could not be needed more.
But among the lackluster crop at the helm of the world's major economies -- the G20 countries for example -- there are several classes of mediocrities. There are the leaders of promise for whom we still may have high hopes but who have yet to find their footing on a regular basis. The best example here is Barack Obama. There are leaders who are too new in their jobs to judge, such as Japan's brand new Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Brazil's Dilma Rousseff. There are the mixed bags who have had flashes of strength but who have revealed themselves as too flawed in character or ideology to be likely to ever ultimately ascend to a higher level -- France's Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain's David Cameron are good examples here. Angela Merkel might also be seen to be in this group, compromised by her indecisiveness. There are even those who have done well by many important measures but who have been compromised by lingering problems at home or who have not assumed a highly effective leadership role on the international stage. Manmohan Singh, among the most distinguished of the bunch, might fall into this category. Hu Jintao's China has performed well ... but no man whose government must resort to oppression and censorship, that still gives in to police state impulses, can be considered a first class leader.
There are also those who are just mediocre, not great, or worse. You can fill in the names. You can designate who might fall into each category or make up other categories of short-comings and reasons for frustrations with their performance. But I suspect very few people will step up with a vigorous defense for any of the current class of top dogs.
And then, among this group there are those at the bottom of the barrel: The ones who have actively been bad for their countries or their regions or the world at large (which is not to say the shortcomings of even the better leaders have not produced bad consequences for some on the planet). For my money Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah certainly falls in this group, an autocrat who has exploited his people, resisted needed reforms, presided over the systematic mistreatment of women, and offered wink and a nod (and more direct) support for dangerous extremists. It is still not clear to what degree Dmitri Medvedev is his own man, but certainly the Russian government has been no champion of democracy or due process.
Now Silvio Berlusconi has not sought to crush the people of Italy to his will nor has he, despite an impressive rap sheet, underwritten terrorists. That said, he has, over the years really made a good case that among the world's most important leaders he is perhaps the biggest embarrassment to his country.
It is not enough that the business empire he built has been demonstrated to have engaged in a wide range of unsavory practices. It is not enough that he has been at the center of a steady string of sleazy scandals. It is not enough that he has regularly made public statements that were racist, undiplomatic or just plain inappropriate to the office with which he has been entrusted. It is not even enough that he has run Italy into the ground, to the brink of an economic calamity that literally threatens not just the futures of his people but the fate of the Eurozone and indeed, of the entire international economy. (Although, you'll have to admit, all that constitutes a pretty compelling case for including him at or near the bottom of our list.)
But now comes word of Berlusconi being overheard during a conversation which was taped by police involved in a blackmail investigation. That investigation, into one Giampaolo Tarantini, a man who has said he supplied 30 women for some of the Prime Minister's famous parties, is focused on payments he reportedly received from the Prime Minister. While the arrest of Tarantini and his wife in one of Rome's poshest neighborhoods was dramatic enough, it turns out that in the course of the investigation the Prime Minister, was taped venting his frustration over his perceived mistreatment by the country that enabled him to become a billionaire and the head of its government.
According to press reports, Berlusconi was overheard to say in mid-July, "They can say about me that I screw. It's the only thing they can say about me. Is that clear? They can put listening devices where they like. They can tap my telephone calls. I don't give a fuck. I ... In a few months, I'm getting out to mind my own fucking business, from somewhere else, and so I'm leaving this shitty country of which I am sickened."
Imagine how long a president of the United States would last in office after referring to the U.S. as a "shitty country." Of course, it's hard to imagine how a leader with Berlusconi's personal and professional track record could remain in office long in most countries. But, all that aside, the comments add yet another crowning turd on top of the steaming pile of Italy's Prime Minister's political career. And they make us wonder: Could it be, that among the current class of compromised, faltering, average, unproven, undistinguished and sometimes much worse leaders of the planet's major powers, Berlusconi is actually the least of them?
If you're like many people in the White House, you cringe every time you hear the term "leading from behind." It's become one of the slams du jour here in Washington. But, you have to admit, at least it implied there was some leading happening somewhere.
Watching the clown college that is modern Washington during yesterday's speech scheduling follies, it is clear our glittering prizes are leading us nowhere fast. That's bad for the economy. Bad for the American people. Bad for the world. But having said that, given the visionless self-absorption these folks are currently displaying, I'm not sure we would want to follow even if they knew where to go.
The spat over scheduling the President's address next week was a combination of politics as usual, shoddy planning, pettiness and slapstick comedy. Frankly, I'm not sure Speaker Boehner did his party any favors by booting the President to next Thursday. If he had let him go as scheduled, the Republican debaters who would have followed him on the air could then have torn his speech apart before a national audience thereby upstaging him and giving their alternative views greater visibility at the same time. That said, isn't it time we had a moratorium on tearing ideas and opponents apart for a while. Isn't this one of those "we're all in this together moments?" Maybe we ought to just listen to each other for a while ... and if the pols don't come up with any good ideas, then maybe we should listen to see if someone else does.
For that reason, I am really looking forward to the Republican debate, Governor Romney's scheduled economic speech, the President's jobs speech, and the newly scheduled jobs speech from Speaker Boehner in the hopes that a few ideas may emerge that are of material significance to the economy. But I will admit I am skeptical.
Every sign is that -- as was the case for Herman's Hermits with regard to Mrs. Brown's lovely daughter -- the second verse will be the same as the first (as will be, I fear, all subsequent verses). We'll get tired rhetoric and demagoguery flavored with idea-bits, school-uniform sized initiatives that are almost always less than meets the eye.
The Republicans at the debate will call for cutting the deficit without raising revenues or really scrutinizing defense spending. And the President will offer an array of earnest, modest ideas that may, based on current rumors, produce a million new, primarily short-term jobs. He probably won't make any bold new revenue proposals or for that matter any bold proposals of any sort. He certainly won't volunteer needed cuts to entitlement programs. We'll get a too small infrastructure initiative, too little stimulus, too many compromises. We'll welcome his seriousness and to the extent Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and other individual Republican candidates also provide concrete, job-creating ideas that will be more than welcome, it will be essential to having any kind of constructive public policy dialogue in the next few months.
I worry this will be the case in part because I am getting the impression that some of the President's advisors are recommending he only make proposals that can actually pass. This in turn leads to a lot of folks around the President negotiating with themselves before they even start discussions with the opposition. This dilutes everything.
It's how we are likely to end up with a million dollar patch for a 25 million job hole. And since Hill Republicans will clearly oppose much of it from, the pre-digested compromises will only succeed in producing in smaller failures rather than the larger variety.
As Eugene Robinson wisely noted in the Washington Post earlier this week, the President needs to recognize this, make the best case he can for the big ideas we need to the Congress and then, if they drop the ball as they very well might, then he should plan on taking his ideas not just to the dysfunctional Congress but to the American people. He and those around him should believe in his ability as a leader. He should be out there pushing for a really big infrastructure program, a major investment in American competitiveness through committing to building the next generation smart highway system, smart energy grids, advanced air traffic control network, the underpinnings for our IT future. He should be talking only in terms of programs that created multiple millions of jobs while enhancing productivity and helping to attract new investment. If it means a payroll tax holiday and a repatriation of earnings plan that works, he should go for it. If it means major regulatory reform to accelerate projects waylaid by sluggish approval processes, he should make it happen. But please, frame it in a vision, paint a picture of what America can do to lead again in the world.
He should plan on spending the next 12 months out on the road selling his big ideas directly to the American people so the next election is a ratification of his vision and a mandate for his action. It is literally the only path out of this mess.
We have to recognize that will take a year. Will markets tolerate it? Of course, they will. Especially if they see some kind of real big thinking going on. Especially if real progress seems possible in the foreseeable future. And I continue to hope that President Obama's likely opponent will be Mitt Romney or some other responsible actor and that the ensuing debate might actually be considerably more rational and thoughtful than the food fight that seems to be taking place up and down Pennsylvania Avenue these days.
Finally, to those of you who say Obama is too measured or Romney, for example, is too bland, it's worth remembering that the modern president who may have done the most creating the infrastructure we have today, laying the foundation for modern American competitiveness, was also accused of both traits. His name was Dwight Eisenhower and it is only half a century later that people truly began to appreciate the consequences of what he accomplished with America's highway system, air traffic system, aerospace industry, even some of the foundations of our venture capital system. He wasn't a career politician. He wasn't a charismatic speaker. He was just serious and dogged and experienced. He was also, of course, the one thing that seems in shortest supply these days. He was unquestionably and down to the marrow of his bone a leader.
And if they don't make them like that any more we are all in deep, deep trouble.
Libya is not an important country. It's important to its people and in its region. It's a symbol and it's an indicator. But in a geopolitical sense, it belongs to that list of places like North Korea, Cuba, and Afghanistan that only have gained attention over the years as the platforms of dangerous men. Libya without Qaddafi is unlikely to make headlines for long … unless, yet again, an extremist or an extremist group uses it as a vehicle for their own warped ambitions.
We should not, therefore, be unhappy should Libya ultimately fade from the radar. That would be an encouraging sign. And there are many truly important issues to which we ought to devote our attentions. But we can't allow ourselves to believe that what is happening in Tripoli is the endgame in that country or allow ourselves the luxury of letting our attention drift away as soon as the celebrations stop.
To understand why, we need only ask what lessons this recent chapter in Libya's history holds, what conclusions we may draw, and what implications it may have for the world at large.
First, the greatest immediate benefit from the fall of the Qaddafi regime will be the departure of Qaddafi himself, a fundamentally evil man who has been responsible for much suffering, both for his own people and for the victims of the terrorism he supported. Sealing his fate once and for all, securing his inability to again influence world, regional, or national affairs, is a necessary precondition to regarding this chapter as having come to a satisfactory conclusion.
Second, as the situations in Egypt and Tunisia remind us, we should resist the impulse to become too intoxicated with the natural high afforded by the celebrations that come with the end of brutal, autocratic regimes. Just as it has taken longer than many would have liked to bring down Qaddafi, it will be many months or years before we know the character of the regime that will succeed him, and a happy ending to this story is far from being assured.
Third, as a consequence, we must hope that the patience and perspective shown by the international coalition that has supported the efforts of the Libyan rebels is maintained. Just as President Obama, NATO, and regional leaders who have helped orchestrate the campaign that is now culminating in Tripoli deserve credit for methodically pursuing their goals, we must hope that they will be willing to work to ensure that the legitimate advocates of democracy, pluralism, and tolerance among the leaders of the opposition successful take control of the new regime and that they receive what technical support they need. Libya, as the source of 2 percent of the world's oil, can fund its own recovery if allowed to reintegrate with the global economy. By the same token, the international coalition must remain vigilant that extremists are not able to hijack or pervert the outcome of this revolution.
Fourth, we must hope that this triumph, should it be consolidated, reinvigorates the world's best hopes for this Arab Spring that has continued on into an Arab Summer in which the promise of positive change endures. That means a redoubled international effort to ensure the Assad regime in Syria is also consigned to the dustbin of history in which we find the Egyptian, Tunisian, and, we trust, the Libyan dictators of the past several decades. It also, just as importantly, means that the international community should provide significant but appropriately conditional support for new governments should they promote open societies. Political success stories in these changing societies will be impossible without concurrent economic successes, the creation of opportunity for the young and those who have been victimized by greedy, corrupt systems that have seen leaders and cronies exploit their people for years.
Fifth, the willingness of the Obama administration to step back and let France and Britain lead the initiative in Libya has been a sign of the strength and wisdom of the U.S. president rather than of weakness. America's response to the first phases of this crisis was sloppy, and the Obama team's messages were conflicting to the point of incoherence for weeks. But, Obama has successfully balanced a recognition of the limitations of U.S. military resources and of American political will to get deeply involved in another Middle East war with a desire to remain relevant. He chose -- boldly, given the American bias toward control -- to actually try to find another path, a multilateral, cooperative approach in which the U.S. could influence outcomes, support our interests, but allow others to play a more central role. In so doing, he presaged what must be a new approach by the United States in world affairs. It was not perfect, not neat, but then again, inventing new approaches seldom is those things.
America is entering a new era in its foreign policy. It will be marked not by the end of U.S. leadership but by a change in U.S. leadership. This will naturally require others to step up, and that in turn will demand real changes not only within national foreign policies but also within institutional structures like those of NATO and the EU that are not yet robust enough for the new roles they must play, not strong enough to swiftly produce coherent policies or decisive collective action. The actions of the Sarkozy and Cameron governments in this instance have been especially helpful -- if not without complications and missteps -- in moving the Western alliance in that direction.
For the foreseeable future, a primary focus of that evolving alliance and a changing, more constrained, more multilateralist America will be the Middle East, still roiling as it is, still dangerous with calcified, out-of-touch governments, ancient hatreds, and bad actors. As the reflections on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union remind us, revolutions start fast but take decades to reveal their true character.
It is far too early to know whether the events of this year in Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli, or Damascus and Hama will be seen as an opening to a period of sweeping, constructive changes in the region or whether it will leave us and more importantly the people of these countries frustrated. While the major changes to take place are the responsibility of those people, we must understand that it can't happen without the effective ongoing involvement of the world's leading countries. And that's the fascinating, challenging question that underlies all of what is happening and will happen: How can a changing Western alliance work with a changing regional power structure to produce the enduring political and economic changes the people of the Middle East crave and deserve?
Where is Rick Perry when you need him? Just when I thought it was safe to embrace science, comes a news story in The Guardian entitled "Aliens may destroy humanity to protect other civilizations, say scientists." The subhead adds, "Rising greenhouse emissions could tip off aliens that we are a rapidly expanding threat."
Holy shit. I thought it was bad enough that the ice was melting off Antarctica so fast that golf resort developers are already drawing up blueprints and plans for holding the McMurdo Sound Open in 2020 or so.
Now, we now only have to fear rising sea-levels that will displace millions, submerge Wall Street (yet again), and wipe out most of Florida (ever cloud has its silver lining ... even if it is a cloud of ozone), but if the flood waters don't get us, E.T. will!
That's really too much.
Given the news, I hardly blame the president for spending a little time with his family on Martha's Vineyard. We need to be with our loved ones. And besides, Martha's Vineyard will be gone soon one way or another.
If only I had the absolutely disregard for science of a man like Rick Perry. After all, this is a presidential candidate who not only rejects the proven science that demonstrates the human contribution to global warming, he boasts that in Texas they teach both evolution and creationism. He is practically running on the same anti-science platform that was embraced by the Papacy around the time of Galileo. And if only I could bring myself to buy into his nonsense, then perhaps I wouldn't have to worry about both global warming and being obliterated by a little green man with a ray-gun.
According to the Guardian:
The authors warn that extraterrestrials may be wary of civilisations that expand very rapidly, as these may be prone to destroy other life as they grow, just as humans have pushed species to extinction on Earth. In the most extreme scenario, aliens might choose to destroy humanity to protect other civilisations.
"A preemptive strike would be particularly likely in the early phases of our expansion because a civilisation may become increasingly difficult to destroy as it continues to expand. Humanity may just now be entering the period in which its rapid civilisational expansion could be detected by an ETI because our expansion is changing the composition of the Earth's atmosphere, via greenhouse gas emissions," the report states.
A pre-emptive strike? Gak! But wait! There is a bit of good news in this. While the Rick Perrys of this world don't believe in actual science based on millennia of data and sophisticated analysis in hundreds of laboratories worldwide, they do have a proven track record of accepting as gospel, so to speak, impossible to prove stories about invisible creatures in outer space. So while the data about climate change may not persuade them to work to change our destructive behavior, perhaps speculative scenarios about how greenhouse gases may trigger an alien Armageddon might just get them to take the problem seriously. Even if those scenarios were actually dreamed up by scientists...
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
Celebrating the pending debt-ceiling deal is like a cancer patient in a burning house surrounded by hostile troops celebrating finding his empty wallet. It is not only a solution to a self-created, third-order problem; it is one that is not just inadequate to addressing the really serious challenges at hand; it has almost nothing to do with them.
While criticisms of the deal that note that it barely makes a dent in the debt and buys into spurious principles about how to actually balance the debt are perfectly fair, there are three much bigger problems associated with the proposed agreement.
The first, of course, is that it reveals what a hopeless mess the U.S. political system is. It does so via the process that got us here, the problem being addressed, and the deal's reliance on numerous tell-tale standards of Washington nonsense -- such as the very long-term nature of the cuts or the reliance on yet another committee to address what couldn't be resolved. This would be worrisome in any case. But it is made more troubling because of the other two major problems with the deal.
The second problem is that the deal is more than an agreement to minimal debt cuts, a convoluted process that is more likely to invite mischief among our political class than it is to make a sensible dent in our national debt, and a concession to extremists whose values will bankrupt much of the United States while handing over even more of the national patrimony to a super-empowered elite. It's that it also carries with it an invisible unspoken rider. The rider is that, since this process was so traumatic, the likelihood that any new spending program of size or new revenue program is off the table for the next 15 months or so … despite the fact that the staggering U.S. economy needs both.
(And for those who think the president has scored a "victory" by getting an extension of the debt ceiling through the end of 2012 -- think again. First, there will be plenty of other opportunities for further standoffs in the normal budget process. Secondly, what the president gave up in exchange for this is a process in which the failure to agree on a path forward guarantees nothing but cuts to the budget … not smart ones as much as mutual punitive ones. Thirdly, the deal probably is not big enough to avoid a downgrade.)
Astrid Riecken/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?
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Let's peel away the diplomatic varnish, shall we? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's statement today in New Delhi that the U.S. and India are "allies in the fight against violent extremist networks" was essentially the announcement of an alliance against Pakistan.
Pakistan is America's ally, of course. We say it all the time. Unfortunately, Pakistan also harbors our enemies, supports our enemies, tolerates the intolerable by our enemies, and is therefore also our enemy. Not all of Pakistan, of course. Just some of the most influential of its elites and institutions as well as substantial cross-sections of its population.
Pakistan therefore has no one to blame for the steady deepening of the security ties between the United States and India than itself. As containing the problems within Pakistan through cooperation with the Pakistanis looks increasingly difficult, it is only natural that the United States should simultaneously develop a Plan B approach. That approach is containment and it necessarily must involve a partnership with India.
That India and the United States share many other interests, are the world's two leading democracies, having rapidly growing, deepening economic ties, and share cultural links associated with their past experiences within the British empire make the partnership a natural one. Differences and frustrations will exist naturally -- and some surrounding the U.S.-India nuclear power deal have surfaced during Clinton's India visit -- but there is perhaps no single major power relationship likely to undergo more positive change over the next several decades than that between Washington and New Delhi. To put it another way, this is the emerging world-developed world major power axis of cooperation to watch most closely as it is the one where the aligned interests are perhaps greatest.
The deterioration of U.S. relations with the Pakistanis coupled with the acceleration of Pakistan's development of its nuclear arsenal is only one aspect of these ties and, for Clinton, among the most delicate to handle. That's why her directness in making the statements she did is so striking, timely ... and utterly appropriate.
The recent attacks in Mumbai may not, as of yet, be linked to any groups associated with the Pakistanis, but they certainly remind of the attacks that took place in 2008 and claimed 160 lives which were the handiwork of extremist groups with close ties to some in the Pakistani intelligence services. The fact that these most recent incidents took place while the head of Pakistani intelligence services was visiting Washington was a particularly uncomfortable coincidence.
So when Clinton said that the U.S. would not accept any nation offering "safe havens and free pass" it is clear who she was talking about. It is clear that the discovery of Osama bin Laden being nurtured in the bosom of Pakistan has had a permanent impact on the relationship and that the subsequent bristling of the Pakistanis and their push back on key aspects of U.S.-Pakistani cooperation in combating terror have pushed the alliance to being, in key respects, to use the words of one U.S. government official with whom I recently spoke, "stubbornly dysfunctional."
The U.S. has had, in the past, myriad dysfunctional alliances. But you have to go back to that with the Soviets in the waning days of World War II to find one in which a leading ally was simultaneously viewed as a leading threat. While the statements in New Delhi today do not suggest that our alliance with Islamabad is finished, it does send a clear message that, as was the case with the Soviets, flawed alliances can be turned into dangerously adversarial relationships almost overnight if the sides involved do not work in good faith to resolve their differences.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
This week marks the premiere of the eighth installment of the most successful series in movie history. As such, it offers a useful comparison in the differences between what makes a successful summer blockbuster in Hollywood and what makes for one in Washington, DC. Here are the top ten:
10. Too Few House Elves in Washington (Too Many House Death Eaters)
Oh Dobby, Dobby, if only there were a man in Washington of your stature. Poor Dobby who died, according to his epitaph, "a free elf" was cranky and even less photogenic than Anthony Weiner, but he had heart and courage and took risks for those he served in ways that none on Capitol Hill seem to even comprehend. Meanwhile, there are far too many Death Eaters up there on the wrong end of Pennsylvania Avenue, swirling around in service of He Whose Name Cannot Be Spoken (Grover Norquist) regardless of the pain it may bring to those who actually elected them. (Norquist may succeed with anti-tax religion in doing what the leadership of the Soviet Union could not -- bankrupting and thus breaking America.)
9. Even Hollywood Accounting is Better Than How They Do Math in DC
Hollywood is famous for skimming and double-entry book-keeping but even they know it takes both revenues and sensible spending to balance a budget. And they sure have their focused fixed securely on the bottom line on ways that would be revolutionary in DC. Meanwhile back in our nation's capital it would take a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher with more gifts than Mad Eye Moody to combat the trickery that has in just over a decade transformed a budget surplus into a $1.6 trillion annual deficit. (Face it: Threats to downgrade U.S. debt aside, the real story is that Moody's and S&P haven't trash-canned America's Triple A rating yet. America is ... very lucky ... to still coasting on the reputation of past generations of leaders.)
Read the full list here.
China Photos/Getty Images)
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.
Here at Les Recontres Economiques d'Aix-en-Provence we are ostensibly discussing "The States of the World" but in reality the buzz around the event is about the global economic ugly pageant. Although much of the conversation among delegates --whether at the venerable conference sites like the law school of the Universite Paul Cezanne or the local outpost of Sciences Po -- focuses on the harrowing state of the Eurozone, one can regularly hear concern expressed for the other contestants in the current perverse competition among the world's economies.
To understand the competition, you just have to understand the old joke about the group of friends whose picnic is disturbed by a hungry grizzly bear. As the friends bolt from their campsite, one stops to put on his sneakers. The others ask what he is doing, worried that he will never be able to outrun the bear if he stops. The one in the sneakers observes as he starts sprinting away, "I don't have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun the rest of you."
So it is now with the global economic ugly pageant. While most of the major economies of the world are spluttering and the possibility of an unprecedented geoeconomic disaster remains palpably real, what money there is does have to go somewhere. That place is likely to be the least ugly of the world's economies. In other words, absent a true safe haven, capital will seek the safest haven of those available. It's one reason the dollar has done fairly well recently, for example. While the U.S. government seems to do everything in its power to screw things up economically, investors buy dollars because the managers of the world's other big currencies, the Europeans and the Japanese, are screwing things up worse.
The question now is will our "luck" remain the same going forward? How will the world's economies fare in the next round of this contest? Here's the current betting line based on my scientific eavesdropping on conversations here in Provence, appropriate discounting for self-interest and biases of the speakers and my own reading of the tea leaves that get floated as economic news in the world's newspapers. (Note: I am focusing only on national and regional economies here. Suffice it to say that almost certainly the big losers of the coming months -- whether policymakers accidentally blow up the world economy or they dodge disaster through a judicious combination of austerity and stimulus -- will be the poor. They have no voices advocating for them (as do, for example, the makers of private jets currently lobbying to keep the corporate tax breaks their purchasers receive under present U.S. law). Austerity programs will squeeze them further. Disaster will crush them. And almost certainly the biggest winners will be big corporations and the super-rich who will venue-shop and use their access to cash to buy up devalued assets including fire-sales among privatizing formerly state-owned bric a brac like roads, ports, powerplants and water rights.)
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.