Fifteen years ago, Susan Levine, then Senior Vice President of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and I, recently having departed my not entirely un-senior post at the Commerce Department, circulated a memo to those who would read it that suggested the elimination of the Commerce Department and the consolidation of many of the important trade negotiating and financing agencies into a single department focused on trade issues. Today, President Barack Obama asked Congress for the authority to make this long-sought, common sense streamlining of the U.S. government a reality.
Obama has had a team, led by Jeffrey Zients, an extremely effective official who before he came to government was an innovative and successful business leader, working on this idea for a very long time now. Zients was methodical, reaching out to literally hundreds of current and former officials, business people, experts and others to understand what works, what doesn't and how things could be organized to better and more efficiently serve the American people. His proposals have been batted around at a senior level in the government, faced natural pressure from those whose turf was being threatened, faced equivalent pressure from those who just don't like change, and throughout it Zients & Co. have persevered. Several times they nearly made an announcement like that was made today. Several times the project seemed dead.
But in the end, the effort advanced to the point of the President's request today because its principle advocate and the one who understood its merits most intuitively from the get-go was not Zients but his boss' boss, President Barack Obama.
The request, which would undo the years of bureaucratic confusion that turned Commerce and much of the economic side of the U.S. government into the hodgepodge it is today, is first and foremost an effort to win from the Congress the power to do what Republicans on the Hill have long called for -- to start to reduce waste and inefficiency in the executive branch of the U.S. government. The broad re-organizational fast-track power sought by Obama is of a type no U.S. president has had since Ronald Reagan. But the request is balanced, allowing Obama to make broad proposals for change but requiring swift Congressional approval for those changes. In short, therefore, it is an area of potential bi-partisan agreement and effective collaboration, a fact that has already been noted in early press coverage of the announcement.
Commerce and the Small Business Administration would be merged into a new entity that would also incorporate the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Eximbank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the Trade Development Agency. Parts of Commerce that never belonged there in the first place, like NOAA, would move elsewhere -- with NOAA heading over to Interior where it has always belonged.
Not only does the move make logical sense -- bringing together all those agencies of the government that support the development of U.S. trade and the job creation associated with it -- but it also would save, according to initial White House estimates, over 1000 jobs and $3 billion over the next ten years.
I note that in one of the early stories on the announcement, former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, was quoted as saying that the plan will support U.S. competitiveness. This resonates with me both because he is right and because when we wrote that memo 15 years ago, it was Podesta who, despite the hue and cry from self-interested senior officials who wanted to preserve their fiefdoms, took it seriously and considered it. He, Jim Harmon, the then head of Eximbank, and just a couple of others were open to really considering the long-term benefits such a reorganization would bring.
Periodically during the intervening decade and a half, I would talk to a reporter who was doing a story on the bowl-of-spaghetti like organizational chart of the international economic side of the U.S. government and would hear of another cluster of folks who were supporting some similarly sensible slimming down of a confusing, bloated, bureaucracy. But those groundswells would recede and the issue would go back into hibernation.
Of course, things are very different now and the time is suddenly right to make such a move. The U.S. needs to tighten its belt. This kind of modest reform is, as some Republicans have already noted, just a first step. Much more can and should be done. But this is a logical, painless first step that is highly unlikely to be objected to by any major constituency being served by the agencies in questions -- because in all likelihood, even with the cuts, the efficiency and enhanced coordination that would result from the consolidation would likely actually lead to much better service for U.S. companies, consumers and others with a stake in our ability to tap into the global economy.
As the President accurately said referring to the multiple agencies he intended to fold together, "In this case, six isn't better than one."
Another reason the timing works for this is that substantial constituencies in both parties should and will actively support the move. Finally, the President has gained special credibility in this area due to the remarkable, if under-appreciated, success of his export initiative. Once dismissed as mere window dressing, the President's push to double exports over five years has seen a string of big successes: two years of export growth averaging over 16 percent thus keeping the U.S. on track for his goal, record lending by a much more aggressive and creative team at the U.S. Eximbank led by Fred Hochberg, the approval of three long-delayed trade deals, enhanced trade enforcement, and most importantly, exports contributing in a major way to wealth and job creation nationwide.
From its absurdly muddled mission statement to the sad little aquarium in its basement (which resembles nothing so much as a slightly expanded version of the kind of fish tank you would find in a downscale Italian restaurant in Plainfield, New Jersey), the Commerce Department is the Frankenstein monster of the federal bureaucracy. It's all bits and pieces that belong in other places that have been sewed together by seemingly distracted or perhaps slightly inebriated Congressional committees. Meanwhile, U.S. trade is increasingly vital to our future and U.S. workers, consumers and exporters all deserve better support -- and we could all do with eliminating wasteful spending. As a consequence, the President's move is welcome on its merits and as an excellent initial step toward more sweeping reforms.
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My younger daughter was in Edinburgh earlier this week and visited the grave of Adam Smith. That's a little weird, right? For a 20-year-old?
Anyway, I learned more from this experience than just that my daughter is a little weird, which, to be honest, I already knew. I also learned that Adam Smith is still dead -- which wouldn't be noteworthy except that here in the United States we seem to be on the verge of having a national referendum on the future of capitalism.
The Republican's presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney, last night offered a victory speech following the New Hampshire primary in which he essentially made the differences in his views on capitalism and those of the president the dividing-line issue in the upcoming presidential campaign. Romney asserted that President Obama seeks "to put free enterprise on trial."
On Sunday, President Obama's chief campaign guru, David Axelrod, said that Mitt Romney was a "corporate raider, not a job creator." In so doing, he helped sketch out the different approaches to this central issue. Romney will try to position himself as a "turnaround artist" who understands what makes American business great and can restore vitality. Obama will try to position the former Bain Capital boss as representative of the greedy, indulgent 1 percent who blew up the economy in 2008 and will do so again if unchecked by wise government.
The intensity of this debate has been heightened recently by the attacks of some of Romney's Republican competitors like Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry who, reeking of sour grapes, are going after Romney as being a representative of "bad" capitalism, the rapacious kind practiced by private-equity bandits, or "vultures" as Perry characterized them. There are manifold ironies and hypocrisies here, given that both are members of the U.S. political party most closely associated with big business views and that, for example, Gingrich's anti-Romney onslaught is being funded by a fat cat named Sheldon Adelson who made his millions in the gaming business. So Gingrich is attacking Romney for playing in the Wall Street casino with dollars made from actual casinos and attacking Romney for hurting workers by seeking profits that were too big (that actually often went to fund the pensions of average Americans), with dollars that came from praying on those poor suckers whose understanding of arithmetic was so lousy that they actually thought they could profit from gambling.
Debating the future of American capitalism is a good idea. The past several years have clearly shown the system is broken. Inequality is skyrocketing. Social mobility is plummeting. Median incomes have been hammered. Too-big-to-fail financial institutions have gotten a free ride while Main Street Americans continue to drown in underwater mortgages. Whether or not we should have bailed those banks out or whether we should have helped the auto industry or how much regulation is the right amount or whether we should have an active industrial policy to support key U.S. industries are all legitimate questions to debate. The fact is that while we once were the example for capitalists the world over to follow, there are now a variety of brands of capitalism emerging that use different formulas and are gaining legitimacy due to their own successes and/or the obvious defects in the "leave it to the markets" approach of Anglo-U.S. capitalism. There is the more state-centric "capitalism with Chinese characteristics" being practiced in the world's fastest-growing major economy. There is the "democratic development capitalism" of Brazil or India. There is the "small-state entrepreneurial capitalism" of countries like Singapore, the UAE, Israel, or Chile. And there is Eurocapitalism which, despite the problems in Europe that are so frequently (far too frequently) cited by Romney, has produced some of the nations (mostly in Northern Europe) that have the best balance between fiscal responsibility, growth, and quality-of-life measures anywhere in the world.
We've gone from celebrating the end of history in which America's free market theology triumphed over godless communism to realizing that our victory dance was premature and that we've entered a new world of competing capitalisms. Further, given our problems, others are gaining sway as the world votes for alternative models with the policies they adopt. It's also worth noting that all the other alternatives gaining traction worldwide have a much bigger role for government in their public-private sector mix than does the U.S. model -- Republican attacks on "big government" aside.
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Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, flip a coin. There are differences between the two to be sure. But in the end, the net dissimilarity between these two establishment politicians is going to end up being considerably less than campaign rhetoric will suggest -- or than you might hope for.
Neither is anything like a transformational figure. Both are responsible, cautious men. Both, like most presidential candidates, are flawed by their ambition. There may be differences in emphasis, of course. One is too cool, a bit of a weathervane, beholden to Wall Street, not well loved within his own party establishment, not trusted by his party's base and the other is ... well, I guess that proves my point. From foreign policy to domestic programs, you can be pretty sure the efforts they lead will look surprisingly similar.
Presidential candidates run to the middle (and winners hail from the mainstream) because the deciding votes are cast in the middle. Usually -- and there are periodic exceptions -- that is what accounts for the fact that most presidents have more in common with the men who preceded or followed them in office than they would care to acknowledge.
This is one of the reasons that there is regular refrain for third party presidential candidates. It is also one of the reasons that such undertakings are typically doomed to failure and counterproductive.
If you want to produce real change in the way the government of the United States functions, the way to do it is to focus on the Congress. And boy, does the Congress ever need changing.
The failure of the stuporcommittee (which as of this writing seems all but certain) to even seriously grapple with the issue of the deficit is one of the grossest examples of dereliction of duty in the U.S. government since, well, since the Congress approved the Bush tax cuts. As Senator Tom Coburn said when presented with the idea that the Congress had an approval rating of only 13 percent, "I want to know who those 13 percent are." The Congressional approval rating has now fallen to just 9 percent. This Congress doesn't deserve an approval rating. They don't deserve another day on the job. They could all go home tomorrow and I bet it would be six months before anyone even noticed. (That is after the celebrations had died down.)
Yet, it is in the Congress that an effective, instantly relevant third party initiative could be undertaken. What this country -- divided as it is -- needs, is a legislative third party. It needs a group of swing votes that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans could pass anything without. And given the current state of things, that means it could be a fairly small group -- a handful of senators, 10 or 20 or 30 congresspeople. And it would be possible to identify districts and states where electing a third party or sworn swing vote candidate would be possible. And it would not cost a fraction of what it would cost to win a presidential election. And the group would immediately hold the balance of power on the Hill.
Presidential campaigns capture the glamour. It's easier to connect change with a single face, a single name, a single personality. But, look at where Washington is dysfunctional today and you have to acknowledge, the problem lies at the far end of Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. Capitol Hill has become the Boot Hill of ideas, the place initiatives go to die.
Having a third party on a hill that both sides had to work with to get anything done would change the dynamics dramatically. It would force compromise because there literally would be no way to proceed without it. You would think that was true today but the problem with the two political parties is both see compromise as capitulation to the other, it's a zero sum game. With a third party, that was open to reasonable ideas from both sides ... and couldn't succeed without one or the other...that would change things. It would also create a movement that could grow giving people an alternative to the binary choices they face today.
Clearly, something must be done. If the failure of the supercommittee does not convince you of that then you are already resigned to the irreversible decline of the United States. Because that is precisely where this kind of leadership failure will take us. That is why as important as the presidential sweepstakes are, the really important election news story of 2012 will be whether the American people vote for change in a Congress that has sold them out in every way possible. Certainly every member of the supercommittee and the leadership of both parties should be challenged on their record of failure. They should not be allowed to simply blame it on the other side. Just as the president should not be allowed to merely blame this on the Congress. This was important ... and he chose not to engage, not to take the political risk of rolling up his sleeves and working toward a solution, not to threaten and cajole and do what past presidents have done. It -- like his decision to agree to the extension of the Bush tax cuts -- are among the low points of his otherwise quite accomplished presidency. But neither he nor his potential successor will be able to fix Washington from the Oval Office (which is why whomever wins should get out of it and invite more people into it than the president has done this term). The real responsibility for change we can believe in actually resides with the American people ... and the surest sign whether or not they have accepted that challenge will come when the votes are tallied after next year's congressional balloting.
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Why should Pakistan's smart, hard-working ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani have to resign for doing his job? After all, if as has been asserted, he was involved in getting a back-channel note passed from Pakistan's president to Admiral Mike Mullen when Mullen was chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, isn't that what ambassadors do for their bosses? Yes, it's embarrassing if the note offered to reshuffle the leaders of Pakistan's military and intelligence services in exchange for U.S. assistance in quashing a potential coup. And yes, it's even more embarrassing that Mullen's staff asserts he more or less totally ignored the note.
But let's be honest, isn't the real problem here that a message that was supposed to be on the down-low was found out? (And doesn't that suggest the real mistake was channeling the note through a Pakistani-American businessman who couldn't keep his mouth shut?)
On a deeper level, doesn't the entire incident simply further confirm the fact long-acknowledged by Pakistan hands (and anyone else who's paying attention) that this country seems to be emulating the Chinese model in Hong Kong: one country, two systems? Given the depth, history and tensions associated with the divides between that country's civilian political establishment and its military-intelligence establishment, isn't the truth about Pakistan that is one of the world's true schizo-states?
It is the fact that the civilian government has never been able to assert effective authority over the military or the ISI that has led to the repeated instances of the government promising one thing while its security apparatus was doing another. It is why the country is viewed by the charitable in Washington as a "frenemy." (The less charitable simply view it as an enemy we have to work with, the diplomatic equivalent of a hostile witness in a court case.) In fact, it is why I have also heard more than one Pakistani diplomat use the same term to refer to their own country's relationship with the United States in the past year or so. Admittedly, the Pakistani diplomatic corps tends to represent the civilian government and are so regularly frustrated in their duties by the military and the intelligence services that they are often even more openly hostile to them than are the Americans who by now are simply resigned to their lying and coddling of extremists.
In fact this entire incident underscores why it is misleading and dangerous to think of Pakistan as a unitary country. Not only are its institutions divided, but so too are its people. For every cluster of extremists or those who view their region and much of the world with paranoia-fed hostility, there are masses who seek peace, stability and prosperity and would happily be done with the costly distractions of fighting and divisiveness -- whether internally or, for example, with neighbors like India.
The challenge for the United States and the rest of the world is to manage to work with constructive, sympathetic elements in Pakistan while somehow containing the threat posed by the others, notably those in the ISI and the military who somehow feel it is in the country's interest to support militant groups and to grow the country's nuclear capabilities. Unfortunately, the outlook for managing that challenge does not look good. The civilian government, even if it can hang on for a while longer, is weak and electoral challenges from groups supported by and sympathetic to the military look likely to grow stronger. The nuclear weapons program only looks to grow more dangerous ... and thus we will become even more dependent on the dubious elements of the Pakistan establishment to look out for our most pressing security interests. The country faces profound economic risks that could easily inflame unrest, undercut civilian authority and lead to a push back for the stronger hand of military leadership. And the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will undoubtedly trigger and effort by the Pakistani security elites to support their allies among the Taliban in the struggle for control that will undoubtedly come as the power void in that country next door to Pakistan grows.
As a consequence, our complex and tense relationship with Pakistan is only likely to grow more tense as the complex and tense relationships within the country do as well. Perhaps the greater problem is that the more likely "cure" for schizo-statehood will be a return to military rule. While some will argue this offers desirable stability, it is worth remembering just how that has worked out in the past. It has resulted in a country that unsettled the region and the world with its rogue nuclear program and its support for terrorist and extremist groups. While the illusion was momentary institutional stability in Islamabad, the result was not only undemocratic, it was deeply destabilizing and profoundly dangerous. And that is why anyone with an interest in Pakistan or the region should resist the allure of a return to such faux "stability." Because as schizoid as the situation we face is here, we need to remember that some of the divisions mean that there are forces in the country fighting for democracy, for genuine progress, for an end to conflict and for the kind of civilian control of the security apparatus that is essential to any healthy state.
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Folks, I think we've been had. Worse we've been snookered by a group of guys in the U.S. Congress who are not exactly known for their cleverness. Think about it: we have this oxymoronic supercommittee that has been set up so that if the members fail to do what we ask of them, we are actually the ones who are penalized (through automatic wholesale cuts to government programs, some loved by Dems, some loved the GOP). Shouldn't the members have been forced to sign a deal that said that if they didn't reach a deal by the deadline that they would resign? Shouldn't they actually have some skin in the game?
Trust me, if these dithering poseurs were actually accountable for their own failure to do what they have been hired to do, perhaps they might take the job at hand more seriously. Maybe they are too busy with their insider trading to be bothered with little stuff like the future of the republic.
It's not like the job is actually that tough. They are only being asked to cut the deficit by the equivalent of $120 or so billion a year for a decade. That may sound like a lot but it's out of a $3.7 trillion budget. So it's about 3 percent of the total. And that's including the radical possibility that we actually consider solving the problem by raising revenues a weensy bit. After all, the amount in question is less than we are spending each year on the two wars we don't want to be fighting any more in the Mideast.
Can you imagine what would happen to, say, a mid-level corporate drone who when asked to cut three percent from his budget said he couldn't do it? He'd be canned before he was able to simper his first excuse. And that's just what should happen to these guys.
To put their bungling in perspective, consider for a moment that in today's news alone we have reports that historical enemies India and Pakistan have managed to hammer out an agreement normalizing trade relations, that Syria's neighbors have reversed their behavior of decades and started to pressure the Assad regime to pack it up, that even the Greek and Italian governments are making progress dealing with crises that they have let fester for years. In other words, government officials in other countries are at least showing signs of trying to grapple with tough issues albeit with varying degrees of success.
But here in Washington, the supercommittee and the Congressional leaders to whom they feel they report (they actually report to us, but that's seemingly beside the point to them) haven't thought saving the U.S. economy from yet another crisis of confidence in the markets not to mention the other grave consequences of continued fecklessness was important enough to get around to with only a week left to go on the clock. Insiders in both parties are giving up hope for a deal (although my money is still on a last minute faux-deal that is both small and meaningless when scrutinized). And for everyone involved, the expectation is that they can blame it on the other side and go on with business as usual.
If we, the American people, had any sense of urgency ourselves, we would put an end to that complacency in the one way we can. Should this process fail, we should start a significant public movement to vote out the current Congressional leadership and every single member of the supercommittee ... and to send a strong message that the next Congress needs a change of management regardless of who wins. These guys have disqualified themselves from further consideration as "leaders." They can't do it. They won't. They will have had their shot and failed. And should they not rise to this particularly important moment, we need to recognize that unless we fire them for their incompetence that future generations of congresspeople will feel that they too can pose and pontificate and fail with impunity ... thus producing the kind of institutional breakdown that unchecked will do more to undercut American power than two centuries of international adversaries could muster.
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There are events that are so great that they define an era. Sometimes, the events are associated with transformational trends -- like the Industrial Revolution or the Information Age. Sometimes they are linked to great individuals -- as in the Napoleonic or Victorian periods. And sometimes they are linked to a pivotal action or occurrence that captured the spirit of the adjacent years -- Woodstock or Watergate, for example.
The most recent such epoch ended yesterday.
Forever we will look back on this moment in time and we will define it in terms of the event that above all others embodied and communicated our own zeitgeist. I speak of course, of the marriage of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, which tragically and unexpectedly ended yesterday.
Why, dear God, did you deprive us of this and leave us with Hamid Karzai? Why did you take away this manifestation of what is purest and best about humanity and leave us with the festering problems of the Arab-Palestinian divide?
Of course, we can only for so long rail against providence like King Lear on the heath. Ultimately, life is about learning to come to terms with loss and about appreciating what is elevating and ennobling as best we can even if it must -- heart-breakingly -- be in retrospect.
And we did have our time with them, with our two shining examples. The 72 days of marriage don't seem like much, but take them and the months since Kim and Kris first looked beneath each other's strangely furry eyebrows into each other's eyes and saw that something special that cynics might call sponsorship dollars but we know in our hearts must have been true love and you have an entire year -- not just of good ratings, but of transformational changes in the world.
In the Era of Kim and Kris...
...Osama bin Laden was spotted and killed.
...Anwar al Awlaki met a similar fate.
...The Arab Spring kindled and freedom swept through the Middle East bringing down autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
...The Tea Party rose.
...Michele Bachmann rose and fell.
...Rick Perry rose and fell.
...Herman Cain rose and is falling.
...Mitt Romney remained the whitest white man in America.
...The Eurozone teetered on the brink.
...Wall Street was occupied ... as were 900 other cities.
...Steve Jobs died and the St. Louis Cardinals proved that reincarnation is possible.
Think of it, in that short time, ancient civilizations in Europe and the Middle East were shaken to their foundations. Capitalism went deeper into crisis and revolution brewed around the world. The earth shifted on its very axis.
And in that time, this simple beautiful act, this daring leap into love, elevated and distracted us and allowed us to cling to hope. Because if these two virtual strangers with no education and almost no talent other than ambition itself could will themselves into a marriage that made them millions -- even if it did last no longer than the Tweets by which they announced each of their carefully calculated mood-swings and spats -- then maybe riches were not just for Wall Street geniuses who went to Harvard, maybe TV shows were not just for the beautiful or the gifted, maybe marriage was not just for those who found real love. Maybe sub-average, sub-interesting, sub-useful people could fake their way through this mess just like the big time financial fraudsters and get loads of good gifts, press coverage, and big fat checks for their efforts.
No, this marriage may not have lasted long but that doesn't mean we won't always have its memory to remind us of precisely what kind of world we lived in back then in, well, you know ... last week.
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As it turns out, my mother was wrong. Or was it Madison Avenue? (I always get the two confused.) You can get too much of a good thing.
Case in point: the Republican presidential debates. Admittedly, there is something oddly compelling about them. It's kind of like watching the middle-aged country club dining room version of the food fight from "Animal House." (Romney=Neidermeyer, Perry=Blutarski, Bachman=Mandy Pepperidge) But they're on more frequently than most infomercials and they contain even less intellectual substance.
Every so often however, I give in to temptation and tune in for a fix of comic mayhem. Last night, I settled in to watch the exchange regarding foreign-policy. I can't quite decide whether it was more embarrassing or frightening. The panderdates were crawling all over one another to declare their fierce opposition to foreign aid and their love for defense spending. Even Ron Paul, who as best as I can tell is for shrinking the entire government down until it can be run out of an abandoned Fotomat booth in a parking lot somewhere near Galveston, Texas and who thinks foreign aid carries the ebola virus, found the tiptoeing around the Pentagon pocketbook to be intellectually dishonest.
Here are the facts: We spend less than 1 percent of the federal budget on foreign aid. We spend roughly $50 billion a year on the entire State Department and the foreign aid budget. We spend about 11 times that on the Defense Department plus another three or so times that on "overseas contingency operations" like fighting wars and firing drones into various compounds and convoys and that sort of thing. (Let's not count the Veterans Administration or the Department of Homeland Security or the intelligence community in these budgets though they certainly might be thought of as part of our broader national security establishment.) As it happens we spend a smaller percentage of our GDP on aid than almost any developed country and we spend roughly 10 times on defense what the next biggest spender, China, pays out to defend itself. (Go get a pencil and figure how that works out in terms of per capita defense spending. It won't take you long.)
Cutting foreign aid drastically diminishes our influence. It also sends the message, articulated last night by the most "reasonable" Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, that we have made the decision as a society that the richest nation on earth doesn't feel any responsibility to help other countries with their humanitarian needs. For a bunch of candidates who seem hell-bent on proving their essential Christian-ness, that's a heck of a message for the richest family in town to be sending to those that are in need ... especially when it is the one clear way to support those who support our interests and expand good will toward America while supporting the stabilization of troubled regions. Whatever happened to those "what would Jesus do" wristbands? I'm certainly no expert but I'll tell you one thing, Jesus would not be cutting U.S. foreign aid.
As for cutting defense spending, where do you think Jesus would come out on that one ... especially if they taught any arithmetic in the Nazareth public school system of the Galileean Unified School District. Might he suggest that spending say, only eight times more than our next biggest rival was sufficient to maintain the peace and that we could use the extra $140 or so billion that saved us per year ... $1.5 trillion over a decade, to meet the budget cutting goals of the Supercommittee in one fell swoop? Might he note that there is no way to make the big cuts we need by chopping away at comparatively small programs? Or that somehow cutting the programs that help the rest of the world versus those that are designed to blow it up might send the wrong message?
Heck, it doesn't take being the Prince of Peace or a guy with a knack for stretching a budget (see the whole fishes and loaves thing) to recognize that this approach of eviscerating U.S. smart power while blindly protecting the brute sort is kind of dumb not to mention dangerous.
There is no path to American recovery that does not involve very significant defense spending cuts. Just like there is no path to recovery that does not involve rationalization of entitlement spending. And just as there is no way to where we need to be that doesn't require new sources of revenue. You've got to do all three. And while last night's food fight did indeed have all the low comic appeal of "Animal House" while bearing an uncanny resemblance, as "Morning Joe" noted, to a showdown among the Real Housewives of New York, it skirted reality like Lindsay Lohan dodging community service on her way to another night clubbing. But it did so by offering approaches that were grossly irresponsible and, on their face, should have disqualified each and every one espousing them from occupying any office with responsibility for America's economic or physical security.
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Little could seem so remote from one another than the 9-9-9 tax reform plan of Herman Cain and the chants of the "other 99 percent" as they occupy Wall Street. One is the politically motivated brain-child of a millionaire businessman while the other is a product of the barely contained anger of young people frustrated by the corruption and inequity inherent in the global politics and business today. Yet these two movements are actually linked together in more ways than you might think, nine to be exact:
1.) Both are products of the politics of alienation. Vast majorities on the right and left feel that the system is no long the means by which we fix our problems -- it is the problem. They feel that politicians and Wall Street and big business are self-dealing and leaving the vast majority of Americans
2.) Both are fueled by a belief that the American dream is broken. The self-dealing has essentially gutted the promise of a better future for all those willing to work for it. The essentials of that dream -- a home, the value one can build in that home, rising wages, a better tomorrow for our kids -- they're all gone or compromised for most Americans. For those who didn't go to college there was once an opportunity to join the middle class and have a life of dignity -- also gone. The idea of retiring seems also destined to soon become an exhibit in the Smithsonian as few Americans indeed will be able to afford it.
3.) Both turn on a common theme -- driven by an intense indignation at inequity. It's not just that they system is broken, as Nick Kristof writes compellingly in yesterday's New York Times, it is that it has been gamed. A tiny few benefit and the rest of us of the country -- the 99 percent, the residents of Main Street -- are falling hopelessly, helplessly behind.
4.) Both a reactions against "the establishment" -- although different halves of the establishment. The Tea Partiers think government is the problem. The Occupy Wall Street crowd think it's the financial community or big corporations. The reality is that it is the collaboration between the two for decades (centuries actually) to change the rules of the system to give monied interests the upper hand, a free ride, bailouts when they need it (even when average home owners get nothing), etc.
5.) Both have "good hooks" -- they are easily digested, communicated, understood. The reason that 59 point plans and 1000 page pieces of legislation get no traction is that they are difficult to communicate, understand, debate effectively. Condemn Cain or the protestors all you want, they are connecting because they are dealing at a visceral level with a problem that actually lives in people's guts.
6.) Neither is truly radical. One is the defense of the status quo dressed up in the garb of "change" (where have we seen that before?). The other is unfocused anger. Radical would require an effort to really, truly and deeply challenge and change the system -- to get money out of politics through federally financed elections, to limit the size of banks, to demand transparency and tighter regulation of derivative products, to effectively challenge corporate compensation systems, to toss out the current tax code and start over with something simpler...and, sorry Herman, fairer. We are at a time that demands real, constructive radicalism, a willingness to question everything, to embrace "dangerous' ideas, to ask why we have markets, why we have the system of government we have, what our collective goals are, what our core political philosophies are and to be willing to remake and rebuild those institutions and systems and processes that don't conform to our vision and our ideals
7.) Both are preludes to real change -- but neither in its current form is the ultimate vehicle for that change. Because there is no "ask" for the Occupy Wall Street people, because 9-9-9 doesn't add up and would be deeply unfair to poor and middle income Americans, the movements are more noteworthy for what fuels them than where they are going. The frustration will either lead to a real constructive change agenda...or it won't, problems will deepen...and the real call for change will come more emphatically later.
8.) Each is being misinterpreted by the other. The Occupy Wall Streeters are not, as accused by the right, "anti-American." At their core what they are doing is as fundamentally American as can be. The Tea Partiers may not be my cup of...well, they may be hard for me to swallow...but they do have a legitimate beef that the government needs to operate in their interests and within its budget. That's not to say one side will agree with the other...it's to say that both should listen carefully for what is the same in their arguments. (So too should politicians on both sides who are too quick to view all this as politics as usual...and to play it as such.)
9.) Both should be welcomed by everyone -- they are a sign of long-overdue activism. Now the job is to translate that activism into meaningful change...which I think may require a very different set of political leaders and parties than we have today.
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I have had two really scarring experiences in my time. One was my childhood. The other was my adult life.
As a child, despite growing up in Beaver Cleaver's America with two loving parents, generally hygienic siblings, and the usual allotment of hamsters, turtles, cats, and a dog, there was still plenty of room for psychological trauma. Most of it came subtly but the damage has been irreversible (as my wife and children will attest). For example, I would bounce in the house beaming to report my grades, be asked how I did, describe the triumph of all As and a B and then, after a long pause, be greeted with "What was the B in?"
As an adult, well, it's much too complicated to go into here. But certainly one scarring experience was working in the United States Department of Commerce. For one thing, the inside of the Commerce Building was so dark, featureless and cavernous that it actually became a kind of spiritual black hole, sucking the souls out of its occupants with a ruthless efficiency that calls to mind a kind of industrial-strength version of the movie Poltergeist. Next, while you may have heard of Churchill's famous description of Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, well Commerce was a backwater wrapped in a bureaucracy inside a dysfunctional political system.
On top of that, I was largely involved in trade policy which involved making assertions about which we had no substantiation in support of policies we were not sure would work while hoping the negative consequences would not be so bad. And as it turned out, while my pro-trade reflex is still intact, it has over the years been tempered by the kind of caution blended with cynicism that can only come from exposure to the hype associated with the economic benefits associated with trade deals.
So, in short, not only am damaged goods but I have special experience which may account for how underwhelmed I am by the just achieved trade deals with Korea, Colombia, and Panama. I mean I know people are celebrating. I even have friends who are and I don't want to spoil their fun. So I offer my psychological history as a kind of an excuse for being a spoil-sport.
Not that these deals aren't net net a good thing. They are. The Korea deal is even potentially economically significant ... in a smallish kind of way. And there are those 70,000 jobs the administration is claiming will be created by the $13-15 billion in new exports the deals might help generate. But I can't help but think this is all pretty weak beer and that these deals are more like a throw-back to a bygone era of activist trade policy than they are indicator of some new push toward opening global markets.
In a way, not only are these Bush Administration policies come to long overdue fruition, but they kind of feel like they are simply the last spasm of 1990s trade liberalization.
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This should have been a good week for John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. Few events have better illustrated their well-known assertions about the coordinated power of an Israel lobby in the United States than the effective pressure exerted on President Barack Obama that resulted in his opposition to Palestine's statehood bid in the United Nations.
Unfortunately, as in almost all matters that have to do with the Middle East, all the players -- even academic commentators chattering away at the margins -- end up being undermined by their prejudices, affiliations, old habits and darker impulses.
It happens all the time. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas undercut what should have been his most notable hour with comments to supporters that revealed his deep opposition to granting Israel the same rights and recognition he seeks for his own people. Prime Minister Netanyahu scored a diplomatic victory but at a moment that called for magnanimity he offered condescension and then a promise of new settlements.
Meanwhile, on the periphery of this enduring issue, there are those like Mearsheimer and Walt who perhaps with good, sound academic intentions seek to parse the politics of U.S. foreign policy but who regularly undercut their authority with their methods, tenor and alliances. Their book, "The Israel Lobby" is now a landmark, though arguably less one of scholarship than of opportunism. They seized a moment and capitalized on the existence of an audience that they must have known did not share their self-proclaimed objective, unbiased academic interest in the issue. I have written elsewhere about my views on the book and need not go into again here.
Now, during this week when some of the core ideas of their book were at least brought to life by events, they find themselves fending off a new wave of attacks that are linked to the less savory underbelly of their intellectual enterprise. The genesis of the problem has to do with a comment Mearsheimer provided for the cover a jacket of a book called "The Wandering Who? A Study of Jewish Identity Politics."
The problem with the blurb was not its contents, but rather with the book and the author Mearsheimer was endorsing. It turns out that author, Gilad Atzmon, is according to Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic, "a Hitler Apologist and a Holocaust Revisionist." Goldberg makes the assertions based on both the contents of the book that Atzmon wrote and that Mearsheimer alleges he read and on other writings by Atzmon. He has detailed these assertions in a series of his posts which themselves quote from other web commentators who substantiate his position including Walter Russell Mead, Jon Chait, Adam Holland, and a site called Harry's Place.
You can easily go to the links and see for yourself the facts. It's not a pretty picture. Atzmon has suggested that the Jews were collectively responsible for everything from the death of Jesus to the Holocaust and that today they again need to be saved from themselves by gentiles. He refers to Jews as a "sinister ideological collective." He offers up fictional Jews like Fagin and Shylock as part of an "endless hellish continuum" of Jewish abuse of other members of society. He blames recent financial crises on the Jews. In short, he is nothing more than an old school bigot.
And not only does Mearsheimer endorse his book, link himself to this author and thus give credence to all the critiques of "The Israel Lobby" that suggest that while some of its facts may be right, its authors' biases debase the enterprise and call into question its objectivity or value as anything more than a piece of propaganda. Like most propaganda there's truth in there somewhere-there is after all a pro-Israel lobby-but also like most propaganda it is twisted (other lobbies are downplayed, the influence of this lobby is overplayed, the Jewishness of the lobbying is misrepresented, etc.).
As H.L. Mencken might have observed, no one ever went broke underestimating the abilities of the current Israeli or Palestinian leadership. But in the competition for the region's top cluelessness prize, one has to give Bibi Netanyahu the edge. After all, he has done the near impossible and edged out Mahmoud Abbas.
That's no small feat. Over the weekend a keen, very experienced observer of the region who has what would be generally viewed as a pronounced a pro-Palestinian tilt to his views called Abbas, "hopelessly incompetent, corrupt and obsessed primarily with where his next dollar is coming from." As I noted, this was a supporter. He was struggling with why Abbas might seek to take his statehood resolution to the U.N. Security Council where it will certainly be vetoed rather than bring it to the U.N. General Assembly where he is equal assured of a resounding victory when the votes are tallied. Yes, the latter path grants only observer status, but the former grants nothing at all except the chance to give a few more indignant speeches.
My friend speculated on a few reasons. Foolishness was one. A second, not much more charitable, was that he wanted center stage, a last hurrah, that might propel him into his post-political life well. If it did and that also helped the overall cause by getting some supporters on the record and highlighting divisions among the great powers, all the better. It also might be that he recognizes that actually winning in the General Assembly might then shift the focus to the hollowness of his victory if it comes, as it will, for a nation without borders its most nearest neighbor will agree upon?
Whatever the outcome and whatever Abbas' motives however, he has done one thing that his Israeli counterpart and the wise foreign policy heads within The Quartet have been unable to do. He has taken the initiative and redefined the debate. He has attempted to break out of the box of negotiations that have been going nowhere for years and in so doing he has, for the moment anyway, got everyone else scurrying around reactively to his gambit.
He has been able to do this because he has recognized that global sentiment is now so squarely behind the idea of Palestinian state and so deeply frustrated not only with the stasis in the "peace process" but with the inflammatory and counter-productive Israeli settlements policy that old rules of conduct no longer applied. In the worst case, he will cast a bright light on how many major and emerging powers support a Palestinian state, how deep the support is around the world and, by doing so in a way that flies in the face of the desires of the traditional maestros of the peace process, that registers growing global frustration with their ineffectiveness.
This is at least, partially attuned to reality.
The same cannot be said of the Israeli response or the policies that got them to that place. This fact has been driven home in the past couple days by several developments. First and least, has been the steady drumbeat of states that have said they would support the Palestinians.
More importantly, you have the evidence that the strategic ground is shifting under Israel's feet and not to that country's advantage. Some of it can be found coming from Washington. Oh sure, the Obama Administration is actively trying to forestall the U.N. vote and demonstrate its support for Israel -- although interestingly, as the recent NY Congressional election suggested, they may not get much credit for whatever they do from voters who don't believe that Obama is, in his heart, truly supportive of Israel. But the big signal this week that Netanyahu ought to take into account actually comes from an unlikely place. It comes from the President's budget deficit cutting plan announced today.
In the plan, Obama produces big "savings" by winding down the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Admittedly, to my view, this is a bit like one's spouse producing "savings" by agreeing not to buy a new Bentley, but that's a subject for another day. The salient point is that this announcement is the latest sign of the end of America's "war on terror" and a foreign policy built around containing Islamic extremism. It means that for the second time in two decades, the bogeyman that made Israel strategically important to America is being relegated to dramatically less significant status. It also means that America itself is planning on playing a role in the region that is dramatically reduced compared to that of recent years-one that is likely to be constrained further once deficit hawks have their way with aid budgets.
The impact of these shifts has been compounded by the corresponding rise of the promise of moderate, democratic, more secular states in the region. The recent statements by Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu concerning the desirability of developing a partnership between Turkey and Egypt should drive this message home to Israel and to all with interests in the region. While Davutoglu said "this will not be an axis against any other country", surely the Israelis were not comforted (nor, one hopes, were the Iranians). These two powers could, should such a relationship develop and their own internal evolution continue, become far more important to the U.S. in promoting its interests in the region than Israel ever could. That might well lead to some trade-offs and a shift in U.S. policies even were America not pulling back from the region (as it will, protests from the Administration and the Congress notwithstanding). But if we do pull back, these large regional powers will have more sway and suffice it to say, Israel's relationship with neither is improving.
So the situation on the ground includes the upheaval of the Arab Spring, the growing recognition that stability in the Middle East will turn more on the rise of moderates than it will on balance of power formulas of the past, the coming withdrawal and shifting priorities of the U.S., the rise of regional forces inclined to be more activist (like the Turks), the massive global support for the Palestinians...and Netanyahu and company are embracing policies as though it were June 1967.
They have managed to alienate their friends and make their otherwise feckless enemies look stronger. When simply accepting the Palestinians right to statehood would have given them the high ground and a better position to demand clear recognition of their own right to exist as a Jewish state in return, they have opted for an intemperate, unconstructive, anachronistic approach that has placed their country at greater risk than it has been at any time in roughly four decades. Inadvertently, Netanyahu is doing all he can to turn Abbas' swan song into his own.
Of course, that may not be such a bad thing when what the world and both countries need is new leaders who are more in tune with the new reality in the region and who see that the issue is less political than economic -- who both recognize that there is a deal to be done in which the world helps fund the transformation of Palestine into the economically thriving partner that Israel needs and should want at her borders and who are competent to bringing that deal to fruition. That's why the votes that will really matter re: Israeli and Palestinian peace will come not at the UN but at the ballot boxes in both countries...and hopefully they will come soon.
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As this week's commemorations of the attacks that took place on Sept. 11, 2001 continue, it is appropriate that the country pause to remember those who were lost and injured in the attacks and our response to them as well as those who distinguished themselves seeking to protect America and the values we hold dear.
The wounds of that day and the scars they have left on our society are such that they are certain to be felt by most of us who were alive that day for the rest of our lives.
That said, it does not diminish -- indeed, it enhances -- those moments of remembrance if we take the time to acknowledge and consider those who have been the innocent victims of America's grotesque, unjustifiable overreaction to those attacks.
The numbers vary, but it is certain that well over 100,000 and perhaps as many as a million innocent Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis have been killed as a result of America's efforts to seek revenge for our losses. That means, even the lowest estimates of collateral damage associated with our invasion of Iraq alone from groups like the Associated Press, the Iraq Family Health Survey, or the Iraq Body Count Project, suggest that between 30 and 50 times as many Iraqis died as a result of our invasion as died in 9/11 attacks -- which, of course, had no relationship whatsoever to the country in which they lived. Higher estimates, like those of the Lancet or the Opinion Research Business Survey, suggest totals 200 to 300 times higher. In Afghanistan too, civilians paid for our military intervention with their lives in multiples of our 9/11 losses.
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If mathematics is the universal language, here are a few numbers that should communicate volumes to all:
That's the approximate number of employees in the CIA's Counterterrorism Center. And according to the Washington Post's lead story today, that means more people are now doing counter-terror work for our Central Intelligence Agency than there are as members of al Qaeda. How's that for a tenth anniversary message about America's response to the 9/11 attacks? Personally, I think it is just great and an appropriate use of U.S. national security resources, these couple of thousand of people will do vastly more to contain the terror threat than most of the hundreds of thousands we deployed in old-style land ground wars in the Middle East.
As it happens, 2000 is also the estimated number of militants and civilians killed by U.S. drone attacks. The use of drones along with the application of intelligence assets above are among the ways America is better learning how to contain the terror threat. Of course, the civilian death toll, the violation of the air space of sovereign nations and the moral implications of rich nations being able to wage war against poor ones without putting the lives of their own people at risk are all questions hanging in the air like the drone that circled above Osama bin Laden's residence in the hours before he died.
That, of course, is the current jobless rate in the United State, an ominous figure as we enter this Labor Day weekend. But much worse are numbers like...
16.7 and 16.4
Those respectively are the official numbers regarding unemployed blacks and unemployed young people in America. In cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee, old hubs of the industrial Midwest, the official numbers are above 25 percent. And of course, being official numbers, we know they are wrong. They don't include those who have stopped looking for jobs and dropped out of the labor force altogether. They don't include the under-employed. The real numbers are much higher. In fact they are so much higher that they are not actually numbers any more. They are a social crisis, a breakdown that is tearing apart the fabric of America, crushing hopes and inviting backlash of a type we haven't seen in decades. Which leads us to...
Which is the gut-wrenchingly high ... appalling ... failure-of-our-system type .... percentage of black young people who were out of work in August. And all these unemployment numbers lead us in turn to...
0 and 0
Which is both the number of net new jobs created in August ... and also happens to be Barack Obama's percentage chances of re-election if these job numbers do not improve measurably over the next 12 months. Having said that, it's always good to have a Plan B in mind. Which explains, I suppose, why White House chief of staff Bill Daley reportedly arranged a below-the-radar retreat in June for his senior team at Fort McNair with historian Michael Beschloss as a guest speaker to help answer the one question on everyone's mind: "How does a U.S. President win re-election with the country suffering unacceptably high rates of unemployment?"
51 and counting
That's number of months since George W. Bush's EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said that existing Federal smog standards "do not adequately protect the public." It's "and counting" because today President Obama put a stop -- until at least after the 2012 elections -- to the EPA's plan to issue new ozone standards despite the fact that his own EPA team had been working on them intensively for over two years now. The EPA has said (in each of the past four years) that a new smog standard would provide between $13 billion and $100 billion in health benefits at a cost of $19 billion to $90 billion. Further, the pushback leaves the U.S. again lagging on a global environmental regulatory issue -- ozone -- gaining in importance almost everywhere else. It is also a sign that the President (see the above numbers) is starting to see everything to through the lens of the above job numbers (and his poll numbers that are directly linked to them.) For their part, Republicans on the Hill and corporate voices up and down K Street that have been hammering home the point about potential job losses associated with the possible new regulations were heard cheering. Congressman Fred Upton, the House's energy honcho calling it a "welcome breakthrough."
There is a myth that Mitt Romney is somehow a weak candidate, can't get his tone right, will fold under pressure from the rabid right and the posturing of cardboard panderers like Rick Perry. But watch his progress, his steady, measured campaign, his ability to raise money, and note that while the press spins up the buzz-worthy stories of the day, he soldiers on in a way that has essentially guaranteed that the Republican presidential contest will be "Mitt Romney vs. someone else."
That may have the far right licking its chops, but trust me, in the White House Romney's measured march forward is a source of unease. What they fear -- even taking fully into account Romney's sometimes robotic (but improving) delivery and his coolness (one wag I know framed the contest between him and Barack Obama as "the refrigerator versus the icebox") -- is his solid professionalism.
You could see that professionalism at work in Romney's address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention. And since we spent a little time yesterday breaking down the remarks of Governor Perry, it is only fair that we perform the same public service with regard to the speech of Mitt Romney. The White House should be doing the same thing. Because Romney's speech was both a template for his campaign and a clear sign of what a formidable opponent he may be. He gets it. And pair him with a candidate who plugs him in to the right and a key state -- Marco Rubio, perhaps -- and this man could make 2012 much more difficult for Obama than all the hyperventilating Perry promoters might suggest.
Here are the words of Romney and what they really mean:
OK, so this is just scare tactics and pandering. It's contemptible and simple-minded, and the evocation of the communist threat is downright quaint. But the bad news for all of you out there in foreign-policy land is that scare tactics and pandering work.
The worse news for all of you out there in foreign-policy land is that foreign policy is going to have precious little to do with next year's election, barring some unforeseen development (which is certainly possible). That makes this second excerpt the money paragraph of the speech -- literally and figuratively. That the great national security issue of our time is the great economic security issue of our time is the central issue of this election. The economy is busted. He who seems most likely to be able to fix it wins. Romney describes the problem effectively here, and that half-million-dollar albatross he notes is hanging around every American household's metaphorical neck is a persuasively heavy number that's getting heavier all the time.
Ramrod straight and offering up cringe-worthy physical and verbal salutes to his hosts at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, Republican presidential front-runner Governor Rick Perry yesterday offered a glimpse into what his foreign policy might look like were he to eventually become America's commander in chief.
Normally, such a speech would be an important event. It would be studied by voters and foreign leaders alike, each searching for clues about where the world's most powerful nation might be heading. But in that respect, this speech was superfluous. From its very first stiff, nuance-lite, detail-free bursts of formulaic jingoism it triggered something back in our lizard brains, releasing whatever combination of neural chemicals it is that produces dread-filled déjà vu. Sweet Josephine, says your autonomic nervous system, I've seen this movie before! The Texas Chain Saw Foreign Policy! In fact, I just saw it and have been drinking heavily ever since trying to forget. I know what happens when you elect a Texas governor who thinks borrowed, not-fully-understood opinions and strong words make up for a nearly complete lack of foreign-policy experience.
However, for those of you who like to assess such performances at more than a reflexive level, let's dig deeper. To do so we will have to first translate his remarks from Texan into English. Then, based on what we find we can determine whether this latest candidate is, like his predecessor from the Lone Star State, all hat and no cattle when it comes to foreign policy.
Let's take a few key phrases:
While these subtexts and echoes of the Bush years may give you the willies, there is one set of people who love them. That's the boys and girls in the White House. They love the ascendancy of Rick Perry more than they love lemonade on a hot summer afternoon. Because they know how to run against the Bush record. They know that the one candidate guaranteed to be weaker than this president is his predecessor. As one canny former White House official (yes, a Democrat, I'll admit it) said to me, "All they have to do with Perry is dust off those old 2008 Obama campaign posters and replace the word "HOPE" with "FEAR." They know they can go after Perry for producing "fear you can believe in."
Just as the on-the-ground story of the Arab Spring will begin and end with economic rather than security issues so too will the story of American and European involvement in the region.
The high price of food and basic commodities, the lack of jobs for aspirant workers, and the corruption of the cronygarchies that have run countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria are the drivers behind the revolutions that have dominated the headlines this year. Addressing those concerns, creating opportunities and generating hope for the previously disenfranchised or economically frustrated will be the job that determines whether or not the new governments in rebellion-rocked countries will succeed. In short, these are uprisings that will be won and lost by economists and business people rather than generals.
At the same time, while the seemingly impending victory of rebel forces in Tripoli has quite predictably triggered a new spate of discussions concerning President Obama's "leading from behind" strategy, it is important to note that strategy is shaped less by the president's worldview or that of his national security advisors than it is by the practical constraints imposed by America's fragile and spluttering economy. Some of it, to be sure, is due to the political and military as well as the economic burdens associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan-Pakistan. But the bigger issue, the reason "leading from behind" may be seen as a not terribly positive euphemism for a long-term shift away from the hyper-power unilateralism of the Bush years, is that we simply can't afford to be that country any more.
Not only is America broke but leaders in both parties have finally come to recognize that the gravest threats to U.S. national security are domestic and are associated with our inability to get our economy moving, get our people to work and get our finances in order. Throughout history generals have learned that armies actually travel not on their stomachs but on their wallets. A cash-strapped U.S. is one that will necessarily have to lead in a different way that depends more on effective collaboration and burden sharing with other like-minded powers than did the triumphalist, exceptionalist, plutopower of the "end of history" years.
That's why, despite the television networks focus these past few days on shots of foreign correspondents standing in front of the smoldering hulks of blown up vehicles in Libya, the real story-behind-the-story of importance is the economy. What will Ben Bernanke say in Jackson Hole? How will the markets react? And perhaps more significantly, will Barack Obama or Mitt Romney offer any meaningful ideas about how to get the economy on its feet and Americans back to work in the jobs speeches both have announced for the beginning of September?
Obama's speech will find be a chance for him to offer the principled, visionary, big ideas that have been absent amid the recent bickering in Washington. What about infrastructure? What about the stimulus we need? What about attracting investment, accelerating regulatory approvals for new projects, creating incentives for businesses to spend their cash hordes here in the U.S. while employing U.S. workers?
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It used to be that being the most powerful person in the world was something people took seriously. Genghis Khan actually strapped his testicles up into his body cavity so as not to injure them on long campaigns across the steppes of Asia. Charlemagne battled his way across Italy and Spain and conquered the Saxons. Franklin Roosevelt somehow managed to save the planet while managing an alliance with wily, egotistical and generally difficult partners like Stalin and Churchill.t
So why is that it appears today that no one really even wants the job any more. At a moment when we could really use some potent leadership, potential candidates for the job are wilting under the pressure, ignoring the responsibilities that go with it or just not taking it seriously.
For most of the past century, the title of most powerful man in the world has gone to the president of the United States automatically. This has always been a bit of a fiction. The president does command a mighty military and presides over a great nation with a powerful economy but the job was designed with built-in checks on its power, the military is not much of a source of power if it is used in such a way that we are unable to achieve our goals and it drains our resources, and despite much of what you read in the paper, the president has precious little control over the U.S. economy. Presidents can lead and harness American resources and thus be the most powerful people in the world, but in fact, they seldom have done so.
Certainly, however, today Barack Obama must contend with all the above and the fact that the country he leads is broke, its military over-stretched, public appetite for active international engagement is at a low and the government atop which he sits is dysfunctional to the point of paralysis. At the same time other powers are rising -- both public and private -- who are eating into U.S. influence. And on top of all that the president has himself been hesitant to lead, to lay out principles and successfully fight for them.
His current schedule of a bus tour through Iowa followed by a vacation in Martha's Vineyard at a time of national duress is another sign of retreat from the mantle of leadership -- even if promises are being made that bold new policy initiatives are just around the corner.
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It's a comedy. It's a tragedy. No one is sure who deserves top billing. There's a massive debate over what would constitute a happy ending. The frenzy over the edition of Cirque du So Lame headlining in Washington has turned everyone into a theater critic. Jackie Calmes, writing in the New York Times, sent the White House into a tizzy, for example, with her assertion that President Obama has in fact become a supernumerary in the current drama.
Personally, I think the whole thing was scripted not by Boehner nor Reid nor Norquist nor even by the elusive Master Teabagger writing from his secret retreat somewhere near Black Helicopter, Montana, but by Eugene Ionesco, writing in Paris in the late 1950s. Back then, the play was called "Rhinoceros" and with it Ionesco helped introduce the public at large to the theater of the absurd in much the same way the denizens of the swamplands of the Potomac are doing for America and the world today.
In the original version of the play, a town is gradually destroyed as each of its citizens, save one independent minded fellow with a healthy appreciation for wine and conversation, is transformed into a rhinoceros. Ionesco captured the thrust of what he was getting at in an interview for Le Monde in January of 1960 when he said:
I have been very much struck by what one might call the current of opinion, by its rapid evolution, its power of contagion, which is that of a real epidemic. People allow themselves suddenly to be invaded by a new religion, a doctrine, a fanaticism. ... At such moments we witness a veritable mental mutation. I don't know if you have noticed it, but when people no longer share your opinions, when you can no longer make yourself understood by them, one has the impression of being confronted with monsters-rhinos, for example. They have that mixture of candour and ferocity. They would kill you with the best of consciences."
That was all half a century ago and in France both of which would in other moments make it all seem wildly alien to most Americans. But despite Ionesco's own observation that "you can only predict things after they have happened" he would see much that is painfully familiar in Washington today. Lines from "Rhinoceros" ring as true in 2011 as they did 51 years ago (when the play was seen as an allegory about the rise of extremist movements like Nazism).
"There are many sides to reality," he wrote as if prescribing the game plane adopted by many players in the current battle over the role and size of American government, "Choose the one that's best for you." Surely, this approach, used by everyone in this town in which the most dangerous entitlement program is the one that leaves everyone believing they are entitled to their own facts, is taking the theory of relativity to new depths, previously unimagined by science.
Or, as the United States hurtles toward outcomes that were once unimaginable -- like debt downgrades and withering gridlock in what was once the world's most outstanding set of government institutions -- Ionesco offers the following dry acceptance of what follows when the absurd becomes the commonplace: "I can easily picture the worst, because the worst can easily happen."
In Washington today, the rhinoceroses are winning. Our extremists are not murderers like the jihadists we are at war with or Anders Breivik, but they are nonetheless at work on America's political system in a way that follows the pattern about which Ionesco warned. They promote a doctrine that is a kind of solvent for facts-breaking them down and distorting them until they become unrecognizable. They argue in the true absurdist tradition that somehow they offer a superior form of mathematics that involves only subtraction. They deny history-whether it is the compromises of Reagan, the big-government spending of every recent Republican president, the debt-ceiling extensions of the past, or the culpability of failed Republican tax cuts and spending n unnecessary wars for creating the problem we face. They view reason and compromise as weakness. And they claim they are helping those who they are irreparably hurting.
Magnificently ... from an absurdist perspective...they are combining inexperience, ignorance, intolerance and intransigence into a formula by which they are setting the rules for America. They recognize that, as military strategist Ed Luttwak once observed to me, "In most wars, it's the dirtiest fighter...or the craziest...who sets the rules of the game." Regardless of the final outcome of the debt ceiling drama, a few things are emerging as new realities in Rhino DC:
It was all put into perfect perspective for me in a conversation with one of the most experienced diplomats currently resident in Washington who, after expressing deep concern over the current follies on the Hill, recounted a cartoon that had recently run an international newspaper which showed Hamid Karzai and another leader from the region reading headlines from Washington and wondering aloud whether America was ready for democracy. Or, as Ionesco, observes in "Rhinoceros", "Lunacy is lunacy and that's all there is to it."
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President Obama and Speaker of the House Boehner both wasted their opportunities to address the American people Monday night. They repeated familiar formulations, made no progress, offered no hope. Indeed, they offered the American people a display of empty petulance that will only confirm their darkest fears that Washington is now hopelessly broken. Obama's call for compromise and balance was far more lucid, rational and constructive, but, even as one who is very supportive of the approach offered by the President, watching the remarks I was forced to acknowledge that neither man led us one inch closer to the resolution of the unnecessary, man-made crisis that now holds the United States and the global economy in its thrall.
As Melissa Harris-Perry stated accurately in wrap-up comments on MSNBC, if this kind of display served anyone at all, it was the Republicans who argue that government is the problem. To them, it hardly matters that they are the ones who have guaranteed that theirs is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Which of course, would be just breathtakingly cynical were it not so dangerous.
It's dangerous of course, because government is not the problem. Indeed, for those who expect a functioning national defense, or stewardship of our national resources, or care for those who cannot help themselves, or education for our children, or the infrastructure we need to compete in the world, government is an essential part of the solution. In fact, in times like these, it is an even more important part of the solution than it is when the economy is more robust.
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On Monday, there was some throat clearing in debt crisis discussions in Washington and in Europe. The theatrics came from the one participant common to both discussions, one who had been omni-present but comparatively quiescent for the past few weeks.
This participant hasn't made headlines in the way that Barack Obama, John Boehner, Jean-Claude Trichet, or Georges Papandreou have recently. In fact, the participant has been virtually silent compared to the loudest, most flamboyant participants in the budget debates, the Eric Cantors and the Silvio Berlusconis. But yesterday, this participant said in its unmistakable, firm, monied accent:
I am here, I have been listening, I have watched your one-step forward, two-steps back, approaches, heard your ideological posturing, listened to your threats and I have one thing to say, none of you powerful men and women are as powerful as I am, none of you will have the last word on this. You will produce the outcome that I want or I will produce an outcome that you dare not contemplate. And I am not a politician. This is not empty rhetoric. I have no constituents to report to but myself. I have a long-term perspective that lets me absorb short-term pain. And, one more thing, I'm the one character that you don't want to tangle with in the fight. Make no mistake about it. I am the craziest guy in the room. I will move so fast, respond with such fury to what you may see as a casual throw-away comment or just another minor delay, that you won't know what hit you. But you will all be gone, out of work, forgotten or worse, remembered badly. Remember, I am the guy who made Herbert Hoover who he is today. And then you will ask yourself, why didn't we listen to him? "
This previously relatively soft-spoken guest didn't have to raise his voice to send this message … but the other participants really did have to listen to hear it. What we all should fear is that some ignored it, were too entranced with the sounds of their own voices to get the message.
The player who spoke out was, of course, the markets. The sharp drop in world stock markets and the spiking of the rates at which countries like Italy could borrow may have come primarily as a result of the concerns that arose late last week about the ability of Italy's political "leaders" to manage that country's debt burdens. But it was a message also to the participants in U.S. debt discussions. It said:
You toy with deadlines at your peril. Today was 150 points. But at some moment between now and August 2 if I see this coming off the tracks, I will speak much more loudly and remind you that I am the biggest narcissist among all of you preening narcissists. I am the market. You think it is about you and your politics and your sound bites and your next tweet. But it is always about me."
The message sent was that the next intervention of this cigar-chomping fat cat to the budget talks may come at any moment and it may feel like a sharp-right to the kisser. It could be 450 points that time. Or it could be 700. And it could say, in no uncertain terms: "Remember that Lehman Brothers moment? That was nothing."
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The Axis of Evil may never be the same. A changing of the guard is looming for the James Bond villains of the world, and the bedtime stories with which we scare our children are going to have to go searching for new bogeymen.
2011 is proving to be a bad year for bad men. First, Osama was gunned down in his night clothes while padding around his suburban Pakistani split-level. Now, this week, we have news that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be on his last legs politically, caught up in political intrigue that has brought down his powerful chief of staff and has papers like Britain's Independent speculating that the little Holocaust denier in the homely beige windbreaker has only weeks remaining in his tenure. Maybe less.
At the same time, we have the Chavista version of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? starring Mahmoud's hug-buddy and Venezuela's favorite talk-show host, 56-year-old Hugo Chávez. Chávez went missing a few weeks ago to seek medical treatment in Cuba for what was described as a "pelvic abscess" and since then has been surprisingly silent for a guy who is known to talk for hours on his radio show Aló Presidente about nothing at all (making him, I suppose, the Andean Jerry Seinfeld.)
Rumors in Venezuela abound. There is speculation Chávez is in critical condition, that he has prostate cancer, that he has had liposuction that has gone terribly wrong. In a country without a clear succession plan, his big brother Adán has already made statements that socialists should not use the military to remain in power. Should the Venezuelan jefe die or be incapacitated, that appears to be their only hope of staying in power given that Team Chávez has bench depth akin to those other favorites of the voluble Bolivarian, the New York Mets.
Elsewhere, D-list bad guy Ratko Mladic got arrested, Kim Jong Il continues to be subject to speculation about his deteriorating health (not to mention his ability to control the weather with his thoughts), Bashar al-Assad is under siege, Robert Mugabe is 87, and both Muammar al-Qaddafi and Omar Hassan al-Bashir have ICC arrest warrants out for them. Of these last two, the one the clock seems to be ticking for is Qaddafi, given that while he was dodging NATO bombs, his Sudanese counterpart was basking in a red-carpet reception from those friends of bad guys everywhere, the Chinese. (Who needs values when you have Wall Street touting your growth rate?)
So maybe that's it, the silver lining of 2011. While the world economy continues to be beset by the mismanagement and corruption of its stewards and violence continues to take its toll on a wide swath of the planet, at least we have this not-so-stately procession of some of our most ignominious notables toward the exit. No one will shed a tear for any of them. But it does make you wonder what the class picture is going to look like at the next meeting of SPECTRE.
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David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.