For those of you who missed the president's State of the Union message, let me sum it up for you: Our enemies in the Middle East are dead or on the run. Our new enemies are Wall Street, big oil, and Congressional obstructionism. We can be the America of 1945 again if we restore fairness to our society.
Ok, that's a little cynical. But in short strokes, that's it. We want to be good old America, the place where the little guy has a chance and no one wants to mess with Uncle Sam. Oh and we love the military. Oh and Osama bin Laden is still dead.
That said, it was a pretty good speech as these things go, had a few interesting ideas in it, a few sound if retread notions masquerading as interesting ideas, and it was well delivered.
Grading it, we'd have to conclude the following:
So, there you go. Pick the grade you like the most, ignore the others, and move on. Because these things matter little, except in political terms and even then not much because no one is going to remember January come November.
Having said all that, let me add one more thing. You may have heard that I am graduating from blogging to being the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. What this means among other things is that I will no longer be blogging daily. (Pause to allow you all to get a hanky and daub your eyes.) Instead, I'll be writing a Monday web-column (like a blog, only crunchy) and a regular back-page column in FP, the magazine. Oh sure, I'll also tweet…and I suppose when I can't help myself I'll throw in a blog every so often. So, I'll still be around, still spouting off -- but doing so slightly less frequently -- allowing you all the more time to read better writers and me a little more time to think about what I write (which wouldn't hurt.) Thanks for following the blog and please look out for the column, beginning week after next.
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Newt Gingrich called the U.S.-Israeli decision to put off joint military exercises scheduled for the Negev Desert "the greatest act of presidential weakness he has seen in his lifetime." He was implying that it was done to appease Iran. As it happens, according to the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, the exercises were put off not by the U.S. but at the request of the Israelis. Facts aside, as they often are, the only true weakness revealed by the statement is Gingrich's own. He's desperate. If current polls are to be believed, the remaining shelf-life of his campaign can be measured in hours. And that's a charitable assessment. More gimlet-eyed observers might conclude the campaign hasn't been viable since it collapsed from front runner status to also-ran in Iowa under the weight of the candidate's blustering intemperance.
Gingrich, despite his declining political relevance, does trigger a couple useful thoughts with this latest crudely inflammatory comment. The first is that he reminds us what old-fashioned war mongering is really like. War mongering, like cheese mongering and fish mongering, has a good old-fashioned sound to it. It makes one think of the tub-thumping pols of old, back in the days when war was glorious and generals watched battles from astride white steeds high atop a hillside far from the action. Of course, like all forms of mongering, it's a dirty business and even when it doesn't produce mayhem and tragedy it leaves behind a dirty, smelly residue.
Ron Paul calls Gingrich and the others seeking to tough-talk our way toward confrontation with Iran "chicken hawks." Not only does this have a satisfyingly sleazy allusion to a sexual subculture within it, it also correctly observes that it's no skin off Gingrich's expansive backside to urge America into war with Iran.
The problem is that while Paul's war-avoiding impulse is nobler than Gingrich's posturing, his approach to Iran suffers from a similar flaw. Both are the classic product of political campaigns: they are not so much policies as they are provocations, conceived as much to produce a reaction in the lizard brains of potential followers as they are to actually suggest a way to advance U.S. national interests. All the candidates are guilty of such statements. Romney and Perry have also made over-the-top statements about what they would do if they got their hands on Iran (not to mention over-the-top statements about their devotion to Israel, their anger with the Chinese, their contempt for Eurosocialism, and so on.)
The reason they overdo it is that nuance doesn't show up well even on large-screen HD TVs. In fact, people viewing the world 55 diagonal inches at a time want bright colors, action, drama, 3D foreign policy where all the bits and pieces seem to fly right off the screen and straight into your living room. It's one of the reasons that foreign policy often plays a secondary role in campaigns.
That said, 3D full-color, high-impact nuance is not impossible. And the irony is that nothing illustrates this as well as the Obama administration's smart, multi-layered, tough and often courageous Iran policy. You can tell it's nuanced because so few people are happy with it. Today, for example, on "Morning Joe," Zbigniew Brzezinski asserted that the covert attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists presumably undertaken by the Israelis perhaps with the tacit endorsement of the U.S. "debased" foreign policy. Now, there are few people in the U.S. foreign policy community for whom I have greater regard than Brzezinski. But this remark bemused and troubled me. On the one hand I find the notion that foreign policy can be debased laughable when it so often deals in death, lying, bribery, and other such practices. More importantly, I can't help but think that Brzezinski wouldn't have minded such actions against Soviet enemies during the Cold War. He just doesn't think the threat posed by Iran is comparable (it's not) nor does he, I believe, much like the U.S. working so closely with Israel (a more complicated issue than we can deal with here effectively.) But the boldness of these attacks -- like the Stuxnet cyberattack and the drone activity in that country -- has sent a message that has clearly been received by the Iranians as well as the critics. This president and his allies are not simply going to rely on "soft power" to contain the Iranian nuclear threat, especially when it seems clear that Tehran has such disregard for diplomacy and prescribed international processes. This makes threats to do more credible and the ability to achieve goals while doing less likely.
At the same time, the administration's "soft power" tourniquet has also been applied effectively. Not only are have they maintained for many months tireless multichannel diplomatic efforts to nudge the Iranians to an agreement to stop its progress toward the development of nuclear weapons, they have engineered one of the most effective economic sanctions programs undertaken by the international community against any nation in the recent history of the world. "Soft" though this power may be, it is causing real pain and discomfort for Iran's leadership. In a region that has seen plenty of governments totter under economic stresses, the ayatollahs increasingly are seen as wanting a way out from the pressure. (The situation in Iran has reportedly gotten so bad that periodically Mahmoud Ahmadinejad bolts from Tehran to go to his home town far from his enemies in the high ranks of the government...and then must be escorted back to the capital at the emphatic insistence of his bosses in the top tiers of that country's religious hierarchy.)
The point is that the president takes the threat seriously and has for now at least, found a way to very forcefully deliver a message that Iran must cease and desist without actually going to war. Should he have to take that next step, he will be able to honestly say that thing every president should be able to assert prior to putting troops in harms way, that he has tried every other available option. He has also approached this problem in conjunction with the international community thus adding both legitimacy and effectiveness to the undertaking.
The GOP candidates will wave their arms and talk tougher than teen-aged boys in a locker room. Or, in the case of Paul, he will talk tough and wave off serious threats as someone else's problems. But they will all overstate because they think they must...even as the President admirably illustrates that there is another course, one that involves such a complete and energetic use of almost every tool short of open warfare in the national security tool box that I suspect someday if things turn out right (and no foreign policy initiative can guarantee an outcome because, of course, other players and many variables are involved) it will be studied as an example of how to do foreign policy right-big, bold, 3D and nuanced.
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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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As was explained in part one of this post, following what is said or written about American politics is often difficult for Americans who are actually used to all the dissembling, spinning, deliberate misconstruing, hyperbole and other nonsense that is to spin facts and lies into glittering campaign finery.
But if you are not from the U.S., it's next two impossible to know what's important or what's not. Given the central role America still plays in the world -- G-zeroists notwithstanding -- cutting through the headlines and the soundbites to get to the core truths about what's happening in the world's highest-priced democracy is essential.
That's why I've tried to pick out a few terms and explain what each party means by them. Earlier this week, I visited the Republican lexicon. Today, we'll take a look at a handful of key illustrations of the quirks and curiosities that comprise the Dem dialect, with a special focus on a few that pertain to foreign policy.
The 1 Percent -- This is a perjorative term of art for every rich, spoiled, corrupt, indolent, exploitative millionaire in America who is not a donor to the Obama reelection effort or the Democratic National Committee. Donors are referred to as hard-working, job-creating illustrations of the enduring power of the American dream. (Also understood to refer to those who should be shouldering burden for balancing U.S. budget by paying "their fair share" of taxes.)
The 99 Percent -- This refers to the disenfranchised, struggling victims of Wall Street and corporatist exploitation. All these people deserve tax cuts, to be funded by the 1 percent. The fact that there is no way to address the deficit without a bigger burden falling on most of the members of the 99 percent, too, is just not something that should be discussed in public until we are in the midst of robust recovery lest the truth and arithmetic derail everything.
Bush Tax Cuts -- Source of all problems in the U.S. economy, even though President Obama celebrated extending them as a canny political victory in the middle of his first term. (Also known as the biggest political issue of December 2012.)
Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security -- The Holy Trinity of American politics. They are sacrosanct and must never be touched -- even if major surgery is the only way to actually save their lives.
Financial Services Reform -- A political mirage allowing the president to seemingly take a tough stand against the 1 percent while not alienating too much the fat cats who are needed to pump money into Dem coffers. Advocate it, sign it, but don't really overdo the enforcement side of it.
Campaign Finance Reform -- Something that is absolutely essential for restoring democracy in America, and which should be implemented just as soon as every currently serving Dem leaves office.
The President's Healthcare Victory -- Shhhh. Please don't mention this. Despite the fact that it actually benefitted millions, it is the Voldemort of Dem politics, "the policy whose name must not be spoken."
Romneycare -- Shhh. Please don't mention this either. Because as Dems, we'll be forced to admit we kinda like it.
The Unemployment Rate -- The president's true running mate (sorry, Joe.) If it dips to around 8 percent or below, the president wins re-election. Interesting fact: the president has almost no ability to impact this outcome and bares only a very limited responsibility for fluctuations in U.S. employment one way or another.
Europe -- Dem heaven. An ability to balance the love of good cuisine with the love for a well-constructed government bureaucracy. Topless beaches. The fact that the eurocrisis probably will have more to do with whether Obama wins reelection than anything he or anyone in the U.S. might do compromises this love affair somewhat.
China -- Growing up, most Dem policy wonks wanted to be European, today they want to be Chinese. And we hate them for that.
India -- China with democracy … really fractious democracy at that, and crazy, over-the-top, outspoken media chaos. A fast growing developing country with an important strategic role and a historical past that gave us Ben Kingsley. In other words, for visionary Dem foreign policy types, even better than Europe or China. The ultimate destination/partner for the Dem wonkocracy.
The Middle East -- Er, nice to know ya, time to go, "yay, democracy," "boo, Iran," "love ya, Israel" ... we're out of here.
"Barack Obama has a good working relationship with Bibi Netanyahu" -- Ha.
"It would be wrong to politicize the successful results of the Bin Laden raid" -- Let's play up this big success at every opportunity that arises. Wanna bet the story of the Navy SEAL who pulled the trigger leaks closer to election day? Best illustration of Dem cojones since Madeleine Albright first raised the possibility they might exist.
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Perhaps the greatest weakness of the Obama administration is its inability to own its successes. While this is hardly a weakness that will be cited by the president's opponents in the upcoming campaign, or even one that they will acknowledge, perhaps, it will impact the outcome next November. Because the Obama track record on many fronts is much better than the administration gives itself credit for.
They could be doing much, much more to tout what is an impressive litany of successes.
While the list of those successes is long and compelling-defeating Bin Laden, getting out of Iraq, helping to oust Qaddafi, restoring our reputation internationally, resetting our international priorities to better coincide with our long term interests (the "pivot" to a focus on Asia), producing meaningful healthcare reform, producing significant financial services reforms, stopping the downward spiral in the economy and laying the foundations of recovery, etc. -- let me focus on three areas that deserve much more attention and appreciation.
The first of these is our international economic policy. I worked for President Clinton on these issues and during our tenure there was always a sense they were front and center among the administration's priorities. But during the first year's of the Obama administration, the domestic economic crisis dominated and beyond the international repercussions of the market meltdown other econ issues couldn't seem to wedge their way up to being front of mind for the president or his top advisors.
That has changed. A couple years ago the president made a bold-seemingly out of the blue-call for the U.S. to double it's exports over the next five years. With growth averaging over 16 percent a year since then, they are on the path to do so. The U.S. Export-Import Bank has broken all records in terms of financing of U.S. exports. Three trade deals got through a divided Congress-against substantial opposition from within the president's own party. The TPP process is moving forward. Trade laws are being enforced more aggressively. U.S. pressure on China regarding its currency is beginning to have an effect. U.S. active involvement in European debt discussions has been forceful and played a meaningful role in moving them forward (admittedly working against strong internal EU headwinds). The U.S. has actively begun a program to attract foreign investment in the U.S., a long-overlooked area of great importance. Exports are contributing heavily to recent growth. The president's Export Initiative is working beyond what anyone had any reason to hope was possible.
So where's the party? Why isn't the president celebrating each of these landmarks and sending his surrogates across America with this message of success? He can prove he is creating jobs and growth and making material progress at getting globalization to work for the U.S. He should be shouting it from the rooftops. (I know we would have been during the Clinton years. Indeed, we celebrated much smaller accomplishments much more aggressively.)
The next of these is our policy with regard to Iran. In recent days it has become clear that the sanctions against Iran are working vastly better than anyone should have expected. The Europeans are now tightening them further with a planned oil embargo against the Iranians -- a display of unity and shared purpose within the Atlantic Alliance that might at one time have seemed as far-fetched as the idea that sanctions could work in the first place. I know I was betting against them having real traction. Perhaps more surprisingly, the Chinese have joined in constructively. Admittedly, they're doing it to finagle lower oil prices. But whatever their motivation, this is the first major Mideast issue that has required their involvement and they have played a useful role. Further, this is no accident. All of these moves have come thanks to purposeful, tireless behind the scenes diplomacy by the United States.
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George Bernard Shaw once observed that England and America are two countries separated by a common language. But now we live in the Internet Age and English has, in way that still galls the Gaullists, become the lingua franca of e-cosmopolitans. The result is that now our language can separate Americans not just from the English but from all the world.
This is especially true when customs and culture and quirks of local context enter into matters. For example, someone outside the United States might pick up a newspaper or log on to a website to read about this week's Iowa caucuses and conclude that they were an important political event in the U.S., that the winners won or that the losers lost. After all, that's what the words on the page or on the screen seemed to say. But the reality is that to understand what's going on in U.S. politics, the international observer really needs some kind of translation device, a U.S. politics to English dictionary, that will help reveal the real meaning obscured by the words.
So let me try to help. Here are a few key translations that may be of use during the current Republican campaign. Note, there are similarly twisted definitions used by Democrats which I will get to later:
Ron Paul: This is electoral English for "none of the above." When voters cast a vote for Paul, it is less for the man (there really is a Ron Paul) or his policies (a strange brew of Austrian economics, isolationism, and a late night television ad for solid gold medallions commemorating the historic events at Area 51) than it is a protest vote against the system.
Ron Paul Supporters: These are young white guys who have never had a date who need something to occupy them until the movie of "The Hobbit" is released...or they are older libertarians who believe that the Fed is where Bilderbergers meet to devalue the dollars they need in order to buy the guns with which they intend to protect their homes from space aliens or people from New York.
Ronald Reagan: This is not a reference to the real Ronald Reagan -- an American president from a while back. Instead it refers to an imaginary, idealized vision of a conservative president developed by the right wing of the Republican Party. Reagan was hardly a true conservative, growing government enormously, creating burgeoning deficits, actively working with Democrats, depending heavily on compromises that drew him closer to a Democratic sub-group that supported him, and hardly living by anything that might be considered the "family values" touted by the religious right.
Conservative Base of the Republican Party: This is a term for the small minority of right wing Republicans who have been successful at conveying the idea that they control the Republican Party even though they have not be able to select a single genuine member of their faction as the party's candidate since 1964.
Attack Ads: These are what candidates call ads that (often accurately) recount weak parts of their records. Oddly, these are often acts of compromise that actually should be seen as the high points of their public service careers. The synonym for "attack ad" when it refers to an ad you would run against an opponent is "the truth."
Winning: This is not to be confused with the term "winning" made popular by deranged, drug-addled actor Charlie Sheen to refer to the disasters that made his career a shambles. But it does share some similarities in that it seldom actually refers to winning. Candidates who finish second or third or even fourth or fifth in primaries might be said to have "won" because...well, because they don't want to admit they have lost. Which they did. A recent great example of this kind of spin is when after the Iowa caucuses, Ron Paul observed that if you counted the two guys who finished ahead of him as one guy then he would have finished second.
Getting Tough with Iran: On a variety of policy issues what candidates say is very different from what they actually mean or intend to do. Therefore it is very important for non-native electoral English speakers to understand the real meaning of key foreign policy assertions lest they fear some of what is promised actually might happen. For example, GOP candidates, in an effort to show they are strong on defense will bend over backwards to say they will/would attack Iran to stop them from getting nuclear weapons. They are no more likely to than any American president -- which is to say, they are probably likely to support an attack on Iran by the Israelis if it needed to be made (as would the Saudis and a number of other of Iran's uncomfortable neighbors.)
Punishing China: This is another promise to be taken with a grain of salt. Mitt Romney, the almost certain GOP presidential candidate, has said he will be tough on the Chinese on trade. He won't be. His friends in business lean heavily against alienating the Chinese whose market is so attractive to them. So he'll rattle the economic saber but should he win election he will pull his punches.
Socialism: This is not a reference to the political theories of Karl Marx nor any descended from them. Rather it is a term used by Republicans to describe any government program that benefits parts of the population other than the rich or big business. It is designed to make the President of the United States seem more godless and "other" like. It implies he speaks Russian or Chinese to his children while burning American flags in secret possibly satanic rituals.
Europe: Hotbed of "socialism." A synonym for failure...despite the fact that much of northern Europe outperforms the U.S. by almost every economic and quality of life measure.
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First day back at work in the New Year. Blearily open eyes on computer screen. First story I see: Muslim Brotherhood says they won't recognize Israel. Second story: Muslim Brotherhood closer to running lower house in Egyptian parliament. Third story: Islamists form government in Morocco. Next story: Israelis, prepare for peace talks by announcing new construction beyond Green Line in Jerusalem. Next story: Iranian rattling sabers in the Gulf. Next story: Taliban setting up shop in Qatar thanks to rapprochement with government. Next story: Arab League sham intervention in Syria going nowhere fast.
Seriously. That's how 2012 started for me. So, the question is: what's a guy supposed to think? Is it that 2011 was the year of giddy -- and utterly unfounded -- optimism about the Middle East?
The only person who could possibly read all those stories and be happy is Bibi Netanyahu. With elections expected in Israel this year, nothing could do more for his election chances than to have all his worst predictions about the aftermath of Arab Spring and the increasing Iranian threat appear to be coming true. All the intolerance, abuse, violence, and exacerbation of the country's problems associated with the Israeli far right and all the missteps of the Israeli Prime Minister himself may seem small price to pay if the country feels a vice grip of insecurity tightening around it throughout the year.
That's not to say I actually think that Netanyahu's combativeness and pedantry actually helps anything. I don't. It's actually more a way of saying that as bad as I think this morning's first news dump was for me, I can't help but feel worse is in store.
Beyond the problems that seem certain to deepen between Israel and the Palestinians, within Syria, with the rise of intransigent Islamic political parties, and with Iran, we also have Iraq seemingly heading straight back to the emergency room of geopolitics and, if anything, the deal the U.S. seems likely to cut with the devils we know in Afghanistan promises even less satisfactory outcomes.
Furthermore, none of these pessimistic analyzes actually have to pan out in the long run to actually have really negative consequences. For example, one of the more positive stories of the morning was the announcement that U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta was preparing a plan to cut $450 billion in U.S. defense spending over the next decade. This is in line with the very modest 8 percent cuts the administration had planned. And it's an important step in the right direction.
Almost certainly the greatest, most damaging strategic error the U.S. has made during the past couple decades is continuing our over-the-top defense spending. We have spent at many times the level we need to protect ourselves -- indeed, we have spent at a level at which the economic damage we have done the country (both in terms of deficits created and in terms of the opportunity cost of investing in our military rather than in more productive segments of the economy) vastly outstrips any potential security benefits that may have been derived. Certainly, that's been true since the fall of the USSR. In all likelihood it was true long before that.
We could cut the budget five times the level proposed and still be outspending our nearest rival many times over. But, if the Middle East -- which I would argue is not and should not be our primary security focus -- festers and boils this year as today's headlines suggest it might, then it is easy to imagine a central debate of this year's elections in the U.S. being about whether or not we should cut defense spending at all. A President with an exemplary record in terms of combating terror and getting the U.S. out of costly conflicts will suddenly find that Republicans will be able to open a different front on the national security debate where he may appear vulnerable. They will say the world is more dangerous and this is no time to be cutting defense.
And my guess is that means that when the time comes to really cut the budget nothing like these cuts will be made...and the U.S. will continue to pose the greatest danger to itself by over-spending on wasteful, bloated, duplicative defense systems it can't and shouldn't attempt to afford. The Panetta $450 billion plan will be seen as the high bid in terms of cuts and we will negotiate downward from there. The changes will be incremental and we will continue down the path to great power decline long ago limned by Paul Kennedy.
Take that and the real threats posed by the ever changing landscape in the Middle East -- uncertainty in North Korea, the rise of ever more important security challenges in Asia, the problems in the Eurozone, and bird flu (I saw "Contagion"...I know what we're up against! I saw Gwyneth Paltrow's brain!) -- and my newest New Year's resolution is to go back to bed, pull the covers over my head and wait for 2013.
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I live in Washington where lying is an art form. Actually, that suggests an artist's intent and here in D.C., lying is more reflexive, like breathing or taking cash from fat cats.
But when you live in a place like this -- if you can call it living -- where somehow we have managed to train moral mice to produce the shit of bulls, you really get an appreciation for a fine lie. Some stand out for their subtlety -- they almost feel true. (President Obama wants to get special interests out of American politics.) Some are noteworthy because of their audacity (Newt Gingrich brought down communism.) Some capture our attention because of the ability of their authors to deliver them with a straight face (Mitt Romney says he has deeply held political convictions).
But every year there are a select few lies offered here and out on the world stage that stand out. They are the big lies that have defined our times.
Let me offer a few examples from just the world of U.S. foreign policy and then, if you have more suggestions, please, send them in. Someday soon we plan to build a Museum of Lying right out on the Mall so there is finally a monument that captures the essence of this festering swamp.
Read the entire post here.
On Friday, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote an article in the Washington Post titled, "Why Europe No Longer Matters." Today, Monday, the headline in the Wall Street Journal was "Europe Wrangles Over Greece," the top two headlines in the Financial Times were "Medvedev rules out poll tussle with Putin" and "Greek PM's plea for unity to tackle crisis," the top headline in the Washington Post was a story about NATO entitled "Misfire in Libya kills civilians" and the lead story in the New York Times was entitled "Companies Push for a Tax Break on Foreign Cash" which dealt with a key challenge in the age of global companies.
Haass, one of the canniest and most thoughtful U.S. foreign policy analysts around, was responding to Secretary of Defense Bob Gates's valedictory jabs at Europe concerning pulling their weight within NATO. The point of the Haass article was that Gates's comments were not just a coda on his time in office, but the end of a "time-honored tradition" which involves Americans tweaking our allies for shirking their global responsibilities. The piece made all the usual points: Europe's influence beyond its borders will decline, Asia is rising, the threats NATO was established to address have vanished to be replaced by new ones it is not very well-suited to meeting, etc.
The problem with the piece is that while Haass is right in terms of each of these points, I think he comes to the wrong conclusion.
The headlines in this morning's papers attest to the fact that Europe still very much matters today. In a tightly integrated global economy, Europe's economic fate impacts ours dramatically. An economic meltdown there around Greece or Spain could easily create a global economic crisis and send the United States into a precipitous and uncomfortable double dip.
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For political junkies, the mere thought of it gets us all to tingling. It's the equivalent of the day pitchers and catchers show up at spring training or the kick off of the Hall of Fame game for football fans. (For U.S. football fans, that is. For soccer fans, it's the equivalent of handing out the first bribes of the season to a FIFA official.) It's a new beginning.
It's the first real debate of the presidential campaign season and it was scheduled to take place last night in New Hampshire. Dutifully, I settled into the dent in my couch made the night before while gleefully watching the self-destruction of LeBron James, and I waited for the fireworks to begin.
Unfortunately, I must have had the channel wrong because what I saw on CNN was something that looked like an elimination round for the Stepford version of "America's Got Talent." A combination of the vaguely deranged and the semi-robotic moving their lips but apparently speaking in sounds only Republicans can hear.
I squinted and leaned closer to the screen looking for some semblance of presidential candidates but this group look like they were roughly up to competing for the job of Deputy U.S. Secretary of Commerce.
Here we have a country that is in the midst of a protracted economic calamity, precious little is going right, the current president may be the last holder of that office ever to be referred to as "the most powerful man in the world" and these seven non-entities were the best America's opposition party could come up with?
Pizza executive Herman Cain? A man who could barely string three words together and yet managed to reveal volumes about how little he knows or understands about domestic or foreign policy? Governor Tim Polenta ... a big, steaming plate of bland mush? Ron Paul? America's crazy uncle who looked like he wandered into the wrong bingo game? Mitt Romney? A man whose name is Mitt? The man most likely to become America's first animatronic president? Newt Gingrich? The unsightly piece of spinach on the big fake smile of Republican politics? Michele Bachmann? Who indicated proudly that she had had 23 foster children? 23 foster children? Was she auditioning to become the first human collector to have an episode of "Hoarders" devoted to her? And Rick Santorum? Mr. "Man on Dog?" Mr. "Intelligent Design?" The guy who tried to blame the Hurricane Katrina disaster on its victims?
Where do they stand? They're against big government ... except when it comes to women's reproductive rights in which case they feel the government should regulate what women do with their internal organs. They feel government is incompetent ... except apparently the military to whom all but Ron Paul would defer on most big issues ranging from how to handle Afghanistan to how to manage the basic civil rights of citizens who happen to be in the military. Muslims, for the most part, make them uncomfortable but they are not for deporting them immediately. Or was that immigrants? Well, basically they don't much like either group. They believe Obama has it wrong on the economy and that the way back to growth is through a lower deficit and lower taxes. The impossible math of that aside, apparently they think the main structural problem facing the U.S. economy is the structure of the U.S. government and that other competitive factors ... like, say, the comparative advantages of the rest of the world don't really figure in the equation.
Of course, I oversimplify. They had differences of views. And apparently the commentators were all very impressed that they didn't fall down like Shania Twain at the CMT Awards. But I have to admit, I came away pretty disappointed. At least when the Mavs-Heat game slowed down, I was able to switch to watch the Tony's. I mean try as these G.O.P. wannabes might to tap dance around substance, facts, or the substantial reasons why each of them would fare badly against President Obama, they really couldn't hold a candle to the amazing Norbert Leo Butz or spectacular Sutton Foster. The only thing the two telecasts had in common was that the acknowledged big winner of each was Mormon. But as you might have gathered, I'd only actually pay to see one of those. (Hint: It's the one where you actually get to see a live performance.)
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The coming depression was avoidable. The instability it will trigger, turning fragile regions from the Middle East to China to the United States' inner cities into caldrons of violence, was avoidable. The nationalism and fear-driven politics it will produce were avoidable.
All it would have taken was honesty, courage and a shred of decency from the leaders of the world's most important economies -- the honesty to acknowledge that the numbers didn't add up and that old approaches weren't working, the courage to ask as much of their rich benefactors as they do of the weakest in their societies, and the decency to step outside themselves and their narrow self-interests for long enough to do what was right no matter the political cost.
But the politicians were dishonest, timid and self-serving. Even today, with the world teetering on the brink not of a gentle-sounding "double dip" but of something much worse, they are collectively whistling past the graveyard.
Yesterday, U.S. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan accused the White House of engaging in demagoguery about cuts to Medicare. What dark irony. Because whatever the demagoguery of the White House ... and no doubt there is some there, is there any as reckless as that of so-called "deficit hawks" like Ryan who decry the United States' fiscal mess but who simply refuse to consider the absolutely essential revenue side of the equation? They would sacrifice the entire U.S. economy and in particular the welfare of the neediest in the United States to their own misguided ideological purity.
We have seen misguided ideology driven frenzies in U.S. politics before. But when you think about it none -- and I include McCarthyism on the list -- were as potentially damaging to so many Americans as this one.
But the problem is not just with Republicans. Democrats are not serious about making the cuts that are necessary. And neither side has been serious about addressing the underlying problems-associated with housing markets and under-regulated, risk-happy financial markets-that led to the last crisis and will ultimately fuel the coming one.
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If somehow we could quantify the brutality and horrors of war beyond mere death tolls and newspapers used those statistics to determine which stories went onto their front pages, most of the news of the Middle East would be so deeply buried as to never attract America's attention.
Instead we would be reading every day of places like San Fernando, Mexico where during the past several days a series of mass graves have revealed the corpses of 177, mostly innocents, perhaps as many as 122 snatched from buses taking them to the United States, scores bludgeoned to death by a sledge hammer. San Fernando is 90 miles from Texas border in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. It's an average Mexican town of 60,000 people that, thanks to the drug wars, has become known for grotesque violence that suggests it has been over-run not by mere criminals but by some kind of supernatural evil. In one instance, a man's son was kidnapped and $10,000 in ransom was sought. When the man raised every penny he could and sent the kidnappers $5,000, they sent him back just half of his son.
Mexico's President Felipe Calderon has said his government is winning in the drug wars. But since he undertook to do so, 35,000 Mexicans have died and entire parts of the country have been rendered lawless. In part this is due to the brutality of the warring factions, like the Gulf Coast cartel and their former enforcers the Zetas who are now running wild in Tamaulipas. In part, it is due to the complicity of the local police. In San Fernando last week, the police chief was arrested for complicity and about two-thirds of his officers are now incarcerated.
When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called what is happening in Mexico an insurgency, Calderon and other Mexican officials bristled. When the U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual offered criticisms of the Mexican government's approach to containing the drug war, the Mexicans complained bitterly to Washington and forced his ouster. Interestingly, Pascual was an unpopular choice from the get-go because he has specialized in failed states and Mexico didn't like the message. But rumors have him being replaced by Ambassador Anthony Wayne, recently stationed in another drug lord dominated failed state close to America's heart ... if not quite as close to its borders ... Afghanistan.
While the message of such an appointment would not be popular in the DF (Mexico City) if it were ultimately made, it's easy to understand the rationale behind it. Further, given the almost $2 billion in aid the United States has pumped into Mexico to help them fight these drug wars, you would think the Mexican government might be a little less brittle in its response to U.S. language and personnel choices. After all, not only has the Obama administration made assisting Mexico a top priority, recognizing that Mexican troubles translate quickly into U.S. immigration, border security and drug problems, but Secretary Clinton has been especially forthright in acknowledging America's degree of responsibility for many of these problems given that in the end, we are the consumers of the drugs that are being trafficked through Mexico, it's American cash that's fueling the animal greed of the feral gangs that are destabilizing our nearest Southern neighbor.
Dear Democracy Advocates and Freedom Fighters Everywhere,
We know it is hard enough to battle autocrats, daubing the tear gas out of your eyes, spending your nights in jail cells or your days dodging errant NATO bombs without having the thing you are fighting for debased and devalued by its supposed champions. We apologize.
We know what is happening in the one-time capital of the Free World now is ugly and demoralizing and no doubt has many of your supporters wondering if democracy is really worth its costs. Are you fighting for freedom of speech and assembly and representative government, those supporters must be asking, or is it inadvertently a fight that will ultimately bring you your own versions of Tea-Partiers and gridlock and the complete sacrifice of national interests on the altar of cheap political showmanship?
We are sorry our display of the spineless, visionless, shrill, embarrassing debasement of our political system is so ill-timed given your purposes ... but by now you must realize that while we are pretty good at giving speeches about democracy promotion, we've never been so great at following through with support for your efforts.
Ok, maybe that's not really the best apology ... suggesting you are to blame for believing too much in a country that almost always brings down that which it lifts up. Let me try another tack: Perhaps you can turn all this to your benefit if you simply change your perspective.
Perhaps the trick is in not looking at America as a beacon of democracy anymore but rather as a kind of a lighthouse perched up on the rocks of where not to go, of what not to be, warning you to avoid our example.
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Congressman Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, deserves considerable credit for violating the "no leadership zone" that has seemingly been imposed on Washington without even benefit of a vote of the U.N. Security Council. His proposed 2012 budget is misguided in parts, inadequate in others, and would be laughed out of any serious discussion about getting America's fiscal house in order -- if such a discussion were actually taking place in Washington. But it's not, of course. The White House has been frustratingly passive on the subject, failing to address America's deficit in any meaningful way and treating their own deficit commission's recommendations as though they were created in the radioactive bowels of a Fukushima reactor rather than by a bipartisan panel of experts. Meanwhile, the right and the left have been engaged in their usual childish political games in which both sides are far more focused on criticizing their opponent's manifold and inarguable shortcomings than they are in addressing their own craven shallowness, pandering to their bases and inability to do simple arithmetic.
Overshadowed by this debate that makes Muammar al-Qaddafi's rants look like the crystalline rationalism of Spinoza or Descartes have been some of the details of Ryan's plan and their implications. While much of the discussion of the proposed budget has centered on potential cuts to health care for older Americans and its complete dodge on seeking new revenue or seriously looking at defense budget cuts, there has not been enough discussion of one of its most egregious -- and stunningly wrongheaded and dangerous -- components: the utter evisceration of the U.S. international affairs budget.
As White House Budget Director Jack Lew has accurately observed, a "budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations." Thus, Ryan's budget -- which clearly has been vetted carefully by his fellow Republican leaders -- can be seen as a manifestation of Republican views on everything from how we should treat our parents to what America's role should be in the world. I'll leave it to others to continue the debate on health care. Instead, I would just like to point out that according to the summary of the budget in today's Washington Post, Ryan is proposing spending $27 billion less than the administration's figure of $63 billion on international affairs -- the portion of the budget covering diplomacy and U.S. foreign assistance programs. That 43 percent whack is by far the most draconian of all Ryan's cuts when measured in terms of the contrast between the White House's and Ryan's 2012 proposals.
Meanwhile, on defense, Ryan is proposing spending $26 billion less than Obama … but out of a much, much larger base so the Republican proposal is just 3.5 percent less than that of the administration. What this suggests is that Ryan and company feel that in the world in which we live today, the tools of American foreign policy should almost exclusively be those of force and hard power and that we should effectively unilaterally disarm in terms of soft power and diplomacy.
At just the moment when aid is most critical on initiatives of vital national security from fighting terrorism to stabilizing the Middle East to winning support for the U.S. in regions where our rivals are spending furiously to tip the scales in their favor, Ryan would effectively shut off the lights in Foggy Bottom and say that America will now do less, be less engaged, be less influential -- right up until the point at which any issue must be resolved with force. And of course, removing the tools of diplomacy and persuasion virtually guarantees we will be required to use the military and coercive tools that are all we have left.
Think about it … this is a budget that says the developed country that spends less than any other on aid will shrink that amount dramatically while still maintaining its status as the country that spends more on defense than every other significant power in the world combined. More $9 billion dollar next-generation aircraft carriers? Check. Less aid to ensure Egypt follows through on its reforms and the Middle East is stabilized? Check. Them's our values, says Ryan: We're cutting all programs for "speaking softly" and only maintaining those for "carrying a big stick."
And, while he's at it, underscoring that this budget shows a lack of national security awareness that is as breathtaking as it is frightening, Ryan throws in a whopping $7 billion cut in proposed Energy spending levels just to help ensure the country remains dependent on foreign sources of energy from dangerous places. Tax cuts for the rich? Intact … actually, let's make them and corporate tax cuts bigger. Spending to ensure America's energy security and create jobs doing it? Cut.
Add all this up and what do you get? A powerful statement by Ryan and the Republicans that they don't understand foreign policy and that they don't want America to continue to play a leadership role in the world. Appalling as that is, it pales in comparison to the even greater threat to U.S. leadership that is posed by the fact that no one has dared to do what is sensible and required and offered up a budget that solves America's fiscal problems the only ways it can be done: by sensibly cutting both defense and entitlement spending and by increasing revenues.
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The White House clearly has a problem on its hands. The launch of the military intervention with Libya has been messy at best. The fog of war is supposed to be restricted to the battlefield, but for the moment it seems to have settled in over the White House. Here are just a few of the contradictions and confusions swirling about at the moment:
National Security Advisor Tom Donilon was on the record as saying the U.S. had no strategic interests in Libya. Now, he must coordinate an American involvement that would be irresponsible unless indeed such interests existed.
The President and his team made it clear through their early remarks that America would not be in lead in this mission. But the Pentagon over the weekend let it be known that Americans were indeed in command but plans were being discussed for a hand-over at some unspecified point in the future.
The involvement of the Arab League was allegedly a critical catalyst for U.S. support, but military support has been slow to materialize, minimal when it has, and political opposition to key components of the mission -- like bombing to neutralize threats on the ground -- has emerged.
The involvement, according to the President and his team would be short, limited to protecting the Libyan people from Qaddafi. While the quick dispatch of Qaddafi would be the best protection for the Libyan people, other possible paths are just as likely at this point: a short involvement that leaves Qaddafi in place and Libya divided, which would be a very unsatisfactory outcome strategically and politically, or a long one that ends up in Qaddafi going to ground, resisting the rebels thanks to his considerable resources, and ultimately requiring a much more extensive international involvement than is currently contemplated. In short, the involvement is unlikely to be as neat nor its outcome as clear-cut in its benefits as was advertised.
The principle underlying the involvement was the protection of the Libyan people from abuse at the hands of their government. Syrian troops fired into crowds of their people this weekend: will the same principle soon apply there? In Yemen? In Bahrain? In Iran? In the Palestinian territories? It is impossible to imagine that it will apply in any of these places thus undercutting the idea that any principle was involved at all.
The President has argued he has consulted with Congress on his actions. The disagreement with this idea seems to begin on Capitol Hill where in one of the few bipartisan displays in recent months, both Democrats and Republicans have complained that what consultation that did take place was perfunctory and inadequate.
The President's men are very agitated that the New York Times narrative that they were led to war by Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, Gayle Smith and are now arguing the President was the leader of the move to act. While the final decision clearly rested with the President, the Amazons In-Charge narrative is going to be hard to dial back because these strong, capable women did actually drive the decision process against the opposition of Gates, Donilon, Brennan and others. Worse, the delay between the initial instance in which Secretary Clinton advocated the idea and the time it was ultimately implemented have created many complications that make the involvement much more difficult...and those delays are traceable to uncertainty on the part of the President and his close White House advisors.
The move to multilateralism was belied by a trip to Brazil in which the President effectively rebuffed Brazilian desires to win his support for their candidacy for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council -- support he has already given to India. All the Brazilians got was a non-committal "we'll look into it" and were left to digest why India was treated differently. The U.S. had wanted a more compliant Brazil on issues like Iran's nuclear program, but the message to the Brazilians is that the Indians were rewarded strategically for undertaking a nuclear weapons program while the Brazilians who avoided this step were penalized for having a different opinion on nuclear issues.
Both India and Brazil abstained on the UN vote on Libya making the distinction between the two even more hard to defend. This issue by the way offset within Brazil's government whatever perceived "success" the Obama trip has had via photo ops for the President in Rio favelas. Combine this with the forced resignation of the US Ambassador to Mexico this weekend and you have a pretty lousy week for U.S. Latin relations coinciding with a presidential trip to the region that was optically very difficult given the entire Libya issue.
The White House needs to be decisive and move quickly to undo the problems of the past few days. The President began the process of trying to address these issues during his press conference in Chile, but the real heavy lifting will begin when he arrives again in Washington. At that point, both he and the American public will have a clearer picture of the situation on the ground in Libya.
The Japanese nuclear crisis, though still unfolding, may, in a way, already be yesterday's news. For a peek at tomorrow's, review the testimony of General Keith Alexander, head of U.S. Cyber Command. Testifying before Congress this week and seeking support to pump up his agency budget, the general argued that all future conflicts would involve cyber warfare tactics and that the U.S. was ill-equipped to defend itself against them.
Alexander said, "We are finding that we do not have the capacity to do everything we need to accomplish. To put it bluntly, we are very thin, and a crisis would quickly stress our cyber forces. ... This is not a hypothetical danger."
The way to look at this story is to link in your mind the Stuxnet revelations about the reportedly U.S. and Israeli-led cyber attacks on the Iranian nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz and the calamities at the Fukushima power facilities over the past week. While seemingly unconnected, the stories together speak to the before and after of what cyber conflict may look like. Enemies will be able to target one another's critical infrastructure as was done by the U.S. and Israeli team (likely working with British and German assistance) targeting the Iranian program and burrowing into their operating systems, they will seek to produce malfunctions that bring economies to their knees, put societies in the dark, or undercut national defenses.
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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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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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We are not in Kansas anymore. More importantly, Kansas is not even where it once was.
Once upon a time and in the minds of most living Americans, Kansas was more than just a synonym or a metaphor for America's heartland, it was the actual geographic mid-point of the United States. You could debate whether the exact location deserving of this honor was closer to Lebanon or Grenola, but at the end of the day, all would agree that by virtue of the power and position of the United States, somewhere out there in the middle of nowhere was the center of the world.
No more. America may be the richest and most powerful nation on earth. But the world's economic center of gravity is shifting away from Kansas much more rapidly than anyone had any reason to expect it would even a decade or so ago. (I know this for a fact -- as a senior economic official in the Clinton Administration who helped put together and run the first U.S. inter-agency effort focused on the world's largest emerging markets, I remember how officials would smile patronizingly and roll their eyes, "Yes, China, India, Brazil, yes... important, but not in our lifetimes.")
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Update, 9/12/10: In the following post due to a mistake regarding which draft I submitted to be posted, a couple of key words were dropped that have been noted by several commenters. They refer to the paragraph regarding the mosque project in Lower Manhattan. What I intended to write (and had actually written in the draft that I mistakenly did not submit) was not "It is odious..." but instead "It may seem odious to some, but if our freedoms..." I appreciate those who noted the incongruity of the remark given that I was early and strongly on the record supporting the right of those supporting the Islamic Cultural Center to build it wherever they wanted to. As should be clear to anyone who reads this blog, I find the objections and efforts to block the cultural center to be what is really odious and that is the point that I would have made here were it not for my typo. Apologies.
A week ago, Fareed Zakaria wrote a piece for Newsweek entitled "What America Has Lost." It was subtitled "It's clear we overreacted to 9/11." As is typical for Zakaria, it is exceptionally thoughtful and well-argued. Its timely focus is on the enormous costs associated with building up the massive U.S. security apparatus that targeted a terrorist threat that was and is clearly overstated. Zakaria makes reference to the landmark Washington Post "Top Secret America" series that outlined how, in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, the United States has "created or reconfigured at least 263 organizations to tackle some aspect of the war on terror. The amount of money spent on intelligence has risen by 250 percent to $75 billion (and that's the public number, which is a gross underestimate.) That's more than the rest of the world spends put together."
Even today, nine years after 9/11, it took considerable courage for Zakaria to argue that we overreacted to the horrific events of that day. Given their scope and visceral impact on every American, it seemed in the days after the blows were struck that overreaction was impossible. But in the years that followed, the feelings seem hardly to have ebbed at all, and critiques of our national reaction are, with the exception of the near consensus that invading Iraq was wrong, considered almost unpatriotic -- nearly sacrilegious, in fact.
Yet I believe that Zakaria's column understates the problem. I attribute this to its appropriately limited focus rather than any narrowness of his perspective. It was, after all, just a single column in which he focused on making an important point about America's security priorities and the opportunity costs associated with our strategic overreaction. That said, the damage done by letting emotion and adrenaline get the best of us in the months and years after the attacks extends far beyond the distortion of foreign policy priorities or the impact on the U.S. federal budget.
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In her well-received remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton let slip a statement that immediately sent the inter-American affairs semantic fashion police scurrying. She referred to the on-going threat posed by Mexican drug cartels and their allies to Mexican society as an "insurgency."
This comment was immediately disputed by Mexican President Felipe Calderon's administration, which argued that they were not becoming another Colombia and that they were doing what was necessary to keep its political system from being co-opted, corrupted and battered into ineffectiveness or worse. It also made some in the State Department and in the -- very conventionally-minded and cautious -- U.S. Latin American policy community squirm.
All those reactions are reasons why Clinton's remarks are exactly on target. It is hard for Mexico to make the case that it has its arms around the problem, when news of its third mayor to be killed in the past several weeks is breaking. It is hard when, as quoted in an excellent Los Angeles Times story on the subject, one senior U.S. immigration and customs official cites the fact that the Mexicans have "lost an ‘astronomical' number of police officers and soldiers." In short, it is hard for them to argue that everything is under control when it is clearly not.
Sometimes diplomacy is the art of varnishing unpleasant truths. But sometimes it is the art of stripping away the varnish. In this case it is the latter, because while the Calderon administration has struggled valiantly with this issue, they are losing ground -- and the worse things get, the more they go from being primarily a Mexican problem to being a North American problem. President Calderon may not like it, but this is already a political issue in the U.S. Simply shifting troops to our southern border will not be enough if pockets of Mexico become even more lawless, and in turn even more dangerous staging grounds for threats to the U.S.
Whether the crises in Mexican provinces -- locked in struggles with brutal gangs of drug dealers -- technically fulfills the definition of an insurgency is immaterial. In fact, Clinton's language was actually quite nuanced: "We face an increasing threat from a well-organized network, a drug-trafficking threat that is, in some cases, morphing into or making common cause with what we would consider an insurgency."
Sometimes just a word can be a wake-up call. In this case, if it is not one for the Mexicans -- whether for reasons of pride or denial -- it must be for the Obama team, who have from the beginning recognized that instability in Mexico -- for whatever reason -- is among the most serious, complex, and difficult to tackle threats the U.S. faces today.
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The Washington Post, like many Beltway watchers, took President Obama's statement that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel would make a "great mayor of Chicago" as an acknowledgement that Emanuel is as good as gone from his administration -- and that the typical midterm game of musical chairs that enlivens the West Wing has begun.
I take the statement as something different. I take it as a personal request from the President to me to let him know what changes he needs to make after the November elections.
So, let's begin with replacing Rahm. Rumor has it that Emanuel himself has been mentioning Valerie Jarrett, among the president's closest confidantes, for the job. While being as simpatico with the president as Jarrett clearly is would be a big plus, the chief of staff job has a massively tough management component to it that would undercut Jarrett's ability to remain the vital sounding board for the President she has become. Better suited to the job would be two of the other names mentioned: Ron Klain, the vice president's chief of staff, and Tom Donilon, the deputy national security advisor. Both are excellent, smart and proven administrative masters. Tom Daschle, former Democratic majority leader in the Senate, has also been mentioned. He played a vital role in the president's campaign and would add an important capacity for Hill outreach to the mix.
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This weekend the Obama Administration will send a team to China headed by the somewhat unlikely duo of Larry Summers, head of the National Economic Council, and Tom Donilon, deputy national security advisor. The purpose is to send a clear message that the U.S. is approaching its relations with China strategically, with a view that integrates the full range of economic and security concerns.
While such trips are old hat for Summers, the journey represents a bit of a change of pace for Donilon, the inside guy who is credited with having done a great job making sure the policy process trains have been running on time within the National Security Council. Some in Washington are buzzing that this is a profile- and skill-raising trip intended to make Donilon a better candidate to replace National Security Advisor James L. Jones should Jones decide to depart, as many expect he will. Others grumble that the trip represents precisely the kind of "operational" role for the NSC and NEC that many cabinet departments have long thought should be out of bounds for White House policy coordinators.
But beyond the Washington gossip the trip has caused, the juxtaposition of economic and security concerns offers an illustration of an often over-looked fact -- the centrality of economic issues to current U.S. national security concerns. In China, the tricky calculus is fostering collaboration on security issues from North Korea to Iran in the face of political pressure back home to press Beijing harder on issues like currency valuation and unfair competitive practices (especially those associated with pressuring foreign firms to transfer proprietary technologies).
The U.S. has never been especially effective at coordinating its multiple interests in China so that pressure in one policy area produces progress in another -- or even simply avoids causing setbacks. So this trip, in concept at least, represents a step in the right direction -- at least if Congress doesn't undercut the administration's efforts by, for example, drafting its own legislation on currency issues.
But China is just one of a host of current hotspots where Summers, Geithner, and the international economic team are playing a central role on national security issues.
For example, in Afghanistan, the story of the week turns on the amazingly brazen behavior of the Karzai gang in trying to pressure the United States into bailing out a clearly corrupt and mismanaged bank in which President Hamid Karzai's brother, Mahmood Karzai, is the third largest shareholder. Mahmood has publicly called for a bailout even though his affiliation with a bank through which U.S. funds flow to Afghan security forces compromises both him and the president. Both remain unabashed, however, behaving like the proverbial kids who murder their parents and seek the mercy of the court on the grounds that they are now orphans. So the United States is in a pickle: Step in and support the Afghan kleptocracy and its culture of corruption or stand on principle (and law), and run the risk that the bank falters. It's not a situation that General David Petraeus can handle, but how the economic team manages it will have direct ramifications for him.
In the same way, some of the most sensitive concerns regarding Pakistan turn on economic policy. Will the Zardari government pump too much cash into the economy to deal with the aftereffects of the devastating flooding, and risk a major inflationary episode? Or will it introduce price controls and a set of micro economic measures that, if mismanaged, could produce social tensions or even rioting? The wrong mix of policies could plunge the already fractured and battered country into political turmoil and perhaps the reintroduction of military rule.
In talks with the Israelis and the Palestinians, many of the core concerns will turn on how to improve the economic conditions for the Palestinian people. If they can get past initial hurdles, they will, of course, ultimately have to move to a state structure that will enable organic economic growth in a Palestinian state, actually fostering job and wealth creation for people who have lived in an economic no man's land for too long.
In North Korea, it is reported that the administration, conducting high level meetings on the subject this week, is seeking to explore "engagement." In the case of the economically isolated and struggling North, that inevitably will mean economic packages in exchange for gradual normalization of relations or reductions of threats. At the same time, this week, the administration widened sanctions intended to force Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.
In Iran, the core initiative at the moment is making targeted economic sanctions work. In Iraq, the issue is fostering economic growth to help "purchase" social stability. The list goes on. It is clear that wherever the stakes are highest for the United States in the world, even as military and diplomatic initiatives garner most of the attention, behind the scenes much of the most critical work is being undertaken by international economic officials.
It is interesting to note in this respect that the responsibility for conceiving and coordinating most of these activities lies in the White House to a much greater degree than it does with military or diplomatic initiatives. The White House team on these issues is excellent. But in the end, these functions are so fundamental that the real leadership capabilities need to be cultivated elsewhere.
The economic team at the State Department could and should play a greater role in this respect; Undersecretary for Economic Affairs Robert Hormats is a talented and experienced official. As I have written before, State also could and should develop a dramatically enhanced capability when it comes to emergency economic intervention -- pre- or post-crisis. And all the other economic agencies need to be prepared to collaborate on this, not on an ad hoc basis but through a permanent program promoting cross-training and what the military might call inter-operability. Call it an economic rapid response capability -- or call them economic green berets.
We need people we can drop into critical situations and help manage them with an eye to our security and political needs rather than traditional purely economic metrics. That's a critical role for which development officials are ill-suited, and we still don't really have the fully developed institutional structure we need to support it.
Looking at the issues faced by the United States today, while one can't help but admire much of what is being done, the strategic side of the international economic agenda is such that it warrants some real thought about how and with whom we should be meeting such challenges in the future.
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Today, President Sarah Palin convened a meeting of Middle East leaders to resume the search for a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. "It has been President Palin's knowledge of the players, the issues and her exceptional diplomatic skill that has made this event possible," said Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
There is a reason you will never see the preceding paragraph written in a news report. Hint: It has nothing to do with Palin's commitment to seeking peace.
It is precisely because it is unimaginable that Sarah Palin could play the role of honest broker on the international stage on an issue such as Middle East peace that she will never be president. For better or for worse, being president of the United States requires individuals who can assume such a role. Indeed, the success or failure of many American presidents has turned on whether or not they have risen to the challenges of international statesmanship. The American people recognize this fact and with very few exceptions look for character traits in winning candidates that translate into presidents who can hold their own with top leaders on vital issues (although sadly, international experience is not one of them).
This week, with the renewal of direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, President Obama's test in this defining crucible will begin. There have been hints of his aptitude for such challenges before -- in the late night session at the global climate talks in Copenhagen, for example, during which he showed skill and drive. But there have also been warning signs, such as his comparatively weak showing when confronted with tough Chinese leaders in Beijing. Nothing he has yet done, however, will be as important as his role in these upcoming talks in revealing to observers around the globe whether he is the real thing or a pretender when it comes to being in the first ranks of world leaders for any reason other than the title he holds.
While the odds are against a breakthrough in these talks, any hope of progress is likely to be directly linked to whether President Obama becomes directly engaged, places his political capital on the line, and is willing to work the issues and the other leaders participating in the talks.
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Reading this weekend's New York Times's article on the deftness and ease with which the rich in Pakistan avoid paying taxes, an idea struck me. Well, actually to be perfectly honest, it struck my father -- who passed it along to me. The fact that he is currently lying in a hospital being pumped full of mind-altering drugs doesn't in any way undermine the quality of the idea. In fact, it just makes me want some of those drugs.
Because it is an idea of striking clarity and manifold levels of appeal.
In short, it may well be that two of the biggest threats facing the United States America -- the decay of nuclear Pakistan and the rise of the Tea Party movement here at home -- suggest a grand solution fraught with opportunity (and delicious ironies).
We need to keep an eye on Pakistan, but can't officially send troops there. Further, we can't afford to keep the ones we have in Afghanistan (who are actually there to keep an eye on Pakistan ... shhhh ... don't tell anyone) there indefinitely. And beyond that, we don't want to put our valued troops needlessly at risk.
At the same time, at home we are confronted by a new political movement whose leaders drape themselves in the flag and then proceed to espouse a worldview that is alternatively un-American (anti-immigration in a nation of immigrants, anti-personal freedoms like choice, pro-infusion of politics with religion) and ante-diluvian (anti-science, pro-vigilantism, pro-solving problems at the point of a gun). They are out of place here and lord knows -- given our history of success without them -- they are expendable.
The tea-baggers want a country? Let's give them one: send them to Pakistan.
It's a marriage made in heaven. Admittedly, there may be some disagreement as to which heaven, but let's leave that to them to work it out.
Think of the ways the Tea-bagger worldview makes Pakistan a much more natural place for them to live than America:
Here is a country with a large population committed to policies rooted in the values and outlook of centuries ago and a large group of Americans with a similar nostalgia for hangings, gunfights, superstition, racial and religious conflict and witch hunts. So theoretically, despite Pakistan's historically documented, deeply rooted strain of anti-Americanism, this may well be the one group of Americans with whom they have the most in common and thus, the ones with the best chance of building the bridge we need between our two cultures. And if we had to learn to live with less of the mean-spirited, misguided shrillness of the bagger rhetoric, I think we could handle it. And if it all ended badly for all involved, well, we could probably live with that, too.
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What if the idea of Haiti as a country simply won't work?
They have been trying for two centuries. Even before the horrific tragedy of the earthquake six months ago, Haiti festered. The economy has averaged one percent growth per year for the past four decades (pdf). Haiti's per capita income places it 203rd among all nations. In purchasing power parity terms, it is $1,300 per year, putting it roughly on the same level as Uganda, Burkina Faso and Mali. In nominal terms, the per capita number is only $790, the lowest in the Western Hemisphere by far -- despite Haiti's proximity and ties to the richest economy on earth and aid flows and commitments nearing $10 billion since 1990.
This is not a new phenomenon. The Haitian experiment as a free republic that began with the successful slave rebellion of Toussaint L'Ouverture and Jean Jacques Dessalines in the first years of the 19th century has by many measures been a failure since the beginning. Today, Haiti's per capita GDP is less than a sixth that of the country with which it shares the island of Hispaniola and therefore many characteristics and circumstances, the Dominican Republic.
Haiti has had dictatorships and democracy, external rule and global assistance. Throughout its history, its governments have failed virtually all the most rudimentary tests of administrative or policy competence. It has seen almost three dozen coups, averaging one every six years or so. Haiti ranks 126th in the world on education expenditures. Roughly half the population is illiterate. Something like 8 out of 10 college graduates emigrate. The country has only the most rudimentary telecommunications, power generation or transport infrastructure outside of Port au Prince. The majority of people didn't have access to basic health care even before January's earthquake. The leadership has consistently been viewed as corrupt, and its elites have consistently been viewed as out of touch with its people. The top one percent of the population control almost 50 percent of the country's assets. It is almost alone amongst the nations of the Caribbean to be unable to take advantage of the potential for tourism. Deforestation and ill-considered agricultural practices have decimated agri-business on the island-with a few notable exceptions. Manufacturing has never taken in a meaningful way despite much vaunted efforts to manufacture baseballs or clothing.
The human tragedy of Haiti is unspeakable. The promise of its people remains great.
But what if the concept of Haiti is the problem? Haitians speak French and Creole as a vestige of a colonial era that began its decline over two centuries ago. That the island is divided between French and Spanish speaking halves is yet another consequence of European historical caprice. The country's people are descendants of slaves who were torn from Africa and subjected to inhumane treatment as a consequence of a despicable and fundamentally immoral economic model that was recognized as intolerable and unsustainable also decades before the country's founding.
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I can't wait for Barack Obama's second term.
Oh I know, 2013 is a long time from now and it would be nice to have decisive leadership to help deal with the odd double dip recession, Iranian nuclear threat, massive fiscal imbalance, remaking of the world order, that sort of thing.
But honestly, I just don't expect it. It is clear from events of the past few weeks that while it's July in most of America, it's already November in Washington. Every decision is cast in the context of the mid-term elections. No risk is too small to sidestep. No decision is too trivial to triangulate.
Getting reports of growing unemployment rolls? Compounding them with signs of sluggish growth and appalling developments in the housing market? A time for action? You might think so. But instead this president and this Congress hem and haw and propose effectively nothing. It's not just the Republicans blocking with appalling callousness the extension of unemployment benefits (while also fighting hard to ensure that big banks don't have too much of a tax burden). It's that the Democratic leadership is content to let the Republicans beat back the bill figuring they can use it against them in the election.
Lost in all this? Oh, right, the 9.5 percent of Americans who are "officially" unemployed not to mention the almost equally large number who don't make it into government statistics.
Is the reason for this fear of the exploding budget deficit? While one can debate the merits of government intervention vs. battling that deficit, we know the president and his team are not letting the economically disenfranchised suffer purely for reasons of economic orthodoxy. We know because there are no moves to do anything about the deficit either, other than some not terribly believable statements at the recent G20 Summit by the president that he'd hold the rest of the world to their word that they address deficit problems. In fact, credible rumors have it that Peter Orszag left in part because he did not get a warm fuzzy feeling from the president that he was going to do anything about deficit reduction any time soon.
On energy, we had a White House meeting with congressional leaders this week that featured the passionate leader of the Senate on these issue, John Kerry, offering to compound past compromises with future ones and observations by participants that despite the president's statements regarding wanting a price for carbon there was no real belief he was going to go to bat for anything on this front prior to the election.
On Afghanistan, following the musical chairs at HQ, we returned to the doubletalk about deadlines that aren't deadlines and exits that aren't exits and commitments that aren't really sustainable commitments?
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U.S. consumer confidence got a boost this month with the Conference Board's index rising six points, to 52.5 from 46.4 in February -- which just goes to prove once again consumers are dopes.
Me, I can't help but notice that:
And so, as we say on Passover, "What makes this recovery different from all other recoveries?"
Could it be that it is not really a recovery at all but just a respite between economic calamities? (My theory is that those free-spending Republican National Committee fund-raisers were in that S&M strip club for an economic briefing.)
I don't know about you but I'm going down into my basement until those consumers come to grips with reality. (Why do we even measure consumer confidence anyway? Isn't it the irrational exuberance of consumers that usually gets in trouble in the first place?) Maybe I'll watch an old Marx Brothers movie. As Groucho once said (no doubt referring to a consumer),"He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don't let that fool you. He really is an idiot."
Or maybe I'll just read a book (like Michael Lewis' great The Big Short which will have all of you understanding the on-going nature of the financial con-game and joining me in my basement in no time.) Because as Groucho also said, "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read."
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Apparently, next Tuesday President Obama is going to announce his policy on Afghanistan. According to reports, he will proceed with sending an additional thirty-something thousand more troops to that country. A recent analysis put the cost per soldier on the ground at $1 million. (The military disputes this saying it is more like half that.) That means, 30,000 troops is a cost of $30 billion.
On Sunday's Meet the Press, Dianne Feinstein said that $1 billion invested in infrastructure produced 40,000 jobs. That means that if the $30 billion were invested in infrastructure, not only would it enhance American competitiveness -- the quality of lives of Americans and the strength of our economy -- it would also produce 1.2 million jobs. Oh, and of course, it would not be a cost item, it would be an investment item (even though our antiquated government accounting system still does not include a capital budget as it should). Say Feinstein is wrong about her math or the military number about the cost of each soldier is right, it still seems fair to conclude that the price of what we might spend escalating our involvement in Afghanistan would produce if invested in critical U.S. infrastructure as many jobs as the administration claims were created or saved by the stimulus package. And what if that infrastructure made America more energy efficient and less dependent on oil from our enemies in the Middle East?
That's the choice Obama would be making with this troop commitment. In a nation ... or any enterprise ... with limited resources, everything is about asset allocation. And there is absolutely no credible argument that can be made that could conclude that spending $30 billion in Afghanistan is better for America ... or enhances our national security more ... than spending it in the United States.
Today's Washington Post carries a story saying that 34.5 percent of young African American men are unemployed. That number, like all such numbers, almost certainly understates the problem. That is not an economic challenge. That is a failure of our system and a wound to our society that makes anything that terrorists could do to us pale by comparison. It is time we started to understand and address the real threats we face.
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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.