Sept. 11, 2001 marked the beginning of a decade in which the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy was "the war on terror." As we approach Sept. 11, 2011, it is clear that America's foreign policy priorities have changed.
Not only has the United States achieved our principle goal of decapitating al Qaeda and degrading its capabilities, we have hardened our assets, enhanced our intelligence capabilities, developed better networks of international cooperation and, above all, recognized that there are other issues of far greater importance to our national interests that should take precedence. Even the term "war on terror" has thankfully fallen into disuse, a sign that while combatting threats from extremists remains an important element of our national security mission, we no longer seek to equate tactical responses to isolated threats with past conflicts in which our strategic interests were at stake. Instead, we are now appropriately addressing such broader strategic questions such as the rise of new powers like China, India, and Brazil, collaborating to manage the global economy, and containing important regional threats that include but are far from limited to the risks associated with terror.
Nowhere is this shift more striking than in the Greater Middle East, the source of not only the 9/11 attacks but of many of the most serious terror threats of recent memory. Recent events in Libya only underscore that America's number one issue in the region is now supporting the transition of a large number of important regional governments from autocracy to more inclusive forms of government and from top-down, crony states to more open, opportunity-rich economies. In the Middle East we have gone from the war on terror to a new campaign focused not on destruction but on building, not on sidestepping our ideals in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo but on promoting them consistent with the spirit of places like Tahrir Square.
In Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan, while the individual situations are different as is our involvement, our missions are consistent and mutually reinforcing. In the near future, it is to be hoped that similar missions will exist in Syria and in Palestine. Related reforms in countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and even Jordan -- no one like the other, but all sharing a need to evolve to reflect new economic, political, social, and technological realities -- are also likely to grow ever more important to our overall goals in the Middle East.
Of course, the initiatives we support -- those that enfranchise citizens and create opportunities for self-sufficiency and advancement -- are also far more effective tools to combat the spread of terror than have been many of our military and political initiatives of the recent past. That's not to say that there is not an important dimension to that on-going fight that will require swift, decisive use of force -- sometimes even unilateral use of force. But among the best elements of this new approach in the region is that it can only be done through effective multilateral cooperation in conjunction with a broad array of other supporters and international institutions.
Anniversaries like 9/11 are important because they help us remember. But they are also important because they provide needed punctuation marks, allowing us to bring to an end dark chapters like the "war on terror."
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Imagine being Muammar al-Qaddafi. There you are, struggling with the day-to-day challenges of trying to get a decent colorist and botox doc to come to your bunker, and the International Criminal Court issues an arrest warrant for you for crimes against humanity. You're thinking, "crimes against fashion" sure, I would understand that. People are jealous they can't rock the gold epaulets like I do. But crimes against humanity? I'm just following the job description to which every other leader in my region adheres. Sure, I'm trying to put down a rebellion. Abraham Lincoln did the same thing, it resulted in way more killing and mayhem than has happened here, and he's on the five dollar bill.
"What about Assad?" he must be asking any remaining Ukrainian nurse practitioners as he is shuttled from one hiding place to another?
"What about the Bahrainis? What about Ahmadinejad? What about every one of my local colleagues who have dropped the hammer on the people trying to push us from office?"
"Heck, what about the NATO powers that were supposedly not authorized to pursue regime change here who keep "accidentally" bombing every place in town where I have stopped to take a nap?"
"What about George W.T.F. Bush?" he must be asking aloud while daubing shoe polish on his moustache and wondering silently who does Tom Selleck's? "He and Cheney violated every international law on the books, invaded a country, hundreds of thousands of innocent people died, and what do they get? Presidential libraries! Book contracts! State of the art pacemakers!"
Of course, Qaddafi has every reason to be bitter. The international community singled him out and has starkly and apparently unabashedly ignored far worse violations by Bashir al Assad, to pick just the most egregious case of a double standard. Not that Qaddafi doesn't deserve the arrest warrant issued by the ICC on Monday. Not that the world won't be a better place when he is out of office or better, behind bars paying for his brutality, his sponsorship for terror and his myriad abuses against his own people. But, if ever a guy was having a "why me" moment, it must be him as he reads about Syrian crackdowns, recalls the Iranian crackdown, watches as leaders from North Korea to China to Myanmar to Russia to Zimbabwe to Sudan to the Congo to Venezuela order their opponents locked up or worse.
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It sounds like an insider joke: the Revenge of the Obamanauts. Hillary Clinton has been dispatched on an urgent mission … to Greenland. Goodbye, Hillary. Hope you can find a nice walrus-hide pantsuit.
But Secretary Clinton's trip to Greenland's capital city of Nuuk on Thursday to attend a meeting of the Arctic Council is far from an effort to lower the secretary of state's profile. What is being discussed by the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, and Denmark at the round-table discussion are issues that may be among the most important and least well understood of the decades ahead.
It is currently estimated that perhaps a quarter of the world's untapped oil and gas reserves lie within the Arctic Circle. In a world of scarce resources, growing demand, and an increasing capability to actually tap into those hitherto unreachable fields, that would be enough to make the Nuuk meetings and the Arctic Council process increasingly important.
But the Arctic is also the likely site of significant new sources of many vital minerals, of fisheries, and, as importantly, it is ground zero for a potential climatic transformation that could have profound consequences for the planet. Someday historians might look back at the period in which we live and laugh a sad laugh about how we were obsessed with contained temporal threats like terror while flashing brightly on the computers of scientists everywhere were bright warnings that the global environment was undergoing the most profound changes it has experienced since the dawn of human history -- changes that would literally erase countries, transform the global economy, create famines, force hundreds of millions from their homes, and send like numbers into poverty. The study announced a week ago by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program makes warnings like those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change look positively giddy by comparison. It suggests that average global sea level could rise by as much as five feet during the remainder of this century.
Much of that increase in sea-level rise over prior studies' is due to past underestimating of the speed and scope of Arctic ice melting. The AMAP study concluded that within just over a generation, the Arctic Ocean will be almost ice-free during the summertime. That means easier energy and mineral exploration, the creation of important new shipping lanes, and very different climates creating a variety of new opportunities for countries in Arctic regions.
All this means greater competition for the Arctic with real pushing and shoving and potential for growing tensions among key players including the Russians, Northern Europeans, and even the Chinese who want to be involved despite their lack of clear claims on the region. It also means that the once seemingly arcane decisions about things like shipping lanes and search-and-rescue protocols (which are being addressed in a treaty to be signed in Nuuk) are becoming much more fraught and central to the strategic interests of many of the world's major powers.
That is why sending Secretary Clinton to Greenland to be the first U.S. secretary of state to attend an Arctic Council meeting is anything but a punishment. In fact, given the issues involved and their growing centrality to global affairs … plus the presence of other key players from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar … in symbolic terms alone the gathering in Nuuk could end up being the most important visit to Greenland made since a Viking named Gunnbjörn was blown off course and arrived there in the year 930.
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It would be too easy to say that Barack Obama has been a big loser so far since the onset of operations against the Qaddafi regime in Libya. It would also be wrong. The Obama administration has mishandled many elements of the crisis, but nothing they have done wrong thus far is irreversible and in terms of the simple objectives of imposing a no-fly zone and containing Qaddafi, the effort has been effective.
Further, whatever the criticism of Obama may be, his intentions have been both defensible and sound: The desire to forestall a humanitarian disaster and to do so through multilateral mechanisms were worthy and responsible goals. The challenge thus far has been in the execution ... although clearly, the risks going forward remain high and were this to result in a protracted U.S. involvement, unacceptable costs, a stalemate on the ground that left Qaddafi in power or the installation of a new government that ultimately proved to be as bad or worse for U.S. interests than its predecessors, then we would have to revisit our list.
Meanwhile, at this stage of the game, the five biggest losers associate with the whadeveryacallit (see Jay Carney's convolocution above) are:
Much as the Libyan people were only the number five beneficiary of events so far in our winners list because the outcome is so uncertain, Qaddafi is only the number five loser of the major international military onslaught targeting his regime because it is not certain how this will all end up for him. With the UN's promise not to put boots on the ground, Qaddafi's tenure in office could be a long one and absent a "lucky" missile strike or a major increase in the effectiveness of opposition forces, a stalemate in which he retains considerable power over important chunks of Libya seems a strong possibility. Another alternative which might not be so bad is exile and the prospect of living with billions of dollars and all the Ukrainian nurses that can buy (which is a lot). So, while the most advanced military forces in the world are working against him, right now Muammar still is clinging to hope of a better tomorrow ... or any tomorrow ... which could prove to be a very unsatisfactory outcome from the political perspective of some of his leading international adversaries. That said, my money is on him not surviving as Libya's leader and in any event all his attempts at remaking his image over the past half decade have been undone and he has been permanently restored to his much deserved lunatic pariah status.
While the forces in the field have been performing admirably, the early days of this operation in terms of the alliance's political operations haven't been pretty. The world's most important, powerful, experienced, best-equipped military alliance has all the toys a middle-aged coalition could want but someone seems to have misplaced the instruction manual for smooth establishment of a command structure. From the minute they committed to this there have been arguments about who is in charge, about goals, about tactics, about basing, about burden-sharing, about virtually everything that alleged friends could possibly fight about. While the attacks NATO has carried out have apparently been effective, it is still unclear whether in the long-term they will be making the region any safer. Further, and more damagingly, they have revealed real problems in the ability of the alliance to work together on the kinds of conflicts with which they are most likely to be confronted in the near future. The apparent decision, a week into the crisis, to put a clear NATO command structure to be in charge helps matters considerably ... but the delays in getting there also underscore the kind of fault-line issues bedeviling the participating countries. This will all be papered over once this draws to a close but going forward, resistance of countries like Germany and Turkey to participation in undertakings like this could remain high for some time to come.
3. Arab League
Not that they had much credibility to begin with and not that many people expected much of them when it came to championing either democracy or even the basic human rights of the people of their region, but the Arab League at least during the early days of this operation did the near impossible and reduced the value of their role as a force of good within their region by their inability to follow up on their welcome promise of playing a key role in containing Qaddafi. Again, it's possible that they could undo the damage that has been done by stepping up their commitment of men and materiel to the mission -- and today's welcome announcement of substantial air support from the UAE buttresses the commitment of the Qataris in important ways -- but there are plenty in the coalition who acted in response to their promises who are absolutely furious at how so many members of the League have proven to be all keffiyeh and no camel on this issue. (A reference to the old Texas slam about posturing would-be ranchers who were "all hat and no cattle" for those of you wondering where I was going with that.)
Viewing points 3 and 4 above, one can't help but worry that at the dawn of what could be a new era in international affairs, an essential idea has been set back by messy execution. In the wake of the Iraq debacle, America and the world both were motivated to move away from the ugly inequities of a one superpower world dominated by a we-can-do-it-all-ourselves USA. The only alternative was better sharing of responsibilities for decision-making and problem-solving when it came to global problems. Barack Obama's willingness to embrace that new approach in the face of this first real 3 a.m. phone call type crisis of his presidency was welcome and the right thing to do but it could produce more damage than good if critics ultimately feel we did the right thing in the wrong way. If the message about multilateralism is that it is slow or messy or costly or politically damaging, it will not only become harder to rally allies in the future but in the U.S. unilateralists will have a case in point to use when next they want to drop the hammer on someone without benefit of the blessing of the international community.
It is a good thing that William Safire, the New York Times redoubtable lover of words and their meanings is dead because if he weren't the White House press statements on this crisis would have killed him. We don't have to start with the good and capable Jay Carney's ill-considered coherence-limited characterization of the Libya conflict cited in the title of this post. We can turn to Ben Rhodes' clarity-challenged clarification of whether or not the U.S. was seeking regime change cited in an earlier post this week. Or we can go to Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough's appearance on the PBS NewsHour which was described by the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin as "He was asked questions. He answered them. And in the end you had no idea what he said." (For our international readers let me note that the Washington Post is not seen as a crazy right wing mouthpiece of the Republican Party.) Speaking however of crazy Republicans, they are not immune from the disease currently affecting Washington, either. Take Newt Gingrich who may have finally stuck a stake through the heart of his already slim chances of being a credible candidate for president when he offered two completely contradictory positions on intervention in Libya within the course of a couple of weeks. (Although his creative "patriotism excuses infidelity" stance -- also known as the flag-made-me-do-it excuse for cheating on your cancer-stricken wife -- is likely to ensure him a few male votes should he ever run.) It is almost as if the underlying foundation of the United States's current foreign policy is Newton's Third Law of Motion, paraphrased to suggest that for each guiding principle of our actions there is an equal and opposite principle to which we also adhere. We're leading and we're not. We're for regime change and we're against. We're for democracy in some places but not in others. For those seeking comfort, there are always the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." For those worried by the trend outbreak of double-talk there is however the fact that Fitzgerald offered that observation in an essay called "The Crack-Up."
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It is hard to argue with the White House's reasoning behind working collaboratively with other nations in formulating the response to the Libya crisis. But, if the president is going to talk the multilateralist talk, the crucial question is going to be whether he does so effectively or not.
Obama's multilateralism is both ideological and pragmatic. Since his first days as a candidate, he has made it clear that he believes in the international rule of law, support for international institutions and a United States that is a committed partner rather than a unilateralist rogue within the international system. On the practical front, the U.S. public has neither the appetite nor the checkbook for a sequel to the series of with-us-or-against-us-themed American Sherriff road movies that recently have been playing to such mixed notices in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. (In both instances while we have worked with coalitions, the U.S. role has been so great that other nations have really been extras, featured ensemble members at best.)
So the president has shown reasoned restraint in the wake of the outbreak of civil war in Libya. While the plight of citizens on the ground cries out for support, Obama and his team have felt that given both the complexities associated with widely bruited-about "solutions" like the imposition of a no-fly zone as well as other interventive measures, that whatever is done would be both more legitimate and more sustainable if undertaken through collective initiative.
That seems like a sound approach -- if intervention actually takes place. But the president and his team must not fall into the trap of thinking that embracing multilateralism excuses inaction when decisive measures are called for. The United States still has national interests -- whether they are in maintaining oil flows or preventing a humanitarian disaster or discouraging other thugocracies from brutalizing their own people -- and if it is the choice of this administration to advance those interests through collaboration with our NATO allies, via the United Nations or through some ad hoc coalition then the United States must find ways to actually do so and to do so in a timely, resolute and ultimately successful way.
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It says something about Gary Locke's tenure as secretary of commerce that it is clearly a promotion for him to have been named to an ambassadorial post and sent to the other side of the world. It also says something about the post he is being offered -- ambassador to China -- by far the U.S. government's most important diplomatic posting in the world. Locke is an excellent choice for the new job and will undoubtedly excel in the role. In fact, there is really only one thing the Obama administration can do to make this smart appointment even better: It can not appoint a replacement for Locke.
Locke is a soft-spoken, detail-oriented, thoughtful, lawyerly fellow, which is not surprising given that in addition to being the former governor of Washington, he is also a lawyer. As a Chinese-speaking, trade-smart Chinese-American from a state with important export ties to China and having the stature that comes of cabinet and state governor posts, he's an ideal choice for the Beijing job.
His tenure as commerce secretary was muted because his particular skill set was not particularly suited to being a cheerleader for U.S. industry. He has no bombast in him, and for a politician he is singularly devoid of the hail-fellow-well-met gene. But beyond his personal traits, one of the reasons he struggled as commerce secretary was that the Commerce Department itself is such a mishmash of agencies with competing missions that the reality is that the vast majority of people who have led the agency have disappeared without a trace into its bowels.
Frankly, it should be considered a destination of choice by the folks over at the federal witness protection program.
President Obama and those closest to him -- including one of the few people who have ever successfully led the Commerce Department and then gone on to bigger and better things, White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley -- recognize this and have very wisely and none too soon undertaken a review of whether or not to restructure the agency along with the other white elephants, redundancies, and lost causes of the federal bureaucracy. The effort is being led by former business exec Jeff Zients, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, and as a former management consultant, CEO, and very successful entrepreneur, an ideal choice for the mission.
While it is reported that Locke himself only heard of the president's intention to announce the initiative to rationalize the structure of departments including his own a few minutes before the announcement was made, the idea is a sound one that should be well-received by both parties in the current atmosphere of frugality -- or at least expressed frugality -- in Washington.
What Obama should do is appoint an acting commerce secretary to serve as a place holder. (Perhaps appointing Zients into a kind of caretaker role to oversee the change would be a good step. An analogy is the role Elizabeth Warren is currently playing re: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.) Putting someone new and "permanent" in the existing commerce job would a.) Immediately create an opponent to any meaningful restructuring and b.) Be quite tough if they knew there was a serious effort to dismantle the agency afoot. Then, the president and his team should take the steps that have been obviously called for by many of us who have worked at the Commerce Department and on the economic side of the U.S. government for years. They would include:
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The greater good is the bitch-goddess of foreign policy. It provides at once both the inspiration to elevate society and the temptation to debase it. I'm sure one of the reasons that the study of foreign policy draws in so many passive-aggressive poindexters is because they get a cheap thrill from entering a fraternity in which the only admissions requirement is checking your conscience at the door.
In the first international affairs class one attends or the first serious discussion of foreign policy in which one participates, sooner or later the focus turns to the tough choices that must be made in the name of the Shiva of Foggy Bottom.
It is easy to understand this impulse when one watches scenes as in Libya in which a corrupt despot seeks to maintain his illegitimate chokehold on a society through the slaughter of those who only seek the rights due all men and women. Using force and taking life to stop evil and to protect those who cannot defend themselves is certainly justifiable albeit fraught with moral complexities that we too often too easily set aside.
That said however, we have to acknowledge that the natural habitat of this particular bitch-goddess is the slipperiest of slopes. It is worth remembering that most of the world's greatest sins have been committed in the service of someone's definition of the greater good. It is a point the Obama administration ought to take to heart as recent headlines suggest that we are crossing to the wrong side of the world's most dangerous border, the one that divides "realism" from "evil."
Not surprisingly, no place illustrates this danger like the region we call AfPak. And as a consequence no place more emphatically shouts out the question: "Have we no decency? Are there no limits to what we are willing to accept in the pursuit of our allegedly high-minded goals?"
We accept Hamid Karzai and elements of the Pakistani government although we know them to be corrupt and very likely supporting or enabling our enemies. We do this despite the lesson being chanted in public squares across the Middle East -- not to mention most of the history of modern U.S. foreign policy -- is that this approach inevitably comes back to bite us in the most sensitive parts of our national interests. We are seen as the co-authors of the wrongs our chosen despots commit or tolerate because ... well, because we are. That we are doing this in Afghanistan even as we are seemingly preparing to embrace a bigger role for the Taliban in the government only compounds the wrong -- the only justification for supporting Karzai is that he is better than the alternative but we don't seem to think that's necessarily the case anymore. Whatever your view of the issue, you have to admit it's a treacherously morally ambiguous place to venture to reclaim the national standing the Obama team correctly feels the United States lost during the Bush years.
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They are still there in Tahrir Square. Not as many as before. The energy has ebbed away. The television cameras have long-since shifted their focus elsewhere. To the fighting in Libya. To the water cannons being used against protestors by the U.S.-backed government in Iraq.
But the protestors remain where Egypt's Jasmine Revolution made its great stand against Mubarak's thugs. They are still connected with the world via Twitter and Facebook. They are not yet ready to leave and in that there is an important lesson that may offer more hope than even the jubilation that seemed to emanate from the protestors to every corner of the world when Hosni the Dinosaur finally agreed to lumber out of town.
They understand that contrary to the generally accepted understanding of the term, revolutions do not happen quickly nor do they end when the initial battles associated with them cease. Revolutions unfold slowly. Successful revolutions inevitably take years, decades or sometimes longer. Revolutions do not just require courage they require tenacity and watchfulness.
In Tahrir Square, they are watching. They are there to hold the Egyptian provisional government to their word. They were there this week to demand that Ahmed Shafiq, a Mubarak hold-over, resign. If he did not, they would call their brethren back to the square. Shafiq and the leaders of the military who have been entrusted with the transition understood what that meant. For the protestors, it was another step forward but it was still an early one in what they know will be a long journey.
Even should democracy arrive later this year, they know that is not enough. From Mubarak to free and fair elections is great progress, a kind of political miracle, but it is not what the revolution was about. The revolution was about what happens between elections, what leads from election to election, about a culture of transparency, fairness and opportunity. It is about being a democratic society which is very different from sporting a few of the accoutrements of democratic behavior ... like elections.
They don't have to look too far to see that elections alone do not a functioning democratic society make. They can look to Iraq, where despite elections cronyism, corruption, and ethnic and social divisions still rule. They see a country in which the United States spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives to defeat a despot and install democracy with its people in the street, demanding change, confronted by "security forces in black uniforms, track-suits and T-shirts" who, according to the Washington Post, "attacked protesters, rounded up others from cafes and homes and hauled them off, blindfolded to army detention centers."
The Post story quoted a human rights activist as saying, "Maliki is starting to act like Saddam Hussein, to use the same fear, to plant it inside Iraqis who criticize him. ... The U.S. must feel embarrassed right now -- it is they who promised a modern state, a democratic state."
While they may not know that Merriam-Webster defines revolution as "a sudden, radical or complete change" they understand that "sudden" and even "radical" are not enough. "Complete" is the operative word and that takes time and vigilance and the spirit of a marathon runner as opposed to a sprinter.
It's why, despite the fact that few of them may ever have heard of Benjamin Franklin, they seem to understand what he meant when, asked about what was being produced by America's revolution and the subsequent drafting of its constitution, he said, "a republic, if we can keep it."
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Recently, there have been perturbations in the wonkosphere. While the trembles are so slight that they wouldn't show up on the Richter Scale of a real human being, they have generated blog headlines and conversations at conferences full of people with advanced degrees and too much time on their hands. The stir has been caused by the assertion that we now live in something that big idea branding experts are trying to characterize as a "G-Zero" world.
In the words of one of the term's proponents, Ian Bremmer, the term refers to the assertion that we now live in a world in which "no country or bloc of countries has the political and economic leverage to drive an international agenda." Bremmer, and another supporter of the idea, NYU's Nouriel Roubini, have been explaining the notion and have done so compellingly enough that after it came up at this year's World Economic Forum gabfest in the Swiss Alps, the New York Times called it the event's "buzziest buzzword."
Buzz words are important in the wonkosphere because people are very busy going from conference to conference, periodically stopping to Tweet about who they bumped into and how they influenced them, and they have very little time to really think about anything. So if you can take an idea, reduce it to a couple of key, easily digestible, tasty ingredients, and wrap into a piece of shiny gold foil you have ... a Reese's Pieces Mini. Well, actually, you have something just like it, but not quite as tasty; you have a candidate for buzz-term of the moment.
Sometimes, it must be said, that even the fizziest of the buzziest actually contain a core idea of real value. Take a stroll down foreign policy nerd memory lane and savor past hits like "illiberal democracy" or "the world is flat" or "clash of civilizations" or "the end of history." Agree with the core notion of the idea or not (the delicious peanut butter center), you have to admit these ideas performed a useful purpose, captured a zeitgeist, and got the conversation going. Some, like "the end of history," were both widely misunderstood and, when understood correctly, wrong. But it was a compelling idea thoughtfully arrived at.
This G-Zero thing, not so much. The idea, of course, plays on all the discussion that has swirled around recent international summits as the attendance lists changed and the labels were altered accordingly. We went from the G-8 to the G-20 and then, keen observers, eager to build their own bit of buzz in the pundit-hive, pondered whether we weren't really seeing a case of a G-18 wrapped around a G-2 (the United States and China.) The Chinese didn't much like this and wished pundits would leave their g-darned labels off of them.
Bremmer and Roubini and company make the case that the United States and the Europeans and the Japanese are too deeply under economic water, and the emerging powers like China and India are too busy developing all the time for anybody to be able to step up and drive the international agenda. And while I know and like Ian and think both he and Roubini are smart guys, this is as an idea that looks like what it is: not much built around a big zero.
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While it is too early to assess the long-term outcomes of the uprising in Egypt, there are nonetheless a number of important conclusions to which we can reasonably come.
First, something profound has changed. It did not change because of the uprising in Tahrir Square. It changed and the uprising was the result; the power has shifted in the region. We have passed a generational and technological tipping point. While the dinosaurs cling to the levers of power in virtually every country in the greater Middle East, the under 30 majority is now the great force to be reckoned with. While the establishment has done almost everything conceivable to keep them down from denying them education to curtailing the spread of information technologies to gutting the economies, nonetheless, new information sources and technologies and ways of connecting and collaborating seeped in to these societies through every one of the cracks spreading across the Ozymandian edifices of the elite.
These changes are irreversible. They are seen in the cell phones that even the poorest carry with them, in the broadcasts of Al Jazeera, in the burgeoning Twitter feeds, the apps young Arabs create to provide work-arounds every time a government tries to curtail Internet access, and even in the technological use of some of the region's worst players.
These changes have remade the social and political fabric of the region. What they have yet to do is what they have done everywhere else in the world and that is to fuel economic change.
That is the second inescapable conclusion we need to consider. The great challenges before this under-30 majority are economic, they are about opportunity. They are not about Israel or battles between Shiites and Sunnis or tribal divisions. Those problems still fester, but the unifying challenge for this generation is even more basic: They need jobs. They crave opportunity. And the failure of their leaders to provide them with these basic sources of sustenance and dignity is what has fueled the revolutions of 2011.
A corollary to this conclusion is that we in the United States have been sending the wrong people with the wrong approaches to solve the wrong problems in this region for decades. The problems of this region will not be solved by negotiators or generals. They require investors and entrepreneurs and educators. To the extent that we can contribute, we must do so by supporting the creation of economic opportunity. It is a massive undertaking but it is the only true peacemaker.
A third conclusion is related to the second, however. The role for the U.S. government in all this is very, very limited. We would do well to redirect what aid we provide to address this core challenge of creating jobs for the under-30s. We would do well to put our best economic minds in charge, perhaps even appointing a special economic envoy of real stature. But the only people who can ultimately solve this problem are in the Middle East. In fact, in the hierarchy of those who can help, if the people of the Middle East are first and by far foremost, it is the people of Europe, not the United States who must be second. They are the natural economic neighbors of the region and they must answer the question whether they want those under-30s employed in the Middle East or seeking employment in Europe. After the Europeans, it may even be the Chinese or Indians and others dependent on oil in the region and closer to its problems who should take more prominent roles in helping to solve the problem than the United States, which is a lightening rod and has problems of our own at home.
A fourth conclusion is that the hardest part is clearly still ahead of us. Egypt must make the transition to democracy and that means the military must really step aside after six months. Friends of mine who have met with them believe they understand the implications of the political earthquake that has taken place during the past month and that they will do so. But there are dinosaurs among their leaders so it is by no means a sure thing. Even beyond establishing a democracy is actually keeping one, and beyond that is addressing successfully the economic challenges alluded to above. Further, there are the problems of all the other countries of the region. They will be difficult to handle but we in the United States need to be confident enough in our core beliefs to let them work them out among themselves. There will be fights and setbacks and people we don't like will periodically gain the upper hand. But give me a duel between two guys armed with the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter feeds and let one offer the people the 11th Century and another offer the 21th and I know who I will bet on.
Finally, my fifth conclusion is that of all the big challenges ahead for U.S. foreign policy associated with this period of upheaval, the greatest by far lies with Israel and the Palestinians. Personally, I am not sure why the Palestinians have not yet unilaterally declared independence. The world would surely support them. But imagine what would happen if, perhaps on the road to such a declaration perhaps following it, a hundred thousand Palestinians took to the streets peacefully demanding real self-determination. With memories of Tahrir Square fresh in the minds of the world, how could the Israelis respond as they might have in the past? On what side of history would they appear to be as President Obama might put it? And in that vein, on what side of that history would President Obama and the United States want to be?
Until now, the fact that Israel was the region's only democracy was its "get out of jail free" card. It was used to excuse ... or attempt to excuse ... a multitude of sins. For this reason, no Arab military offensive could be as effective in undermining Israel's strategic advantages as real democracy taking root elsewhere in the region. The Netanyahu administration would be flummoxed if people power came to the West Bank and Gaza. They would be cast involuntarily with the dinosaurs. They would have no pages in their playbook indicating how to handle this. They would have very few good choices.
Actually, they would have only one. They would have to get out of the way. They would have to do what Mubarak did. They would have to step within the 1967 borders and let the Palestinians begin the job of building Palestine. And they would have to hope that the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world helped the Palestinians do it because once that happens, it will be of the utmost importance for Israel that its new neighbor produce real opportunity for its people ... because we have seen the alternative and it, for this generation who have both nothing and nothing to lose will not be contained by the tactics or the rhetoric of the past.
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
The problem with experience is that it doesn't prepare you for what you have never seen before. This is also a challenge for experts, for whom their knowledge of the past is usually an advantage, but sometimes can be their worst limitation.
This has certainly been the case in the past several weeks with the events in Tunisia and Egypt. Old Middle East hands approached the matter with great caution, fearing instability, because if it followed past patterns, it would most likely end in unhappiness. The most likely outcomes they could foresee were either: the further cementing of the status quo or an invitation to something much worse.
History taught them that popular uprisings in the region typically led either to replacing one despot with another or perhaps to trading the evils of autocracy for the evils of theocracy.
And we would do well to consider the fact that even now, as Egypt is awash in euphoria, that the experts may be right. And they would do well to consider that perhaps what has happened in Egypt is something entirely new.
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While the attention of the media is largely devoted to looming storm clouds over the Middle East, it may well be that the next tempest to shake the world may in fact be expected in your teapot. Not to mention your shopping cart. And your gas tank.
In fact, while the uprisings in the Middle East may well be harbingers of historic change in the region, they are also a direct result of another set of factors that could conceivable eclipse them as the big story of the year for 2011: rising global commodity prices. In Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan among the most notable complaints of protestors has been the skyrocketing food prices.
As noted here, that fact is part of a vicious circle that is worrying markets. Bad global grain crops last year produce unrest in the Middle East this year. That in turn pushes up energy prices due to concerns about disruptions in energy flows. That in turn pushes up food prices further as something like 30 or 40 percent of the cost of most food products is related to energy costs associated with processing, packaging, and transportation.
But that's not the whole story. Look at the headlines coming out of China this week about a spreading and significant drought that is likely to further negatively impact food supplies and push up prices. Look at the other headlines about Chinese and Brazilian concerns about inflation. Or the headlines from today (and many recent days) about how inflation worries are depressing stock prices.
In fact, among the very few people who are not that worried about inflation is U.S. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke who, testified Wednesday, said that while it may be a problem for the emerging world, "inflation is expected to persist (in the United States) below the level Federal Reserve policymakers" feel they have to worry about it. Of course, just because he doesn't worry about inflation here in the United States, doesn't mean Americans aren't going to feel the pinch if food and fuel prices go up. In a rough economic environment like this one for many Americans that squeeze will be particularly acute ... and included in that group are the politicians who will hear the howls of their constituents if prices get above the level average people feel is fair to them. Furthermore, if inflation in places like China, Brazil, or elsewhere in the emerging world causes them to tighten their monetary policies or it negatively impacts real growth, there could be meaningful negative knock-on consequences for the United States.
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While it is often ruefully noted that you can't pick your relatives, there is an expectation in life that you can pick your partners. Barack Obama is discovering that when you are president of the United States, that's just not the case.
In fact, if there is one theme that runs through every corner of the Obama presidency it is that he has been forced into partnerships that are so complex, difficult, and undependable that it must leave him yearning for the relative simplicity of good old fashioned enmities. This was illustrated yesterday as the president made the short walk across Lafayette Park to visit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, symbolic headquarters of the U.S. business community, a group with which the president has come to realize he must work more closely going forward.
But in and amid all those complicated relationships, which are the most difficult? Naturally, there are many ways to measure this but we'll stick with one: Which among the most difficult are most likely to blow up in his face during the next two years?
Here's the verdict:
This, the most important international bilateral relationship, is both difficult and likely to be relatively stable because it is so complex. There is so much economic co-dependency here that the political issues are likely to work themselves out. Over the next two years trade and currency tensions may grow, but it is unlikely that either side will flirt with a big blow up prior to the 2012 leadership change in China or the presidential elections that same year in the U.S.
China is likely to be the U.S. most important international counterpart in the decade ahead but Russia remains the wildcard among the major powers. Stephen Cohen summed it up well on "Morning Joe" this morning: Russia's the biggest country in landmass, the leader in energy output and it has all those nuclear weapons. It also has a massive Muslim population, related challenges in its near abroad, memories of empire and what might politely be called a mischievous streak when it comes to international challenges. Oh, and it is undergoing a demographic meltdown and it is suffering from a divided less-than-dependably friendly political leadership. It's at the bottom of this list primarily because of the "next two years" focus of our metric.
Israel is the United States' most dependable friend in the Middle East and a vital ally. That said it is also facing massively unsettling changes from within and without that are creating enormous pressures on its political leaders. The Bibi-Barack marriage was never exactly made in Heaven but as the Israelis face demographic pressures at home, the Hezbollah take-over of Lebanon, instability in Jordan and Egypt, the prospect of a nuclear Iran, growing international pressure to cut a deal with the Palestinians and seeming growing inability of the Palestinians to cut a deal due to their own internal divisions ... what was difficult is going to get any easier. While many expect Netanyahu to offer his own concessions and a roadmap to progress sometime soon, there is real concern even among his supporters whether he can go far enough to break the logjam in the peace process. If he can't, pressure will build in this already fraught partnership.
Egypt nudges out Israel only because it is so volatile right now and we don't know where the current unrest now heading into its third week is likely to head. One thing we do know, there are almost no circumstances in which the relationship will be easier for the United States. If there are massive reforms, a more pluralistic Egypt will be harder to deal with than an autocracy with a fairly dependable ally at the helm. If the current regime holds, they will never trust the U.S. in the same way as they did prior to this crisis.
6. Democrats in the Congress
Will Rogers said, "I'm not a member of any organized party, I'm a Democrat!" And as far as we know he never sat at a cocktail party between bickering leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer or Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer. (Although, Pelosi clearly had a little celebratory sip of champagne last night to celebrate the departure of Jane Harmon, a longtime thorn in her side.) Pick an issue from fighting the deficit to rationalizing our regulatory framework to investing in energy infrastructure, you'll find both Obama's biggest supporters and some of his most difficult opponents in his own party.
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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.